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 and Part II, and Part III. To contact Greg directly, send an email to him at GWittkopp@cranbrook.edu.


The last day of the official five-day NAJGA Study Tour proved to be trip’s most diverse and, at least for me, satisfying day. First up was the Nanzen-ji temple complex, located in a pine forest at the foot of Mount Higashiyama in Kyoto. Our guides were Dr. Tomoki Kato, President of Ueyakato Landscape Company, and several members of his team, including Michael Shapiro, an extremely knowledgeable (and bilingual) Heritage and Garden Artistry Researcher. As we learned about the gardens of Nanzen-ji, one of Kyoto’s best-known Zen monasteries, we also learned about the role private firms like Ueyakato Landscape play in their stewardship and preservation. As one might imagine, the stakes are high. When a Japanese garden is designated a Historic Cultural Property, it becomes a crime to alter it. How does this work when a private firm, not the monastery’s staff, are making critical decisions, especially when those firms change on a regular basis? Kato and Shapiro explained there was an unwritten understanding that each successive firm would rehire the same head gardener. Although his employer might change annually, the same gardener provided the necessary continuity.

At the same time, these historic sites are far from static. As Shapiro led us through Nanzen-ji’s entrance gates, on axis with the main prayer hall (fig. 4.1) where we heard the chanting of monks on the day they annually commemorate the priest that founded the temple in 1290, we learned about the shift in the landscape that took place seven hundred years later when Japan hosted the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

Figure 4.1: Main Prayer Hall, Nanzen-ji Temple Complex, Kyoto.

To accommodate the expectations of the nation’s influx of visitors, Nanzen-ji’s gardeners interspersed the native pines with cherry and maple trees, whose pink blossoms and red leaves now dominate the spring and autumn landscapes. Even the seemingly timeless rock gardens that surround temple’s large abbot’s hall, range in date from the early Edo period Hojo Garden on the south side, to the adjacent Kohojo (Nyoshin-tei) and Rokudo-tei Gardens on the west and north sides, which were built in 1966 and 1967 by Ueyakato Landscape. It was evident that the multigenerational Kato family are masters and capable of not only stewarding but also creating gardens that, with time, are developing their own narratives and histories.

Before leaving the Nanzen-ji temple precinct we visited one more subtemple, Konchi-in, and its historically significant rock garden. Reading the histories of Japanese gardens, especially those of the early Edo period gardens, it is more common than not for the designer to be unknown or, at best, for his name to be based on oral tradition rather than textual documentation. In the case of Konchi-in, not only do we know that Kobori Enshu (1579–1647) designed it, but that he completed it on May 12, 1632. We know this precise date because the priest and powerful politician that commissioned Kobori to create the garden, Suden, kept a journal in which he even recorded the dates neighboring daimyos donated stones. Kobori’s garden is dominated by two groupings of stones and plants, centered on a square stone, symbolizing longevity and prosperity: the vertical grouping to the right, represents a crane in flight (the crane is said to live for 100 years), while the horizontal grouping to the left, represents a turtle (the turtle is said to live for 1,000 years). On the back of the turtle is an ancient juniper, whose withered trunk has become integral to the composition of the garden. It is a demonstration of the reverence extended to all of nature in Japan. Even as the tree slowly dies—life is apparent in only one low supported limb—its gnarled form remains integral to the garden’s symbols of longevity and our longing for immortality. The tree’s presence invited many of us to ask if it would remain or be replaced after it had completely died? I voted for its preservation.

Early in the rehabilitation of the Cranbrook Japanese Garden I wrote an essay on its history for NAJGA’s journal (Issue No. 7, 2020). Based on vintage photographs of gardens in Japan, I drew comparisons between Cranbrook’s 1915 garden and the naturalism embraced by late nineteenth-century Meiji Japan writers and given form in the landscapes of Ueji. It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I walked with my colleagues along the Lake Biwa Canal to nearby Murin-an, Ueji’s gem. Built in the late 1890s for the former prime minister Yamagata Aritomo, on land originally owned by Nanzen-ji, the estate includes not only Ueji’s garden, but both Japanese and Western-style houses (fig. 4.2).

Figure 4.2: Six-Foot-Three Author Exiting the Garden, Murin-an, Kyoto. Photo by NAJGA Study Tour Participant.

Like Kyu-Furukawa in Tokyo, where Ueji also designed the garden, the estate represents that moment when Japan was both influencing and embracing the West.

Fortunately, my moment of validation came as Shapiro led us through the garden, showing us the precise spot where a famous 1909 photograph had been taken, one that I had included in my essay. It is a view that the Ueyakato Landscape, which also fosters this garden, is proud to note will remain unchanged because of the significance of the vintage photograph. As I stood there, soaking in the view of a waterfall and the fern-bordered stream that was designed to look as though it flowed naturally through a meadow from the Higashiyama Mountains in the background (the garden’s shakkei, or borrowed landscape), I remained convinced that this could have been a precedent for the naturalism that characterizes the Cranbrook Japanese Garden (fig. 4.3).

Figure 4.3: Garden with View of Higashiyama Mountains, Murin-an, Kyoto.

This near-perfect morning ended with an elaborate bento box lunch hosted by Uekakato Landscape in Yamagata’s Japanese house where we sat, as Yamagata intended, with an equally sumptuous view of the landscape (fig. 4.4)

Figure 4.4: Bento Box Lunch Hosted by Uekakato Landscape Company, Murin-an, Kyoto.

