Created: April, 1989
Designer: Kiyoshi Yasui
Days Open: Mon - Sun. Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Hours Open: 9 am - 5 pm
Entry or Parking Fees: Free with Botanical Gardens Admission - Adults: $10, Children (age 3-13): $7, Children (under age 3): Free, Active Military (current ID, dependents not included) and Seniors (65 and over): $8, Students (current ID): $8
Garden Phone: +1 210 207-3250

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Photos by Bill F. Eger.  Use arrows to browse images, or click photo for full screen slide show.

If you have Japanese enabled on your browser, you will see most Japanese gardening terms with their kanji. In addition, most terms have definitions available by holding your mouse over the word. Clicking on a word will bring up the entire list.


Dedication Plaques

Dedication Plaques

The Kumamoto En Japanese Garden is part of the Sister City relationship between Kumamoto City, Japan and San Antonio, Texas. It was constructed between March and April of 1989 by a team of carefully selected volunteer craftsmen and landscapers from Kumamoto, Kyoto, Tokyo, and San Antonio. This team included craftsmen from Yasuimoku Koumuten in Kyoto. The garden is patterned after the famous 300 year old Suizenji Park 水前寺 in Kumamoto and contains many of the same elements. These plaques in English and Japanese stand at the entrance to the Kumamoto En.

The garden occupies a small corner of the San Antonio Botanical Garden, on land blessed by a Shinto priest before and during construction. Upon entering the garden, you enter a place apart from the everyday world, a safe and peaceful haven where all anger, prejudice, and worldly problems are left at the gate.

Kumamoto En was designed to demonstrate the beauty of authentic Japanese gardening and introduce visitors to many elements used in Japanese Gardens. It is designed to be enjoyed one scene at a time, like a scroll painting, unrolling as you stroll through.  Different styles of garden paths, bamboo fencing, stone lanterns, and landscape construction styles from famous gardens in Japan are revealed along the path. Many of the elements in the garden are modeled after those of Katsura Detached Palace 桂離宮 in Kyoto, Japan.

Garden Features:

Entering this garden, the first element a visitor meets is the kyaku ishi 客石 visitor’s stone, the great flat stone landing at the entry gate. The carriages of royalty and dignitaries would be set here for their visit. Just past the wooden gate columns, a group of paving stones arranged in the Enshu 遠州 pattern guide the viewer, first to the right where the first stone lantern may be seen, then to the left to a sculptured Afghan pine (Pinus elderica), then slightly further to a grouping of sago palms.  The path continues on cut granite stones arranged in a design similar to one at the Katsura Detached Palace 桂離宮 in Kyoto. This style of paving is called Shin or “formal” style. These stones and all other building materials were brought from Japan or were personally selected by Mr. Kiyoshi Yasui, designer of Kumamoto En and owner of Yasuimoku Construction Company in Kyoto, Japan. The garden construction was guided by Japanese landscaper Katsuoki Kawahara, owner of Kawahara Company in Kyoto, Japan.

Oribe lantern near entry

Japanese stone lanterns, usually made of granite, find their origins in Buddhist Temples, and later in the Shinto Shrines. Their windows, covered with rice paper to shield the wind and illuminated with small oil lamps or candles, cast their light as guides at a garden entrance, at a special viewpoint, or along the pathway to tea rooms or waiting arbors called azumayas.  The first of three styles represented in the garden is known as the Oribe lantern 織部灯籠. It is a style of stone lantern designed specifically for garden use by its creator, Japanese warlord Furuta Oribe 古田織部, also a great tea master and a practitioner of the Sukiya way of life.  It is located just inside and to the right of the entry gate.  The two opposing sides of the light chamber have windows shaped like the moon and the sun. The knob-like top to this and many other lanterns represents a lotus bud. A lantern with this type of base called a “planted lantern” (ikekomi-gata) because its base is buried in the earth for support. Some Oribe lanterns have a Buddha carved into the base. After Lord Oribe was converted to Christianity, he began having the Virgin Mary carved into the bases of his lanterns.  This version of the Oribe is known as the Christian Lantern.  See Krishitan doro – キリシタン灯籠 for more information.

Katsura style fence

There are four styles of take gaki 竹垣 –, or bamboo fence represented in the Kumamoto En. All are handmade from materials brought from Japan. The fence style on this side of the entry is named Katsura gaki 桂垣 after the style used in the Katsura Detached Palace gardens in Kyoto (gaki is a Japanese word for fence) See Katsura gaki for more on this fence.  One of the more difficult to construct, it is assembled with alternating sections of small and medium bamboo waddle to provide a subtle checkerboard effect. These sections are held in a wooden frame covered by half-sections of bamboo culm, cut at an angle at the top. The sections are topped with three half-sections of culm to protect the waddle from rain. All is held together with copper wire and palm rope tied with traditional knots, and supported from the back by posts and buttress-like poles. If you look closely, you will see that the entire fence sits upon a narrow layer of stone to protect it from the soil.

