Above: Sculpted of stainless steel by American abstract kinetic artisan George Rickey, “Four Squares Horizontal Gyratory-Tapered” lends contemporary intrigue to Lena Meijer Pond. Bottom left: The meandering Zig-Zag Bridge leads visitors to the Japanese Garden over tranquil waters with serene views of the functional teahouse and memorable late spring blooms. Bottom Center: The Japanese Garden’s Main Gate. Bottom right: “Long Island Buddha,” an enlarged bronze piece handcrafted by Chinese artist Zhan Huan, has become an iconic attraction in the garden’s north area, as well.

Uncovering Serenity
The new Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden at the Frederik Meijer Garden & Sculpture Park invites tranquility and contemplation.

By Cindy La Ferle
Photography by Johnny Quirin

My lifelong fascination with Japanese gardens took root when I was a young girl, though I didn’t plant one of my own until I turned 50.

It was the year our only child left the state for college — a bittersweet season for many middle-aged parents. At the same time, my husband and I lost several mature trees to disease in the backyard of our Royal Oak home. The removal of those trees demolished nearly every square foot of landscaping on the property, and our bulldozed yard reflected my emotional state as I made the transition to our almost-empty nest.

Yet it also occurred to me that when a new space opens up, by choice or by chance, you have an opportunity to try something you couldn’t do before.

And so, with the help of a landscaping team, we cleared a path for my long-awaited Japanese garden, adding a small wooden bridge and a “river” of beach stones we’d gathered on trips to Lake Michigan. The garden soon became our favorite outdoor sanctuary — and living proof that middle age is a signpost to a new life, not the end of our greener years.

Retail magnate Frederik Meijer had something much larger in mind during the late 1990s when he envisioned a Japanese garden for the 158-acre Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids. The project was, in fact, one of his last requests for the world-class botanical park.

Officially opened to the public this year on June 13, the eight-acre Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden is an extraordinary tribute to the late Meijer’s affinity for Japanese gardens.

Hoichi Kurisu, president of the renowned Kuri­su International, Inc., and the garden’s mas­ter designer, worked five years to transform what once was a marsh and wooded valley into a four-season attraction that honors all three functions of a traditional Japanese garden: beauty, tranquility and contemplation.

Even if you’ve never seen the gardens of Kyoto or Okayama, a visit to the Japanese Garden will transport you to the Japan of your imagination.


Massive boulders are prominent features in the dry, contemplative Zen-Style Garden.

A Step Inside Serenity
Approaching the main gate at the Japanese Garden, I’m immediately struck by the simplicity and symmetry of its architecture — a perfect invitation to experience the orderly yet otherworldly beauty on the other side. Like most of the structures in this garden, the main gate was created in Japan, disassembled, shipped to the United States and then reassembled by Japanese carpenters at Meijer Gardens.

Such careful attention to detail is revealed throughout the project. But what makes the Japanese Garden unique is the artful way in which it combines surprising contemporary elements with traditional Japanese garden features.

Just as you’d expect, there are waterfalls and water basins, bridges and stone pathways, a hexagonal gazebo, a Zen-style rock garden and even a functioning teahouse.

What you might not expect to encounter along the path, however, is the monolithic and uber-modern granite sculpture by Anish Kapoor, one of the most acclaimed sculptors working today. Reminding visitors that the garden itself is a timeless work of art, the “Untitled” Kapoor piece is part of an impressive collection of world-class contemporary sculpture planted throughout the site. Equally stunning is Zhang Huan’s “Long Island Buddha,” a massive bronze head that emerges at an angle from a stretch of emerald green lawn.

During my visit, Greg Afman, lead horticulturist for the Japanese Garden, reminds me that traditional Japanese gardens incorporate natural elements and plantings “from their own unique locale.” The Japanese Garden follows this principle.

“Boulders were sourced from Michigan sites during the building of various Meijer stores, which connects them to the land and gives another layer of meaning,” Afman points out. Likewise, the trees in the garden are either native to this region of Michigan, or are referential to Japan in the way that they are planted or pruned.

Pines, for example, are among the most distinctive plants in a Japanese garden. Fittingly, the DeVos garden features several noteworthy types, including Austrian pines, pinus nigra and pinus sylvestris. The latter are being developed in what Afman calls “niwaki” style, which means the trees or shrubs are carefully pruned over time to represent “the idealized form of a tree.”

Blooming in mid- to late April, Japanese flowering cherries grace the Cherry Tree Promenade as well as the shore near the Zig-Zag Bridge. Native to this part of Michigan, serviceberry trees are planted throughout the garden, too. Displaying delicate white flowers in the spring, they’ll follow-up with dark purple fruit and then put on a fiery orange-red leaf show in the fall.

A Walk Around the Lake
A tranquil lake is the central guiding point of the Japanese Garden’s design. Strategically positioned around it, several buildings, decks, and other vantage points compete to offer the most spectacular view.

 

A symbolic fixture in Japanese gardens, “bridges have many layers to them,” notes Greg Afman, lead horticulturist for the new garden at Frederik Meijer. Waterfalls and stone pathways are other key sensory features rooted to deeper meaning at this master-planned destination.

As I attempt to capture the panorama with my Nikon, I notice that several different types of bridges are used around the garden’s water features. Momentarily, I recall the small wooden moon bridge in my own Japanese garden, which I chose to symbolize the passage between my parenting years and the empty nest.

“Like most things in a Japanese garden, bridges have many layers to them,” Afman explains.

Here at the Japanese Garden, the showy Zig-Zag Bridge flaunts both practical and historical elements. Common in Japanese gardens, this type of pedestrian bridge typically incorporates eight planks in a zig-zag pattern, hence its name.

“This bridge has an interesting connection to an historical poem, which describes a place in Japan where eight rivers or streams merged,” Afman tells me. “The poem talked of the beauty of the irises growing there.”

The meandering zig-zag pattern also invites visitors to slow down as they walk from one end to the other — and to contemplate the view of irises that will bloom in late spring near the bridge. It’s another lovely garden metaphor I’ll want to remember as I rush home to my deadlines and to-do lists.

I’m reminded, too, that a garden, like parenthood, is never truly finished and never stays the same.

“The brevity of blossoms, the timelessness of stones — perhaps we enjoy nature’s rhythms in our gardens because they remind us of the rhythms of our own lives,” writes Marc Peter Keane in “The Art of Setting Stones & Other Writings from the Japanese Garden” (date, Stone Bridge Press).

Bridging past, present, and future, the Japanese Garden was conceived to grow and change for generations to come. Evolving throughout the seasons, it will delight us with new beauty each time we return. ≈

Award-winning writer and author Cindy La Ferle resides in Royal Oak and St. Joseph.