We followed our visit to Murin-an with one last garden, also designed by Ueji. The idea of commemorating the anniversary of the establishment of Heiankyo by building a garden did not start with the 1,200th anniversary and the creation of Suzaku-no-Niwa Garden in 1995; the tradition goes back at least another 100 years when the gardens of the Heian Jingu (Shrine) opened in 1895 to commemorate Kyoto’s 1,100th anniversary. Vast and rambling, the journey through the gardens culminates in the wide-open landscape of the East Garden (not completed until 1926). Although Ueji’s expansive garden reflected Kyoto’s embrace of modernity, it was layered with history and tradition by the recreation of Heian-style structures: the Taihei-kaku Chinese-style bridge and the hall on the edge of the pond. Another memorable “only-with-NAJGA” moment took place in the hall where the curators had brought out of storage for us some of their treasures, including ornately embroidered kimono and one of Ueji’s original drawings for the garden. As we viewed these objects and the pond from our privileged vantage point, I found myself thinking ahead to 2095, wondering about the garden that no doubt will be created to commemorate the city’s 1,300th anniversary. It is, indeed, a living tradition in Japan, with a rich history and an equally anticipated future.

Tradition also runs deep among the crafts. Through the Engishiki laws that date back to the year 905, there now are 237 registered crafts in the country. Ranging from lacquerware and porcelain to textiles and candles, they all must meet five criteria: the craft item must be used in daily life, be made by hand, have at least a 100-year history, continue to use traditional raw materials, and have a sustainable future. Seventy-four of these crafts with histories in Kyoto, some of which are endangered, are featured in an engaging exhibition in the Kyoto Museum of Crafts and Design, the final stop on our five-day tour (fig. 4.5).

Figure 4.5: Kyo-butsugu (Buddhist Altars) Craft Demonstration, Kyoto Museum of Crafts and Design.

Arranged by Reiko Yasui Reavis, the former director of the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix now living in Kyoto, the museum helped to contextualize the crafts that are integral to Japanese culture, including the gardens.

As the museum visit ended and we exchanged business cards (a traditional that still carries import in Japan) and said our goodbyes, I smiled knowing I still had two more days in Kyoto. I spent the better part of Sunday at the Kyoto National Museum where I lost myself for hours in the temporary exhibition, Chanoyu: Tea in the Cultural Life of Kyoto. Although I am naturally drawn to museums, the day’s pouring rain also may have led to this choice. Like my experiences at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, seven days earlier, it was the humble ceramics in the exhibition that held my attention, including the “Hashidate” tea leaf jar and the “Kitamaki” vase owned by the great sixteenth-century tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591). I was struck by the fact that these objects have been given proper names, another example of the reverence the Japanese have for their history, including the associative power of these two ceramics. 

Without a doubt, I overscheduled myself on my last day in Japan, logging nearly ten miles on foot alone as I raced to the Nijo Castle, the Philosopher’s Path, the Silver Pavilion, and the spectacularly photogenic Fushimi-Inari Taisha. While these sites are on most Kyoto tourists’ lists, they provided several final garden lessons. When Sada talks about a stone wall or, as he has done in the past, guides me along the Zagunis Castle Wall he designed for the Portland Japanese Garden, I now understand the historical significance of these dry-stacked stone constructions in the context of the walls that surround the moats of not only the Imperial Palace in Tokyo but, more significantly, the majestic walls that fortify Nijo-jo (fig. 4.6)

Figure 4.6: “Shin” Masonry Wall, Nijo-jo Castle, Kyoto.

The castle’s Ninomaru Garden, where the stones have been in place since 1626, also proved to be one of the most instructive places to practice Sada’s directive to keep my eyes on the pond edges. Each of the rugged rocks contributed to the collective ensemble, some providing notes of horizontal stability and calm, others offering vertical tension and drama (fig. 4.7).

Figure 4.7: Ninomaru Garden, Nijo-jo Castle, Kyoto.

And the castle’s palace provided an unexpected treat: activating the “Nightingale” wooden floorboards in the corridors and hearing the chirping that, at least according to myth, announced the presence of intruders.

When Sada talks about the paths that will lead through Cranbrook’s garden or the stone paving that he envisions around our new azumaya, I now have dozens of references in my mind (and photographs on my cellphone, all with my foot in them for scale), including the many stone walkways that guide visitors through Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion), both those well-traveled as well as the more intimate ones that lead through the moss in the garden’s back corners (fig. 4.8).

Figure 4.8: Moss Garden, Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion), Kyoto.

By the time I started my ascent up the mountain and under the 10,000 vermillion torii that line the path of Fushimi-Inari Taisha, the sun was setting over Kyoto and I was exhausted. Stopping short of the summit (I’m a completist, so please don’t tell anyone!), I headed back down to the sanctuary at the base of the mountain, took a subway to my hotel, and collapsed.

“Welcome back and with firsthand experience with Japanese gardens in their native land.” Sada knew that my perspective and understanding would change. I now have a visual vocabulary—acquired through many intimate, embodied experiences—that allows me to communicate more effectively and confidently with not only Sada, but also professionals around the world. It is an understanding that will not only impact the rehabilitation of the Cranbrook Japanese Garden, but knowledge that I am able to share with our many audiences. I am indebted to the Japan Foundation for their support of this trip and to the North American Japanese Garden Association and people like Marisa Rodriquez and Professor Suzuki for their attention to the trip’s thoughtful itinerary and its every detail. It was, indeed, an opportunity of a lifetime.