A crabapple tree curves high against the sky, yet is as painstakingly pruned and sculpted as a tabletop’s bonsai, turning you into a furtive mouse. The first step onto the taiko-bashi bridge with its steep arc must be how an ant faces a fallen acorn.
Sitting in the Normandale Japanese Garden in Bloomington, its two acres begin to feel like an entire world. You contract to its scale. Even your thoughts become distilled, more focused, until you cease thinking at all, but only contemplate a willow’s reflection on the pond, its surface occasionally rippled by koi.
This is just as it’s meant to be.
“Nothing happens accidentally in a Japanese garden,” said TJ Hara, whose late grandmother, Kimi Hara, was among the garden’s founders.
For example, there’s the particular crook that was coaxed into the trunk of a small tree on Crane Island. But Hara’s words also describe the sorcery of scale that emerges through the traditional — and highly intentional — arrangement of plants, rocks and water.
For almost 38 years, the Normandale garden has cast its spell, nestled between the brick-and-glass buildings of Normandale Community College and an unexpectedly vast marshland in the middle of the state’s fifth-largest city.
This weekend, the garden will host its first Japanese Garden Festival with drummers, dancers, musicians, archers, sword demonstrations and food. The Saturday event, coordinated by Hara, aims to reinvigorate fundraising efforts that fell by the wayside in recent years as the college began extensive renovations to its campus. The nearby construction work made the garden less tranquil, but also eliminated a space for the famed annual sukiyaki dinners that bolstered the budget. (Kimi Hara’s recipe for the beef hot pot ended with the words: “Serves 1,000.”)
There’s no sukiyaki anymore — it’s difficult to find enough quality beef for a certain price, Hara said — but the spirit endures of preserving the garden as one of the most accessible aspects of Japanese culture. Still, at 36, Hara said he’s the youngest by far of the festival’s organizers.
“I know the reasons I come to the garden,” he said. “For other people, I hope they find their reason to contribute.”
The garden has been there longer than Hara has been alive. He remembers at community gatherings how “somebody was always coming up to my grandmother to say hello to her,” he said. “She just had that profile associated with the garden.”
Kimi Hara, who died in 2007, was among 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent living in the United States when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, and who faced being placed in internment camps. As a nurse, she had the opportunity to relocate to the Midwest where such professional skills were needed. With two suitcases to her name, she landed in Minneapolis. A few years later, she helped found the Twin Cities Chapter of the Japanese-American Citizen League, and later the Japan America Society of Minnesota.
Apart, yet still connected
As one strolls through the garden, the world can seem quite distant, and yet never is far away.
The bentendo, the small six-sided building on the largest of three islands, was built with money raised by Japanese veterans of the Military Intelligence Service language school, who were stationed at Fort Snelling decoding messages. They donated the money in appreciation of the welcoming atmosphere they felt in Minnesota, Hara said.
The garden’s architect, Takao Watanabe, followed the principle of shakkei, or “borrowed scenery,” in which a garden incorporates a view of features outside the garden, such as hills or trees. In this case, it’s the expanse of marsh to the north, which has been preserved over the decades.
“We haven’t done anything to block the view of the outside world,” said Hara, of Minneapolis, adding that the garden remains true to its origins. “It’s been maintained in accordance with the philosophy of the designer.”
Taken at face value, the garden is simply lovely, and a popular backdrop for weddings and other events; reservation fees help support its care. But bolstered with a bit of background, deeper meanings emerge.
The pointed rock at the base of the waterfall symbolizes a carp gazing upward, depicting the legend of a fish’s belief that if it only could ascend the waterfall, it would turn into a dragon, illustrating the value of perseverance. The zig-zag angle of a bridge is to keep evil from following you across since it can only follow a straight line.
The Normandale garden, which is maintained by the college, also bolstered Minnesota horticulture when architect Watanabe realized that no cherry trees were hardy enough to bloom here. In 1984, 24 seedlings from seeds collected from Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, were sent here and nurtured.
A single variety survived, one that had abundant blossoms, but also hardiness. ‘Spring Wonder’ now is propagated widely and sold in garden centers. The “mother” tree is planted prominently just outside the stucco wall that shelters the garden, with seven of its children within the garden.
Two years ago, the government of Japan commended the Japanese Garden Committee for its efforts in making such a cherry tree a part of American gardens.
For all the impulse to escape into the otherworldliness of such gardens, the cherry tree serves as a gentle reminder that real life also must be kept within view.