Created: September 19, 1982
Designer: Koichi Kawana
Days Open: Hours vary with the seasons. See
Hours Open: 8 am - sunset
Entry or Parking Fees: Free. Parking fees:
Garden Phone: +1 (847) 835-5440

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Overview by Julie McCaffrey, Media Relations Manager, Chicago Botanic Garden

The Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden is also called Sansho-En (Garden of Three Islands). It is a place of serene beauty and harmony, designed in Japanese style with over 280 types of plants conducive to gardening in the Midwest. It is truly a four-season garden with curving paths and pruned trees, framing perfect distant views of lakes, grassy hills, woods and gardens beyond.  Like all Japanese gardens, Sansho-En reflects a culture where ancient philosophies are revered. In Japan, symbolism is revered, especially in nature. Traditionally, the Japanese do not like to recreate natural scenery, but instead to suggest it. They frequently use their imagination and spirituality to bring them closer to nature. The Japanese garden is full of symbols: gravel represent water, bushes are pruned into mounds to look like mountains and hills, pine trees reflect a long life, and gravel is raked in the dry garden to reflect the ocean waves breaking onto the shore.

The green of shrubs, trees and perennial leaves remains from season to season and symbolizes the lasting quality of nature instead of the shortness of human life. The Japanese garden has many shades of green, especially on cloudy days. The garden is designed to catch the snow, and is truly a year-round garden. Flowers are showcased at special times: crabapples in spring, irises in summer, chrysanthemums in fall. However, the blossoms fade quickly, its life too short to give a sense of enduring quality.

Old age is also highly respected in Japan, and in the garden, trees are made to look older by pruning, shaping and training.  The guide wires help train the trees to grow in a particular direction, and branches are trimmed yearly.  The creation of this living sculpture continues throughout the tree’s life.  Boulders are the “bones of the earth” and represent stability.


From U.S. Japanese Gardens by K.T. Canon-Eger:

“The Japanese have taken their love of growing things and their realization of man’s union with nature and refined them in the beauty of their gardens. The purpose of a Japanese garden is to present natural forms and to create a tranquil beauty that leads the visitor from everyday life to a calm, serene, reflective communion with nature.”

Koichi Kawana

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Use arrows to browse images, or click photo for full screen slide show. Photos by Bill Eger and courtesy of U.S. Japanese Gardens

Sansho-en at Chicago Botanic Garden is a 17.3 acre promenade style garden or kaiyu-shiki, a garden style developed during the 17th century. Sansho-en means “The Garden of the Three Islands” – Keiunto, Seifuto and Horajima – visible in a diagram of the garden. The experience in a stroll garden is to see the garden while walking. Different views appear on the journey along a winding path.

“A walk through Sansho-en reveals a collection of smaller gardens and classic elements from several historical Japanese garden styles,” said one garden brochure. “In Sansho-en you can experience contemplative dry gardens, an intimate moss garden, cool woodland gardens and a distant paradise garden, all in one visit.”

Dr. Koichi Kawana (1930-1990) designed more than a dozen major Japanese gardens in the United States, including Seiwa-en at the Missouri Botanical Garden and Shofu-en at the Denver Botanic Gardens. In addition, he was a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he lectured on Japanese art, landscape design and architecture. Dedicated in 1982, Sansho-en celebrated its 30th birthday the day we visited in June.

Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden dedication plaqueSansho-en also is called the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden. An endowment was created for the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden through a gift from the Malott Family Foundation in 2006, when the garden was re-dedicated. Income from the endowment will provide funds to maintain the Japanese Garden and provide programs that teach visitors about Japanese culture and history.

Mary Plunkett is manager of Interpretive Programs at Chicago Botanic Garden and oversees seven gardens. There are nearly 200 interpretive volunteer positions throughout Chicago Botanic, 20 in the Japanese garden.

Plunkett came to Chicago Botanic Garden 11 years ago with a background in volunteer management. “Nobody comes here to give poor information. Everyone comes with a good heart and desire to be helpful to our curious visitors, so my job is to encourage and inform them,” Plunkett said. “A volunteer generally is here two times a month. If you want a good volunteer program you have to have staff to support them. We are so lucky to have that support.”

tool board detail“Our volunteers are here Wednesday through Sunday through the first weekend in October. We track nearly 35,000 visitor encounters during a season,” Plunkett said.

Volunteers have an extensive document of information, history, tool identification and frequently asked questions for training and reference. A board to which various tools are attached aids in explaining their uses.

“Volunteers can be a driving force in the garden,” said senior horticulturist Benjamin Carroll. “They have such enthusiasm. It’s really important for us to recognize their work and express gratitude regularly.”
Edie Rowell at Shoin HouseEdie Rowell is in her fifth season as a garden volunteer. She spends one day a week in the Malott Japanese Garden and one day “digging in the fruit and vegetable garden.”

“Visitors do not go inside the Shoin House. We speak to them from the engawa 縁側, explain the construction, tools, type of garden and so forth,” Rowell said. “This is not a tea house. Tea houses are usually smaller – four and a half to six tatami size. This is a 23 tatami house. Shoin rooms started out as the study of Buddhist monks. The style morphed into the Camp David of its day – a man cave for a very high ranking man, a retreat house for a Daimyo 大 名 where one’s equilibrium could be restored.”

gift shop at Chicago Botanic GardenChicago Botanic Garden’s facilities are truly delightful. The Visitor Center adjacent to the parking area offers an extensive and well stocked gift shop on the right, an abundant café on the left, an information desk and “Ask A Master Gardener” service. Educational classes, children’s programs, seasonal displays, and membership benefits are a few of the many offerings.

