An inside look into Japanese Garden, culture in Houston

HOUSTON – While the Olympics may be an ocean and a few thousand miles away from Texas, Houston has a unique gem to help Houstonians and visitors experience the beauty of Japanese culture.

Not too far of a walk from the Sam Houston Monument is the Japanese Garden, a peaceful oasis carefully crafted and maintained through a unique partnership between the City of Houston, Hermann Park and Houston’s Japanese sister city, Chiba.

The entrance to the Japanese Garden is marked by two meaningful black boulders, inscribed with calligraphy by major leaders including the 77th Prime Minister of Japan. A short walk into the Japanese Garden and guests will be greeted by Japanese Black Pine and Japanese Maple trees. Houstonian Gary Nakamura was born in Japan, grew up in Tokyo and now lives in Houston.

“My late father is second-generation Japanese American, so I’m third-generation Japanese American,” Nakamura said. “The Japanese Garden is one of my favorite places to come to because it’s so beautiful and it is so tranquil.”

Beauty, serenity and harmony are a major part of Japanese culture.

“We really respect harmony. Harmony between seasons or nature or human beings,” said Yuzuru Nagawa, the Japanese Garden Advisory Committee Chairman.

Nagawa, who also happens to be the vice president of ANA Airlines, lives in Houston but works with horticulture teams as part of his advisory role. Houston’s Japanese sister Chiba sends a team of experts to help guide and oversee the maintenance of the Japanese Garden in Houston.

“Annually, they come and make sure that we are staying on track, so it’s a living partnership,” said Iris Clawson-Davis, Houston’s Parks and Rec Dept. senior superintendent of Horticulture.

Nakamura, who is very active in the Japanese American community in Houston is the immediate past president of the Japanese American Citizens League and also served as the Houston-Chiba Sister City Committee from 2009-2013, serves as the official liaison to Chiba City for former Houston mayors Bill White and Annise Parker. Nakamura said there are programs that exist that connect students from Houston and Chiba. The students said to Nakamura that learning about each city, finding commonalities and appreciating new cultures were life-changing for those students. Sister cities are intentionally chosen.

“Many times, the sister cities have something in common. Houston is a port city, Chiba is a port city as well,” Nakamura said.

The Japanese horticulture teams send directions and oftentimes plants to grow in the garden. The local Japanese community in Houston welcomes the teams with bento boxes, another element of Japanese culture, the gift of food and energy. As for gardens, the designers pay attention to details both small and large.

“A big aspect of Japanese gardens is creating focal points and viewpoints so the landscapes should have a foreground, middle ground and background,” Clawson-Davis said.

The scenes at the Japanese Garden are carefully crafted with breathtaking waterfalls, bridges and stone paths, each stone hand-selected by original Japanese landscape architect, Ken Nakijima, who selected the site and designed it.

Amidst the Japanese pine and blossoming Crepe Myrtles sits a cedarwood tea house.

“It was a gift from the Japanese government but the money was really raised by the Japanese and Japanese American community here in Houston,” said Doreen Stoller, Hermann Park Conservancy President.

Another main attraction, the main gate and dry stream garden, designed in part by Japanese landscape architect Terunobu Nakai who worked with a local landscape designer to complete the project. “All of the rocks represent water in the stream and there are boulders that are specifically placed to represent two waterfalls,” Stoller said.

Beauty, serenity, harmony -- all elements of Japanese culture, which Houstonians can see, feel and appreciate right here in Houston.

The Japanese Garden is free to the public.