All of the bamboo fences in the Kumamoto En must be regularly maintained, the palm rope replaced, waddle re-woven. Every few years the fences must be completely replaced by Japanese craftsmen from Kumamoto and Kyoto.

Past the Oribe lantern and along the Katsura gaki, the path turns slightly to the left and the formal Shin style path becomes a very natural path of rounded stepping stones set directly in the grass surface. A visitor must walk carefully, taking time to continue past the small grove of the palm-like sago plants called sotetsu 蘇鉄 (Cycas revoluta). This planting is similar to one across from the tea arbor at Katsura Detached Palace. The pathway continues with the Gyo , or semi-formal style of paving.

This Gyo style combines cut granite with natural shaped stones to form a surface that has a formal feel tempered with the calm beauty of natural shapes. The path is shaded by two deciduous trees called momiji もみじ, or Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum). Throughout the garden, varieties of momiji provide color and texture spring, summer, and fall, and graceful sculptures of nature through the winter.

Niju Masu, or “double measure” style basin

The path comes to a place to pause and symbolically purify before continuing into this special space. The square granite basin is called chozubachi 手水鉢. It is of a style called niju masu 二重桝, meaning double measure for the diamond-shaped hollow within the square shape cut of the stone. The basin provides water for washing of hands and face, removing the dirt, cares and troubles of the world. The flow from the basin symbolizes an underground water source – something both Kumamoto and San Antonio have in common. The basin is set low so a visitor must bend in honor and humility to fill the take bishaku 竹柄杓, or bamboo dipper. The small stones below the large platform stone catch the wash water. For more information on this special area, see the article on Tsukubai つくばい .

Mizu-hotaru Toro or “Water Firefly Lantern

The mizu-hotaru toro 水蛍燈籠, or water firefly lantern, stands over the chozubachi, providing light for night time visits to the garden. The beauty of fireflies dancing magically over garden ponds at night inspired this lantern. It is usually placed near the water’s surface to provide a reflection resembling its namesake. More detail can be found at mizubotaru toro.  Both the hotaru toro and the chozubachi lay at the foot of a grass-covered mound symbolizing the active volcano that stands above the City of Kumamoto. It is known as Mount Aso 阿蘇山.

Under the red-leafed variety of momiji growing from the side of Mount Aso, stands a special stone called a zazen ishi 座禅石, or Meditation Stone.  From the earliest Japanese history, stones have always been an important part of the garden and the selection and placement of these stones is considered a special art. The stones in the Kumamoto En were placed with no less care. Those located in the water were taken from water – those used in forming the mountains were selected from the mountains. The hotaru toro, chozubachi, zazen ishi, and the symbolic Mount Aso are included in an area of the garden considered the “Kumamoto, Japan” side of the garden.

Another Roji gate is located to the right of this area. It is hoped that it will soon lead to a small bamboo garden and sitting area.

The symbolic “Fuji-san”

There is a second symbolic mountain in the Kumamoto En. Another grass-covered cone, standing to the left of Mount Aso and more central to the garden, represents the famous Mount Fuji 富士山   In Japan, it is known as “Fujiyama ” or “Fuji-san “. Internationally, it is thought of as a icon of Japan. This particular representation of Fuji-san is patterned after the one in Suizenji Park in Kumamoto.

Mosses are a traditional groundcover in many gardens in Japan. They require cooler temperatures and a constant source of moisture to remain green and healthy. Since this is not common in South Texas, a fine-bladed variety of Zoysia grass called “Emerald” Zoysia was used through most of the garden. It is a variety of an Asian native grass, Zoysia tenuifolia. The Zoysia in this garden is trimmed twice per week in the growing season to keep it short and smooth to resemble a moss growth habit.

The path turns left and is paved in a style even more natural than the Gyo style. Smooth stones are mortared together in a random pattern to form a mostly even walking surface. It is the So style and represents the “informal” garden path paving. The So path leads past another type of matsu, the Italian Stone Pine (Pinus pinea). The fence on this side of the garden is the Otsu gaki 大津垣 – style. Vertical strips of bamboo are woven in groups of 3 between widely-spaced rows of 2 strips. In this case, it is trimmed at the middle and bottom with split corms tied horizontally with palm rope about every meter. The fence is topped with 3 split corms in a similar way as the Katsura gaki. The top is then tied with special decorative topknots.

The larger pines in this garden were growing here before the garden was built and were trimmed to shape and scale them to the garden. Since the time the decision was made to incorporate them in the new landscape, a disease has reached the San Antonio area that is slowly killing this species. Care is being taken to keep them as long as possible, and replacements of a different species are being prepared for when that time finally comes.


