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Dave Kenney’s book shares the Normandale Japanese Garden’s history as the garden’s committee announces its second annual festival.

By Tiffany Ujiiye, Assistant Editor

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The “Normandale Japanese Garden” book celebrates the Bloomington Japanese American community and remembers its founders. Photo courtesy of the Normandale Garden Committee.

Dave Kenney’s book along with the Crabapple trees and sculpted bonsai fill the Normandale Japanese Garden as it celebrates its 31st anniversary this year at its second annual festival, which is scheduled for Sept. 23, accompanied with the “Normandale Japanese Garden: Celebrating a Dream” book written and published by Dave Kenney.

The two-acre botanical oasis, complete with a koi pond, three stone islands and green marsh, sits in the middle of Bloomington, Minn., on the Normandale Community
College campus.

The Normandale Japanese Garden Committee created a new festival to replace the 27-year fundraising event last year. After a seven-year hiatus, last year marked the first festival that included live entertainment and an optional dinner in hopes to raise funds for the garden’s maintenance costs. In past years, attempts to restart fundraising efforts were halted due to construction work and renovation on the surrounding campus.

The annual sukiyaki dinner, once famous for its recipe by one of the garden’s founding members, Kimi Hara, was canceled due to the construction and a change in campus regulations that no longer allow volunteers to use the campus’ kitchen.

“Last year’s festival was a success despite the poor weather we received,” said Shirley Huskins, vp of the Normandale Japanese Garden Committee. “But we still get calls from people asking us when we’ll do the sukiyaki dinner again.” Huskins took over planning in 1980 and remembers serving the Japanese beef dish to 1,200 people. The last dinner was in 2007 before the campus began its renovation and policy changes.

“This special garden didn’t just pop out of the blue, nor did it develop overnight,” wrote the garden’s committee members in its historical background letter.

In the late 1960s, the Bloomington Affiliated Garden Club conceived the project, and by 1972, the campus began
its groundbreaking. The swampland that was once an eyesore for the community college was transformed into a Japanese garden, requiring ongoing maintenance, which past fundraising events helped to support. In 1980, the Normandale Japanese Garden Committee was formed to ensure the garden’s proper maintenance and care.

The garden’s architect, Takao Watanabe, incorporated the principles of the shakkei technique, meaning “borrowed scenery,” which allows the outside spaces to be seen inside
the garden.

However, Watanabe noted that cherry trees were unable to bloom inside the garden, and in 1984, seedlings from Hokkaido, Japan, were sent to the garden. Only a single variety survived — it is planted just inside the garden’s stucco walls.
In 2012, the Japanese government commended the Normandale Japanese Garden Committee for its efforts in nurturing the cherry tree as part of the garden.

“We haven’t done anything to block the view of the outside world,” Hara said in an interview last year with Minneapolis’ Star Tribune. He noted that the garden has stuck to its original philosophy in keeping with “shakkei.”

Inside the garden is a waterfall, symbolizing a carp gazing upward. The imagery of the carp echoes an old Japanese folklore tale that it would one day turn into a dragon, reflecting the garden’s perseverance over time.

“Everyone gets so captivated when they walk in from the gate,” Huskins said. “You just walk in and you view this space and enjoy the tranquility it brings.”

Perhaps the garden’s most eye-catching pieces include the bentendo, a small building sitting on the largest island.
The structure was donated by the Japanese veterans of the Military Intelligence Service Language School in appreciation for the garden’s space.

Along with fundraising events, the book “Normandale Japanese Garden: Celebrating a Dream” was released in June. Publisher-writer Kenney chronicled the garden’s history and the individuals behind its story.

“We are truly indebted to Dave Kenney, writer; John Toren, designer and editor; and to Norton Stillman, Nordin Publishing,” the committee said, “to bring to life for all to see and enjoy this historic document into a printed book.”

The collection of stories and histories includes a variety of pictures of the garden through the years. Hara, one of the founding members of the garden committee and the sukiyaki dinner, was a large part of the garden’s history. She died in 2007 and was one of the 120,000 Japanese Americans living in Pearl Harbor during the attack in 1941.

As a nurse, she was relocated to the Midwest with two suitcases, where she helped found the JACL Twin Cities Chapter and later the Japan America Society of Minnesota. While Hara’s popular sukiyaki dinner has ended, the spirit in keeping the garden alive endures.

Stay tuned for additional details and scheduled programming for this year’s annual festival at the Normandale Japanese Garden.