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Supporters envision grander Japanese Garden

Fans of Lithia Park’s Japanese Garden say the garden is so loved that the city should consider expanding its narrow boundaries — and find ways to keep the newly built Torii gate.

Those were among the sentiments of some 20 Ashlanders who gathered Wednesday for the first public input session aimed at reshaping the spot from a “Japanese-style” garden into a truly authentic one, using a $1.3 million private grant.

Breaking into two groups, participants clearly had a vision of a bigger garden, with suggestions including ponds with winding pathways, a tea house, an access path from the main creekside trail, Japanese-style adornments or sculptures, spaces for public gatherings or classes and finding a way to keep plant-gobbling deer out without making it look like a fenced compound.

The revisioning of the garden is made possible by funding 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, an Ashland resident.

“Most of us have been to an authentic Japanese garden and know what a gem it can be, an uplifting space,” Mangin told the group. “We want it to do something more for the community, as a social gathering place … and also for tourism, so people will say, ‘You have got to go see this.’”

The present garden, which occupies only three-quarters of an acre, was roughed out in the 1916 creation of Lithia Park by John McLaren, who also created Golden Gate Park.

It was given its present Japanese “style” in the 1980s, to include a large set of stairs made of river rock, which now would never meet Americans With Disabilities Act requirements, said parks Director Michael Black. The new Japanese Garden can be shaped to provide good handicapped access, he said, while honoring and preserving its historical parts, such as the stairs.

“The present Japanese-style garden is not authentic, but it is historical,” said Black. “We need to honor that history and work with the designer to honor it.”

The Torii gate, at the top of the stony stairs, was installed only two years ago and Black apologized that the parks department had not first checked with the Japanese Association of Southern Oregon. After it was built, the group advised that such a gate is customarily placed only at the entry of a Shinto shrine.

Black said the gate is “too prominent” now but could be relocated away from the main entrance to the garden.

A koi pond was suggested but Mangin noted that while “everyone loves them,” they require much maintenance, possibly necessitating a full-time director of the Japanese Garden.

“I’m committed financially to keep the garden beautiful for the next 100 years,” Mangin said

Several people indicated the garden, hemmed in by two streets, Granite and Winburn Way, could expand north into a sycamore grove or south to a rolling spot with several redwoods and other conifers.

Mangin agreed with the idea of “a larger, more encompassing experience,” noting the garden now “seems like an island” and also needs better connection with the main-traveled creekside trail downhill to the east.

The redesign will be created by Toru Tanaka, president of the 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.

The Parks and Recreation Department will hold a second public meeting on the garden at 6 p.m., Aug. 9, at the Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way.

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

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