Osaka Japanese Garden Walking Tour

This tour is a small segment of a larger tour of Jackson Park that I'm starting work on. I thought people might be interested even though it's just getting started. There is a lot of information already available on the Web--especially and and some gorgeous photos at the Museum of Science and Industry site- but I wanted to take a walk through the garden with what I've learned from them.

How to Get to the Garden

Osaka Garden is located on Wooded Island (Paul H. Douglas Nature Sanctuary) in Jackson Park. Due to Lake Shore Drive construction and construction of a new home for the Museum's submarine, one can park in the Music Court lot only via 58th Street by coming north on Lake Shore Drive (from the north via 57th, Cornell, Hayes Drive 6300, then north on the Drive) and turn left sharply into Science Drive at 5800. Park in the Music Court lot (P2 on the map). Walk across Clarence Darrow Bridge (where Columbia Basin south of the Museum meets the lagoons) and continue southwest to the North Bridge. The Garden is a short walk south, to your left. You can also walk to the North Bridge from Cornell Drive (to the west), or park in the Museum Garage ($) (P1) and walk around the Museum, or take Hayes Drive (6300) to the lot just east of Cornell (P3) and walk north through Wooded Island--but that is a fair walk.

Japanese Pavilion, Columbian Exposition 1893

We are standing north of the location of the original Japanese Pavilion for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, near the location of the 1893 and later the 1934 Japanese tea houses. To help us get oriented since even the lagoons were reconfigured, I've doctored a map of the exposition. Blue is water, turquoise is the Fine Arts exhibit, now the Museum of Science and Industry. The purple is the Woman's Building, where there is now a circular perennial garden. And in yellow is the Japanese exhibit. Tan is the past and present location of Stony Island Avenue.

Japan was just emerging on the international stage as an important world power, and it was the first foreign government to commit to participation in the Columbian Exposition. It spent perhaps as much as $500,000 in its exhibits here, in the hall of Manufactures, and out on the Midway. The main pavilion was profoundly influential on Frank Lloyd Wright and other Prairie School architects, in part because it was in such contrast to the White City that they despised. It's inside the yellow circle on the left.

The layout is a replica of the Phoenix Hall (Hodo), which is the only surviving building of Fujiwara Michinaga's palace, which was converted to a temple, Byodo-in, in 1052. The Hodo has a pond in front that used to be an inlet from the Uji River, a fitting link to it sitting in front of the lagoon. The replica here was known as the Ho-o-den, the "den" indicating that it was used for "domestic" not religious purposes--displaying furniture, art work, and domestic wares.

The Ho-o-den was three structures joined together by covered walkways--like wings extending from the body of a bird. The idea of taking the Phoenix Hall as the model was in honor of Chicago rising from the fire. It was decorated according to three different residential styles. The building was put together in Japan, then disassembled and sent over with workmen to reassemble it.

The tea house was a concession stand, complete with lovely maidens. The area had only minor landscape elements--some lamps, walks, and small trees.

One of the lamps pictured above survives from 1893--along with some white mulberry trees that were planted to represent the making of silk (and the feeding of silk worms). If you look to the right from the path to the gate you can see it.

The Kasuga Lantern is granite. It takes its name from the Kasuga Shrine in Nara, Japan. The deer panel is one of the four traditional symbols--the others were a stag, the sun, and the moon, most of which are damaged.

When Jackson Park was redone after the fair, the Japanese buildings remained. In 1934, they were joined by the Japanese teahouse that was part of the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair (located near where McCormick Place is now). They landscaped a variation on a Japanese stroll garden at that time and opened the teahouse up as a consession stand in the park. A new peninsula was made and they added a Shinto-style gate (torii) and enclosed the garden to make it more defined and private.

During World War II, the buildings and garden were abandoned. Eventually, teenage vandals burned down the buildings, apparently not from anti-Japanese fervor but just fooling around. The next phase began in the 1970's when Wooded Island was designated a nature sanctuary and interest in it increased. When Chicago and Osaka became sister cities they stepped up efforts to restore it.

In 1983, the garden was reopened. Designer Kaneji Domoto had a hand in redoing it, importing stones and plants from Japan, including some rare ones. The new garden was repeatedly vandalized in the still rather deserted park. Fortunately, the pavilion was built of naturally fire-resistant Douglas pine and its grafitti painted over quickly. The garden was redone in the 1990's, in part by Koichi Kobayashi, a Seattle-based landscape architect. The new formal gate and fence were added at that time, the whole funded by the City of Osaka at $400,000 and constructed entirely without nails and by hand using tongue and groove. Birders and garden lovers walk through it all the time and fishermen are always on the bridges leading to the garden.

The garden closed again for redoing in 2002 as part of the work throughout the lagoons. Shifting lake levels had eroded important elements and the waterfall had been too small to keep the ponds healthy. The new waterfall has 5 times the volume and much more wonderful sound. Overseeing much of the work were noted Japanese bonsai experts led by Mr. Uchiyama from Oregon. More information on the reconstruction is at


Now it's time to walk toward the garden. The gate was added in 1995 by the city of Osaka to commemorate the official naming of the garden as the Osaka Garden and to mark the 20th anniversary of the sister city relationship between Osaka and Chicago. A garden gate is designed to announce the quality and status of the garden beyond, and this one is large and elegant.

