Enjoy a zen journey through the bonsai trees

Nicole Sharp

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The Japanese Garden located near the Van Nuys Airport remains a secret to many. There is no sign indicating the splendor that awaits, yet it has been ranked the 10th best Japanese garden in North America by the Journal of Japanese Gardening.

Dr. Koichi Kawana, who designed the garden in 1979, has also designed the botanical gardens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the gardens of Balboa Park in San Diego and the Missouri Botanical Garden, the largest Japanese garden in the United States, according to the garden’s website.

The entire garden is a cover for the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant. When the Water Quality Act passed in 1965, L.A. needed to improve upon the quality of the city’s water.

According to the garden’s website, Donald C. Tillman, the ex-chief deputy city engineer, former Mayor Sam Yorty and others worked closely to design a way for the public to have access to the plant. This led to the birth of the Japanese Garden.

The Japanese Garden sits on a 6.5 acre plot of land, with ample room for various pathways, ponds and a large tea house.

A pair of large, wooden doors sit at the entrance, allowing only two people through at a time encouraging courtesy toward others.

Next is the dry garden, a garden that takes the arid conditions of the environment into account. It contains a large expanse of gravel. The gravel represents the ocean, which surrounds a grassy island with different Japanese trees and shrubbery. The island in the middle represents Tortoise Island, a symbol of longevity.

The Japanese garden features a large pond, symbolizing the sea, which surrounds several islands that symbolize immortality. The pond itself is fed by the different streams and waterfalls that are placed throughout the garden, the website stated.

Visitors can sit on one of the many benches placed along side the large pond and enjoy the splendor of the garden. The birds that visit favor Crane Island, located toward the back of the pond. Sometimes great egrets or green-backed herons are visible to the public, as they perch among the rocks of the island.

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” said Katherine Taylor, a retired elementary school teacher from Portland, Ore. She said the garden made her feel like she “was in another world.”

As the pine trees that line the perimeter of the garden dance in the breeze, visitors can close their eyes and imagine being in a foreign land. This wonderful feeling lasts until the noise of a private jet coming in for a landing at the Van Nuys airport disrupts the quietness of the garden.

Visitors can continue down the path to the “Heavenly Floating Bridge.” The bridge appears to be floating in mid-air without any visible structural support, but is actually similar to a plank laid across a chasm. Large pine trees frame the bridge, creating the illusion that they are also floating if viewed from different angles.

As the main path winds its way further through the garden, it crosses several more bridges, and ends at the steps of the garden’s tea house. The tea house is used to perform authentic Japanese tea ceremonies, the garden’s website stated.

Connected to the tea house is the garden’s Shoin building. Shoin was a residential style home for upper class monks and Japanese during the 14th snd 15th centuries, according to the garden’s website. The exterior is built in the traditional Shoin style, but has a modern interior. This building is built primarily with open walls and paper-paneled windows which allows natural light to shine through and ample views of the garden’s pond and scenery.

Betty Ethridge, the garden coordinator, said the garden books about two to three weddings each weekend in the spring.

A waterfall feeds water into the large pond, pumping about 3 million gallons of reclaimed water through the garden’s lake on a daily basis, according to the website.

One of the whimsical features of the garden is a zig-zag bridge. Wooden planks are positioned at different spaces providing a zig-zag effect.

Before leaving the garden, visitors should take a walk through the bonsai tree garden.

Bonsai is the art of growing trees or shrubs in such a way that it prevents the plants from reaching their normal size. Several tables display the trees, each with a different style. Though it’s not as grand as the Japanese Garden, it does promise a detailed explanation of the difficult hobby.

Barbara Schellow has volunteered at the garden’s gift shop for 15 years.

“We have a problem with publicity,” Schellow said, explaining why there were only a handful of visitors. Not many people are aware that the garden even exists, she said.

It seems to be true. A guest can wander through the gardens alone, sometimes without seeing another person for over a half hour. The drive to the garden would deter some from venturing past the sign that marks the entrance to the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant. They would have figured that they had turned the wrong way. There isn’t a real distinct sign for the garden. If guests keep driving, they will eventually see a designated sign pointing them into the direction of the garden.

It’s a bit of a journey, but it’s well worth it to find this San Fernando Valley sanctuary.

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