The Garden is about the Story of a People
Board Member, Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple
June 20, 2022
What makes a Japanese garden? What is the recent history of Japanese American gardens? Who first created them and how did they evolve? One way to answer those questions is to examine one specific garden. This paper shares community and oral history of the Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple’s garden, located in southwest Berkeley, California.
The history of Japanese American gardens is related to where they earned their living when they came to the U.S.A. Many first generation Japanese immigrants (Issei) who arrived between 1885 and 1924 had professional experience in farming, landscaping, and horticulture. In 1940, 43% of second generation Japanese (Nissei) on the West Coast made a living in agriculture with an additional 26% in agriculture-related activities. This work experience was the backdrop for building gardens in the internment camps during World War II (Tamura, 2020).
The Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple was established by almost 60 Japanese immigrants in 1926, and Rev. Chijyo Suyemori was the first minister (Temple, 2016, p.27). At the time, there were about 600 Japanese immigrants and their descendants in Berkeley, and the general public was hostile to them. Temple members purchased the two lots on Oregon Street in 1936, where the current temple is located, and built it themselves. The church office and services had been based out of the Japanese Association Hall on Shattuck Avenue near Haste Street (Rev. Imai, 2022), and in 1938 temple members held an altar moving service and paraded through the streets to the new temple (Temple, 2016, p.30).
In December 1941, World War II started. In March 1942, the last temple record by the Fujinkai (now referred to the Women’s Buddhist Association) was, “Berkeley received orders to evacuate on April 26. Every Japanese has to evacuate by May 1.” Five days later, temple members were sent to different Relocation Centers (Temple, 2016, p. 30). When they returned from imprisonment after the war, they used the temple as a temporary shelter (Makishima, 2022). The temple started to function smoothly again in August 1947 (Temple, 2016, p. 30).
Garden Maintenance and Aesthetic Pruning over almost 100 Years
The garden, like the temple itself, has historically been taken care of by many talented and dedicated temple members, ministers, and the ministers’ families. Fujinkai, a temple group now referred to as the Women’s Buddhist Association, had monthly rotating groups called tobans that cleaned the bathrooms, temple hondo, and social hall. The men’s toban groups would do gardening tasks such as cutting the lawn, watering, raking, and weeding (Rev. Imai, 2022) (Rev. Yamada, 2022). In addition, a men’s gardening group that would come twice a year, and Fujinkai would make lunch for them. This tradition continues today, whereby the monthly toban makes lunch for the Merritt College Pruning Club. Mrs. Akiko Imai (Rev. Imai’s wife) was part of Fujinkai and helped with all of this. It was Japanese tradition for her to take care of the minister and she naturally took care of what she could, which included garden work. It was her role to welcome visitors and members, and part of that was making sure the temple was in good shape, clean and presentable (Akiko Imai, 2022).
Before the Japan-esque style garden was put in, the garden had a more Western aesthetic. There was a lawn with hedges in front, lined along the sidewalk (Rev. Yamada, 2022).
In May 1976, the garden was remodeled in preparation of the coming 50th year anniversary (Temple, 2016, p. 36). According to Rev. Imai, replacing the lawn with rocks and replacing the hedges with the fence happened at the same time and was done specifically for the 50th anniversary of the temple (Rev. Imai, 2022). However, photos depict laying down new lawn so it’s unresolved when the transition was made. Whenever it happened, the choice to remove the lawn was not just aesthetics. Not only had California suffered six to seven years of drought and they wanted to save water, but the garden group was also getting older and a rock garden would be easier to take care of (Akiko Imai, 2022). Tomio Ricky Sumimoto designed the garden and the fence with Yoshimi Shimoda’s assistance. Tomio Ricky Sumimoto, Roy Kurahara, Joe Goto, Tad Hikoyeda, and Joe Uyemoto built the fence/gate with other temple volunteers (Rev. Imai, 2022).
In 1990, the garden was transformed into the current form we see today (Morioka, 2022). It includes dirt mounds surrounded by wood landscape timbers, large rocks, and many plants.
