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Andy Atkinson / Daily TidingsMichael Black, left, and Jeff Mangin at the Japanese Garden in Ashland's Lithia Park.

Japanese Garden ready for 'authentic' remake

Thanks to a $1.3 million grant, Lithia Park’s revered Japanese Garden will get a redesign that will make it “authentic” instead of the “Japanese-style garden” it is now.

The Japanese Garden is a place of nostalgia for many Ashlanders, so city Parks & Recreation Director Michael Black wants to assure devotees that the makeover will be done carefully, with no harm to existing significant trees.

To that end, he will hold two public meetings to gather input, at 6 p.m., Aug. 1 at the Ashland Senior Center and Aug. 9 at the Ashland Community Center.

The grant is from Jeff Mangin and the Marechal family of Normandy in France, in honor of their daughter, the late Beatrice Marechal, who was married to Mangin.

“It was one of my favorite places to go walking with Beatrice,” said Mangin.

The project will be managed by Toru Tanaka, president of Portland Landscape Design and Japanese Garden Specialty. He was trained in Japan, has 35 years of experience and was director of Portland’s Japanese Garden.

Mangin said he and Black “recognize the aesthetics and philosophy of traditional design … creating a truly authentic Japanese garden that is respectful of the history and culture of this unique garden form and making the garden ADA accessible.”

A traditional Japanese garden does its best to imitate nature, without betraying the fact it’s manmade, said Mangin — and it does it in a way that, with proper maintenance, it improves over time.

The Japanese Garden built by city parks horticulturalist Don Todt some three or four decades ago is a simple style, as a meditative retreat, situated where park designer John MacLaren indicated — and that location and footprint will not be changed, said Black. The groves of sycamores to the north and redwoods to the south will also be kept intact.

Black and Mangin pointed out some of the major changes that will be needed. The winding watercourse is made of concrete and looks like it. It will be kept but changed to look more natural, they said.

The Torii gate installed two years ago was culturally inappropriate, as Black was soon informed by the local Japanese community.

“It’s beautiful and accurate but it depicts an entry to a holy place of Shinto … and that comes with a lot of responsibility” for which the garden was not intended.

The gate will be kept but perhaps at a lesser entrance.

The boulder-studded steps at the entrance are not only handicapped-unfriendly, but not appropriate for an authentic Japanese garden, they added.

Mangin also noted that “the garden is under a lot of pressure from deer.

“If they’re going to continue to overrun the garden, most likely we’ll need barriers that appropriately reflect the garden and be esthetic,” he said. “We’re very sensitive and want to hear from town people.”

Plans and drawings for the garden will come out soon after the public hearings, for which Black expects much attention and debate, because “a lot of people have developed nostalgic attraction” to it and want to ensure any remodel is appropriate.

The project will have little impact on the parks budget, said Black, as the grant is significant enough to handle most expected spending.

Black said he wants the garden’s purpose to be broadened so it can include tai chi and perhaps classes on Japanese gardens. The purpose of the garden today is “to sit a while, to wander through and enjoy that part of Lithia Park, to take pictures, especially in the fall” and those opportunities will be preserved.

Mangin and Black also have consulted with members of the Japanese Association of Southern Oregon to help make it culturally authentic.

Past JASO President Noriko Hansen said, “It’s a nice garden I’ve enjoyed over the years, one of my favorite spots in Ashland. We’re excited to make it more authentic.”

The project should be done by the end of next summer.

“I feel that anything that can make Ashland more of a stop good for tourists is good for the town,” says Mangin, “and this would be one more such ingredient. People love to see a genuine Japanese garden. I hope it will be a real gem and I think it can be.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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