It’s like Big Foot: you’ve heard rumors of an authentic Japanese garden tucked away somewhere in the vicinity of the Sepulveda Dam, but never actually seen it.  Well, we’re not sure about Sasquatch, but this local hidden gem is more than just a legend. The 6.5-acre oasis brings peace and harmony, not to mention local wildlife encounters and a lesson in drought smart garden design. It’s perfect for a spring break, or anytime, moment of zen.

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After parking in the free lot, head to the gift shop to pay the admission cost of $5 for adults and $3 for kids. Price of entry includes a brochure and a detailed map of the premises; make sure to grab one for your kiddo’s map collection (ah, maps, the perfect free souvenir). If you have a budding horticulturist on your hands, the incredibly detailed plant legend—organized into tree, shrub, groundcover and bamboo categories—on the map will be well appreciated.

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The oasis is named Suiho-en, or “Garden of Water and Fragrance” and was designed by celebrated landscape architect Dr. Koichi Kawana. The garden was ingeniously devised to demonstrate irrigation of a notoriously delicate garden environment with reclaimed water from the adjacent Donald C. Tillman water reclamation plant, providing a lesson in drought-smart gardening that we could all use. So while the name is apt—the unmistakable scent of the water treatment process lingers in the air—the smell isn’t strong enough to detract from the carefully cultivated natural beauty of your surroundings.

The grounds encompass numerous features and environments, all painstakingly designed to be authentic in detail while coexisting in harmony with the adjacent industrial complex, which is also accessible from the garden for self-guided walk through tours.

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After passing through the entry gate into a peaceful Zen meditation garden, proceed along the meandering path toward the more dramatic water features, including waterfalls, lakes and streams. These spots make for great Instagram moments, so don’t forget your phone! Not-so-zen geese and ducks (the quacks and honks mask the sounds of the kids!) wander around, stepping stones invite deeper exploration, and benches afford quiet contemplation.

The garden’s diverse array of plant life includes azaleas, cherry trees, weeping willows, magnolias, wisteria, iris and lotus, creating ever-changing scenery throughout the seasons. Summertime, when the water lilies and lotus flowers are in bloom, is especially striking. Visitors can even enjoy a complimentary cup of tea and learn more about the traditional Japanese tea ceremony in the garden’s tea house and garden.

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Stop by anytime during regular business hours for a self-guided tour, but if you want to learn more about the history and cultural significance of the garden and its relationship with the Tillman plant, docent-led tours can also be arranged in advance for the same admission cost; just call to set it up.

A few tips to keep in mind:  This is a delicate environment, so they request that you don’t bring food (just bottled water) into the garden, and no wandering off the paths.  If the kids have loads of energy and need to run wild, save this outing for another day (or come after a playground visit when they’re tuckered out). The garden closes for bad weather, so it’s wise to call ahead before making the trek. But do visit—this special spot is truly one of LA’s hidden gems.

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The garden is open Monday-Thursday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

The Japanese Garden: Suiho-en
6100 Woodley Ave.
Van Nuys
818-756-8166
Online: thejapanesegarden.com

—written and photos by Erin Harris

What’s your favorite secret garden?   Have you visited The Garden of Oz?  We recommend that be your next discovery after you leave The Japanese Garden!