It's amazing what you can find in Rockford if you just
know where to look.
Amid the corn, cows and Americana that surround it, something Asian
grows. In this north central Illinois town where most people's
surnames are Peterson, Johnson or Anderson, there is a fabulous
How in this quintessential Middle America town did this happen? By
chance. Rockford industrialist John Anderson found himself in
Portland, Ore., with some time to kill. He asked a taxi driver to take
him to some place interesting and ended up at the Japanese garden in
Washington Park. Anderson, an admirer of Japanese culture, was
He sought out the park's landscape architect, Hoichi Kuriso, and hired
him on the spot. The Rockford industrialist envisioned a similar
garden on some of his Rockford acreage. Construction began in 1978,
and for years it was private, though available for limited tours by
Rockford residents. But it wasn't until 1998 that it was opened to the
Today the Anderson Japanese Gardens is a 14-acre Asian wonderland.
"It is a place of healing. You feel the peace and serenity," says
Kathleen Webster of the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Roth's Journal of Japanese Gardening, the maven of such things, named
it the most beautiful garden outside the Orient.
"A lot of locals don't even know we are here," says Steph Bradley, a
docent at the gardens.
That's surprising. You would think the Rockford residents would come
just to see the three huge angels designed by their landsman, Swedish
sculptor Carl Milles. The bronze sculptures soar above the new,
contemporary Garden of Reflection, where the surrounding environment
is mirrored within its pool.
The rest of the park is pure Japanese. It as if you stepped back into
the ancient Kamakura period (1185-1333). In developing the garden,
architect Kuriso focused on the three essential elements of Japanese
gardening--the permanence of stone, plants for textures and green
hues, and the soothing, reflective qualities of water. The finished
product makes a quiet stroll along the garden paths incredibly
"You can't go fast because of the way it is laid out. You have to take
your time and enjoy nature," Webster says.
That's sure an about-face from some of the town's other popular
attractions--the Rockford Speedway, Blackhawk Farms Raceway or the
Kegel Motorcycle Co., the world's oldest Harley dealership.
Instead of racetracks and vroom, the park has waterfalls, curved
bridges and paths that zigzag around lush greenery. Now don't expect
to find lots of flowers. Boulders, foliage and water are the stars
here, along with sand patterns of lines and squares. The squares
represent rice, and concentric circles suggest patterns of water.
Sounds of flowing water permeate the area. You hear them when you
wander through the gardens or when you just sit and reflect. A cascade
pours into a pool opposite Turtle Island. The pool is a popular
hangout for turtles, swans, geese and ducks. Crashing water pours from
the West Waterfall. Each minute 1,400 gallons of water circulates
through it, and rainbows are often spotted at the falls.
"Come in the rain to see everything slightly wet. Everything
twinkles," Bradley says as she looks around the garden.
Maples--Japanese and the red leaves of the bloodgood ones--are a
stunning contrast to the greenery, rocks and water that surround the
16th Century teahouse. The Soto Machii, a waiting place for people
invited to the tea ceremony, has a small pool and ladle where guests
pause and wash their hands. The Sukiya-style architecture of the
teahouse represents harmony, respect, purity and tranquility--the four
elements of the tea ceremony.
"I get to enjoy this and my blood pressure goes way down," Bradley
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IF YOU GO
Rockford is about an hour-and-a-half drive northwest of Chicago on
Interstate Highway 90.
Anderson Japanese Gardens, 318 Spring Creek Rd., Rockford;
815-229-9390; www.andersongardens.org. The gardens are open from May 1
through Oct. 31. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4
p.m. Saturday and noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $5. Be sure to bring
insect repellent when visiting the gardens, especially after it rains.
If all this Japanese culture creates a craving for sushi, try
Rockford's best Japanese restaurant, JMK Nippon (2551 N. Perryville
Rd.; 815-877-0505). The restaurant is housed in a pagoda and
surrounded by a beautiful garden. Don't like sushi? Dine in the
restaurant's Teppan dining room. It is accented with a huge water wall
and an exhibit of samurai costumes. Your entree is grilled before you
on a Teppan table with much pageantry--food becomes airborne and
Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-521-0849;