A gray bank of clouds slid across the spine of West Seattle on April 14 as the Rev. Taijo Imanaka dispersed handfuls of incense to a group of people preparing to meditate. They were arranged in a circle in the courtyard of a Chinese garden.
As the gates closed, a bell echoed across the stone pavers. Never mind that the priest is Japanese and the courtyard, part of the Seattle Chinese Garden, is not.
“Our lineage is originally from China,” Imanaka said of his Japanese ancestors. He officiates at the Seattle Koyasan Buddhist Temple.
“(The Chinese Garden) has a good atmosphere, good energy. I am very comfortable here,” Imanaka said.
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The meditation session was cut short as lightning lit up darkened corners and bamboo swayed in the breeze.
The 5-acre Seattle Chinese Garden, rising on the campus of South Seattle Community College and next to its arboretum, has been 20 years in the making. It might be another 20 before it’s finished.
On Saturday and Sunday, the garden will have its annual Peony and Bamboo Festival. The event is part education, part fun and part plant-buying opportunity.
The garden is on a hilltop overlooking the Duwamish River and allows for sweeping views of the Seattle skyline and distant mountain ranges. The main gate of the courtyard lines up perfectly with the Space Needle.
The garden has many parents but chief among those is Seattle’s Chinese sister city, Chongqing, in Sichuan Province. The two cities joined hands in the early 1980s.
“Fairly early in the relationship we were trying to figure out exchange projects and building this garden was one that came up,” said Sandy Marvinney, the spokeswoman for the garden.
Plans took off in the early 1990s with the visits of Chinese delegations.
“They loved this site because of the views and the feeling of being elevated,” Marvinney said. The site, it turns out, has loads of feng shui, the visitors said.
Befitting its Chinese roots, the garden is Sichuan style, the only one of its kind in the U.S., Marvinney said.
The roughly $8 million that the nonprofit garden has raised so far has come from public, corporate, foundation and private funding sources.
The final plans are ambitious. A small pavilion — The Knowing the Spring Courtyard, as it’s officially called — is the only structure built so far. But it represents only 15 percent of the buildings that will eventually be on the site. The future structures will all be built in the same Sichuan style.
Punctuating the site will be a four-story tiered pavilion — what some might refer to as a pagoda — that will be visible from Interstate 5 and downtown skyscrapers.
The courtyard incorporates the four elements of Chinese gardens: rock, water, plants and architecture.
Small details abound. Look close and you’ll see the images of bats on the ends of the roof tiles. A Chinese word for bat sounds like another word for good fortune.
Architectural elements are common to Chinese gardens, said architect Jim Dawson, the Seattle garden’s vice-president.
“ ‘Garden’ has a different connotation in China. It represents all aspects of the culture,” Dawson said. “The underlying philosophy is that it represents the whole culture of China. It’s really a repository of everything in the universe.”
That includes art.
“A painting about a plant or a poem about a plant might be as important as the plant itself,” Dawson said.
The look of the courtyard and future buildings come from designers in China. Dawson acts as the go-between for them and another team in Seattle that ensures the plans meet the needs of the garden and local building codes.
“Because of that, the design is very authentic to Sichuan Province and Chongqing,” Dawson said.
“This particular garden represents an area of China that has been historically remote and mountainous. So the architecture is maybe a little less sophisticated than you would find on the east coast of China. It’s a little wilder, rugged,” Dawson said.
To the lay person, Chinese garden architecture might all look the same, Dawson said. “But there are many differences having to do with the shapes and styles of the buildings, colors, the details.”
Inside the Seattle courtyard, which was completed in 2010, are pines and magnolia trees along with a peach and apricot. A pond that will one day extend underneath a wall into another larger pond takes up one corner.
The courtyard is designed on the yin and yang and feng shui principles. Diagonally opposite the corner with the pond is a large arrangement of otherworldly sculptural rocks brought from China. Some of the tall slender rocks are called bamboo shoot rocks.
Outside the walls, vast stands of real bamboo, from giant yellow-stemmed timber varieties to a more slender black variety, provide a backdrop and hide trails.
“Some people fear bamboo but it’s actually quite lovely,” garden manager Bob Seely said.
Though Seely has big plans for more bamboo, the plants now play more of a supporting role in the garden. The real stars, especially this weekend, are the peonies.
Some 400 peonies, mostly of the tree variety, fill a curving bank and pop up in other areas of the garden.
“Tree peonies are much lower growing (than herbaceous) but in the end they become more beautiful. (They have) bigger flowers, more ornate, more fragrance,” Seely said.
In China, peonies are much more than pretty flowers.
“The flower represents the whole country. Everybody in China and Taiwan appreciates the peony,” Edmonds resident Kirk Chia said. He is a co-founder of the American Peony Art and Culture Association.
Peonies are used in horticulture but also for medicine, cosmetics, art and even cooking oil, Chia said.
Chia became interested in peonies through his mother, a native of Beijing. Chia’s friend George Jiang is from Luoyang, home of the largest peony festival in China, attended by 10 million people.
Chia and Jiang arranged the first 200 plants for the Seattle garden to be shipped from Luoyang. “Every (peony) you see at the Seattle Chinese Garden came from Luoyang. They are very happy here,” Chia said.
Peonies are hardy, but like good drainage, Chia said. They prefer full sun and annual pruning to promote flower growth. “If you plant them on the south side of a house they do really well,” he said.
The tree peonies can live to 150 years old, Chia said. And 130 peonies will be available for sale during the festival.
Also for sale will be authentic Chinese food prepared by local families, Chia said.
“They have to go home on Saturday and cook all night for Sunday. It’s going to be authentic and delicious Chinese food. We can’t control the weather or flowers, but if people come for the food they won’t be disappointed.”
Along with the festival, the college’s horticultural program will be having a plant sale and the nearby Northwest Wine Academy will be holding tastings on both days.