Serenity is closer than you think.
What characterizes an authentic Japanese garden? Ancient customs dictate three essential natural elements—water (an asymmetrical central pond as well as moving aquatic features), rocks (including gravel and/or sand), and various plantings, especially moss. Secondary basics consist of pagodas, stone lanterns, and bridges. All are meant to reflect Shinto and Buddhist concepts of harmony and tranquility and appeal to all the senses.
Interest in Japanese gardens in this country began with displays at late 19th- and early 20th-century U.S.-based world’s fairs and expositions. World War II dampened the enthusiasm, but the public gradually warmed to these beautiful landscapes again.
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The Japanese Garden
WHERE: Van Nuys, California
SuihoEn in the San Fernando Valley encompasses a trio of gardens “of water and fragrance” over six-and-a-half acres—dry meditation, “wet-strolling,” and tea. Its designer, Dr. Koichi Kawana, also created over a dozen other Japanese gardens across the United States. What’s unique about this setting is that it’s part of the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, whose treated wastewater irrigates the garden and fills its lake.
Missouri Botanical Garden
WHERE: St. Louis, Missouri
The 14-acre Seiwa-en, “garden of pure, clear harmony and peace,” lives up to its name with a minimalist display shaped by centuries-old Japanese practices. The centerpiece is a large lake with four islands, one showcasing a teahouse constructed in Missouri’s sister state in Japan, Nagano Prefecture, then reassembled in St. Louis and dedicated in a Shinto ceremony. Snow is considered to be a flower in Japanese gardens, and visitors here are urged to brave winter’s chill for a different perspective.
INSIDER TIPThe Mizumoto Japanese Stroll Garden, part of Springfield Botanical Gardens in Missouri’s capital city, holds a Japanese Fall Festival every September.
The Hammond Museum & Japanese Stroll Garden
WHERE: North Salem, New York
In a stroll garden, wandering paths lead visitors on a progression of unfolding picturesque vistas. Each one is carefully curated, using different mediums and images to encourage contemplation—by slowing down—as well as anticipation of what’s around the bend. Among other events, Hammond hosts tea ceremonies and Japanese flower arranging classes (Ikebana). One night a year, the gardens open for Otsukimi/Moonviewing, via a downloaded computer program.
Bloedel Reserve Japanese Garden
WHERE: Seattle, Washington
Planned without drawings by Seattle nurseryman Fujitaro Kubota for the Bloedel family, this meditative space on Bainbridge Island has miniature mountains and an approximately 170-year-old Laceleaf Japanese Maple imported from Japan by Kubota. Walk right up to but don’t step on the perfectly groomed Sand and Stone Garden, another of Dr. Kawana’s creations, located in front of the Guest House.
Japanese Garden of Peace
WHERE: Fredericksburg, Texas
The National Museum of the Pacific War might seem an incongruous place for a restful Japanese garden, but it actually was a gift from Japan to the U.S., symbolizing “the complicated but firm friendship between the two countries.” To that end, it honors Fredericksburg local Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, and incorporates a replica of Japanese Admiral Togo’s meditation study. The garden’s raked gravel mimics ocean waves, with plantings standing in for Pacific islands.
Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden
WHERE: Chicago, Illinois
Sansho-En, or Garden of Three Islands, is part of the Chicago Botanic Garden, its 17th-century style thoughtfully curating a sense of timelessness. Partially buried large rocks appear to have always existed in their settings; pine trees, symbolizing long life in Japanese philosophy, are shaped to seem ago-old; and short-lived flowering plants suggest the dichotomy of human transience and nature’s constancy.
INSIDER TIPChicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition inspired the Fabyan Japanese Garden in the suburb of Geneva. Further west, Rockford’s top-rated Anderson Gardens offers tours of the nearby Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Laurent House. University of Illinois students (and the public) seek repose in its Japan House’s garden.
Japanese Friendship Garden
WHERE: Phoenix, Arizona
This 3.5-acre spot is another stroll garden, or miegakure (hide-and-reveal), complete with a tea house and koi pond. It began as a cooperative undertaking between Phoenix and her sister municipality in Himeji, Japan, which donated all the decorative elements. The formal name, RoHoEn, combines three Japanese words—Ro for heron, Ho for the mythical phoenix, and En for garden. Aikido sessions and moonlight meditation are scheduled multiple times throughout the year.
INSIDER TIPPhoenix isn’t the only Southwestern city with a Japanese sister city and garden. Albuquerque, New Mexico links with Sasebo, Japan, whose namesake garden lies within the ABQ BioPark.
Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center
WHERE: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
A 17th-century Japanese house, Shofuso, meaning Pine Breeze Villa, was initially exhibited at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. The structure eventually landed in Philadelphia’s West Fairmount Park, appropriate because that city lays claim to North America’s first Japanese garden following its 1876 Centennial Exposition. The surrounding landscape mirrors the same time period as the building.
INSIDER TIPPittsburgh’s Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens features a Japanese Courtyard Garden incorporating bonsai, a rare combination. Next to the Bethlehem Area Main Public Library is a tea house and Garden of Serenity. In Hershey, don’t just stop at the amusement park—take a break at Hershey Gardens’ secluded Japanese garden.
Valley of the Temples Memorial Park
WHERE: Kaneohe, Oahu, Hawaii
A zen Garden in a cemetery? Yes, and also meditation spaces and a reflection pond full of Japanese koi carp. Byodo-In Temple, constructed in 1968 to observe 100 years of Japanese immigration to Hawaii, sits amid the expansive grounds, open to all faiths. The place of worship is a smaller copy of its Japanese namesake.
INSIDER TIPThe Japanese garden at Honolulu’s East-West Center exemplifies its goal of cooperation among nations. On Big Island, Hilo’s Homelani (“heavenly home” in Hawaiian) Memorial Park & Crematory likewise has a Japanese garden. Downtown, Liliuokalani Gardens, named for Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, pays tribute to the state’s first Japanese settlers.
Como Park Zoo & Conservatory
WHERE: St. Paul, Minnesota
The Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden is a gift from St. Paul’s sister city, Nagasaki, the first Asian-American collaboration of its kind. Rocks, thought of as “bones of the earth,” add stability and a sense of age to the property. One of America’s best Bonsai collections resides nearby in the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. Each August, the park stages its own Obon Festival, an observance of a Japanese cultural and family holiday.
Portland Japanese Garden
WHERE: Portland, Oregon
This Washington Park oasis is one of America’s most well-known Japanese gardens. Eight individual spaces cover the 5.5-acre grounds, ranging from verdant foliage to stark stones and sand. Events in the still-expanding Cultural Village include art exhibits, classes, and performances. Enjoy a superb view of Mt. Hood from the East Veranda near the Pavilion.
INSIDER TIPIn Ontario, Oregon, a memorial garden acknowledges Japanese, and Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII, along with those of them who joined the armed services to fight. Another tribute to the internees is Oregon State University’s Japanese Heritage Garden in Hood River, overlooking land first-generation Japanese emigres helped develop.
WHERE: Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
Isolated and intimate are words best used to describe this Japanese garden on Chappaquiddick Island. Catch the Edgartown ferry for a quick trip with your bike or car (or just yourself), then ride/walk about three miles to the entrance (warning: the parking lot only has 15 slots). Footpaths meander through the 14 acres of camellias (in season), birch and pine trees, and diverse marine life in its inner pool.