The Azumaya, 東屋 or tea waiting arbor, is a waiting area for a teahouse and here serves for tea ceremonies as well. It was constructed by Japanese craftsmen according to Mr. Yasui’s specifications (Mr. Yasui was nominated for National Living Treasure of Japan for his abilities in reconstructing temples and garden structures). The splits and wedges used in the posts and beams are to prevent splitting and checking as the wood ages. Much of the structure is assembled using secret techniques that eliminate the need for nails. The roof is made from hand-shaped copper strips. A border of Ryu Kuchi-hige 竜口髭, or Dragon’s Mustache (Dwarf Mondo Grass or Ophiopogon japonicus nana), is held in place around foundation stones by a border of bamboo stakes cut at staggered heights. This azumaya is a replica of the original at Katsura Detached Palace. The four benches of the azumaya are arranged in the Manji style so they do not face each other. The waiting time before the tea ceremony is a time of introspect and meditation. This arrangement is so the eyes of those waiting for the tea ceremony do not meet. The view from the azumaya is like the view from Mount Aso of the Kumamoto Plains. It looks over a mountain spring, Izumi Ishi Gumi, 湧水石組 and a bubbling brook. These are again symbols of the underground water source Kumamoto and San Antonio have in common.

Double bridge and Mizu-waki stone

The water from a second ishi gumi flows out from the base of Mount Fuji and under a double bridge, ishi bashi 石橋, made of granite. The double bridge is reminiscent of the partnership of the two peoples, the two cities, and the two nations. Four stones called hashi basami 橋挟 at the four corners of the bridge lend a feeling of stability and strength. Under the bridge, a stone called mizu waki ishi 水分石 separates the fast moving water that comes together again on the other side.The stones around and to the west of the bridge were picked and positioned to resemble those around the lake at Suizenji Park in Kumamoto.

Leaving the azumaya and heading north, you are walking next to the Kenninji gaki 建仁寺垣, a third style of bamboo fence, enclosing the east side of the garden from the azumaya to the next group of grassy mounds. Here, vertical slats of bamboo are held over a wooden frame with horizontal split corms tied with palm rope. It is also capped with three half-culms to protect from rain. This style of fence can be either one-sided or two-sided. It also has the ornately scalloped diagonal braces on the garden side of the fence. See Kenninji gaki for more on this style of fence.

This area contains a second zazen stone, set into rolling hills of grass under an oak tree. It is the area of the garden representing San Antonio and the United States. The main body of water that occupies the center of the garden is a small replica of the lake of Suizenji Park, but could also be perceived as the ocean that separates the two cities and countries!

Can you see the turtle?

Just before the path turns again, there is a beautiful Japanese Black Pine, kuro matsu 黒松. This pine almost died at one point and since, has been given special training. Some visitors are able to see the form of a Phoenix beginning to take flight.

This shore of the pond is lined with special cedar posts called rangui 乱杭 that give a softer look to the waters edge in contrast to the stones used elsewhere. They have been stripped and flamed to char the surface and bring the resins to the surface to protect the wood from rot and insects. More stones interrupt the grassy edges along with a special cascading form of Juniper called “Green Mound”.

In the center of the pond is the tsuru jima 鶴島 or Crane Island. The crane is the symbol of good luck and happiness. Look closely in the water near the island to see the kame , or turtle that keeps peace and brings good luck and long life. The two sculptured pines on Tsuru Jima were donated by staff for this place of honor and have been in training since 1985.

A third style of Japanese lantern called sanko doro 三光灯籠, or three lights lantern, lies on this shore. It is named for its three lights – the sun, the moon, and the stars. This lantern is described in the article, Japanese Stone Lanterns.

Across the path from the Sanko Doro stands the Daimyo 大名, or Shogun 将軍 style of bamboo fence. Vertical branches of bamboo are sorted by size and woven together, lining up one row of branch nodes, and fixed inside a wooden frame. The branches are then pulled tight between horizontal split bamboo and tied with copper and palm rope. Before the top is finished, more waddle is inserted and cinched tight with the remaining two horizontal rows, then sheared to present the beautiful broomed top. In this instance, it is set atop a knee-wall of stone known as nozura ishi gumi 野面石組. It is held by chestnut posts and scalloped (naguri-shiage 名栗仕上げ ) diagonal supports. For a demonstration of construction of this fence, see Daimyo gaki.

The low-growing groundcover below the Daimyo gaki is” Sasa no Karikomi” or dwarf bamboo grass (Sasa pygmaea). It gives the illusion of a miniature forested mountain slope.

Three-stage waterfall

Three-stage waterfall

This final view of the garden reveals the largest part of the landscape, including the azumaya, mountain springs, the pond and Crane Island. It also offers the first complete view of the taki gumi 滝組石 or stone waterfall known as the sandan no taki gumi 三段の滝, or “three-step” waterfall. Beautiful in sound as well as sight, all three waterfalls were carefully tuned to create the individual sounds characteristic to that type of feature.The waterfall is flanked by more juniper, ferns, and shaded by several varieties of Japanese maple. The stepping stones that lead down into the water create the “beach” area called hama .

The Kumamoto En is located in the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. The Kumamoto En is supported in part by, Japan-America Society of San Antonio, Japanese Gardening Organization, and our sister city in Japan, Kumamoto City, Japan.

Article and reference by Don Pylant, who participated in the design and construction of Kumamoto En, and maintained the garden until 2002.