Carleton's Japanese garden

Field Guide to Jōryō-en: The Garden of Quiet Listening

By Kathleen Ryor and Kayla McGrady ’05
The Japanese garden is a miniature and idealized view of nature. Rocks represent mountains, and gravel represents seas. At Carleton’s garden, we see this appreciation of and relatedness to the natural world in the asymmetry and basic simplicity of design. Jōryō-en’s designer, David Slawson, regards the landscape garden as an art form meant to be experienced by drawing the viewer into its solitude.


A Glimpse of Japan

Japanese gardens evoke aspects of nature through suggestion and association. Their distinct aesthetic was inspired by Japan’s landscape: rugged volcanic peaks, narrow valleys, mountain streams with waterfalls and cascades, lakes, and beaches of small stones. They are also inspired by the country’s rich variety of flowers and trees, particularly evergreen trees, and by Japan’s four distinct seasons, including hot, wet summers and snowy winters.

In the early eighth century, Japanese people built Shinto shrines to the kami—gods and spirits—on beaches and in forests across the islands. The shrines often took the form of unusual rocks or trees marked with cords of rice fiber and surrounded by white stones or pebbles, a symbol of purity. White gravel courtyards, which became a distinctive feature of Shinto shrines, imperial palaces, Buddhist temples, and Zen gardens, also are seen in modern gardens. Imported from China in or around 552, the Chinese philosophy of Daoism and Amida Buddhism also strongly influenced Japanese gardens.

Carleton’s Jōryō-en (the Garden of Quiet Listening) combines a dry garden and a tea garden, which come from traditions associated with Zen Buddhism and are used specifically as aids to a deeper understanding of Zen concepts. Both garden types are intended to induce a meditational mind-set. mountainsmountains Photo: iStock


The Creation of Jōryō-en

Bardwell Smith, the John W. Nason Professor of Asian Studies, Emeritus, fell in love with the Japanese gardens he saw during a 1965 trip to Kyoto. He knew immediately that he wanted Carleton to have its own garden. With the backing of Carleton’s then-new Asian studies program, Smith contacted David Slawson, an up-and-coming American designer of Japanese gardens.

Slawson had a doctorate in Japanese culture and aesthetics from Indiana University and had studied for two years in Kyoto with Kinsaku Nakane, one of Japan’s foremost garden designers. Constructed between 1974 and 1976, Jōryō-en was Slawson’s first major project and remains one of the most highly regarded Japanese gardens in North America.

The name Jōryō-en recognizes the garden’s role as a place where visitors can achieve harmony and tranquility of body, mind, and spirit through a deep sense of attunement with nature. While there have been minor modifications to the garden since it was planted, the current design adheres to Slawson’s original vision and provides an oasis of calm and beauty during all four seasons. Professor Bardwell Smith, gardener Mary Bigelow, and designer David SlawsonProfessor Bardwell Smith, gardener Mary Bigelow, and designer David Slawson Photo: Margit Johnson ’70 Pictured above from left: Professor Bardwell Smith, gardener Mary Bigelow, and designer David Slawson


One Garden, Two Styles

Tea Garden

tea bowltea bowl Photo: iStock A chaniwa (tea garden), also known as a roji (dewy path), is the arrangement of stones, plants, and other objects through which guests pass on their way to a teahouse. It symbolizes the pure ground in which one is spiritually reborn while passing from the mundane world to the solitude of the tearoom. It typically features a stone lantern near the entrance, a stepping-stone path that leads from the entrance into the garden area, green (nonflowering) plants arranged in a naturalistic manner, a waiting shelter, and a stone washbasin fed by a bamboo pipe.shelter mimics a tea house in a tea gardenshelter mimics a tea house in a tea garden Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

Dry Garden

Dry gardens, or kare sansui, which emerged around the 15th century in Zen Buddhist temples, feature patterns raked into flat areas of gravel or sand to represent bodies of water. They are intended to be viewed from a single side—usually from the veranda of a building. Because of their simplified and abstract aesthetic, dry gardens use a narrower range of plant material than other garden styles; they eschew flowers and ornamental plants in favor of evergreens, shrubs, and green ground cover. Scholars still debate the original function of dry gardens, but most agree that they had both an aesthetic purpose and a spiritual one, and that the principles of composition and design express values that are harmonious with Zen.dry gardens feature stones representing water elementsdry gardens feature stones representing water elements Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98


Three Ways to Enjoy Jōryō-en

Engage Your Senses

Because the garden is designed to be a quiet oasis, separate from the main part of campus, visitors are invited to focus on the sensual pleasures that nature provides. Note the sounds and fragrances of nature. Changing weather conditions and seasons affect the physical aspects of the garden, so be sure to visit at different times of year to witness the small transformations that occur daily.

