USA: Seattle Japanese Garden - A Slice of Kyoto in the Pacific Northwest

A real-deal Japanese garden, right in the middle of Seattle.

Why visit?
Because you like Japanese gardens?

Because it's very beautiful and peaceful, even if you don't?

Whether you're a seasoned Japanese-garden aficionado or a first-time visitor, the Japanese Garden of Seattle will mesmerize you with surprising vistas, more stone lanterns than you can shake a stick at, and hot tea to boot. 

In Seattle's Arboretum, a large green space just North East of Downtown. Map. 

IT IS EASY to take the Seattle Japanese Garden for granted as a bit of exotic landscaping. But wait! There's more to the story.

Fun fact: Seattle is closer to Tokyo than to Paris. All you have to do is to hop on a boat in the Land of the Rising Sun and float eastwards, across the Pacific, and you'll land in Washington state. And that's what thousands of Japanese did, starting in the late 1800s. 

Seattle developed a sizeable Japanese community, and by the early 20th century the city even had its own Japantown (now part of the International District). By 1937, it was decided that the University of Washington Arboretum desperately needed a Japanese garden. But then Pearl Harbour happened, and most things Japanese fell out of fashion for a long time...

It wasn't until 1959 that tempers had cooled a little, and plans started in earnest for the creation of what was to become the Seattle Japanese Garden.  

The task fell upon Juki Lida, a well-established Japanese landscape architect, born in 1890 in the Kanto region, near Tokyo. Lida-san's green thumbs were legendary:  he was a prolific garden builder, creating more than a 1000 of them, all over Japan. But the vast majority of them doesn't survive. Ironically, the only major garden he built that's still around is his overseas gig in Seattle...
Juki Lida had a slightly anal retentive streak- but then, that is to be expected from someone who had bonsai as a hobby. Lida famously selected each and every rock used- and made sure they were placed the right way up, facing the same direction as when they were found on the mountainside (because, you know, rocks have tops and bottoms too).  

The initial brief was for the garden to be equivalent in size to about 18000 tatami mats- in the end it turned out a little smaller, covering only about 8500 tatami mats, or 3.5 acres (1.4 hectares). Lida designed every inch of it, with the help of several local second-generation Japanese-Americans, many of whom had only a hazy idea of either the Japanese language or gardening theory, until Lida schooled them in the ways of their ancestors.  
Lida-san was fastidious about maintenance. When he returned several years later, he was dismayed by the shoddy job that the garden's keepers had done. He gave them a good tongue-lashing about the importance of proper and timely care, without which the garden would not survive, no matter how well-designed it was. It seems like the garden's staff has taken heart: these days the garden is meticulously cared for, and looks like a million dollars- or yen, if you prefer. 

Of course, no Japanese garden is complete without some tea tasting, and a small teahouse in the center of the garden dishes out Japan's favourite tipple. Don't expect to just rock up and order a 16oz. paper cup to go- the name of the game here is 'Tea Ceremony'. You have to book for a specific session, and you'll be expected to kneel on a tatami mat until the feeling in your legs has largely disappeared and your toes have gone numb. 

A number of friendly kimono-clad tea masters and mistresses will show you the ropes, and offer you a cup of thick, frothy matcha to knock back in exactly 3.5 sips. (Yes, there really is a precisionist streak to Japanese culture.)

If you dig on Japanese gardens, take a peek at this one in Narita, near Tokyo.  

Getting there:
The garden claims to be accessible by public transport. Metro Bus route #11 stops on nearby Madison Avenue. 
This way. 

Useful links:
The garden's official website can be found here.


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