Redesigned Ashland Japanese Garden opens Saturday

From left, Michael Black, Toru Tanaka and Jeff Mangin. Peter Finkle photo.
October 16, 2022

Lithia Park event starts at 1 p.m., includes demonstrations, exhibits

By Peter Finkle for Ashland News

Come see the most exciting update to Lithia Park in decades. You are invited to the grand opening of the new, authentic Japanese Garden in Lithia Park from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22.

When dedicated 106 years ago in 1916, Lithia Park had a small Japanese-style garden. The original sparse garden was improved in 1983 by Parks Department horticulturalist Donn Todt. He and his team added Japanese maples, many additional plants, and a gently curving watercourse feature.

Among the generations of Ashlanders who have cherished Lithia Park were Jeff Mangin and his first wife, Béatrice Marechal, who passed away in 2015. Mangin explained, “Béatrice and I loved walking in the park. The first time I saw Lithia Park, I was really blown away. We tend to take it for granted. But the first time that anyone sees it, with that creek running through — it’s one of the most beautiful walks I’ve ever done! So I really wanted to do something to celebrate that in memory of Béatrice.”

The gate and fence designs have stories based on Japanese traditions. Peter Finkle photo

“My late wife, Béatrice, was French. She has three siblings. We decided together to take money and put it into this Japanese Garden.” Mangin continued with heart-felt passion as he talked about the value of an authentic Japanese Garden in Lithia Park in place of the Japanese-style garden. “People love Japanese gardens. Now we have an authentic Japanese Garden, which is an additional draw for tourists to come and enjoy Ashland. We have so many draws, but this addition will be kind of special.”

“Also, for the locals in this town, I want to give something we can enjoy in multiple ways. Japanese gardens are considered to be healing gardens, places for spiritual renewal, which can mean different things to different people. The way this garden is built, there is room for people to do Tai Chi or yoga, to meditate, or simply sit quietly. We are hoping, if all goes well, to introduce koi in the pond next spring, so people, including kids, can enjoy looking at koi fish.”

Not long after Béatrice’s passing in 2015, Mangin introduced himself to Michael Black, director of Ashland Parks & Recreation. Together they developed the idea in 2016 to build an authentic Japanese Garden. Mangin told me several times that, without Black’s commitment and drive, today’s Japanese Garden would not exist.

Black supervised the work on the garden and learned to combine his technical and legal skills with Japanese Garden designer Toru Tanaka’s artistic skills. But it was even more meaningful that than. As Black said, “It has been a treat for me to be involved in this. It has been a healing garden for me for the entire two-year construction period. And it’s going to continue to be that. I think when we open the doors and let people in, they’re going to get that healing as well. That’s what I’m looking forward to most, is to be able to open the doors and let people take advantage of this amazing space.”

A peek into the new Japanese Garden. Peter Finkle photo

An experienced committee of citizens, led by Black and Mangin, chose Toru Tanaka to design the new garden and lead its construction. Tanaka came to the United States from Japan in 1988 to become Director of the renowned Portland Japanese Garden. He held that post for three years, and continues to consult about their garden. Tanaka learned his craft in Japan through the centuries-old custom of hands-on apprenticeship under Japan’s foremost landscape architects.

Tanaka incorporated the beautiful 40-year-old Japanese maples into his garden design, as well as two of the massive 106-year-old Douglas fir trees planted by Ashland Boy Scouts about 1916. Tanaka chose and placed every tree, plant and stone in the garden with a purpose, guided by hundreds of years of tradition. As Tanaka explained these ancient traditions to me, I felt a sense of serenity settle in me — even as a dozen workers bustled around getting the garden ready for the opening.

Despite his experience and accolades, Tanaka has a humble attitude about our Japanese Garden. He enlightened me with this story: “Most everybody says, ‘Oh, designer is wonderful … designer, designer, designer.’ Actually, designer is not so important. Time is creating the garden. Also the love of garden maintenance people. People help to grow the garden. I just create it.” He compared the garden’s growth to small kids who are growing up, but they need love to support them in their growth every step of the way.

To continue this thought, the new garden is just a baby. Many of the new plants are small and will take time to fill out. Those of us who visit the garden through the years will see it slowly grow into Toru Tanaka’s authentic Japanese Garden vision.

For now, you can enjoy “meeting” the new garden for the first time at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22. The new garden will be another reason to visit Lithia Park again and again, to soak up its serenity and beauty.

Peter Finkle gives Ashland history and art walking tours. See WalkAshland.com for walking tour information, or to request a custom tour.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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