Stimulate Your Imagination

The garden’s suggestive, pictorial quality makes it a popular spot for sketching and painting. Visitors gravitate to the dry garden to write poetry or play a musical instrument. But daydreaming is a time-honored practice too.


As its name suggests, Jōryō-en—the Garden of Quiet Listening—encourages visitors to set aside the distractions and stresses of everyday life. View the garden from the shelter or the benches adjacent to it; imagine it as a picture on which you focus your mind. Whether you contemplate your inner self or individual parts of the landscape, the design fosters an environment in which the noise of contemporary life is absent and you are free to relax and refresh yourself.drawing in the Japanese gardendrawing in the Japanese garden Photo: Margit Johnson ’70


Behind the Scenes

Five things you might not know about Jōryō-en.

  1. stonesstones Photo: iStock About a third of the large stones are 3.5 billion-year-old gneiss rocks from a quarry near Morton, Minnesota. Carleton professor Bardwell Smith and designer David Slawson—along with Smith’s wife, Charlotte—traveled around southern Minnesota to collect many of the other stones. “We often asked farmers if we could take them out of their fields,” Smith says. “Most of them were glad to have the rocks out of the way.”
  2. When the utility pipes running from Cowling Gymnasium to Faculty Club were replaced, the grounds crew decided to make the new sidewalk a more aesthetically pleasing entrance to the garden. “They pressed leaves into the wet cement,” says Smith. “It’s really quite beautiful.”
  3. leafleaf Photo: iStock Although the garden is designed to be viewed from the shelter, it also provides a contemplative forest stroll, says Smith. “You can circumambulate the garden through the trees behind it and come out by the stone lake.”
  4. The stones in the nobedan path that lead to the shelter aren’t typical pavers. They are natural stones that are buried so only the flattest side is exposed. “We want variation in the stones, with different colors and sizes, but the path also needs to be flat so people don’t trip,” Smith says. That means every stone is buried to a different depth.
  5. During construction of the garden, Slawson requested a room on the fifth floor of nearby Watson Hall so he could evaluate his work from that vantage point and make daily adjustments. Still today, “the students who live in Watson get the best view of the garden,” Smith says.


Four Seasons


spring at the Japanese Gardenspring at the Japanese Garden Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98 The most anticipated season in the Upper Midwest, spring rewards visitors to the garden first with carpets of scilla and then with magnificent blooms of redbud, pagoda dogwood, hawthorn, serviceberry, and Korean lilac. Jōryō-en transforms most quickly in springtime.


summer in the gardensummer in the garden The garden reaches full maturity in the summer. Rich and varied plants create the illusion of different landscapes: mounded yews become distant green hills and large areas of sedum suggest grassy fields. The sound of water dripping into a stone basin helps visitors feel cool under shady deciduous trees near the viewing shelter.


fall in the gardenfall in the garden The balance between evergreens and deciduous trees and shrubs achieves its most pleasing visual effect in autumn when leaves change color. The contrast between the dark greens of the pines and yews and the brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges of the maples and other trees is a spectacular display before the monochrome stillness of the coming winter.


winter in the gardenwinter in the garden Photo: Margit Johnson ’70 While winter may not seem like the best time to visit a garden, the snow transforms Jōryō-en beautifully. Gardeners prune evergreen trees and shrubs in ways that allow snow to mound and follow the contours of plant forms. The garden appears more mysterious in winter, because snow and ice obscure various elements, hinting at pleasures to come in warmer weather.


Plan Your Trip

Jōryō-en is open to the public year-round.

Guidelines for visitors:

  • No smoking in the garden.
  • No bicycles in the garden.
  • Keep dogs on a leash and pick up after them.
  • Stay on the stone paths and sit only in designated areas.
  • Respect other visitors. The garden is a calm retreat from the busy world. Please preserve its atmosphere of contemplation.

To learn how the Japanese garden is used in Carleton’s curriculum, contact Kathleen Ryor, Tanaka Memorial Professor of International Understanding and Art History, at or 507-222-5590.

Japanese garden mapJapanese garden map Photo: Jon Reese

If you enjoy Jōryō-en, you may wish to visit other Japanese gardens in Minnesota. All are open to the public:

Learn more at the North American Japanese Garden Association’s website.


