Monday, January 20, 2014

The #1 Japanese Garden in the U.S.?

Long-time readers of this blog know that I love Japanese gardens, so much so that I created my own little miniature Japanese garden this past summer. I've visited several Japanese gardens, both private and public, but my favorite has always been the Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon, which I've been fortunate enough to visit a couple of times and hope to see again this summer. Hailed by a Japanese dignitary as "the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan,"  the Portland garden is a magnificent place, a refuge of serene beauty.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a local expert on Japanese gardens told me some time ago that the number one Japanese garden in the U.S. was no longer the Portland garden, but instead one much closer to home--the Anderson Japanese Garden in Rockford, Illinois.   An Illinois garden more beautiful than the one in Portland--really??  I was very skeptical, but vowed to see the Rockford garden and judge for myself one day.

One of several curved bridges at the Anderson Japanese Garden.
Rockford is only a three-hour drive from where I live, so this August when friend Beckie and I decided we needed a short girlfriends' getaway, it was the first place that came to my mind. 

I knew when we finally arrived that this was a special place, and I was excited to see it.  But I must admit to being a bit prejudiced; for the first half hour as we strolled down one path to another, I kept comparing the Anderson Garden to the Portland Garden.

I've learned just enough about Japanese gardens to be an obnoxious pseudo-expert on the subject.  I immediately recognized the traditional zig-zag bridge. Although artfully designed, it was rather small, I thought smugly.

Until later, when we came to this--now this is a zigzag bridge!  According to traditional Zen philosophy, the zigzag bridge helps the garden visitor to focus on the here and now, especially since these bridges often have no railings.

It wasn't long before thoughts of comparison to Portland's garden left my mind, and I focused on the here and now beauty of the Anderson garden.  All the traditional elements of a Japanese garden were here in abundance, such as stone, whether in the natural form or a manmade statue.

Stone paths leading to a special sculpture . . .

 Or a simple, but beautifully built stone bridge.

A second element, water, was present everywhere, too, from small streams . . .

. . . to a large reflecting pond.

From the smallest, a water basin . . .

. . . to the magnificent, a waterfall (more on this later).

There was also a dry garden, often called a Zen garden by Westerners, for quiet contemplation.  You may not be able to see it in this photo, but the gravel was carefully raked into a checkerboard pattern. 

Poetry is an important part of traditional Japanese culture, and it was also found in several spots throughout the garden, including a carved inscription on this water basin. Our handy map/guide, which I have misplaced, helped to translate for us.

As one might expect, there were large koi in the ponds, but there were some unexpected wildlife as well, such as this friendly--and I suspect well-fed--goose.

Ducks scrambling up the cobblestone beach were equally friendly, probably hoping for a handout.

And, of course, there were the plants, the third main element of a Japanese garden.

Japanese maples provided a pop of color in what is typically a primarily green landscape.

Colorful reflections in the water.

Interesting bark invited closer inspection.

As did the water lilies floating on a pond.

Not everything was traditional in plant choices, however--
a native plant, Swamp milkweed, looked right at home bordering a pond.

As we followed the paths, I was impressed by the size of the Anderson garden, and no wonder--covering at least 12 acres, it is more than twice the size of the Portland Garden.

Turtle Island--islands, either real or the suggestion of one, are often found in a Japanese garden, too

What is amazing is that this garden began as a private garden.  Local businessman John Anderson was inspired by the gardens he saw while visiting Japan after graduating from college. When he and his family purchased land in Rockford for a new home in the 70's, he realized the swampy ground below his hillside home had the potential to become his very own Japanese garden and began clearing the acreage. On a business trip to Portland, Oregon in 1978, he visited the acclaimed Japanese garden there.  Not only was he inspired by its beauty and tranquillity, but he asked to meet its designer and soon after asked him to help design his own garden.  Hoichi Kurisu agreed and has been coming to the garden for the past thirty years to work with Mr. Anderson.  (When I read this in the garden's brochure, I had an "Aha" moment--there is a Portland connection here!)

The garden has been open for tours since the early '80's, and in 1998 it became a public, non-profit organization.  My favorite spot in the whole garden was near the end of our visit, this waterfall.  Small paths in front allow visitors to get close, and I scrambled over some slippery rocks for a closer look.

This large stone covered in moss below the waterfall drew my attention, and accompanied by the soothing sound of falling water, I was mesmerized. I don't know what it was about this mossy stone that held me in thrall, nor am I sure how long I stood here because time suddenly stood still.  It truly was a Zen moment for me.

