Written by Gregory Wittkopp
Director, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research and the Cranbrook Japanese Garden

In November 2022, NAJGA organized a study tour of Japanese gardens in Tokyo and Kyoto. Sponsored by the Japan Foundation, the group included Greg Wittkopp, Director of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research and the Cranbrook Japanese Garden. In this four part, serialized article, Greg recounts the group’s adventures and reflects on what he describes as an “opportunity of a lifetime.” To contact Greg directly, send an email to him at GWittkopp@cranbrook.edu.


By the time I boarded my plane to return to Detroit, I counted that I had explored thirty discrete gardens in Tokyo and Kyoto, including the twenty-three gardens that were a part of the official five-day NAJGA Study Tour. While admittedly a hard number to pin down (Just how many gardens does the Daitoku-ji temple precinct in Kyoto include?), it reflects the intensity of the trip. As I explored these gardens, I quickly developed a strategy: after an initial, usually breathtaking overview of the landscape, I tried to hone in on a detail or two, a lesson that I could take back with me to Cranbrook, one that might guide my work with Sadafumi Uchiyama in the Japanese-style garden I oversee in Michigan.

In 2018, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research commissioned Sada (as everyone calls him), Chief Curator and Director of the International Japanese Garden Training Institute at the Portland Japanese Garden, to design the master plan that would guide the rehabilitation of the Cranbrook Japanese Garden. Created more than a hundred years ago by Cranbrook’s co-founder, newspaper publisher George Gough Booth, and his father, Henry Wood Booth, the inspiration for this one-acre, pond-style strolling garden was the trip the Booths took to California in 1915 when they toured the Japanese pavilions and displays at the expositions in San Diego and San Francisco commemorating the opening of the Panama Canal.

While I had been doing my best to learn about Japanese gardens in both North America and Japan, my experience was limited to my readings and research; attendance at NAJGA conferences, webinars, and workshops; and visits to gardens in the United States. Don’t get me wrong, this education has been a truly invaluable immersion into the world of Japanese gardens. I knew, however, and no doubt it was evident to others, including Sada, that my knowledge was academic and lacked depth. That changed during my trip to Japan. No sooner had I returned when Sada, with his judicious use of words, emailed: “Welcome back and with firsthand experience with Japanese gardens in their native land.”

The NAJGA Study Tour, which was funded by the Japan Foundation, was designed to enable a small cohort of Americans—all of whom worked for public Japanese-style gardens in North America; none of whom had traveled to Japan—to have firsthand experience with gardens in Japan. I imagined an enlightened Japanese administrator thinking if these gardens on the other side of the globe are going to be called Japanese gardens, then the people that steward them should draw their inspiration from the best gardens in Japan. In other words, we should know what we are doing.

Conceived in 2019 and originally scheduled to take place in March 2020, at the peak of the cherry blossom festivals in Japan, the study tour . . . well, you know what happened. As the pandemic unfolded, the trip was delayed to November 2020 then March 2021 then November 2021 then March 2022. Finally, on September 23, NAJGA’s Manager, Marisa Rodriguez, emailed the participants: “I have great news! While we won’t know with complete certainty that we can travel to Japan until the end of next week or the first week of October, Japan announced today that it will loosen restrictions as of October 11th. Hence, we are one step closer to being able to travel in November.” The official news came a few weeks later when Marisa called each of the participants and told us—with certainty—that we were going to Japan!

During the intervening years and months, the original members of the cohort, with only a few exceptions, remained consistent and committed to this exciting opportunity. Along with our leaders Marisa Rodriquez and Hugo Torii, Garden Curator at the Portland Japanese Garden, the final twelve participants represented a broad cross-section of job-types and responsibilities from eleven different American Japanese gardens (fig. 1.1).

Figure 1.1: 2022 NAJGA Study Tour Participants, Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens, Tokyo. Photo by Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens Staff Member.

While most of us, as planned, had not traveled to Japan, it was fortunate that a few of the cohort had and could help us navigate the language and customs. The group included:

  1. Philip Bloomquist, Nursery and Propagation Specialist, Bloedel Reserve, Washington
  2. Shozo Kagoshima, Executive Director, Hakone Foundation, California
  3. Luanne Kanzawa, Executive Director, Japanese Friendship Garden Society of San Diego, California
  4. Reva Kos, Horticulturist, Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, Minnesota
  5. Kelly Larsen, Director of Operations, Windy City Harvest, Chicago Botanic Garden, Illinois
  6. Catherine Marsh, Development Assistant and Horticulturalist, Anderson Japanese Gardens, Illinois
  7. Steven Pitsenbarger, Garden Supervisor, Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco Botanical Gardens, California
  8. Pete Putnicki, Senior Gardener, Seattle Japanese Garden, Washington
  9. Ben Schrepf, Niwashi/Garden Curator, Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoeniz, Arizona
  10. Karen Szyjka, Operations Support Manager, Department of Natural Resources – Chicago Park District, Illinois
  11. Kristen Webber, Manager of Interpretation, Chicago Botanic Garden, Illinois
  12. Greg Wittkopp, Director, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research (Cranbrook Japanese Garden), Michigan

We were joined in Japan by Professor Makoto Suzuki, Director of the Center for International Japanese Garden Studies at Tokyo University of Agriculture (NODAI) (fig. 1.2), as well as NODAI Assistant Professor Zhang Pingxing (fig. 1.3) and a graduate student, Takuro Koyama. 