Temple members Tomio Ricky Sumimoto, Joe Uemoto, Ichiji Yanaba, and Yoshimi Shinoda took the lead in pruning the garden until Dennis Makishima took over around 2005, by the request of his mother Masuye Makishima and Rev. Imai (Makishima, 2022) (Rev. Imai, 2022) (Rev. Yamada, 2022). Dennis Makishima is a well known aesthetic pruner, and he agreed to prune the garden in honor of his parents, who were temple members and like many others of their generation, slept in the temple when they returned to Berkeley after WWII imprisonment (Makishima, 2022). The transition from the above temple members pruning to Dennis Makishima pruning was not perfectly smooth because beauty is in the eye of the beholder in art, and the same is true with aesthetic pruning (Rev. Yamada, 2022) (Makishima, 2022). “People had strong opinions” about the garden (Rev. Yamada, 2022). For this reason in part, Dennis Makishima waited about five years until the older temple members stopped showing up to prune, so that he could lead with a single vision. The first five years were about restoring and confirming the health of the trees, and establishing a vision of making the garden look more natural.
Dennis Makishima pruned the garden on his own for two years before bringing the Merritt College Pruning Club. He first brought in aesthetic pruners Yuki Nara, Sachiyo Aoyama, and Diane Shields who were apprenticing with him at the time. He also gave responsibility of a couple specific plants to specific people: Rev. Imai was to prune the ground juniper, and former Temple President Tom Morioka was to prune the juniper tree outside the front gate (and he still does). Mrs. Imai and other temple women pruned the camellias for a long time (Blackwell, 2021). Dennis Makishima could eventually move on because his vision of the garden and future leadership were both established. Over the years, other aesthetic pruners have coordinated bringing the Pruning Club to the temple, including Jocelyn Cohen, Allison Levin, May Kandarian, Ann Owen, and Dina Blackwell carried the torch in 2016 (Makishima, 2022). This spring, Dina Blackwell invited Nina Rizzo (this paper’s author, a new aesthetic pruner, and Temple Board member) to co-host the events – and so the collaborative care of the garden continues.
The Black Pines and Other Plants
There is an old Japanese black pine that has been an important focal point in the garden from the early days. The Merritt College Pruning Club has since nicknamed it “The Old Pine” to distinguish it from three other Japanese black pines in the garden, and it is the one to the left of the temple’s front door when looking at it from the street. The Old Pine was very likely donated by Usakichi Nomura, Kimi Kurahara’s father (Rev. Imai, 2022 ) (Morioka, 2022). It would have had to be donated before WWII because he died before the war (Kurahara, 2022). Usakichi Nomura’s grandson, Wayne Kurahara, could neither confirm nor deny that his grandfather donated the tree, and Rev. Tatsuru Kigoshi (who was minister 1959-1967) could not remember who donated the tree either. According to Rev. Imai, it was transplanted in 1938 when the temple moved from its original site to the current location (Rev. Imai, 2022). Dennis Makishima estimates that the tree is about 80 years old, and it was pre-trained before it was planted (Makishima, 2022).
There is strong evidence to support that the Old Pine was at least transplanted in June or July of 1966, even if that was not its first planting in the garden. In 1966, it was planted by Roy Kurahara, Ichiji Yanaba, and Masuji Fujii (Rev. Tatsuru Kigoshi, 2022); they were all Temple Presidents from 1951 to 1970 (Temple, 2016, p. 25). Roy Kurahara was a gardener and carpenter, and Wayne Kurahara’s father (Kurahara, 2022); therefore Roy planted the tree that his late father-in-law donated. Dennis Makishima did exploratory cuts during his first year in the garden to see how the Old Pine would react. He removed just one branch about every five years because it’s in the shade, so he had to use a conservative pruning approach. Mrs. Imai helped dig dirt from the Old Pine because it had too much, and she washed it down because it had spider mites (Makishima, 2022).
