Japanese rock garden
The knobby trunk of a tall pine plays off the New York bluestone boulder that stands in for the island of a traditional rock garden. From this corner, the garden opens to an expansive view.  Photo Gallery »

For one couple, the trip from the North Shore’s deep, wooded ravines to the sculpted landscapes of Japan entails simply walking the few steps from their dining room to their family room.

When they bought their house in 1997, its orientation was entirely toward the ravine out back. The house spread wide along the ravine’s top, with walls of windows on that side and few views in other directions. The sight of the ravine, with deer, foxes, and other wildlife wandering among the trees and undergrowth, was splendid.

But a few years later, when they got the chance to buy an adjacent property—closer to the road, with less ravine frontage—the couple spotted an opportunity. They would open up big, almost blank exterior walls with windows and create an expansive Japanese-styled garden, a studied counterpoint to the ungroomed look of the ravine.

19th century Indonesian well cover
A stone-edged pond and dense layers of foliage create a tranquil tableau.  Photo Gallery »

Combining the design expertise of Scott Martin of the landscape firm Van Zelst with their own extensive research into the traditional aesthetic of Japanese gardens, the couple created a remarkable landscape on their two-acre site. The husband designed and created his own Japanese-style rake for combing wavelike patterns in gravel, and he does the pruning that gives the trees their classically articulated look. The wife has researched, tracked down, and installed appropriate plant varieties, and spreads a mountain of fresh mulch over the garden beds in spring. Her understanding is deep; the area that contains delicate and ephemeral spring plants, she notes, is “off-limits to everyone but me. I know what’s here—where you can step and where you can’t.”

While the garden has a Japanese theme, it’s also rooted in its Midwestern site. Some of the stones that lie in the rock garden outside the family room were found on the property, remnants of what renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen created in the early 20th century, when the site was part of the lakefront estate of lumber baron Hermann Paepcke. Those stones are visible in the photo at right as the craggy, porous rocks that suggest small islands and a rocky seacoast. In the distance, where a second house once stood, are large gardens of perennials and trees that are either native to or common in the Chicago climate and soil.

Getting to those gardens takes a bit of travel time. Meanwhile, Japan is right here outside the windows.


Photography: Linda Oyama Bryan