Figure 1.2: Professor Makoto Suzuki with NAJGA Study Tour Participants, Kyu-Furukawa Gardens, Tokyo. Unless noted otherwise, all photos are by the author.

Figure 1.3: Professor Zhang Pingzing, Daitoku-ji Monastery Precinct, Kyoto.

It was Professor Suzuki that crafted the tour’s hour-by-hour, garden-by-garden itinerary, arranged for the gardens’ experts to meet with us at each stop, and patiently answered our questions about the gardens’ histories and key features. With Suzuki, Pingxing, and Koyama sitting next to us on the bus and walking beside us through the gardens, we were in good hands. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I planned my trip to Japan so that I would have a few extra days in Japan, two in Tokyo at the beginning and two more in Kyoto at the end of the official tour (November 8 to 12, 2022). Before my responsibilities at Cranbrook broadened to include our Japanese garden, I had been a curator and then director of Cranbrook Art Museum for thirty years. Although I will admit that the idea of landing in Japan not knowing a word of the language—and without Marisa to hold my hand—was more than a little daunting, I wanted a few extra days to acclimate to the distant time zone (fourteen, to be exact) and see some of the sights that were not on Professor Suzuki’s itinerary, especially some of the art museums. Whereas Suzuki’s schedule was thoughtfully curated and tightly orchestrated, the mere three weeks we had to plan for the trip meant my itinerary on these extra days was much less structured—a combination of recommendations from friends back home, a few of the “things not to miss” noted in The Rough Guide to Japan that I read on the plane, and, by design, more than a little serendipity.

I had decided that if I visited only one museum in Tokyo, it would be the Japan Folk Crafts Museum. Located near Tokyo University, it is housed in the former villa of the philosopher Soetsu Yanagi (1889–1961), who not only founded the museum in 1936 but also started the international Mingei movement. Like the movement, the museum’s collections and exhibitions demonstrate that “beauty resides in utilitarian objects used by common people.” It’s a story that resonated at places like Cranbrook Academy of Art in the postwar period when artists, especially ceramists, defined a new aesthetic through their interactions and exchanges with the traditions and contemporary practices of their counterparts in Japan. Two hours later, I had fallen in love with the profound humbleness of traditional Japanese crafts.

I spent the afternoon of that first day at the Nezu Museum. After first sketching paintings of ancient gardens and the landscapes that inspired them in the special exhibition Muromachi Spendor Seen through Folding Screens, it was time to wander through the museum’s garden—my first experience in a major Japanese garden. It was in the Nezu garden that my observations—in this case, of the paths—coalesced into my first lesson for the garden at Cranbrook (fig. 1.4)

Figure 1.4: Stone Pathway, Nezu Museum Garden, Tokyo.

Whether the paths were composed of formal paving stones or more casual flat flagstones and natural cobbles (nobedan), or of the steppingstones that led through the four teahouse gardens, I realized that the strategy could vary throughout the garden. The stones were there to guide me, often pointing me in the direction of a key view, keeping me mindful of my feet so that I did not stumble, ultimately keeping me on the path.

The next day was a Monday, which I should have realized would mean that most of the museums would be closed. A quick look at the map, however, indicated that the Sengaku-ji temple complex was within walking distance of our hotel in Shibaura. I had been reading the dramatic eighteenth-century story of the wronged Lord Asano Takumi-no Kami Naganori of Ako and his forty-seven ronin, the masterless samurai, who, after avenging their lord’s death at the hands Kira Kozuke-no Suke, were forced to commit ritual suicide. I decided a pilgrimage to the temple was in order. After dutifully buying a bundle of lit incense from a monk at the entrance (Did I have a choice?) and ceremoniously placing a stick at the base of their stone graves (a surprisingly meditative act) (fig. 1.5), I wandered the temple grounds. Sada had been calling my attention to two red pines at the edge of our pond that were leaning and at risk of falling. They needed support. As he described the two-legged supports that would not only protect them from damage, but also signal respect for the trees to the garden’s visitors, I had a hard time visualizing the details, especially where the trunk and supporting posts meet. This became crystal clear as I studied the leaning supports used throughout the complex (fig. 1.6). It’s a lesson that I now am eager to implement in our garden.

Figure 1.5: Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshitaka Grave (Leader of the Forty-Seven Ronin of Ako), Sengaku-ji Temple Complex, Tokyo.

Figure 1.6: Tree Support Posts Detail, Sengaku-ji Temple, Tokyo.

After strolling through the Imperial Palace Outer Garden, where I had my first encounter with the awesome stonework of dry-stacked castle walls (fig. 1.7), my day ended at the top of the sky-scraping Mori Tower where I had hoped to visit the Mori Art Museum (billed as the world’s highest art museum). Thwarted by my lack of planning—it was the last day of their fall exhibitions and I had failed to purchase a ticket in advance—I instead took the elevator up one more floor to the observation level. It was there, as I watched the sunset over a metropolis stretching as far as I could see in all directions, that I grasped the vastness of Tokyo (fig. 1.8). While the numbers often conflict, the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Region comprises approximately 38 million people, making it—by most accounts—the world’s most populated metropolitan region. But on the street level, there remains a human scale, much more so than when one walks through the canyons of a city like New York.

Figure 1.7: “Shin” Masonry Castle Wall, Imperial Palace Outer Garden, Tokyo.

Figure 1.8: Sunset over Toyko Viewed from the Mori Tower Observation Level.