There are three more black pines in the garden that Dennis Makishima worked on. The second black pine is in front of the entry gate, and there was a lot of debate about whether to put it there or not (Rev. Yamada, 2022). It was put there at the same time the garden transitioned from lawn to rock (Rev. Imai, 2022). Makishima reconstructed it, which means significantly changing it with aesthetic pruning, so that it would not become a sidewalk issue, and people wouldn’t hit their heads on the branches (Makishima, 2022). The third black pine is called the “Tall Pine” which is closest to the temple on the right side from the street. It was donated by Tomio Ricky Sumimoto, who owned Dwight Way Nursery, and was there back in the day when the garden was a lawn (Rev. Imai, 2022). One year, Trudi Roofing broke one of its branches, and Tom Morioka wrapped it with cloth and twine to hold it up until Dennis Makishima reduced its size and weight. Dennis Makishima also significantly reduced the height around 2015 for safety reasons, likely upon a suggestion from temple members Tom Morioka or Dick Fujii. Prior to that big cut, he did not do any other pruning that year so that the bottom would get stronger. To hide the wound, he tied a branch from the back to the front, where there’s more light. In 2022, aesthetic pruner Dina Blackwell took the tie off (Makishima, 2022). The fourth black pine is a volunteer tree, and it’s speculated that it grew from seed from the Tall Pine (Blackwell, 2022). It should be kept small like a bonsai in order to keep in scale with the surroundings and for safety because it is next to the walkway to the temple doors (Makishima, 2022).
Dennis Makashima made other changes to the garden. The driveway used to have three espaliered camellias but one died so there are just two now. He planted a red maple to take its place. He also added two lace leaf maples in front of the Mochi House (Makishima, 2022), which is the building to the right. It used to be the former minister’s residence, but nowadays it's mostly used to make fresh mochi for the summer food bazaar (until the COVID-19 pandemic).
Community Spirit over Composition
The garden is not just about plant composition. There are the usual suspects in a Japan-esque garden, and this one includes three black pines, one Japanese maple, about three lace leaf maples, three espaliered camellias and two bush camellias, two symmetrical golden chamaecyparis, two mugo pines, numerous azaleas, a rhododendron, a cherry tree, a magnolia tree, juniper tree, juniper procumbens, Hollywood junipers, a few podocarpus, rhaphiolepis, pieris, deodar cedar, variegated pieris, cryptomeria conifer, and berberis (Blackwell, 2021). Nevertheless, “assembling the pieces does not make the garden, it doesn’t feel right,” and the stereotypical expectations that Americans have of Japanese gardens is not what makes this garden. Steven Pitsenbarger, the supervising gardener at the San Francisco Japanese Tea Garden, says that it’s the feeling that matters – Japanese gardens should be a place where people can relax and reconnect with nature and themselves. Part of that means there should be enough space to insert yourself physically and mentally, and use the concept of negative space or “ma,” unlike an English cottage garden. Additionally, cleaning the space is what makes it feel like a garden because then the mind can relax (Pitsenbarger, 2022).
Furthermore, the temple garden has plants in there for reasons other than ornamental. For example, Dennis Makishima planted a camelia under the Japanese maple to prevent kids from running through the garden from the driveway to the pathway (Makishima, 2022). And Rev. Imai and Mrs. Imai planted the azaleas after they were donated at memorial services, one by one, and Mrs. Imai took care of them (Rev. Imai, 2022). There are also volunteer plants, trees that popped up and were not purposefully planted, and that people decided to keep there. These include a black pine next to the lace leaf maple on the mound and the blue cedar next to Tall Pine (Makishima, 2022).
What does the garden mean to the community? Both Rev. Imai and Dennis Makishima made the point that it's “a story of a people,” especially the story of Japanese Americans after WWII who had nothing, and temple members should continue to be involved in taking care of the garden (Makishima, 2022).
