Senses awakened at new Japanese Garden in Grand Rapids

Brandy Baker
The Detroit News

Strolling the new eight-acre Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden provides a feast for the senses.

Rushing waterfalls tumble through strands of sturdy boulders.

The scent of honeysuckle and hydrangeas, exploding like floral fireworks amid a canvas of green, wafts in the breeze as visitors walk a meandering path around a large, sprawling pond peppered with pebble beaches, painted turtles and lotus flowers.

Designed by noted Japanese garden designer Hoichi Kurisu, the $22-million permanent addition to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids opened in June to record-breaking crowds as more than 80,000 visitors explored the tranquil space. Annually, Meijer Gardens entertains more than 600,000 guests from around the world.

“As guests visit, we really would like them to be contemplative and to understand the surroundings … disconnect from everyday life and just, kind of, come in to relax,” said public relations manager Andrea Wolschleger as she sat on the carved-wood bench of a quiet “Shia” or gazebo overlooking the Lena Meijer Pond.

Located in the middle of the Frederik Meijer Gardens’ 158-acre main campus, the new attraction encompasses four waterfalls, Zen-style and Bonsai gardens, authentic gazebos, bridges and a teahouse — all of which were built in Japan and then reassembled on site. Visitors can examine more than eight different cultivars of Japanese Maples, along with Wisteria, several types of Pines, Bamboo, Water Lilies, moss, Japanese Irises, and Spirea. Symbolizing both the beauty and fragility of life, Japanese Flowering Cherries (Sakura), the national flower of Japan, line a promenade leading to the garden. Most of the plants are native to Michigan, as are the more than 3,600 boulders that decorate the property. Water, boulders and plants are the three essential pillars of a Japanese Garden.

“You’ve got everything from simple plants, azaleas, rhododendrons, and hydrangeas, but then you’ve got … so many different conifers, and broadleafs, and the way they’re tilted into the water looks like something that’s been here for a long time,” said Ray Miller of South Haven, who was perched with his wife, Dianne, atop the Japanese Garden’s Viewing Hill with its sweeping panorama of the new park. “I think they’ve done a wonderful job doing this. Just fantastic.”

The new space features works by seven international artists, furthering Meijer Gardens’ mission of marrying exquisite horticulture specimens with contemporary sculpture.

Guests entering the main gate are met with a 10-foot-tall granite slab by British artist Anish Kapoor that conjures the image of an ancient traffic signal, sans color. Closer inspection reveals black concave/convex lenses that reflect the environs. Kapoor also created the iconic “Cloud Gate” sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park that is commonly known as the “Bean.”

Another eye-popping piece in the Japanese Garden is “Long Island Buddha” by Chinese artist Zhang Huan, a gigantic copper and steel head seemingly asleep in a cluster of greens tucked into an alcove off the main path.

“People seem to respond well to the fact that the sculpture has been sited as a kind of discovery that is to be encountered along the journey through the Japanese Garden,” said chief curator Joseph Becherer.

Since opening to the public in 1995, more than nine million people have visited Meijer Gardens, with their annual tropical butterfly exhibit each spring a popular draw. Attendance numbers so far indicate that the tranquil new attraction could make July another recording-setting month.

“Since the Japanese Garden is as a permanent addition to Meijer Gardens, we’re very much looking forward to seeing more visitors throughout all of the seasons” said Director of Horticulture Steve LaWarre. “This garden’s appearance will really change with the fall colors, blanketed in snow, and with fresh, new growth in the spring. Guests can expect to see something new every time they visit!”

If you go

Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park

1000 E. Beltline Ave. N.E.

Grand Rapids

Miles from Detroit: Approximately 158 miles

Hours: 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays-Saturdays; 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. Tuesdays; 11 a.m.– 5 p.m. Sundays

Admission: Free for members; $12 adults, $9 seniors (65 or older) and students (with student ID); $6 children (5–13); $4 children (3–4); free for children age 2 or younger.

Information: Call (888) 957-1580 and (616) 957-1580 or visit