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.” You can read Part I here. To contact Greg directly, send an email to him at GWittkopp@cranbrook.edu.


Professor Suzuki planned the official NAJGA Study Tour—our five-day immersion into Japanese gardens—to start with visits to three large pond-strolling gardens in Tokyo, including two historic daimyo gardens. Created by regional rulers whose mobility was controlled by the emperor, the oldest daimyo gardens were stages where the feudal lord could demonstrate his knowledge of distant lands through the use of exotic plants and cultural references. At Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens the lord wanted to impress his guests with his knowledge of China. From the Kara-mon, or Chinese gate in the private Uchi-nawa garden, with its carved details borrowed from China, to the Engetsu-kyo (Full Moon Bridge) attributed to the design of the Chinese Confucian Zhu Zhiyu (fig. 2.1) and the Seiko-no-tsutumi made to resemble the bank of West Lake (Xi Hu) in the modern city of Hangzhou in China, the history of how this art form migrated to Japan from China could not be more evident. 

Figure 2.1: Engetsu-kyo (Full Moon Bridge), Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens, Tokyo.

As I began my immersion into the gardens of Japan, I was trying to wrap my head around a recent change that Sada had proposed to his master plan for the Cranbrook garden, one that would provide a panoramic view of the entire garden at its entrance. Having embraced the concept of miegakure, or “hide and reveal,” this change struck me as problematic. I had decided that the garden’s totality should be veiled upon arrival, only to be revealed as one zigzagged down stone steps to the water’s edge. My understanding of this concept would be challenged at the day’s second garden.

Kyu-Yasuda Gardens was created during the Meiji period by Yasuda Zenjiro in 1894. A defining characteristic of this garden is the daily rising and falling of the water level in the central pond. Now controlled by mechanical means, the pond originally was fed by a tidal river. During the artificial low tide, contemporary visitors still step along the large stones at the pond’s edge, which, a few hours later, are covered by the simulated high tide (fig. 2.2).

Figure 2.2: Steppingstones during Simulated High Tide, Kyu-Yasuda Gardens, Tokyo.

As we entered this garden unceremoniously at what clearly is a modern entrance, I found myself wondering where Yasuda’s guests entered, and what they first saw. Professor Suzuki informed me that the original entrance was in the opposite corner of the garden where, almost immediately upon arrival, the guests had a splendid view of the pond and all its features. As I tried my best to retrace their steps and the vistas they encountered, Sada’s vision finally came into focus: Before you invite your guests to explore the intimate corners of your garden, first delight them with its full potential.

The day ended quite auspiciously at Kiyosumi Gardens, another large daimyo garden. While its origins go back to the Edo period, it was the founder of Mitsubishi, Iwasaki Yataro, that transformed it into an important strolling garden in the late nineteenth century during the Meiji period. Taking advantage of not only their wealth but also the company’s steamships, the Iwasaki family transported some impressively massive stones from across the country for use in the garden, including the giant steppingstones placed intermittently along the pond’s edge (fig. 2.3).

Figure 2.3: Steppingstones and Ryotei Teahouse Pavilion, Kiyosumi Gardens, Tokyo.

The real delight, however, occurred later that evening. We had been invited to remain in the garden after it closed to the public for a welcome reception sponsored by the members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Tokyo Metropolitan Parks Association. As our hosts prepared the dinner, we watched the sunset and then the moonrise from the Ryotei, a spacious 1909 teahouse pavilion projecting out and over the main pond. Yes, it was a full moon, which always marks an evening to be savored, especially in Japan. Imagine our surprise when we also experienced a total lunar eclipse. As we drank sake outdoors on a cool November evening, more than one of my American colleagues commented that it was as though the trip’s multiple delays were meant to be just so we could savor this unanticipated moonviewing party in Japan. 

The second day started in Sudo Park, the remnants of a villa garden transformed into a small public park and playground. If every garden I visited provided a lesson, this one demonstrated resilience. Although no doubt greatly diminished from its aristocratic beginnings, Sudo Park clearly is a well-loved, if overly trampled oasis in a residential neighborhood. Many American Japanese gardens, including Cranbrook’s, can tell a similar story. In our case, the survival of a renamed “Oriental Garden” that was all but forgotten during World War II only to be “rediscovered” in the 1970s by a volunteer gardener. As Sada says, if the bones of the garden are good, it will survive.

