SEATTLE -- Overhead, the leathery leaves of rhododendron mingle with the dark needles of spruce, creating a cave-like refuge. A stream burbles out from beneath a rock, then drops 15 feet onto stones below. Ferns, beaded with moisture, crowd the water's edge. The moist air is cool, and the whush of a breeze in the shrubs and the low gurgle of tumbling water are the only sounds. This sheltered niche of stones, woods, and water seems to exemplify nature's perfection.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
This is one of dozens of delightful spots tucked away within the 20-acre Kubota Garden in the urban Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle. Everything here, from a necklace of ponds linked by waterfalls to a grove of soaring spruce, is the product of more than 40 years of labor by Fujitaro Kubota. The fact that this place looks at all ''natural" is a tribute to Kubota's artistic eye -- and to a millennium or two of Japanese culture.
The experience of walking through a Japanese garden is a little like making one's way through a maze. Both offer immersion, mystery, and surprise. But while mazes usually follow geometric patterns formed by high hedges, a Japanese garden typically unfolds along sinuous paths over hills and hollows, like an organic sculpture. Right angles and straight lines are rare, save for the edges of the rectangular ''karesansui," or dry-mountain-water gardens of gravel and stone.
The term ''Japanese garden" can conjure up many different images: a stark karesansui landscape designed for Zen meditation; a lush wonderland with a main path skirting a pond; or a sea of emerald moss, tufted with ferns, setting off a delicate teahouse. These different garden styles, which have blended over the centuries, date from different periods of Japanese history, ultimately reaching back to China and Korea. Their symbolic configurations of stones, paths, and water have roots in the ancient Shinto religion as well as Buddhism.
The main thing they have in common is the dominance of sculptural form over floral display, which sets them apart from most Western gardens.
In America, the shape of the land and a different palette of plants have pulled these traditions in new directions -- here they are not Japanese, but Japanese-American. And nowhere in this country have climate and culture combined to create such exquisite examples as the Pacific Northwest. Seattle and Portland contain marvelous Japanese gardens open to the public, and a new classical Chinese garden in Portland showcases the complex forms and ideas that, over centuries, made their way to Japan.
A Japanese immigrant who arrived in Seattle in 1907, Kubota established a landscaping business on five acres of cut-over swampland and slowly transformed his land into a paradise. By the time he died in 1973, Kubota had added 15 acres to his property and constructed a landscape of hills and valleys, including a ''mountainside" made up of about 400 tons of stone. He carved out the descending series of ponds and built berms to screen out sights and sounds at the property's edge.
True to its official description as an American-Japanese garden, it combines the Pacific Northwest's grand conifers and popular American garden plants like English ivy, hosta, and hydrangea with more traditional Asian species such as bamboo and Japanese holly.
The mixed-plant palette and the presence of a sweeping lawn in one of the garden spaces reflect the blending of traditions that inspired its self-taught designer.
Now maintained by a foundation set up by the Kubota family, this is one of the largest and most enchanting of the Pacific Northwest's Japanese gardens open to the public.
In the lush, sprawling landscape of Washington Park Arboretum, a wooden gate marks the entrance to the Japanese Garden. Pass through it and the world shrinks at once, as the enclosing plants and rocks focus the senses and control the view. Gravel paths meander through a shallow bowl of a landscape rimmed by low hills. Each turn in the path reveals a surprise to refresh the mind and the senses: a stone lantern snuggled at the base of a twisted pine; a bamboo pipe trickling water into a stone basin; a stone bench offering a view of a dry, raked-gravel ''pool."
Typical of the stroll garden style, the main path follows the shore of a placid pond churning with calico-colored koi. Mesmerized by the darting fish, visitors repeatedly find themselves at the water's edge, their steps slowed by a flash of movement or by a fork in the path that invites a decision. This garden covers a mere 3 acres, but it uses these techniques, honed over centuries, to stretch the sense of space.
