Words by Andrea Darr | Photos by Matthew Anderson
he Kay McFarland Japanese Garden at the Topeka Zoo transports visitors to an authentic Japanese landscape for pleasure and meditation.
A former two-and-a-half-acre parking lot at Gage Park, home of the Topeka Zoo, is now a flourishing scene of beauty. While the concrete may be gone at the surface level, the remains of the once-largest pool in the United States lie deep underneath a bubbling water garden where koi serenely swim.
The late Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Kay McFarland, who spearheaded the project and for whom the garden is now named, had a passion for gardening and a personal connection to a very specific type of landscape found in a very specific place: Japan.
There are trees and flowers in this garden, of course, yet many may feel a sense of unfamiliarity or curiosity. Rocks seem to have something to say here; energy shifts as you cross a bridge over a boulder-lined creek.
“It is a challenge to explain something you’ve never actually experienced authentically,” says local landscape designer Koji Morimoto, owner of Japanese Landscaping. He worked with GLMV Architecture and KBS Constructors to bring the characteristics that define not only the place but also the feeling of a true Japanese garden all the way to the plains of Kansas.
“We wanted it to be as authentic as possible,” says Fawn Moser, director of operations at the Topeka Zoo. “That’s why we built the tea house facing one direction, why rope is used a certain way and why there’s a particular rock along a path.”
“The trees and rocks are not just individual pieces,” Koji adds. “It’s all connected, creating specific ideas or emotional feelings.”
Those feelings are mainly about family, community and time; the generations both before and after, all gazing at the same hunk of granite or cooling off under an age-old pine. Nature acts as the common denominator throughout each person’s existence.
“In Kyoto, those rocks have been in the same spot for 500 to 600 years,” Koji says. “Even when I’m no longer here, people will see this garden as I saw it and will appreciate it more.”
To achieve authenticity, all the garden’s granite rocks were imported and hand-selected by Koji for shape and size. Limestone, found prevalently in Kansas, would not be a good choice as it will be gone in 50 years, returning to dust, he says.
Turtle and crane sculptures aid in the representation of long life and prosperity. An Asian-inspired event center at the pond’s edge regularly welcomes families joining in matrimony and other celebratory occasions.
Opened to the public in 2020, the garden is just starting to grow. And Koji notes that it already has a lot to teach about seeing the cycle of life and living with gratitude. “We can feel thankfulness and pure love in this garden,” Koji says.
Kay never got to see the garden she advocated for, passing away 18 months into the design process. But her passion lives on here, bringing people together—Koji hopes—for the next several hundred years.
“To grow in the community, this is the most important,” he says. “It is a nice garden, but its story is the richness in life.”