By this time you may wonder what my final opinion is.  Does the Anderson Garden deserve to be ranked above the Portland Garden as the number one Japanese Garden in the U.S.?  Does it really matter?? The Portland garden is shadier because of the tall Douglas firs surrounding it on all sides, and its location on the top of a hill provides some interesting views, including a spectacular view overlooking the city.  The Anderson garden, on the other hand, is larger, and has the advantage of being within much easier traveling distance for me.  But both are beautiful places, providing an oasis of serenity in the middle of a busy city.  If you live in the Midwest, the Anderson Japanese Garden is definitely a destination worth putting on your must-see list.

Since it's snowy and cold outside with nothing to see in my garden right now, it's the perfect time to re-visit some summer photos I didn't have time to post about then. Rockford, Illinois is only an hour or two drive west of Chicago and an hour south of Madison, WI.  There are other attractions worth a visit to this city, too, which I'll highlight in a future post.


  1. What a beautiful example of this kind of Japanese garden, and it doesn't matter how it ranks! You found beauty in it and showed us. What a treasure to have so near you.

  2. What fabulous photos of a beautiful garden. I too love Japanese gardens. I have not seen many but it is their serenity that is so appealing.

  3. I had no idea Illinois had such a garden! It's beautiful! Thank you for sharing it with us.

  4. The next time I go visit Frank I will have to put this place on my list of must see. You did save the best for last to me. The moss covered rock is most beautiful. I am so glad you found this connection. I bet this garden is even beautiful when snow covered. Thanks for taking us there. It is wonderful to see some color and leaves...

  5. I remember you mentioning that you were at the Anderson Garden this summer, too. But you're much more knowledgeable about Japanese gardens than I am. I had no idea it was ranked up there with (above?) Portland's garden. The ranking and the proximity are wonderful news for those of us who live so close! OK, so let's start planning some Midwest garden blogger meetings/trips for spring and summer. ;-) Incredible photos, Rose!

  6. This truly is a beautiful garden. Actually, it is stunning. You did a wonderful job of photographing it. I also loved reading all about it. Thanks for sharing.

  7. How beautiful! The trees are amazing, with their different shades of coloring and form. It looks so tranquil there. That must be so nice for you to find such a garden not too far away!

  8. How beautiful! The trees are amazing, with their different shades of coloring and form. It looks so tranquil there. That must be so nice for you to find such a garden not too far away!

  9. Magnificent garden, Rose. I love these foliage, sculptures, pond with lilies, maple ... Thank for your sharing this Anderson Japanese Garden!

  10. I am thinking this garden is most beautiful no matter its ranking. I love all Japanese gardens but know nothing about them at all. The one in Chicago still impresses me on my one visit there. Maybe someday I'll visit this one too! Stay warm!

  11. That does look such a wonderful place, thanks for sharing :-)

  12. What a treat this post is Rose. Maybe I missed it, but how is one ranked over the other. I agree with you: ranking really doesn't matter. I enjoyed all the pictures especially the water basin, the moss covered rock and the shot of Turtle Island.

  13. Laurrie, I had heard of this place several years ago, but hearing of its ranking really prompted me to finally see it.

    Pat, This style of garden wouldn't work for me, but I just love to visit them. You can feel a sense of calm taking over the minute you walk through the gates.

    Sweetbay, With all the trouble our state has been in, it's nice to know we have something so lovely to brag about!

    Lisa, If Rockford is on your way, definitely make plans to stop! Beckie and I also visited the Klehm Arboretum and the Nicholas Conservatory while there. I had no idea Rockford had so many lovely places to see.

  14. Beth, I don't know how knowledgeable I am about Japanese gardens; I've just soaked up a little more info every time I visit one:) I re-read your post on this garden after I finished writing mine; I thought it was interesting how many of the same spots we featured. I was so impressed with the Anderson Garden and several other places in Rockford. Yes, let's definitely plan a meeting there this year!

  15. Sally, Glad you enjoyed it. I have lots of photos from this summer I hope to share in the next month or so; much more interesting than my bare garden right now!

    Indie, "Tranquil" is just the right way to describe this garden!

    Nadezda, There was so much to see here; it is a beautiful place hidden in the city.

    Tina, Are you talking about the Japanese garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden? It's lovely, but this is much larger and has so much more to see. I agree, rankings don't matter at all.

    Suburbia, Thanks for visiting! Hope the birthday celebration went well for SS.

    Jennifer, I don't know who ranked these gardens or how. I don't know what criteria you could possibly use. Both Portland and the Anderson garden share the same elements, but they're unique in their own way. Both are beautiful places to visit!

  16. Rose, I found your blog today via a link on Three Dogs In the Garden. Japanese gardens were never high on my list until I saw the one at the Huntington botanical garden. Now I'm a fan. I think it is the water and flowing lines. I would like to follow you by email but couldn't find a place to sign up???

