When I visited the Japanese Garden in Portland, Ore., I knew it was ranked No. 2 in the country by the Journal of Japanese gardening. Its location, Washington Park, had a lot going for it, especially its natural setting and the view from the pavilion toward the flat garden that combined raked sand and moss. I especially liked the path to the Zen garden, though I thought the Zen garden was too big and the rocks too small and lacking in asymmetrical balance.
When we planned a trip to Chicago to see Frank Lloyd Wright houses and the downtown’s Miracle Mile, at the top of my list was going to Rockford, Ill. Rockford has the No. 1 ranked Japanese garden in America.
There is a direct connection between these two gardens. Though they have different original designers, their builders are the same. The 5.5-acre Portland Garden was designed by Takumo Tono in 1963, but the person hired to build it was Hoichi Kurisu. Kurisu was hired in 1968 as director of landscape for Washington Park Gardens. He executed Tono’s design. Actually constructing a Japanese garden is an art by itself.
The connection with Rockford is that venture capitalist John R. Anderson of Rockport, Ill., visited the Portland Japanese garden in 1978. Very impressed, he asked who did the garden and was told it was Hoichi Kurisu. Anderson hired him to design a Japanese garden on 14 acres he had along Spring Creek below the house he built on the hill above. Kurisu began construction in 1979 and tours began in 1983. Each year Kurisu and his crew would come to Rockford and make improvements to the grounds.
The Portland Japanese garden opened in 1967. In 1972 Kurisu opened his own landscape business, Kurisu International.
Rockford is 75 miles from Chicago and has no train service to Chicago or anywhere. People either work in Rockford or commute by car to Chicago. Since most of the highway is under construction and speeds are limited to 45 mph, the commute is hell. Downtown Rockford is depressing and rather rundown. But everybody knows about Anderson Japanese gardens and that it is ranked No. 1 out of more than 300 Japanese gardens in the U.S. It is a point of civic pride.
Imagine my surprise when I got home and opened up the May/June edition of Sukiya Living, the Journal of Japanese Gardening and found that Portland and Rockford had switched places in a new survey just announced. Yes, Anderson Gardens, designed by the builder of the Portland garden, was knocked down to second place and Portland was moved from second place to first place. Hoichi Kurisu’s design of a Japanaese garden in Delray Beach, Fla., moved up from 14th to 11th place.
Sukiya Living Publisher Douglas M. Roth and his wife Tamao Goda both are gardeners trained in Japan and lead tours of gardens in and around Kyoto. The survey was sent out to 34 sukiya living specialists with one question: “What are the highest quality public Japanese gardens located in North America?”
“The race for the top two positions was extremely close. In the end the Portland Japanese Garden nosed out Anderson Gardens as North America’s highest-quality garden. Their total scores were almost identical, and comparing them has become a ‘Coke or Pepsi?’-type debate for many professionals.”
No. 3 is Shofuso in Philadelphia, which some survey participants ranked higher because of its more “intimate” setting. I think some of the experts like it because of its house originally built as a traditional house in Japan in 1953 and then reconstructed for display at the New York Museum of Modern Art. It was moved to a newly created Japanese garden in Philadelphia’s West Fairmont Park in 1958.
There is a second structure a tea house — and a little stream running between the two. It is nicely done, but part of the garden is inaccessible, which we found to be a shortcoming. But the view from the house is excellent. That is what is the key to a Japanese Garden — the view from your living room. And our living room should be looking out at the garden, not looking down on it. That is sukiya living in a nutshell.
In 17th place, down from ninth, is the San Mateo Japanese Garden, which I just saw last week in the city’s Central Park. Designed by Nagao Sakurai of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, it features a tea house, koi pond, bridges, bamboo grove and various water features. We were impressed with how well maintained the garden is, with every tree and shrub carefully pruned. When I visited, a gardener was busy removing itsy bitsy little weeds.
Careful and knowledgeable pruning is essential. As noted in Sukiya Living, JAPC, “The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, also fell completely out of the top 25. MFA was once a rising star, but ruined its once fine image by treating its garden as routine landscaping rather than a work of art.”
Hoichi Kurisu’s latest project is an 8.5-acre Japanese garden that is part of the 130-acre Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Mich. The $22 million Japanese garden will open in 2015.
Michael Raffety is editor of the Mountain Democrat. His column appears biweekly and he vows not to treat his zen garden as “routine maintenance.”