Visual Culture

Brooklyn’s 100-Year-Old Japanese Garden Is Like a Living Painting

Ilana Herzig
Nov 27, 2017 6:58PM

Photo by IIP Photo Archive, via Flickr.

Photo by Peter Roan, via Flickr.

A slender path rambles through Japanese white pines and Fullmoon maples, over rock terraces, and up to the threshold of a Shinto shrine, before lapping back down to the banks of a koi-filled pond. It winds over a manicured wooden bridge, a serene waterfall cascading beneath it, and passes by stone lanterns. Viewers who stroll this path are privy to the dynamic design of the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, what plant curator Brian Funk calls “a complete work of art that involves art, architecture, and horticulture.”

“It’s kind of like entering a special world,” Funk continues, nodding to the otherworldly experience of meandering through the tranquil space. And rightly so; it’s one of the oldest and most visited Japanese public gardens outside of Japan, and it’s in the heart of Brooklyn.

Bordered by Crown Heights and Prospect Heights, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is perched on the edge of Prospect Park, just a quick walk from the Brooklyn Museum and the formidable Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. But spend some time under the foliage and wisps of wisteria, and the bustling noise of central Brooklyn seems to dissipate. Only upon exiting does the question arise of how the Japanese gem ended up in Brooklyn.

Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden. Photo by Louis Buhle. C. 1915. © Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Courtesy of Brooklyn Botanic Garden.


The garden’s designer, Japanese landscape architect, Takeo Shiota, arrived in the United States in 1907. While growing up in Japan, he had explored the country by foot, in search of natural beauty. The resulting discoveries and knowledge of gardens that he gleaned during that time would inspire the Brooklyn oasis.

The garden is something of a Japanese-American hybrid, Funk explains. Constructed between 1914 and 1915, the Hill-and-Pond Garden was the first Japanese garden to be built inside a public garden in the United States.

In contrast to most formal European gardens, which typically employ perpendicular lines and symmetry, Japanese gardens mirror nature. “It’s a dynamic landscape, so your eye is always moving, so there’s usually not one main focal point,” Funk explains, “it changes all the time.” With the Brooklyn garden, Shiota aimed to mimic Japan’s mountainous landscape and rocky coastline.

In addition to a viewing pavilion resembling a tea house and a waiting bench, both of which are used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, the garden is home to an authentic (priest-blessed) Shinto shrine, along with various stone lanterns that peek out from excavated grass hills and an undulating shoreline. The architect employed a technique called “hide and reveal,” Funk explains, “where things are purposefully hidden so you have to turn corners and walk around hills and trees, to see the rest of the garden.”

Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden. Photo by Antonio M. Rosario. © Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Courtesy of Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Amidst the 19th-century craze for Japanese culture and design in the West—known as Japonisme—once the country opened its borders in 1853, interest in Japanese architecture flourished as well. Funk notes that Japanese art and design began appearing in exhibitions and World’s Fairs across the U.S. It was through one such fair that a traditional Japanese tea house landed in Philadelphia’s Japanese Garden, Shofuso, after it exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1954.

However, the tide quickly changed. During World War II, anti-Japanese sentiment erupted, resulting in widespread discrimination and ultimately, internment camps. The same rampant fanatic nationalism propelled the temporary shuttering of the Hill-and-Pond Garden, among similar sites across the country that had become popular in the century prior.

In 1938, the Shinto shrine was set ablaze, and shortly after, the gardens closed—although Funk posits that because the fire occurred prior to Pearl Harbor and U.S. entrance in the war, it may have only been an act of vandalism. The wrecking and closing of gardens, however, proved widespread. “It happened everywhere in the country,” he explains, “it wasn’t unique to Brooklyn.”

“I think every Japanese garden in American was closed during the war and for sometime after,” Funk says. “They mostly didn’t recover until the ’60s or ’70s.”

Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden. Photo by Louis Buhle. C. 1916. © Brooklyn Botanic GardenCourtesy of Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Only after the war, starting in the late 1940s, were the gardens restored by Japanese-American gardener Frank Masao Okamura, who also cultivated the Botanic Garden’s renowned Bonsai collection, after his own release from an internment camp in California. A total revamp of the Japanese gardens at the turn of the 21st century restored the Shinto shrine and the Hill-and-Pond Garden to Shiota’s original conception. (Around the same time, Funk became the garden’s plant curator, tending to its various foliage, from Snow Azaleas to Peacock moss to Japanese Water Irises.)

The Hill-and-Pond Garden’s spirited landscape has served as the canvas for a variety of artists in recent decades, including steel and rock sculptures by Isamu Noguchi in 2015. Today, it’s host to tea ceremonies on its pondside viewing pavilion. While not a proper “tea house,” Funk says a Japanese structure like this one “would have been perhaps a side building of a mansion back then, owned by feudal lords, so this would have been a place to kind of escape to.”

If you kneel down at the entrance to the pavilion, Funk notes, you can see what he considers the best view of the garden, in his words, “a three-dimensional painting, framed by the rectangular architecture,” or put simply, “a living painting.”

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While spring, in time for the famed cherry blossoms, is perhaps the most popular season for the garden, fall, too, is particularly stunning. It’s rife with autumnal bursts of yellow and pale orange leaves. The occasional delicate pink blooms of Camellia sasanqua frame the waiting bench, while Japanese maples fill the garden with brilliant shades of crimson and violet—a natural phenomenon that has been fodder for myriad poems and songs in Japanese history.

And even winter sets the stage for an unexpected-yet-enchanting experience of the garden’s charming flora and vegetation.

The trees, Funk explains, were intentionally planted on a 45-degree slant by Shiota, and they’re pruned to hold snow. “It’s actually called cloud pruning,” Funk says, gesturing to the somewhat Seussian shapes the trees take on. “I think they look best when there’s a little snow.”

Ilana Herzig
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019