The Japanese Garden

By Clara Posner ’22

Carleton’s Japanese garden, named Jōryō-en or “The Garden of Quiet Listening,” was constructed in 1976 and serves as a unique campus resource, in which students can step away from the stresses of everyday life. Not only is Carleton one of the few liberal arts colleges to have a Japanese garden, but the garden has consistently ranked among the top ten in the United States. The idea of building a Japanese garden at Carleton was originally conceived of by Bradwell Smith, a professor of Asian Studies, who was inspired by the gardens he encountered during his trip to Japan in the mid-1960s. Smith emphasized how Carleton would be the perfect location for a Japanese garden due to the college’s significant involvement with Japan and the rest of Asia with the first instance dating back to the 19th century. By the late 1930s, Carleton students were able to study in Japan and by the 1960s, the college began to offer four years of Japanese language. In addition, when Smith proposed the idea of a Japanese garden in the late 1960s, Carleton had just established a strong program in Asian studies and had created an off-campus studies program in Kyoto. By 1970, the college had made the decision to fundraise for this project and hire an adequate architect. 

Bradwell Smith at the 1976 dedication of Carleton’s Japanese Garden 

In 1974, visiting professor Masao Abe of Kyoto got into discussion with Smith about the construction of a Japanese garden and suggested that he consult David Slawson, a young landscape architect from Cleveland, Ohio. Slawson had received a doctorate in Japanese culture and aesthetics from Indiana University and had studied for two years with Kinsaku Nakane, one of Kyoto’s masters of garden design. After a brief consultation, Slawson was commissioned to design and build Carleton’s Japanese garden. The garden was constructed over a two-year period (1974-76), taking a sufficient amount of time to build financial support for the project. The total cost of the project was $13,000, which was paid for partly by two small grants from the General Service Foundation and partly by contributions from various people interested in the project, including Carleton alumni who had studied in Japan.

The first major step within the project was selecting a location that would be suitable for a Japanese garden. Slawson and Smith ended up choosing an empty site that was surrounded by three buildings, which included Watson Hall and Cowling Gymnasium. The site selected also consisted of a natural component with a wooden hillside leading to Bell Athletic Field that would be situated to the east of the garden. The garden’s dimensions would be 30 meters on each side, fitting comfortably but not too tightly into the buildings that surround it. Smith described the selected site as the perfect blend between buildings, garden, open areas, and previously existing trees. In addition, since the garden was being constructed on a college campus, they selected a site that didn’t have heavy traffic but still could be visually enjoyed by students living in Watson or who walked through that area. 

After selecting a location, Slawson created the final design that combined two forms of Japanese gardens – the tea garden and dry garden. The tea garden consists of an arrangement of stones, plants and other objects through which the visitor passes on their way to the teahouse. The dry garden consists of patterns raked into flat areas of gravel or sand to represent bodies of water. Both gardens are based on traditions related to Zen Buddhism and are intended to be viewed like a painting, providing visual stimuli without the viewers physically interacting with it. Slawson designed the garden to serve as a miniature and idealized view of nature, in which all the items are carefully arranged into a microsim of their own world. 

After receiving approval for his design, Slawson returned to Northfield during the summer of 1976 to begin the selection of rocks for the garden, which were then transported to the campus and stored under the water tower at the Carleton farm. Smith and Slawson traveled across southern Minnesota to collect most of the rocks used in the garden. Some of the large stones included in the garden were 3.5 billion-year-old gneiss rocks brought 100 miles away from Morton, Minnesota. These were collected based on a recommendation from Eiler Henrickson, a professor of geology at Carleton, who recognized that the rocks had various similarities to Japanese stones, which included having lichen on them that grows in the sun. In addition, the smooth pebble-like rocks that were used to create the mountain stream in the garden were collected from the North Shore of Lake Superior.

The construction of the garden began and was completed over a ten week period in the summer of 1976. Some of the major components of the garden include a Kasugra, a five-and-one-half-foot chiseled salt and pepper granite stone lantern, which was made in Japan and brought to the United States in the 1940s. This Japanese lantern, and a second one called a yukimi, were obtained by Slawson from a retired Minneapolis executive who returned with them after World War II. Based on the tradition of guests at a tea ceremony washing their hands as a purification ritual before entering the tearoom, Slawson also added a low stone washbasin (chozubachi) and bamboo water pipe at the entrance of the garden. Another essential component of the garden was the nobedan, or stone-paved walk, which provides a walkway for visitors and a space for them to view the garden. The nobedan also divides the area that should not be physically entered from the viewing area which includes the shelter and benches. The stones used within the nobedan are buried so that only the flattest side is exposed. Since Smith and Slawson wanted a variety of stone within the nobedan, each rock is a different size and buried at a different depth. The final major component of the garden is the shelter which is the primary place to sit and view the garden. The shelter includes a wooden frame, a bench, and a thatched roof. 

Photos from the construction of Carleton’s Japanese Garden during the summer of 1976

While constructing the garden, Slawson requested a room on the fifth floor of Watson Hall so he could evaluate his work from above, making daily adjustments. The garden was completed by the end of the summer of 1976 and the public dedication was held in October of the same year. After the construction of the garden, Smith emphasized the importance of the college properly maintaining the site. The college decided that Slawson would return for several days annually to observe the garden’s condition and to recommend improvements. He would also provide training in pruning, fence building, and many other tasks. In addition to being integrated into the curriculum in different departments, Smith believed that the most important contribution of the garden at Carleton has been the existence of a space where students can quietly reflect, hence why he settled on the name “The Garden of Quiet Listening.”