“They have plenty of boulders,” Hoichi Kurisu says with a laugh. The award-winning garden master is talking about a project he’s designing on a dry part of Moloka’i, Hawaii, that’s surrounded by big rocks and aggressive plants. With this job, he says, “we are not going to a regular landscape.” Still, after more than 50 years as a designer, it’s far from the most irregular landscape he’s dealt with. Perhaps nothing else he’s done compares to the Oregon State Penitentiary.
Why A Garden Matters
In 2014, a group of inmates told Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) officials that they wanted to create a garden inside the prison yard; a koi pond, specifically. Naturally, the first question officials asked was how they were going to pay for it. The inmates applied for grants and made presentations to donors, and by happenstance, a friend of Kurisu’s son heard about the inmates’ wish and put an OSP liaison in touch with Kurisu.
It had never occurred to Kurisu to create a garden inside prison walls, but hearing the men speak from their hearts instantly convinced him to become involved. “We met, and after listening to a few words, I said ‘I’ll do it!’ Their desire was so pure and good.” Kurisu saw that the inmates wanted to do something positive—to create a space that could break down the barriers between each other, resolve conflicts, generate peace. Their wish for healing resonated with Kurisu. “They demonstrate the ultimate goal of our company.”
That goal is not unique to Kurisu International, but rather an element of all Japanese gardens. “The garden isn’t a science,” Kurisu says. “The garden is an experience. [Garden design] is a sensory field—it’s not mathematic, or geometric. … The goal of a Japanese garden is to build an experience and a sensory space.”
The combination of individual elements — rock, bamboo, birdsong, wind—creates a sense of balance and synergy, where no single element is more important than another. The sound of gravel, the vibrations of it crunching underfoot, these stimuli change visitors from the moment they enter the garden. The screeching of bamboo branches blowing against each other in the wind is an example of what Kurisu calls “nature’s song,” and taking the time to listen has the capacity to alter us. “Tuning your heart toward that — it means you’re forgetting your agony. That moment [creates] a pure sense in the heart.”
When done right and approached with an open mind, the garden creates what the Japanese call Mu—a state of pure human awareness, free from the baggage of the ego. Such gardens invite visitors to be more deliberate in their movements, and to humble themselves to nature. If a low branch drapes across a path, the Japanese garden expects a passerby to simply bow under it. Visitors submit to the experience of nature instead of trying to conquer it.
Achieving those effects is a challenge anywhere, but particularly difficult inside the walls of a prison.
Carving Out Space In The Yard
After he spoke with the inmates, Kurisu began calling in favors. He got some trees and plants donated, and almost $500,000 in grants won by the prisoners secured funding for other material costs. The inmates agreed to do the labor themselves. The largest remaining hurdle was the Japanese garden concept of shikkei, or borrowed scenery, in which the surroundings become another “material” in the designer’s toolbox. But incorporating the natural elements from the garden’s setting is difficult when the garden sits amidst guard towers, cell blocks and razor-wire-topped fences. For Kurisu, as much as anything, it was a problem of scale.
The principles and proportions of a Japanese garden remain in place regardless of where the garden is located, so how could he create something that worked with the looming impediments of the prison yard but still met strict regulations? “The prison walls were not the challenge; the challenge was the federal regulations,” he explains. He couldn’t use boulders or trees taller than three feet, and the pond could only be 18 inches deep.
As is often the case though, nature—or in this case, those longing for nature—finds a way. “Humans create human rules,” Kirusu chuckles. The inmates, who’d become skilled presenters and advocates, continued to press their case, and eventually, “the administration gradually opened their minds, and the top administrator finally said, ‘Okay, you guys — do it.’”
Finally, in November 2019, five years after the idea first arose, a nearly 16,000-square-foot space, with pines, maples, rocks, waterfalls and koi opened. Some of the men, locked up for decades, were so starved for nature that they hugged the new trees and curled up beneath them. Department of Corrections staff noted that the atmosphere and mood of the entire prison has been elevated.
Kurisu hopes that this could be the seed for changing the American prison system. “Nature’s power to carry away human agony is tremendous.”
Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity.