Japanese American landscapes as portals to California history

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Keiji Uesugi explaining the process of setting stones for a waterfall. photo by Terumi Garcia

During the first week of November, the North American Japanese Gardens Association 2021 Conference was held at the Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Originally, the conference was scheduled for 2020, but due to the COVID pandemic, it was postponed until it was safer to hold a large gathering. Vaccination, masking and other policies were put in place to hold a conference as safely as possible. It definitely helped that many of the activities were outdoors in the garden, which included workshops, shaded tables and chairs.

Founded in 2009, NAJGA is a nonprofit organization that serves as an information and networking portal that provides resources for “professional training and development, public education, conferences and symposia, research and scholarly activity.” (najga.org) The association’s conference is typically held biannually and is hosted by a different public Japanese garden in North America each time. This year’s theme was “Adaptability and Resilience: Sustainability in Japanese Gardens,” which was extremely timely given the challenges we have faced the past couple of years.

Keiji Uesugi explaining the process of setting stones for a waterfall. photo by Terumi Garcia

I served on the conference planning committee and assisted with organizing various workshops that were held around the garden, including pruning, composting, carpentry and wood maintenance. I was able to hold a stone arrangement demonstration using a new waterfall that is currently being constructed at JFGSD as part of the Azumaya tea shelter and garden that will open in the near future. Using a large crane and skilled crew, we were able to place a handful of large boulders as I explained the design process that goes into the placement of each boulder piece. Some boulders weighed close to one ton.

When learning stone arrangement from my father (the late Rev. Dr. Takeo Uesugi), the key principles he stressed were understanding that stones provide the skeletal structure of a garden. He said each stone has its own characteristics and to appreciate its unique qualities. Like our own bodies, stones have a front side, back side, a top and a bottom. Before placing the stone in place, it is critical to recognize these aspects so that it can be properly hoisted and placed.

Finding the head is especially important so that the stone does not look tilted or unlevel when it is set. My father referred to the head as “tenba” (天端). If the tenba was not properly considered, then the stone will look unsettled and adversely impact the entire design.

These lessons are very difficult to write or demonstrate in a textbook, as there are so many other variables that go into how stones can be placed. When I work with construction crews and give directions for setting the stones, my mind continuously references the times I was placing stones with my father for guidance. Since I work with many Spanish-speaking laborers when doing stone arrangement, I find myself using the word “cabeza” rather than “tenba.” Regardless of the term that is used, I feel these principles are universal and applicable to any landscape work involving stones.

Keiji Uesugi, PLA is the principal of the landscape architecture firm, TUA Inc. in West Covina, Calif., and a faculty member of the landscape architecture department at Cal Poly Pomona University. A licensed landscape architect with more than 20 years of professional experience, he is an expert in cultural landscapes and Japanese gardens of North America. He can be reached at keijiu@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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