Last weekend I had my first chance in months to visit the newly re-opened Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It felt like a homecoming, even with its careful restrictions on numbers, the one-way paths and the closed indoor areas.
Perhaps the best part of the visit was walking through the Japanese Garden, a calm but busy place at the center of the garden. Its simple forms and careful spacing make it look quite large, but it is actually not; the whole Botanic Garden is only 52 acres!
The careful staging of the elements in the Japanese Garden is the work of an unusual Japanese landscape designer, Takeo Shiota. His work in Brooklyn, opened in 1915, is one of the oldest existing Japanese-style gardens outside Japan and was the first one in the U.S. open to the public.
Shiota had arrived in the U.S. in 1907, at a time when Japanese style gardens had become popular withy wealthy Americans who had seen them at World Fairs. It was a good moment for Shiota, who was unable to get commissions in Japan because he had rejected the traditional apprenticeship and training and had instead trekked all over Japan on foot to study the landscape and gardens.
Because it was intended to mix elements of traditional hill-and-pond styles with newer 'stroll garden' ideas in a small space, the site had to be picked carefully. The pond, covering something over an acre, was a remnant of the area's pre-garden life as a park; its asymmetrical winding shape means you can never see all of it at once; you have to wander.
Centering his work on the pond and a tiny island he had built allowed him to create a number of features that seem to be many more when you come at them from different angles; a unifying element that you can almost always see is the start red Torii, or temple gate, that stands in water at the edge of the pond.
The waterfall he created and the grotto next to it are both created from Manhattan schist, rather than rounded stones; that may have been an economy measure because the contribution that paid for the Japanese Garden wasn't huge: $13,000, or about $340,000 today, for construction, labor, planting, the works. Some have suggested the waterfall and grotto look a bit Italian, possibly the influence of Shiota's Italian construction workers.
Another impact of the tight budget is that Shiota worked with a mix of native and Asian plants that were available here; importing from Japan was too expensive. It wasn't until a restoration about twenty years ago that the Garden set a goal of eventually creating more authentic Japanese plantings.
The Japanese Garden was an instant hit, and remained so (although in disguise as the 'Oriental Garden' during World War II. After the war, it underwent a restoration and renewal, and another in 1999, which cleaned out the pond and stabilized its banks—but unfortunately left some shore edges with ugly corrugated metal retainers.
In the 1970s and 80s, when my children were growing up nearby, the Japanese Garden was a favorite stop, in part for the chance to look down into the pond and see the fish; there are many varieties of koi there, as well as quite a few turtles. That hasn't changed; we saw plenty of today's children doing the same.
Plantings in the garden are designed to reflect the seasons so that something is always fresh, either in bloom or in end-of-season colors.
For me, one of the best elements of the garden is the sense that, as you walk the path that surrounds it, you never seem to come to the end; something is always ahead of you and to the side; it hardly matters that it may be something you looked at from a different direction moments ago; it is new and in a new context, as in the images below.
If you're visiting Brooklyn, or thinking of it, you could hardly find a better place to spend some time, both in the Japanese Garden and the rest of BBG.
At present, the Garden is open only by timed tickets, and some areas are one-way only. Visitors are distributed to three different entrances, making it easy to keep safe distances and to feel comfortable.
The Botanic Garden's official address is at 990 Washington Avenue, but there's also an entrance on Flatbush Avenue that's across an intersection from the Q and B subway trains at the Prospect Park Station and several bus lines; the Eastern Parkway entrance is served by the 2 and 3 trains at the Eastern Parkway-Brooklyn Museum Station.