*This story was published in the July 24th edition of the Hastings Tribune.
In a place far away, like Ozu, Japan, to be exact, gardens are wildly popular and carry lots of cultural significance.
“Japanese landscape gardens have been apart of that culture since the 1200s,” Blake Michael Holen, Coordinator of International Relations in Ozu, Japan, said. “The lords would go there, drink tea and look at the garden. Each garden has a design and represents something.”
6,500 miles to the west, in Hastings, NE, there’s a little known garden and a group of gardeners who have helped share their culture and form a bond between Hastings and Ozu for the last twenty years.
“In 1995, I thought we would just come over and build a garden, since there was a desire to build a Japanese garden in Nebraska,” Sellchi Kamaura, 67, master gardener, teacher and artist behind the Hastings and Ozu Friendship Garden said. “I thought that was all that would happen. I didn’t think I would be coming back so many times to do this.”
But he did just that. Kamaura, along with fellow gardeners Natoshi Higashi, 59, and Hiromi Furusho, 68, have been back six times in all. On each of these visits, they take time to perfect and sculpt the garden to represent the mountains of Mt. Aso.
“This one (garden) represents Mount Aso. If you’re in Ozu, you’re going to get a great view of Mt. Aso,” Blake Michael Holen, Coordinator of International Relations and translator in Ozu said. “If you’re standing in the (Hazelrigg) Student Union, this is what the garden is supposed to represent.”
The Friendship Garden, which features trees, shrubbery, large rocks, and a bamboo fence tied with traditional Japanese knots, is designed strictly from master gardener Kamaura’s vision.
“I’ve seen many Japanese gardens,” Burton Nelson, Japanese Garden Caretaker and Hastings International Exchange Organization member said. “He (Kamaura) designed this garden beautifully. He is an amazing artist.”
The design Kamaura has for the garden is something formed strictly from memory and creative vision. That same vision however, is something that drives him and the other gardeners to make sure every detail is perfect.
“I remember there was a big boulder and it was an inch off,” Franc Wagner, Japanese Garden Caretaker and Hastings International Exchange Organization member said. “He (Kamaura) was so meticulous, he made them move the boulder a few inches, just so it was perfect.”
While all three of these men have come together to create something special far away from home, their backgrounds are far from the same.
Kamaura is a master gardener, who now teaches the art of Japanese gardening back in Ozu. He is often looked to as the leader of the group and is known for his creative visions for his gardens.
Furusho, who has visited Hastings on three different occasions, is a farmer from Ozu. Fursusho, the eldest of the group, has been farming for over 51 years and specializes in trees, bushes, corn and cucumbers.
Higashi, better known as “James Dean in Hastings”, is a nurseryman and seedling manager in Ozu, and often looks to Kamaura for direction in sculpting the garden.
Why James Dean?
“When I came to Hastings for the first time, I got really nervous during public speaking and was thinking about how to introduce myself,” Higashi said. “My last name is Higashi, which in Japanese, translates to east. The movie East of Eden is a classic film that James Dean stars in. So I figured that would help people remember my name.”
Although their love for gardening and the Sister City relationship between Hastings and Ozu is important to them, that’s not the only reason they keep coming back.
“I like working with the garden and just everyone with the HIEO,” Furusho said. “The welcome I get here is always very warm and kind and I just love all the people here.”