A Garden of Japanese Icons in Nebraska

At first blush, one might think a Japanese garden in a little valley near the Missouri River in the middle of America to be incongruous. Yet, armed with knowledge of the sister city relationship between Omaha and Shizuoka and standing back to admire the physical situation of the garden, it all makes perfect sense.

Omaha, Nebraska and Shizuoka city became sister cities in 1965, a relationship that has flourished over the years through a variety of human and cultural exchanges. Perhaps the most substantial physical manifestation of the relationship for Omaha is the Japanese garden that sits inside Lauritzen Gardens, Omaha’s botanical garden, located at 100 Bancroft Street. The garden is a work in progress and will ultimately encompass 6 acres.

The garden was designed by Shinichiro Abe, a Japanese garden architect based in Boston. He selected the site from various possibilities on the 100 acres of the Lauritzen Gardens, citing the topographical resemblance to parts of Japan.

The first phase of the garden’s creation was the erection of the Sunpu Gate in 2005, commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the sister city relationship. The gate is a replica of one of the gates of Sunpu Castle, the castle that was the heart of Shizuoka city during Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1867). The gate was made possible with donations from people and businesses in Shizuoka and was constructed by Japanese craftsmen who traveled to Omaha in 2005. The distinctive style of the roof tiles, while ubiquitous in Japan, are seen as remarkable in a Nebraska botanical garden.

Two red Torii (traditional shrine gates) stand before and after the Sunpu gate. While Torii are not usually found in Japanese gardens, they seem appropriate here because they lead to a miniature replica of Mt. Fuji, Japan’s iconic stratovolcano. Mt. Fuji, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is regarded by the Japanese as sacred and most roads leading to it are marked with Torii.

Just as the graceful lines of Mt. Fuji are visible from nearly anywhere in Shizuoka city, the nearest major city to the dormant volcano, this replica is the dominant feature in the Japanese garden of Shizuoka’s sister city. While Mt. Fuji stands 3,776 meters in height, the Omaha replica is 37.76 feet.

The Japanese garden’s Mt. Fuji is surrounded by three small ponds, just as the original is famous for the lakes surrounding it (although there are five of those). The largest pond has a small zig-zag board walk over one corner leading to a path around the base of the “mountain”. Maybe one day it will also contain a small island or stone feature as many Japanese gardens do. Koi (ornamental carp) and turtles are probably also in its future. On the day of my visit, I could only see one small frogling in the pond. Although it was no larger than my thumb, it called to mind the famed Matsuo Basho poem: “An old pond; a frog jumps in; the sound of water”.

I spotted a small colorful koi in one of the other ponds, which also beautifully reflected the “mountain”. Perhaps there are more koi hiding under the lily pads. A challenge for the garden is doubtless how to keep the carp from becoming prey for the raptors common to this part of Nebraska (eagles, hawks and owls). Perhaps the best place to enjoy koi is in the fountain pond inside the Lauritzen Gardens visitor’s center.

The garden also has a small wooden teahouse, known as the Sunpu Chaya. Its design also mirrors one of the teahouses on the grounds of Sunpu Castle, which is now a public park in Shizuoka (the castle was dismantled by imperial decree in the 1870s).

To round out the garden, there is also a karesansui rock garden in one corner. This a traditional style of dry garden with a bed of pebbles on which various large rocks are placed. The pebbles are usually raked into patterns that emulate waves breaking onto the islands represented by the large rocks. This karesansui garden is framed by a small rise onto which a number of small stone lanterns (also gifts of the citizens of Shizuoka city) have been placed. Some visitors to the garden seemed challenged by the idea that the “ocean” of pebbles is not to be walked on. Perhaps some explanatory signs would help.

There is also a large stone lantern just outside the Sunpu Gate, which is flanked by tall Cypress (?) trees that demarcate the Japanese garden.

Omaha’s Japanese garden is regarded as “incomplete”, meaning there are plans for further features as funding becomes available. Certainly one can imagine additional floral features, particularly flowers that flourish both in Shizuoka and Omaha, such as hydrangeas (perhaps on the wooded side of the large pond). Looking up the valley beyond the Mt. Fuji, the shape of the landscape makes it easy to envision fields of purple irises in early summer, such as are cultivated in similar little valleys behind several of Japan’s venerable temples.

Currently there are pots of chrysanthemums under cultivation in preparation for the annual Japanese Ambience Festival that will take place in 2022 on the weekend of October 8-9. Folks in the area: mark your calendars now! Taiko drum performances, tea ceremony, chrysanthemums and bonsai (miniature trees grown in shallow pots), and demonstrations and hands-on opportunities to try Japanese arts and crafts are just some of the activities planned for the festival and open to all Lauritzen Gardens visitors.

Lauritzen Gardens also hosts VIP Japanese visitors and special events related to Japan or to the sister city relationship at other times of the year.

As is the case for any Japanese garden outside Japan, local plants suited to the climate often have to be substituted for those that would be used in Japan. In this garden there are plenty of near matches, especially varieties of pine and maple, as well as some Nebraska native grasses and wildflowers more redolent of the harsher climate of Hokkaido, Japan’s far north island.

Perhaps once the plant cultivation center for Lauritzen Gardens, now under construction, is completed we can also expect to see large pots of azaleas in strategic spots around the garden in spring and early summer, emulating the splashes of color found in Japanese gardens in that season. I wonder if the red spider lily that is such a September treat in Japan would grow in Nebraska?

Entry to the Japanese Garden is included in entry to Lauritzen Gardens (ages 13+ USD15; ages 3-12 USD12; plus tax). The garden is open daily 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (8:00 pm from May 9 to September 20); closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years days.

© 2022 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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