Inspirations: Japan House Gardens

By Sydney Nielsen, RORG Student Intern

Japan House is a must-visit location and a haven of tranquility for many on the University of Illinois campus. In addition to being a place of learning and respite, the Japan House gardens are a meaningful source of inspiration for the RORG Team.

According to Japan House’s website, they define themselves as “A place for students and cultural explorers to experience the immersive beauty of Japanese tea ceremony and other traditional arts.” The original Japan House was founded in 1975 by Shozo Sato, who first began teaching classes in Japanese arts and aesthetics at the University of Illinois in 1964. The current Japan House, located in the Arboretum, was built and opened in 1998, continuing to provide extraordinary experiences for the University and the community ever since. Upon its opening in the new location, Jim Bier began the development of the surrounding gardens – which would inevitably influence the Red Oak Rain Garden Team years later. 

Each year, incredible crowds flock to the grounds of Japan House to celebrate and appreciate the blooming of the Sakura (which means cherry blossom) trees lining the pathways surrounding Japan House. In 2008, Dr. Genshitsu Sen of the Urasenke Tea School donated 50 cherry trees to Japan House, which now line several paths on the grounds. On Japan House’s website, as well as their various social media platforms, the Six Stages of Sakura are documented as the trees develop into a state of blooming, informing the public of the trees’ current status as well as providing estimates for when they can plan to make the trip to view the breathtaking scenery.

At the time of the writing, the sakura season is officially over at Japan House, but the remainder of the gardens are as beautiful and tranquil as ever. Make sure to visit if you haven’t already to take in the sights! The gardens directly surrounding Japan House consist of the Tea Garden and the Dry Garden. The gardens are open to the public; the Tea Garden closes each winter season. 

Japan House also offers several classes open to the community and university students across a variety of Japanese arts and aesthetics. Among these include ChadoJapanese Tea Ceremony, Special Topics & Seminar in Japanese Aesthetics (with topics varying by semester), Japanese Animation, and more. Recently, Japan House introduced the Japanese Arts and Aesthetics Minor for university students. Japan House’s educational opportunities are available to those new to these arts, as well as those with ongoing studies.

Additionally, Japan House hosts a variety of events open to the public throughout the year. Be on the lookout for upcoming public Japan House events: Tea Ceremonies each Wednesday afternoon, Shinrin Onyoku (森林温浴) – Third Sunday Music in the Forest (occurring on the third Sunday of each month with the next one occurring Sunday, May 15th, 2022), and more. Make note that the building is typically closed to the public outside of classes and certain events. 

Japan House’s Matcha Café during Shinrin Onyoku on Sunday, April 17. If you look close enough, you can see RORG Student Intern, Sydney Nielsen hard at work!
Photo from Japan House’s Flickr.


RORG Director Eliana Brown credits Japan House as a key factor in her decision to renovate RORG.

“Around the time I was planning the RORG renovation, I toured the Japan House gardens with designer Jim Bier. He told me about the purpose of the garden, which was mesmerizing. You can hear it in his own voice via a guided audio tour. With the RORG renovation in mind, we chatted about rainwater and public gardens. The house roof features rain chains instead of downspouts. There’s a drain around the house perimeter, but his plants soak up much of the rain.”

  • Eliana selfie at Japan House grounds.
  • Rain chain at Japan House.
  • Japan House pond.
  • Sakura archway framing the Japan House pond shoreline.

But it was during another visit to the Tea Garden when that a critical piece of the RORG renovation puzzle was solved. Eliana chatted with Mr. Bier and his volunteers about how they accomplish stewardship. Japanese Gardens require knowledgeable, meticulous care and although the methods differ from a naturalistic garden like RORG, the concept is the same. She learned that Bier leads and instructs Champaign County Master Gardener (CCMG) volunteers during workdays. It may sound easy for a garden to be a CCMG project, but many organizations request their help and they must be selective. In fact, CCMG didn’t accept a proposal for the original 2006 version of RORG to be an official garden. As Eliana considered pursuing the renovation, she wasn’t keen to do it without securing a commitment from community volunteers and she didn’t know that it would be possible. The Japan House garden volunteers told her something encouraging: their garden wasn’t an official CCMG project, but rather, an affiliated one (a category she didn’t know existed before this conversation). The Japan House model, which includes education through service-learning, inspired her to eventually submit RORG as an affiliate garden and it was accepted. As Eliana reflects, “This matters because it allows volunteers interested in native plants to have their RORG service-learning activities qualify as credit towards certification. It helps them choose us as a place to direct their valuable time.”

In 2016 Eliana trained as a CCMG and volunteered for their Garden Walk. That year’s event included Japan House and she had the opportunity again for an impactful, enjoyable conversation with Mr. Bier. It’s not too much to say that the RORG renovation might not have happened without him. She is grateful for Bier’s knowledge and generosity in sharing it.

RORG Landscape Designer, Layne Knoche, spent many hours as a student walking the paths at the Japan House gardens. 

“No matter what time of year, if I needed a break from studying or just needed a place to clear my head, Japan House was my go-to. The walk from my dorm at Newman Hall was a great ‘green walk,’ passing through the Red Oak Rain Garden (pre-renovation!), Illini Grove, and the Idea Garden at the Arboretum before getting to Japan House.”

Layne recalls getting inspiration from the beautiful shade garden on the grounds, which informed a number of landscape designs he planned both as a student and professionally. He also enjoyed gathering with his friends each year to take in the sights of Sakura.

Layne finds inspiration in the color palettes and textures at Japan House gardens. Photo by Layne Knoche.

RORG Student Intern, Sydney Nielsen likely spends the most time at Japan House out of anywhere on campus, outside of her classes. 

Sydney studied Ikebana – Traditional Japanese Flower Arranging (ARTJ 199) at Japan House during the fall semester of 2021. An 8-week course, the students in the course studied the history, traditions, and methods behind the art of Ikebana, each week producing an arrangement following the theme of that week’s class. At the end of the course, each student had a few of their arrangements showcased in a temporary exhibit inside the Krannert Art Museum.

One of Sydney’s final arrangements in the Krannert exhibit: ‘Butterfly Garden’. Photo by RORG Student Intern, Sydney Nielsen.

Sydney now volunteers for Japan House at a variety of their Japanese cultural events open to the community throughout the year (come say hello to her at the next Shinrin Onyoku on May 15th, 2022!) and was also recently accepted into Japan House’s Internship program for Fall 2022. Even when there aren’t events going on, you can often find her in the gardens observing the koi fish or doing homework on a blanket underneath a shady tree. Like many others, she has found Japan House to be her happy place and loves walking around the gardens while taking photos of the beautiful, serene scenery. 


Japan House’s Facebook and Flickr are routinely updated with information and photos regarding the gardens, events, and more. You can also contact them at

Japan House also has an online shop, where you can purchase a number of items including gifts, matcha, and much more. Sydney is particularly a fan of their matcha and drinks it on a daily basis.

Sydney Nielsen is a sophomore at UIUC majoring in Communication with Organizational and Cultural Communication concentrations. She is also working towards double minors in Spanish and East Asian Languages and Cultures (Japanese). She loves learning about different languages and cultures and can often be found watching shows/movies and listening to music from different countries around the world. She enjoys traveling and hopes to study abroad in a future semester to further her linguistic and cultural learning.

Cover photo by Sydney Nielsen

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