[Seattle Sights] Tranquility at the Seattle Japanese Garden

“The art of stone in a Japanese garden is that of placement. Its ideal does not deviate from that of nature.”

Isamu Noguchi

If you thought the Washington Park Arboretum was fantastic, meet it’s neighbor and kid sister – the Seattle Japanese Garden. Tucked away in a small corner of the Washington Park Arboretum, the Seattle Japanese Garden is host to some of most marvelously manicured walks, featuring beautifully landscaped arbors and a reflecting pond in the middle. According to local lore, the Seattle Japanese Garden is one of the finest Japanese-style gardens outside of Japan itself, and after one visit I can handedly see why – the attention to detail is exquisite, and their variety of specimens from the flora and fauna, down to the stone architecture and specific placement is impressively thought out, expertly designed.

Though the Seattle Japanese Garden isn’t the only Japanese Garden in the area, it’s easily the most gorgeous detailed and well thought out. Taking up a little over three acres, the Seattle Japanese Garden was first envisioned back in 1909; but, it wasn’t until the end of the 1950s, after World War II, that the garden started to really take shape – and became the first Japanese Garden in post-war construction on the West Coast of the United States.

Before we dive into the Seattle Japanese Garden, let’s take a little dive into the detailed qualities of a Japanese Garden! An ode to Shinto, Daoism and Amida Buddhist philosophies, Japanese Gardens (日本庭園, nihon teien) encourage visitors to reach a state of Zen and meditation through naturally created, or nature inspired, pieces within a minimalist aesthetic with weathered elements that evoke the ephemerality of life. The origins of the nihon teien date back to the Asuka period of Japanese history in the 6th and 7th century; the Japanese observed and digested many of practices at the epicenter of Chinese gardening at the time. Initially, Japanese Gardens popped up on the Honshu island of Japan, the main island, and immediately took natural elements of the landscape into the gestation of their gardens – the seasonality of the area, which had a distinct feel for each of the four seasons, in addition to waterfalls and streams, reflective lakes adorned with beaches of small stone set against slender valleys and the jagged tops of volcanos.

There are two major schools of Japanese Gardens – there are hilled gardens, tsuki-yama, or level gardens, hira-niwa; where the tsuki-yama gardens feature ponds in addition to their hills, the hira-niwa are more akin to moors, or valleys. As a traditional rule, tsuki-yama contains a stream, as well as a real pond of water; however, a tertiary variety of garden, the dried-up landscape or kare-sansui garden, is built to imply a former waterfall while dried ponds, or sand, replace the reflective pond to imply the barren nature of the terrain. Fun fact, the Japanese word niwa has evokes a purified location that is anticipating the arrival of the Shinto spirits, otherwise known as kami.

Other variations on the traditional hilled Japanese Gardens include rin-sen (forest and water gardens), sen-tai (water gardens); amongst the hira-niwa, you’ll discover the bunjin – the Literati, or “literary scholar” garden which is succinct, simple and typically is full of delicately manicured bonsai trees. Last but certainly not least we have the tea gardens; referred to as roji, these have a specific style that’s up to par with the requirements for an official tea ceremony. Some common elements among the nihon teien include guardian stones, springs and streams which flow from a waterfall, lakes, hills, islands, a variety of bridges.

Now, back to the Seattle Japanese Garden! In 1957, as the Arboretum Foundation began raising money for the project, the foundation reached out to Tatsuo Moriwaki from Tokyo Metro Parks to assist with their project – and he tapped in esteemed designers Kiyoshi Inoshita and Juki Iida to bring the vision to life. The garden began construction in 1959 under the guidance of Iida and Nobumasa Kitamura, finishing the next year in 1960. To fill the space, Iida and Kitamura ventured deep into the Cascade Mountains to Snoqualmie Pass, hand selecting 580 granite stones to be used in the Seattle Japanese Garden. To finish the construction, Iida, Moriwaki and Inoshita had the assistance of other Japanese American gardeners – on plants was William Yorozu, for stone setting they brought in Richard Yamasaki and finally for the garden structures themselves they solicited the help of Kei Ishimitsu. The Seattle Japanese Garden features details from the 16th century Momoyama Period, in a more formal or, shin, setting, as well as odes to the 17th century Edo period.

Even before gracing the grounds, you first have to pass through a detailed and lovely bronze gate from Seattle based sculptor Gerard Tsutakawa. Once inside, traditional features of a Japanese Garden present themselves in beautiful succession. First, you’re greeted by an open woodland and mixed forest that delights in Japanese Maples and a mix of Evergreens, with hints of pins, camellias and bamboo scattered around. Winding around the reflecting pond, there are a variety of different bridges to cross; first, a bridge created of earth (known as a dobashi) and then a bridge of planks (tatsuhashi).

Reaching the Northern peak which represents a mountains foothills, you’ll find a large stone wall that gives way to a sweeping view of the park. Coming back into the main grounds, on the Western side of the park, you’ll discover an orchard that sits sweetly surrounded by flowering cherry blossoms during the Spring, finally reaching the roji. Unfortunately, the original tea house on site was burnt down by vandals in 1973 – but was beautifully reconstructed in 1981 by Yasunori Sugita. Last, but most certainly not least, you’ll uncover the final treasure of the gardens – a bellowing waterfall, that ebbs and flows into streams, and finally to the central, koi pond.

