Japanese Friendship Garden is a cultural gem in the heart of Phoenix

The Japanese Friendship Garden shown Oct. 2, 2019. (Hope O'Brien/DD)

For Phoenix, the connection to a sister city 6,000 miles away can be seen by stepping into the three-and-a-half-acre traditional garden in the corner of Margaret T. Hance park.

Phoenix’s Japanese Friendship Garden began as an idea presented by Matsuji Totani, the mayor of Himeji, Japan, in 1987.

Construction of the garden was proposed to strengthen a friendship between Phoenix and Himeji, which is one of Phoenix’s 10 sister cities. According to Sister Cities International, sister cities are two communities in two separate countries that have a long-term relationship.

The garden opened in 2002, sharing the culture of Japan with its visitors ever since.

According to Reiko Reavis, the executive director of the garden, everything that is done in the upkeep of the garden is meant to preserve the Japanese culture.

“The gardeners that shape the trees are trained in Japan,” Reavis said. “They trim each tree in specific shapes.”

The garden’s Japanese name, Ro Ho En, is a direct symbol of the connection between the two cities. “Ro” is the Japanese word for the heron bird, which is the symbol of the Himeji Castle. “Ho” is the Japanese word for the Phoenix bird. And “En” is the Japanese word for “garden.”

Ben Schrepf, the garden curator, said the garden makes an effort to share Japanese culture with the Phoenix community.

The Friendship Garden offers events and opportunities for visitors to learn about Japanese culture such as an annual Otsukimi Moonviewing Festival; an annual exhibition of “ikebana,” or traditional Japanese flower arrangements; and more.

“There’s not that many authentic Japanese style gardens that have so much to offer in terms of the cultural programming of it,” Schrepf said.

For those connected to the garden like John Enright, who has been volunteering there for more than 20 years, being in the garden itself has its own calming effect.

“If you don’t notice the plants or the fish or the stones, but you walk out feeling serene, then we have accomplished our mission,” he said.

That mission is printed on each map and garden pamphlet: “Our mission is to maintain a beautiful, serene Japanese garden in the heart of Phoenix and provide educational and artistic programs and events that continue to deepen our relationships and celebrate the rich history and culture of Japan.”

Reavis said the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix has kept as much authenticity as possible while functioning in a desert.

For Shayna Price, the cultural programmer for the garden, Ro Ho En is something to be proud of.

“It’s sort of a hidden gem in the middle of downtown,” Price said. “I’m glad there’s a piece of authentic culture that the people of Phoenix can be exposed to.”

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