We spent the remainder of the morning in two residential gardens, one intimate and one grand. Within walking distance of Sudo Park is the Former Yasuda House and Garden, a prewar “Japanese gentleman’s home” that survived both the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the 1944 and 1945 air-raid bombings. Like many of Japan’s early twentieth-century gardens, which show the influence of the West through components such as a greater emphasis on expansive lawns, the formal reception room on the first floor of this house, with its upholstered club chairs and Western-style landscape painting hanging over the fireplace mantel, is evidence of contemporary Western interior design modified to suit Japanese taste (fig. 2.4).

Figure 2.4: Western-style Reception Room, Former Yasuda House and Garden, Tokyo. 

Enter the tatami-matted reception room on the second floor, however, where there is a large tokonoma wide enough to accommodate several scrolls, and there is no doubt you are in Japan (fig. 2.5).

Figure 2.5: Japanese-style Reception Room, Former Yasuda House and Garden, Tokyo.

The collections of Cranbrook include a Usonian house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright built in a nearby neighborhood in 1950. As I walked through the Yasudas’ house and experienced the intimate connection every room had with the narrow garden planted along the south side, it was easy to see the impact Japanese design had on the great American architect whose floor-to-ceiling window-walls all but eliminated the distinction between interior and exterior spaces.

The grand garden was Kyu-Furukawa Gardens. This estate includes both a Western-style residence and Western-style gardens, including a formal terraced rose garden (fig. 2.6), designed by the British architect Josiah Condor (1852–1920), as well as a Japanese garden created by the Kyoto-based designer Ogawa Jihei (1860–1933), who used Ueji as his business name.

Figure 2.6: Western-style Residence and Rose Garden, Kyu-Furukawa Gardens, Tokyo.

Knowing the influence Condor’s 1893 book Landscape Gardening in Japan had on gardens and patrons in the West, including George Booth at Cranbrook who owned a copy, I had been eager to see Ueji’s garden. The garden’s innovative features include a picturesque waterfall, which Professor Suzuki told us was the first to use an electric pump. It was at Kyu-Furukawa Gardens that I also developed a friendship with one of our Japanese colleagues. As we walked along the rock-lined carriage road that connects the back gate to the front of the residence, I struck up a conversation with Professor Pingxing and received an invaluable lesson in Japanese geology. Pointing to the numerous volcanic stones, she taught me to recognize the differences between the stones from Mount Fuji and Mount Hakone, as well as the characteristics of those from Komatsu, which also was the source of the stone used to build the former Edo Castle in Tokyo. We have remained in communication with the hope that she can help me identify the origin of the stone used to make Cranbrook’s carved Kasuga Lantern.

No trip to Tokyo would be complete without a visit to the city’s oldest temple, Senso-ji (fig. 2.7)—especially if you can experience a behind-the-scenes tour of the closed-to-the-public gardens surrounding the Kyakuden used by the head priest. 

Figure 2.7: Senso-ji Temple Precinct, Tokyo.

Was the fact that the garden was undergoing a major restoration a disappointment? Certainly not for all of us garden nerds. Thanks again to Professor Suzuki, we were fortunate to be able to watch our Japanese counterparts setting stones along the edge of the stream, learn how they were protecting the garden’s archaeological layers during construction, and see in the drained ponds the centuries-old techniques still used to stabilize the shoreline. 

I finally understood that this is basis for the shallow underwater ledge that Sada said we will need to construct along the eastern edge of the Cranbrook Japanese Garden. While we most likely will use steel pilons driven into the bottom of the pond, here they continue to use logs and planed wood. As evening approached and we separated into smaller groups and wandered among the temple’s halls and shrines (fig. 2.8), more than a few of us found ourselves exiting the complex through the Hozo-mon Gate preparing for some serious shopping in the markets lining the length of the famed Nakamise street. It was time to enjoy a final night in Tokyo (hopefully with a glass of Japanese whisky!) before heading to Kyoto the following morning.

Figure 2.8: Ozukuri (“Thousand Bloom” Single Chrysanthemum), Senso-ji Temple Precinct, Tokyo.