Experts rate this among the top 10 Japanese gardens outside of Japan. In fact, landscape designers in the Tokyo Metropolitan Park Department drew up the plans and gave them to the city in the late 1950s.
In 1960, Juki Iida, a renowned designer and builder of Japanese gardens, came from Japan to oversee construction. He picked out more than 500 granite boulders from the Cascade Mountains, some as large as 11 tons, and artfully placed them to form the bones of the garden.
At first, the Bloedel Reserve at the northern tip of Bainbridge Island -- a 35-minute ferry ride from Seattle -- resembles old farmland on the Atlantic seaboard. Visitors stroll on dirt paths across an open meadow and into a young hardwood forest dotted with ponds and wetlands. But soon the rainforest takes over: Douglas firs, hemlocks, and other monster conifers shoot 100 feet toward the sky. Even the trailside ferns reach waist-high. Hummocks of moss thrive on the shady forest floor, and the shrieks and caws of marsh birds echo through the trees. The trails pass through a series of spaces named for their distinctive features -- the Moss Garden, the Reflection Pool, the Orchid Walk, and Rhododendron Glen, to name a few -- all part of the former home of Prentice and Virginia Bloedel, now open to the public (by reservation) as the Bloedel Reserve. The Bloedels, both heirs to timber fortunes, bought a French chateau-style mansion on 150 acres in 1951. Over the next three decades, with the help of several prominent landscape architects, they shaped more than 60 acres into a series of gardens, most of them informal and wooded.
While Seattle's garden offers a leisurely stroll through a low bowl in the landscape, Portland's Japanese Garden unfurls over 5 undulating acres -- a dramatic site that harbors even more than the usual number of surprises. Aficionados of Japanese gardens consider this to be the finest in America, and some think it the best anywhere outside of Japan. Here, visitors get a workout, climbing twisting paths to find waterfalls and roiling streams. There are koi here as well, but they play second fiddle to the landscape's larger delights. Takuma Tono designed the garden in 1962, creating five discrete, connected spaces: the Tea Garden, encompassing a ceremonial teahouse; the Strolling Pond Garden with a koi pond and a wooden bridge zig-zagging through a marsh of irises; the Natural Garden with shrubs, trees, and mosses allowed to grow in their natural shapes; a Dry Landscape Garden in the Zen tradition; and the Flat Garden, which mixes artfully pruned plantings and raked gravel. Each offers something that draws a little gasp of delight.
Classical Chinese Garden
After experiencing the lushness of Portland's Japanese Garden, the Classical Chinese Garden on the edge of the city's Chinatown is a fascinating study in similarities and contrasts. The most striking difference is the urban setting, with modern buildings towering just beyond the garden's 10-foot walls.
Built three years ago by designers and artisans from Suzhou, China, and a group of American colleagues, the garden compound -- nine Ming-style buildings surrounding an 8,000-square-foot lake -- spreads out over a large city block.
Viewed from outside the garden gates, the swooping curves of their pagoda-style roofs add zest to the city skyline. But, as in Japanese gardens, the city all but vanishes once the visitor steps inside the walls. Following pebble-mosaic paths, visitors walk through a series of courtyards and corridors, passing twisted boulders, brushing against bamboo, and stepping through fancifully shaped openings. It's like crossing into another world, and this, of course, is the intention.
Called Lan Su Yuan, or Garden of Awakening Orchids, the garden is modeled on the classical gardens of Suzhou during the Ming Dynasty. The garden's motto is ''never twice the same," and that's easy to believe, given the way its walls and the massive sheet of water at its core serve as canvases for the constantly shifting light.
The first time here, Western visitors may find that Lan Su Yuan doesn't fit their notion of a garden. Despite the softening effects of poetry and hundreds of trees, shrubs, and flowers, architecture exerts a hard counterpoint. But after awhile, the intricate play of shadows all but dissolves the hard surfaces, and the ancient illusions work their magic.
Jane Roy Brown and Bill Regan live in Western Massachusetts.