A touch of the Far East in Rockford

By Roberta Sotonoff
Special to the Tribune
Published May 15, 2005


ROCKFORD -- 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 Japanese garden.

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 awestruck.

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 general public.

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 relaxing.

"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 says.

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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 knives fly.


Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-521-0849; www.gorockford.com.

-- R.S.