Garden Highlights

Kasuga stone lantern 

Kasuga stone lanternKasuga stone lantern Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98 Named after the Kasuga Shrine in Nara, Japan, the lantern was crafted in Japan and brought to the United States in the 1940s. Stone lanterns were first used as votive lights at Japanese temples and shrines. Later they lit the grounds of religious precincts. Secular use began in the 16th century when tea masters introduced stone lanterns to gardens surrounding tea huts.

Tsukubai washbasin

Tsukubai washbasinTsukubai washbasin Photo: Margit Johnson ’70 Traditionally, guests at a tea ceremony wash their hands and rinse their mouths as a purification ritual before entering the tearoom. Therefore, a low stone washbasin (ch¯ozubachi) and bamboo water pipe are provided near the tea garden entrance.

Nobedan path

Nobedan pathNobedan path Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98 Made by paving together many smaller stones, this large path allows guests at a tea ceremony (usually about five people) to stand together when they are greeted by the host. The nobedan often leads from the waiting shelter to the teahouse entrance. The joints between the stones create interesting shadows, whose beauty is a key feature of nobedan.

Viewing shelter 

viewing shelterviewing shelter In Jōryō-en, the shelter is the primary place from which to view the garden. It is modeled after the waiting shelter within a tea garden, which typically includes a wooden frame and bench, stucco or mud plaster walls, and a thatched roof.

Stone bridge 

stone bridgestone bridge Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98 Water—or an element that represents water—is often accentuated by bridges. The original bridge in Carleton’s garden was made out of wood. It was later replaced by this single stone slab from a quarry outside St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Yukimi (“snow viewing”) lantern 

Yukimi ("snow viewing") lanternYukimi ("snow viewing") lantern Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98 This type of Japanese stone lantern is typically placed near water, as it resembles a small hut built near a shore. “Snow viewing” refers to the phenomenon of snow piling up on the wide, low angled roof of the lantern. Designer David Slawson and gardener Mary Bigelow constructed this lantern to look as though it was a natural rock formation.

Dark stone “stream”

stone riverstone river Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98 This stream element is composed of rock from Lake Superior. Japanese gardens often feature water elements—waterfalls, lakes, or even the ocean—crafted from stone.


Caring for the Garden

Special thanks to the Carleton Japanese Garden Advisory Committee, garden consultant John Powell of Zoen Japanese Gardens, the late Mary Bigelow of the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, and the grounds crew and volunteers who care for Jōryō-en. garden volunteersgarden volunteers Photo: Margit Johnson ’70 Pictured above, from left: longtime volunteers Inga Velde, Margit Johnson, and Connie Gunderson



  • CotoneasterA member of the rose family, these shrubs are native to Asia and produce small white flowers followed by bright red berries.Lyn Alice

  • Eastern redbudThe pink flowers on the eastern redbud tree evoke Japanese cherry blossoms. It is native to North America.Lyn Alice

  • Korean mapleThe Korean maple withstands cold weather better than the comparable Japanese maple. Dried leaves remain on its branches throughout the winter.Lyn Alice

  • Vinca minorAlso called myrtle or lesser periwinkle, this ground cover is commonly found in temperate gardens worldwide.Lyn Alice

  • Blue rug juniperLike dwarf Japanese garden juniper, this ground cover features blue-green foliage. It is native to Minnesota.Lyn Alice

  • Korean lilacPlant biologist Frank Nicholas Meyer discovered this species in a Beijing garden in 1909. It has not been found growing in the wild.Lyn Alice


  • August 7 2018 at 2:27 pm
    Sally Jett Davis'58

    The summer 2018 Voice just arrived and I was so happy to see the Japanese Garden booklet. One of my disappointments in June at my 60th reunion was my failure to get to it. The time I set aside for a visit was handicapped by the lack of the garden being shown on the campus map and the failure of the golf cart driver knowing there was such a thing, much less where it was. I told her I knew it was in the area of Watson but that was all I could remember. And I was no longer able to just wander around campus looking for it. I can't imaine why the garden is not on the campus map since it is such a treasure. If I make it to campus again, I will hope to find it even though it carries no memories of my time as a student there. It was the perfect location for our 50th Reunion memorial service.


  • August 7 2018 at 2:43 pm
    Kayla McGrady ’05

    Sally, I don't know why the garden wasn't on the map, either! But I've spoken to the folks who update the campus map every summer, and they're adding the garden to this year's map. So hopefully no one else will be unable to find it. Thanks for pointing out the omission so we could correct it.

Add a comment

The following fields are not to be filled out. Skip to Submit Button.
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)