Chicago Botanic Garden offers 25 gardens on 385 acres. Roughly 60 acres are covered by water. There is no admission charge for Chicago Botanic Garden. There is a fee for parking. To plan your visit, check out the web site for hours, directions, parking fee, transportation, what’s in bloom, etc.

Garden Features:

From Julie McCaffrey, Media Relations Manager, Chicago Botanic Garden:

  • The Arched Bridge – a link between this world and paradise – features the first of 13 lanterns in the garden, and takes you to the first island of Keiunto, The Island of the Auspicious Cloud. This island features The Arbor, the highest point on Sansho-En, and a dry garden of raked gravel.
  • The focal point of the island is The Shoin House, an authentic recreation of a 17th century Samurai summer retreat house. The structure was built in Japan, dissembled and later reassembled at the Chicago Botanic Garden in 1981. The contemplative courtyard was designed for the samurai to view as he works at his desk. The Shoin House is open for public viewing Thursday through Sunday, weather permitting from May through October.
  • The Zigzag Bridge leads visitors from Keiunto to Seifuto, The Island of Pure, Clear Breezes. Seifuto features the Arbor House, called the “The House of Pure, Clear Breezes,” and a dry garden. Seifuto provides a peaceful spot for rest and contemplation.
  • The third island, Horaijima, The Island of Everlasting Happiness, is not accessible by foot and has no constructed objects. It is home to immortal beings who live lives of perfect happiness and peace on this distant, mysterious island.


Submitted by Ayse Pogue, Senior Horticulturist – Chicago Botanic Garden:

“The Garden of Three Islands”, features a kaiyu-shiki or promenade style garden which reveals its beauty slowly and invites visitors to meander its winding paths. A graceful wooden bridge connects, Keiunto, the southernmost island to the mainland and offers a view of water, reflection, fish swimming, and cool breezes.  Keiunto, “The Island of the Auspicious Cloud”, is the highest and largest of the three islands.  This island appears as a billowing cloud allowing visitors to gaze down on the other islands.  It features a dry garden with a sophisticated garden gate and an arbor.  The arbor provides a spot to contemplate, rest, and enjoy the view. Chinese style porcelain stools point to the sophistication and wealth this dry garden exemplifies. 

Nestled in a cove on Keiunto is the Shoin building modelled after the summer dwellings of feudal lords.  It is cantilevered over the water to catch the cool breezes and afford another perspective of the garden.  Enclosed by a hedge and a moss garden, the Shoin building is the focal point of Sansho-En.  Rolling mounds of azaleas cover an entire hillside on this island and are particularly striking in bloom.   A granite zigzag bridge connect Keiunto to the central island of Sansho-En, Seifuto, “The Island of Pure, Clear Breezes”.  Seifuto contains a rustic arbor, naturalistic plantings, boat landing stones and various stone lanterns.  The dry garden on Seifuto is smaller and more intimate.  It features a water basin and an Oribe lantern and a rangui post border. 

Across the water lies Horaijima, “The Island of Everlasting Happiness”. with a sparsely planted landscape.  Due to its symbolic and mystical nature, Horaijima can only be viewed from a distance.  It does not have any built structures or artifacts as it represents a place inaccessible to mortals.

Garden History:

Submitted by Ayse Pogue, Senior Horticulturist – Chicago Botanic Garden

Early plans for the Chicago Botanic Garden proposed a Japanese Garden to introduce the visitors to another culture’s way of creating gardens, to provide a place of peace and contemplation, and to showcase the best plants for a Japanese style garden in the Chicago area.  Work began on Sansho-En in the early 1970s to design and build the islands.  The planting phase and the construction of the Shoin building and other structures concluded in the late 1970s and early 1980s.The dedication ceremony took place on September 19, 1982 and was conducted by Reverend Goro Oki.  During the 1990s, it became evident that the shorelines of many gardens, including Sansho-en, were experiencing erosion.  In 2006, at the completion of an extensive shoreline restoration project, Sansho-En was rededicated and named the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden.

Garden Designer:  Dr. Koichi Kawana was born in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, Japan and immigrated to the U.S. in 1952.  He earned a B.S. and M.S. in Political Science from UCLA in 1959 and completed a Master of Fine Arts in Environmental Design in 1964.  He later earned a Ph.D. in Landscape Architecture from Pacific Western University.  He maintained a long relationship with UCLA as a student, as a teaching fellow for the Art Department, and as a principal architect with the University’s architecture and engineering office.  He was a respected professor regularly teaching environmental and landscape design and Japanese art and culture.  He was also an accomplished, multi-talented artist, proficient in Japanese design principles and aesthetics.  He founded Environmental Design Associates, a Los Angeles based design firm, in 1966.  Kawana’s approach to design emphasized regional identity and authenticity.  His designs showcased a closeness to nature, simplicity, and attention to the unique local environment.  He designed Sansho-En in the kaiyu-shiki style, setting up the views for the visitor and slowly showing the subtleties of a sophisticated and authentic garden.

Garden builder:  Kumoi Construction Company Ltd. that specializes in building temples, shrines, and historical structures in Japan, constructed the Shoin building, the toolshed adjacent to Shoin building, and the gate and arbor on Keiunto.  The landscape contractor in charge of all plantings was Clauss Brothers, Inc. of Chicago.  Masonry by Fernando, Inc. of Lake Forest completed the stonework on all the islands.

Additional Resources:

Chicago Botanic Garden Additional Photos
A 7 ½ minute video in Malott Garden uploaded by Benjamin Carroll in 2009:

Gardens in the Americas