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Echoes of Japan

Echoes of Japan

From the manicured cherry walk of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens to the secret haven of the North Alabama Japanese Gardens, the state of Alabama boasts an inspiring collection of Japanese scenery.

Underneath the swaying branches of Japanese maples and across a babbling stream, a serene garden is nestled on the slope of Monte Sano Mountain in Huntsville, Alabama. It is not visible from the main road, nor is it particularly advertised. Rather, the North Alabama Japanese Garden seemingly materializes out of thin air between one tree trunk and the next, a quiet sliver of the beauty of Japan.


The North Alabama Japanese Garden began in the 1980s as a hobby garden between a father and his daughter. Professional landscaper Robert Black describes himself as “a kid who grew up on the mountain” of the Monte Sano State Park. When his daughter came home from school one day inspired by the tale of Francis Burnett’s “The Secret Garden,” Black had the perfect idea.


In 1988, the Monte Sano State Park granted Black a two-acre lease of park land to construct a Japanese garden. What started as a collection of bonsai and Japanese maples planted in the middle of the forest, grew to include a Japanese Tea Room, a rock garden, two arched bridges, a stage and a wheelchair accessible promenade.


As the trees part, guests amble beneath the wooden torii, a gate that traditionally signifies the entrance to a Shinto shrine, which invites all those who pass under it to cross the separation between the mundane and the sacred. A wandering path guides visitors deeper into the forest and bursts of crimson color flash between the tree branches as the arched bridge materializes into view. Over the bridge, the raked stone garden resides.


Raked stone gardens, or karesansui, are plots of gravel-like stones interrupted by occasional boulders. The looping pattern of the stones is carved into the ground daily using a rake. Starting in the center, the caretaker continuously drags the rake along the stones without lifting their tool, covering their footsteps as they go.


According to Black, the idea behind his karesansui is to recreate the view a deity might see looking down from the heavens. The large rocks emblemize the tips of mountains, while the white raked stones form swirling patterns mimicking rolling clouds. The process of uninterrupted raking accentuates the infinite cycle of nature.


“If we could be in heaven with God, and you look down on the earth, you have all the puffy clouds. And Japan has mountains sticking up through the clouds,” Black said. “You rake the design of the clouds, and there’s no beginning and no end, so you don’t lift your rake.”

During the process of constructing the North Alabama Japanese Gardens, Black became discouraged that his efforts weren’t authentic enough to Japanese culture.


“I never could make it look Japanese,” Black shared. “It always just looked like a crazy guy had come and planted flowers in the woods.”


He invited members of the local Japanese community to provide instruction and feedback for the gardens. Volunteers informed Black that adding a key focal point would tie together all of the other Japanese elements and make the purpose of the gardens unmistakable. It needed a tea house.


“I got people together immediately. Everyone thought that was the coolest idea in the world,” Black said.
Construction of the Japanese Tea Room at the North Alabama Japanese Gardens finished in 1993. Formed from interlocking slats of dark wood, with red-trimmed circle windows on every side, the tea house offers stunning views of the gardens and a location for people to gather and enjoy chado, or “the way of tea.”


Ritsuko Asano, third-generation Japanese tea instructor and member of the Chado Urasenke Kankokai Birmingham Association, explains that chado encompasses far more than what people traditionally believe.


“Even for Japanese [people], when we say chado, the way of tea, the tea ceremony is only part of it. The whole picture is much, much more,” Asano said.


Two hours south of the Japanese Tea Room at the North Alabama Japanese Gardens, the Toshinan Tea House resides in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Here, Asano volunteers every week to maintain this shining example of a Japanese tea house.


Designed by Kazunori Tago who is a world-renowned miyadaiku, or shrine builder, the Toshinan Tea House is a masterclass in Japanese tradition. Tago and his apprentices built the tea house in Maebashi, Japan using entirely Japanese materials. Toshinan was then shipped to the United States and assembled in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens using a traditional joining method without a single nail to hold it together.


Toshinan dwells in a section of Birmingham’s Japanese gardens dedicated to meditation and reflection. A karesansui occupies one corner with raked stones like calming waves lapping against outcroppings of moss and rocks meant to symbolize living islands. The walking path leads visitors from the karesansui to the bamboo gates of the tea garden.