  17. What a beautiful garden! My favorite Japanese garden is the small one in San Francisco's Golden Gate park but only because it holds wonderful memories for me, not because of how spectacular it is. I'm headed to the Portland Fling this summer and hope their Japanese Garden is part of the weekend events.

  18. I've been to Rockford many times for work and had no idea it existed. Thanks for the tour and letting me know it is out there! Next time I am in Rockford in warm weather I will have to make time to go there.

  19. Rose you took amazing pictures of this gorgeous garden!
    I too Japanese gardens for the peace and serenity they comfort the viewer with. I think we have a few on the west coast that might rival this one? wink wink
    I am going to work on my little water feature to become more of tiny Japanese looking garden .. we all need a little space like that don't we ?
    This was a gorgeous third part visit, thank you !

  20. That is a quite extraordinarily beautiful garden. The sense of calm leaps out from the screen, the play of light, use of water, the textures of leaf, rock, pebble. As for the moss-covered boulder, I could easily see myself losing time there. Thank you for sharing, your photos are beutiful.

  21. Rose, I concur with many other readers. Who cares where it ranks, it's fantastic! and all the better you can visit it easily. Your photos are wonderful, I did notice the checkerboard. What an amazing afternoon you must have had.

  22. I have only visited one Japanese garden and that’s in Kew Botanical gardens here in London, I have been there several times but not for many years, the Japanese garden there is absolutely stunning and got me interested in this. I wish I had a big enough garden so I could have a part of it in Japanese gardening style. Your photos are lovely and I can see why this garden is ranked so highly, it is absolutely beautiful. Thanks for the tour!

  23. Stunning garden! I've never heard of the Anderson Garden, although I've heard of the one in Portland. I'll tell my family in Madison about it. Your photos are gorgeous, and it's nice to see green on this winter day. One day you must take a trip to Kyoto.

  24. Susan, I'm not sure either what it is about Japanese gardens that are so soothing, but the water features certainly help. My email is on my profile page, but I'm not very tech-savvy, so I don't have a link for post notifications. Hope you'll visit again, though! I enjoyed your blog.

    Casa, I don't think a garden has to be big to be enjoyable. Portland also has a small Chinese garden that I loved as well. Hoping to meet you in July!

    Jason, Definitely make this one of your stops on your next visit to Rockford! The Klehm Arboretum is also worth a visit.

    Joy, Whoever ranked these gardens didn't include Canadian gardens, so yours might be even better:) I think a little Zen space sounds wonderful!

    Janet, You've hit on all the elements that combine to make this such a serene place. That mossy boulder had me hypnotized!

    Marguerite, I'm not sure I really concluded the way I intended--yes, the rankings don't mean anything to me, either!

    Helene, Japanese gardens take a long time to establish, which is why I haven't attempted even a small space here. But I love to visit them!

    Sarah, The Anderson Garden is only an hour south of Madison, and worth the trip for your family. I'd love to see Kyoto's gardens!

  25. I adore this garden and would love to experience it in person. I do know how you feel when comparing though. It really held its own when you just started to become one within this garden on your own. It is so tranquil looking and I would just enjoy myself to no end, Those ducks and goose have it made.

  26. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  27. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  28. Rose, you sure visited an evocative space – and fortunately the garden spoke to you, encouraging you to live, be, in the here and now. You clearly were moved, as was I.

    Japanese gardens are my favorite, as friends know. A couple took me to a garden here in Georgia during a visit about a year ago.

    Here's a link to what I saw and wrote:

  29. Now that was a wonderful tour of a beautiful garden!

  30. What a beautiful place and close to home! Though the St. Louis, Missouri Botanical Gardens remains one of my favorite places to visit, I might have to get out of my usual routine when we go up north and mosey farther on up to Rockford. I love the variety of textures in that garden. And I noticed that they allow walking around in the raked area. I can't remember seeing such a welcome before. Gardens should be interactive, not just plant exhibits. Thanks for showing us this wonderful garden, Rose!

  31. I can understand why that mossy stone held you in thrall!

  32. Oh my this post is eye candy! So refreshing after seeing nothing but snow for so long with no color!
    Amazing that rock covered in moss! What I'd do to have that in my woodland garden! The Zen garden I love too!We have made a somewhat attempt to have a Japanese garden out front.A work in progress.Now I'll go back over the photos and dream!
    Have a great week Rose.

  33. Japanese Gardens are always so amazing to me. I love the water falls and wish I were there right now. Well, not this time of year but in that picture sitting on a rock by them listening to the soothing fall and soaking up the sunshine and surrounding beauty. Ahhhh, such beauty...


Thanks for stopping by. I love to hear from you, so please leave a comment. I'll try to reply here, but I'll definitely return the visit.