Volunteers build Japanese Friendship Garden in Idaho Falls

Judy Seydel and Clarke Kido have been instrumental in the creating a Friendship Garden at Sportsman Park Kido has been involved in the Idaho Falls Sister Cities program with Tōkai Japan, since its inception in 1981.Seydel is a master gardener who helped design the garden and organize volunteers. Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com

For some in Idaho Falls, the scenic vestiges of Sportsman Park are a reminder of how the community has grown up around an island known to early settlers as Taylor’s Crossing.

Today, that island is home to a Japanese-themed Friendship Garden, a respite created by hundreds of volunteers, who started the project in 2011. But the process of transforming the volcanic outcropping began long ago.

“There is so much history here,” Clarke Kido said. “One hundred years ago, this was the primary crossing of the Snake River, and this place is very much ingrained into the history of the entire area.”

Kido is a founding member of the Friendship Garden steering committee.

The island, located on Broadway south of the Broadway bridge and next to Key Bank in downtown Idaho Falls, has supported multiple bridges. Later, it was home to a fish hatchery producing as many as 30,000 fingerlings a year during the 1930s, with a goal of replenishing declining fish populations.

Efforts to turn the island into a park began as early as 1934, historical records show. Various efforts were made to landscape the area, but several floods washed away that work.

In the 1980s, the Idaho Falls Rotary Club made significant improvements, including the creation of a Japanese Memorial platform. The memorial signified a new relationship with and cultural exchange between Idaho Falls and its sister city, Tokai, Japan. The platform includes a large decorative Japanese lantern donated by Tokai.

But in 1997, spring runoff caused major flooding, ruining many of the improvements. Much of the park was allowed to return to nature, but it continued to be used, particularly because of the symbolic gift from Japan.

“Each year when we had guests from Tokai, we planted ceremonial trees and visited the lantern to celebrate our friendship, but the rest of the island wasn’t really suitable or hospitable for arriving guests. That started the idea to help the city improve the island,” Kido said.

In 2011, the idea gathered new momentum in the aftermath of a tsunami that caused widespread damage in Japan, including Tokai.

“The interest to rebuild this into a peaceful and serene area, picked up support from our friends in Japan because they saw that our efforts to rebuild this park paralleled their efforts to rebuild in Japan,” Kido said.

Project manager Judy Seydel, garden designer Mike Zaladonis and Kido pitched the idea to the city.

“We had to get permission from the city … and I realized that a lot of people approach the city with ideas and then it never gets done,” Seydel said. “But they gave us a (small area) … a three-year trial period … and said knock yourselves out, just don’t come to us for money.”

They organized a small army of volunteers from the Idaho Falls Civitans, Sister City Association, Bonneville County Master Gardeners and others to begin small projects, such as clearing debris and diseased trees, restoring paths and bridges and planting beds of flowers, as well as building stylized marble benches and bamboo fences.

Although the local climate and soil are vastly different, gardeners tried to use plants and themes similar to those found in traditional Japanese gardens.

“The most important elements of a Japanese garden are the stones and water — they are the bones and the water gives you that feeling of life,” Zaladonis said. “Whenever possible, we used Japanese plants…. We also prune (trees and bushes) using the same principles the Japanese use.”

The work has taken upward of 12,000 hours with as many as 250 people helping out. As the two-acre garden started taking shape, the city incrementally allowed access to more of the island. The steering committee worked with other community groups to collect about $65,000 in donations and grants.

In 2012, several major improvements were completed. A “Dragon Path” of artistically carved stone was installed in a settling pond, a system of streams and waterfalls were restored. A large wooden platform was built to cover over the potentially dangerous fish hatchery ruins.

Numerous improvements remain on the horizon, Seydel said. Perhaps the largest of those already is underway — creation of an open-air “Moon Pavilion,” authentically designed by engineer Edward Zaladonis, the brother of Mike Zaladonis. It is expected to be finished in time for the July visit of a Tokai Sister Cities delegation.

“The term Friendship Garden seems to fit, because everyone has friends and can come enjoy the area, its history and our cultural diversity,” Kido said. “We are proud of our park and excited for people to come that have never been here to enjoy it … and for people who have previously been here to come and be surprised by the things here now.”