Tree Talk: Kyoto to Seattle, old Edo to today

Tree Talk: Kyoto to Seattle, old Edo to today

Tree Talk: Kyoto to Seattle, old Edo to today

Tucked into the hills, west of Kyoto, Katsura Rikyu is the oldest existing example of the Japanese Stroll Garden. Completed sometime in the mid-1600s, this garden surrounds an imperial villa. Tucked into the hills, west of Madison Park, in the Washington Park Arboretum, is the Seattle Japanese Garden, inspired in large part by Katsura.

A Stroll Garden is one to be wandered, savored over long, contemplative visits. While our garden is younger and substantially smaller than the iconic garden in Japan, which dates back to the early Edo Period, ours contains, nonetheless, all of the classic elements. Meandering gravel paths and steppingstones lead the visitor, gently up and down, through a mix of deciduous and evergreen shrubs and trees, past cascading water, around a pond and to a woodland meadow. It is a skillfully orchestrated plan to take you from one view of beautiful plant life after another to open vistas punctuated with rocks or garden ornaments that momentarily, quietly capture your attention. At one moment, you may be looking up and through the branches and leaves of a gingko or at the placement of a fern next to a handsome chunk of basalt. Next, you may round a curve in the path and be seeing a pond stretching before you with a gentle slope at the far end, backed by a swath of conifers. 

The experience does what it is supposed to do. It soothes the spirit, connecting the visitor to nature, evoking deep-seated instincts of a connection to the earth and, perhaps, memories of earlier lives, like the blurred, watery ink of faded calligraphy. One does not have to know Japanese history or garden design to appreciate or to feel the sensations these gardens were designed to induce. Tashika Cormier, who works at the garden for the City of Seattle, glows euphorically when she speaks of her job: “I simply love it here. It’s nothing like working. It’s impossible to describe.” 

A gift to our city by the Tokyo Metropolitan Green Spaces Division, the renowned landscape architect Juki Iida, one of seven who collaborated to design the garden, was sent to oversee construction more than 60 years ago. Like Katsura Rikyu, it has stood the test of time in our young city. At the heart of it all is a rigid adherence to tradition, form and the laser beam-perfect selection of materials and plants. Yet, unlike the rigidity of formal European gardens of the same period with their parterres, topiaries and symmetry, Japanese gardens celebrate the natural forms of nature and the very essence of the native landscape that the Japanese revere and feel is inhabited by kami (divine spirits). 

Following a long pandemic-induced hiatus, the garden is joyfully open. June is the month to visit. From July 11 to Aug. 8, the garden will be closed again for the rehabilitation of a drainage area. Then it will remain open until it closes for the winter, December through February. Check the official website for hours, entry fees and other information:  

This month, the irises will be in full flower. The last of the rhododendrons and azaleas will display their vibrant blossoms before a light wind makes their petals fall to the ground in moments reminiscent of the last scene in a kabuki. Spend time at the pond. Not only will the koi be flaunting their colors, but the turtles are likely to be on the rock islands sunning themselves, and the ducks will be paddling about. You may see a great blue heron land at water’s edge, a symbol of spiritual awakening and self-awareness.

Beyond the breathtaking beauty, look for the more subtle elements: a sweep of native ground cover luxuriating under a threadleaf cypress, the mosses, the new growth on the pines. The old willow, leaning on a crutch out over the pond, is a testament to the Japanese love of the venerable and their respect for elders. Notice the property line on the west side of the orchard, sloping up from the pond. On the far side of the perimeter fence, there is a row of California redwoods, but in front of that, the designers planted a row of Japanese cryptomeria. It is my belief that this was intentional, a demonstration of the compatibility of the Far West with the Far East, an especially poignant statement in the period not far from the end of World War II.

In the 1980s, I was sent to Japan by my publisher, chosen for the job because I’d lived in Asia and had visited Japan many times. My assignment was to come back with stories that were off the beaten tourist track. In Kyoto, I singled out Saihoji, the moss temple (an ethereal experience not to be missed) and Katsura. A government guide escorted me through the garden. Early in the visit, at the end of a long path, I spotted a large Mugho pine and noticed that a narrow path led around it. So, I wandered around and behind the pine. To my surprise, I saw a spectacular vista of the entire garden before me. I came out wide-eyed, amazed. My smiling guide gave me a deep bow.

“Wow!” I said. “That is an incredible view.” 

The guide bowed again, slightly.

“Why is that view blocked by a large, dense pine?” I asked.

The guide paused for a moment, staring at me with what I saw as a heartfelt moment of wistful appreciation. Then he said, “It is a reward for the curious mind.”

As summer unfolds, I urge all our readers to visit our justifiably renowned Japanese Garden. Stroll, linger, listen to the wind rustle the leaves above and around you, watch the movement of the water, take deep breaths, inhale the fragrances, listen to the birds, connect with the land, become a part of the human and natural history. Savor it all. Enjoy the rewards of the curious mind.