With lush inner plantings of verdant shrubs speckled with stone lanterns, but notably no flowers, the tea garden serves a greater purpose than simply being pleasing to the eye. A collection of stepping stones create a roji, or dewy path, which guides guests from the tea garden’s entrance to the waiting booth to the purification basin to the tea house.


According to Asano, a person’s walk towards the tea house is supposed to center their mind and prepare them for the meditation of chado, the way of tea. Walking up the stone path invokes images of a mountain pass towards a temple or other spiritual location. The lack of flowers is intentional so as not to distract from this purpose.


For Asano, this intentionality towards cultivating a meditative mindset is a boon when it comes to gathering for a tea ceremony.


“When you come from the dewy path, giving up your daily life and entering (the tea house) from this little door, sitting in this quietude, half of the purpose of gathering is already done,” Asano said. In the silence, she said, visitors can shut out the concerns of the world outside. “It’s very nice. By closing up, your imagination starts flying freely so to speak.”

Intentionality is a key aspect of garden planning in general, but doubly so for Japanese gardens. Julia Adams, the lead horticulturist for the Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Japanese Gardens, believes all horticulture requires careful consideration, but Japanese design requires her to ask more questions of herself.


“Pretty much everything in Japanese garden spaces all have a meaning and a purpose, from how a stone is positioned to where it is positioned to how a tree is pruned,” Adams said. “You have to be very contemplative about your decision making, for both in that moment and in the long run.”


It isn’t enough to imagine what the garden will look like in a few years. Adams has to consider what story every fixture tells, how each garden element interacts with the scenery and how her actions coincide with larger principles of Japanese garden design.


There are five key principles of Japanese garden design: asymmetry, balance, enclosure, borrowed scenery and symbolism. Nature itself is void of straight, rigid lines, so the principle of asymmetry embraces the contours of the natural world. Asymmetry is tempered by balance which ensures that asymmetry doesn’t lead to a sense of overwhelm. Both the principles of enclosure and borrowed scenery involve the knowledge that the garden is meant to be viewed and there are opportunities to best frame elements and use surrounding scenery to augment visuals.


These five key principles are highlighted in many places throughout the Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Japanese Garden. The view of the dawn redwood tree seen through the gates creates the most spectacular swath of autumnal color in the fall, highlighting the red beams of the torii in a perfect display of borrowed scenery. Japanese maples, with their twisted limbs and gnarled trunks, showcase the beauty of asymmetry. As for symbolism, there is no better example than the kasuga lanterns.


Nestled in the swaying stalks of the bamboo forest, a 12-foot-tall kasuga lantern stands proudly as the largest doro, or lantern, in the Japanese Garden. This kasuga lantern was donated to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens by Birmingham’s sister city, Hitachi, Japan in 1985 to mark the 60th anniversary of Emperor Showa’s reign.


The garden’s second kasuga lantern in the tea gardens is considerably smaller, but incredibly intricate. A stone lotus flower blossoms atop the lantern as carved petals cascade down to form the finial above a six-sided light box with multiple carving. The primary image is a depiction of a deer, the sacred animal of the lantern’s home of Nara, Japan.


“The lanterns in general all have very interesting meaning and purpose and significance,” Adams said. “It’s a very old concept, so it’s had plenty of time to be rethought.”


One thing that Robert Black, Ritsuko Asano and Julia Adams can all agree on is that these Japanese gardens bring an incredible value to their communities and are worth the effort they pour in to maintain them.


Asano wishes for Toshinan Tea House and the surrounding garden to be appreciated by an even larger portion of the Birmingham area. A tea house cannot fulfill its basic function as a gathering place if there are no people to gather.


“We are so fortunate to have this (place), but it’s not known at all by the citizens of Birmingham,” Asano said. “It needs human touch. It needs to be open. It needs to be appreciated.”


For Black, what started as a passion project with his daughter is now a paradise for people seeking a moment of solitude in nature. He wants to protect the space and continue to encourage people in his community to connect with the North Alabama Japanese Garden.


“Just look at the crooked trees and enjoy the quiet and the fact that it’s clean,” Black said. “That’s old Japan.”

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