“It’s not just a garden. People’s history and spirit are contained in it.” (Rev. Imai, 2022)
“People represent the life-force of nature …the will to live, to survive, to go on.” (Makishima, 2022)
This is why Rev. Imai wants the traditions carried on by taking care of the garden – by taking care of it, we can learn what harmony is, which is the basic teaching of Buddhism. Those who take care of the garden will not just understand Buddhism in concept, “not head thinking only, heart thinking” (Rev. Imai, 2022). Rev. Osa, the current resident minister who does a lot to take care of the garden now, agrees:
Whenever I pass through this Japanese garden, I cannot help but be grateful to our temple members who created the garden, mainly 1st and 2nd generation Issei and Nisei Japanese Americans. There are natural stepping‐stones and gravel paths instead of concrete. I feel like the energy of Nature and our old members embrace me, and that energy has been in the earth since countless ages ago.
In the western world, man-made beauty is appreciated. On the other hand, in the Eastern world, the beauty of Nature is respected. For example, the western garden has symmetry or geometric design, but the Japanese garden adapts itself to natural scenery. Japanese gardens have waterfalls, streams, and ponds instead of a man-made fountain. The ponds express the ocean. A western garden has sculpture, but Japanese garden has natural rocks and shows their beauty. The shape of trees is also different. In the western garden, they trim the trees and make shapes of animals or figures. But in the Japanese garden, they trim trees but keep the shape of the trees.
As you know, Japanese culture is deeply influenced by Buddhism. The features of the Japanese garden pays more attention to the greatness and the beauty of Nature than man-made beauty. This concept is similar to Buddhism. We are taught that we need to introspect and see our man-made limitations and entrust ourselves to the Buddha’s natural wisdom and compassion.
Our temple garden has no man-made decorations, but the arrangement of trees and stones make us imagine the natural working of the Buddha world instead of human power. When we stop for a moment to savour our temple garden, we can receive the teaching from it. (Rev. Ryoko Osa, 2022)
I invite you to visit one day – to not only admire the garden but to also notice how you feel when you enter the garden. And to remember that a long line of Japanese American community elders and professional aesthetic pruners have put their time and spirit into keeping it beautiful and harmonious.
Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple. 90th Anniversary Commemorative Service
Handbook. October 16, 2016.
Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple. 50th Anniversary Commemorative Service
Handbook. October 10, 1976.
Blackwell, Dina. President of the Aesthetic Pruners Association and Certified Aesthetic Pruner
#53. Interview at Pruning Club event at Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple. Berkeley, CA. May 22, 2021.
Iwata, Eiko. Former President of Fujinkai/Women’s Buddhist Association. Interview by phone.
March 15, 2022.
Imai, Reverend Akinori. Former minister of Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist
Temple 1967 - 2005. Interview by phone. March 15, 2022.
Imai, Mrs. Akiko. Fujinkai member and wife of Rev. Imai. Interview by phone. March 15, 2022.
Kigoshi, Reverend Tatsuru (by way of Rev. Yasushi “Harry” Kigoshi, Otani University
President). Former minister of Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple 1959 - 1967. Interview by email. April 19, 2022.
Kurahara, Wayne. Interview by phone. April 16, 2022.
Makishima, Dennis. Former President of the Golden State Bonsai Federation. Created the Merritt
College Aesthetic Pruning Program. Interview. El Cerrito, CA. March 11, 2022.
Morioka, Tom. Former Board President of Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple.
Interview by email. March 14, 2022.
Osa, Reverend Ryoko, Resident Minister of Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple 2017 to present.
Interview by email. May 24, 2022.
Pitsenbarger, Steven. Garden Supervisor in the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden
Gate Park. Board Member of the North American Japanese Garden Association. Interview by phone. March 11, 2022.
Tamura, Anna. Gardens in camp. (2020, October 5). Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 23:18,
May 14, 2022 from https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Gardens%20in%20camp.
Yamada, Reverend Ken. Editor of Shinshu Center of America. Former minister of Berkeley
Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple 2005 - 2017. Interview by email. May 20, 2022.
Note: Not all information cited from oral interviews was not corroborated with written documentation, but it reflects history as the people remember it, and retell it, at this time.