Point Defiance’s Japanese garden due for a makeover

The designers from Japan were too polite to criticize the Point Defiance Japanese garden during a recent visit. But their silence spoke volumes.

“They would never say anything (negative). But you can pick up on body language,” said Marina Becker, Metro Parks director. “They didn’t like much about the upper garden.”

At the request of Metro Parks, the designers from Japan were there to offer suggestions on a total renovation of the upper garden and partial renovation of the lower garden slated to begin in 2016. Japanese culture dictates treating your host with the highest respect. And that sometimes means saying nothing less than complimentary words.

But it doesn’t take a Japanese garden designer to know something got lost in translation when the garden was built in the 1980s around the pagoda building (which isn’t really a pagoda at all.) The sunny upper area features a pond and small trees. An orange-red torii gate and shrine sit in the pond. At one end of the upper garden is a large concrete lantern … thing. Becker calls it “the big sparkplug.” She’s being kind.

Sometime in 2016 the sparkplug will disappear along with many other aspects of the garden during a long-planned renovation.

“This garden is not very Japanese at all,” Becker said while looking it over last week. “We pretty much have to start over.” The current garden uses concrete designed to look like rock. It wouldn’t fool a blind squirrel.

The proceeds from Friday night’s garden show dinner will go to pay some of the estimated $2.5 million cost to renovate the garden. Along with fundraising, the money will come from both grants and capital funds, Becker said.

One egregious error in the garden was placing the torii gate and shrine, both gifts from Tacoma’s Japanese sister city of Kitakyushu, in the pond, Becker said. They should be on land, the designers told the parks department.

The new garden will feature real rocks, or as the Japanese call them, stones. “It’s the stones that matter,” Becker said. “They are the bones of the garden.” Two of those new stones, eight and 10 tons each, will be on display during Saturday’s show.

The upper garden will feature a completely rebuilt pond, a new surrounding path and new fencing. All the shrubs and trees will be removed during the renovation with most being returned.

Becker and three others traveled to Japan in 2012 to meet with garden designers and city officials in Kitakyushu for the purpose of redesigning the garden.

When the designers from Japan visited the Tacoma garden this summer they were excited about the possibilities of renovation. Their only disappointment: “They kept wanting to see Mount Rainier from here,” Becker said.

While views of the mountain aren’t possible from within the garden, stunning views of Puget Sound are. Currently, trees are blocking them but “windows” will be cut to allow vistas.

The new garden will use many Japanese design principals, such as mimicking the surrounding landscape within the garden.

The lower, shady garden with its stately conifers will be only lightly renovated, Becker said.

The Japanese designers understand that the garden will be a Japanese-American garden, Becker said.

“They want it to be used and appreciated in the setting of Point Defiance,” she said.