The Seattle Japanese Garden is open from the beginning of Spring through the end of November, technically March 1 to November 30 when the grounds close for Winter Maintenance.  Open Tuesday through Sunday, park hours range from 10am to 7pm in the Summer, to closing at 6pm in April and September, 5pm in October and last but certainly not least until 4pm in November. Currently, the park is observing COVID protocols so be sure to be on your Ps and Qs with masks and social distancing inside the grounds. For parking, you can either park right at the SPG or if you’re on an adventure through the Arboretum, the park is on the South East end and a beautiful deviation from your normally scheduled blooms of the Washington Park grounds.

Curious if you have a unique, Japanese Garden in your neck of the woods? Head here to see your local fare! Do you have a Japanese Garden that you’re head over heals in love with? Show it some love and leave me a link to it in the comments below – I can’t wait to check out the places you can’t get enough of!


For more on the Seattle Japanese Garden, head to their socials – or just take a visit!

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“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

Lao Tzu

[Seattle Sights] Choose Your Own Adventure at the Washington Park Arboretum

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, one of the most phenomenal things about living in the Pacific North West is the vast variety of accessible nature. From diverse deserts and wanderlust inspiring waterfalls, to rich coastlines and island hopping through the San Juan Islands – Washington has a bit of something for everyone. Seattle and it’s surrounding areas – doubly so. From Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish to the Puget Sound, the Cascade Mountain Ranges and hidden parks in nooks and crannies all over – there’s a reason we call it the Pacific North Wonderland.

When my husband and I first moved up to Seattle, we found ourselves in an living over in the Sand Point area near the University of Washington. At the time, we didn’t know much about Washington or Seattle proper, but the area seemed a keen pivot point for getting to anywhere and everywhere throughout the Sound. Whether we ventured North and East on an adventure to dip our toes in watering holes, or South and West to Seattle proper, we could find ourselves surrounded by a symphony of succulent scenes. To me, the irony always was that our favorite park wasn’t in a far reaching corner of the state – it was actually just a hop, skip and jump around the corner at the University of Washington.

Sitting on land with a complex history, the Arboretum grounds were homebase to the Coast Salish tribes of Washington, with several villages around the area. As time, and colonialism, went on – the area shifted to ownership by the Puget Mill Company which unfortunately logged some of the largest trees in that region. As we shift into the 1900s, the land was transformed into was one of Seattle’s original city parks. In 1903, landscape architects for the region – the Olmsted Brothers – drew up a plan for the Seattle Parks and Parkways, with Lake Washington Boulevard at the crux of their idea. Fast forward to the 1930s, the incredible Washington Park Arboretum boasts an incredible variation in vegetation with one of the largest plant collections in North America.

Spanning over 230 acres of luscious vegetation, you can take the 3.5 mile walking loop around the edge of the park or you can dip the main roads, ebb and flow around the Arboretum Loop Trail and discover your own way through the heart of the park. Just like a choose your own adventure novel of eons past, each time at the Washington Park Arboretum is a unique experience featuring the mercurial nature of our weather, and the chosen blooms of the day.

Playing host to vast collections of rhododendrons, camellias, larches and lindens, oak trees, Japanese Maples, magnolias and azaleas has earned the Arboretum international bragging rights. Open daily from dusk to dawn, the Washington Park Arboretum is workout friendly, run friendly, child friendly and dog friendly. From the northern tip of the park on Union Bay’s southern shoreline and into Foster Island on down through the incredible and everchanging landscapes of the Arboretum, every inch of the park is immaculately drawn together for an unreal experience any time of year.

In the Summer months, bright blue skies overhead and a menagerie of birds grace the scene as the floral aroma wafts from every corner. Head there in September to watch the leaves shift their hues from vibrant greens to magnificent reds, yellows and oranges in what I consider ‘Seattle’s Second Spring.’ In the Winter, if you time your visit just right – you can see the grounds covered with a fairy dust of snow, making it seem like you just walked out of a story book. And Spring – well, Spring is a whole new shade of wonderful at the Arboretum.

My personal favorite spots at the Arboretum are the reflecting ponds during all seasons, the Giant Sequoias and the rhododendron glen in the Springtime. But you honestly can’t go wrong no matter which turns you take. With over 10,000 trees and more than 40,000 plants, each visit truly is it’s own unique and unforgettable journey. For those that simply can’t get enough of the Washington Park Arboretum, try the Seattle Japanese Garden located just across the way for a wonderful experience – more on that in a later post!

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What’s your favorite park in your neck of the woods? I’m always looking for a great adventure – and maybe I’ll pick yours next; drop them some love in the comments below and share some geographical gems of your own!

For more on the Washington Park Arboretum at the University of Washington, scope out the park with an incredible and interactive bird’s eye view, then head to their socials for the full 411.

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Photo Credit: Daniel Leist Photography