This is primarily a Japanese stroll garden, a design developed during the 17th century from the gravel courts around temples that were used for ceremonies. Noblemen created them as mini-landscapes, imitating mountains, open grasslands, and rivers through the use of carefully sculpted shrubs, trees, rocks, and water. Like most Japanese gardens in North America, this isn't a pure form--it mixes in some elements of tea and pond gardens too. The main aspect of a stroll garden, is that the paths are designed to alternately hide and reveal its features as one walks through it. Every turn in the path is meant to provide a new view. Trees and shrubs are sculpted. And kept to a human scale. The pines and cedars would ordinarily be tall and broad.

These pictures were taken on a nice day in April. I'll take some more as the garden changes with the seasons.

Inside the gate, there are two paths. Take the left-hand path. We are supposed to stroll counter clockwise through the garden and return to the gate via the upper, right-hand path. The forsythia was in bloom this April day. Yellow is a very auspicious color and it was an auspicious day!

As we follow the path, slowly to take in the views, we come to the massive stepping stones over the water. Legend has it that they are laid in a zigzag because evil spirits can only move in a straight line. So if you cross the stones, any evil spirits will just fall into the water.

However, it's more likely that these stanes are traditionally laid out in an uneven zigzag so the stroller has to pay attention to the path and the surroundings and cannot hurry through too fast. The small stone lanterns and many of the stones were imported from Japan. A number of the larger stones however are limestone from Indiana.

In the middle of the pond, are islands of stones, far from the path. These are to represent the Turtle Islands, Horaijima, where the immortals live. They are the islands of perfect, ever-lasting happiness, borne on the backs of turtles, on which mortals cannot walk.

The ancient Japanese word for garden was shima, or island. Miniature islands are an early feature in Japanese garden design, creating the complete landscape of mountains and seas.

Next along the path is the Moon Bridge. The garden bridge is a symbolic link between this world and paradise. The arch is very steep and a little tricky--symbolizing that the path to paradise is difficult. The rails are handcarved. The bridge's reflection forms a circle with the bridge itself, signifying the universe as a whole. They are called moon bridges because they were for viewing the moon.

Just past the bridge is a great place to look across at the island in the middle of the lagoon, where every summer there is a colony of night herons.

On the far sie of the bridge, granite landing stones and a lantern jut out into the lagoon, forming an ornamental boat dock, called Funatsuki-ishi.

Here are some mallards "docking." This is a bird sanctuary and during migration this is a good location for checking out the large variety of water birds in the lagoons around Wooded Island.

There are permanent residents too--Canadian geese. They like to hang out in the garden so watch your step--literally.

They used to also have a pesky beaver problem in the garden, when all the trunks of the trees and shrubs had to be surrounded by heavy chain link fencing, but apparently the beavers have gotten discouraged after getting shipped out of the area so many times.

I saw a brown creeper on the day I was taking these pictures--an early spring visitor.

Here, we pass through the sunny open field, and the slope of the shore, opening up to the "coast" of the lagoon.

The path leads ultimately to the pavilion, symbolically isolated from the outside world. The pavillion is patterned after a classic Noh stage. It's meant to provide a place to meditate, rest, and enjoy the view. It's located very near where the 1934 tea house was placed with its concession stand. During the annual festival, it's used as a stage for the tea ceremony demonstrations and various performances.


To the south side of the pavilion, there is a laver, a place where one cleans both hands and heart. The tsuku-bai is positioned low on the ground along the path of stepping stones and purifies someone taking part in the tea ceremony.

The stones are central to the Japanese garden. They are the "bones of the earth" and are considered first before any thought about the plants.

They are chosen for the seams, cracks, coloring, and weathering, preferably with moss and lichens. The rock is placed so that it seems to have always been there. The stones are shifted until the intended atmosphere is achieved.

A stone grouping is an odd number of stones with the central stone the largest, while the two other stones should be essentially different from each other, such as one standing and another lying flat. Each individual stone should never suggest instability or that it was placed there. Most of the rocks from the 1981 garden were also vandalized. There are many written tomes analyzing the exact positioning of stones in a garden.

The waterfall had just been turned on for the spring when I was there in April. The volume of water was small compared to the rush of water in the summer, so I've borrowed one of George Rumsey's photos of it in full rush.

Water is a symbol of infinity, coming from the skies, bringing life to the earth, flowing through many forms, and returning, full circle, to the skies again. A waterfall in particular is life ever vanishing and reappearing. The waterfall provides the soothing screening sound of the water throughout the garden.

Niwa, the Japanese word for garden, combines the symbols for mountain and water. The waterfall really accomplishes that effect--and much better than the old one.

The plants are chosen so that there is subtle color in every season. Many plants in the propitious color red and the yellow of balance, but the main pallette is subtle shades of green. It's not meant to be flashy, like Western gardens, but places for meditation of the human's place in the universe. A lone daffodil is more thought provoking than a bank of them--unless one is Wordsworth!


Evergreens are centrally important to the garden. They symbolize long life. Some are allowed to grow tall, alpine mountains in the landscape. Others are sculpted into dramatic shapes on a human scale, the foothills. The one by the moon bridge is particularly nice.

Moving, past the pavilion, walking back toward the gate, other views, back toward the Museum and the fishermen, across at the Moon Bridge, open up, but the landscape evokes the forests and the understory of the woods--a very sculptural and carefully planned forest.