About Us / History

Our Organization: The Japanese Cultural Center, Tea House, and Gardens of Saginaw, Inc. is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that is dedicated to implement its mission “to promoting intercultural understanding and peace through a bowl of tea.”

Situated in Saginaw’s Celebration Square along Ezra Rust Drive for more than 50 years, the 3-acre Tokushima-Saginaw Friendship Garden slopes down to the shore of Lake Linton. It is a quiet, safe haven to view weeping cherry trees, authentic stone lanterns, and a vermilion bridge that arches over a winding stream. The highlight to the strolling garden is the Awa Saginaw An built in 1985, a genuine sukiya style Japanese Tea House nestled in lush green foliage, built by sukiya daiku, – artisanal carpenters, with construction materials directly imported from Japan, the teahouse is treasured as an architectural and cultural landmark.

Since it’s opening in 1986, the Japanese Cultural Center, Tea House, and Gardens of Saginaw is dedicated to implement its mission to “to promote intercultural understanding and peace through sharing tea.” It has since offered tea ceremony demonstrations – a 500 year old tradition as well as garden and teahouse tours for groups and walk-in visitors . The Center has since offered tea ceremony demonstrations—a 500-year-old tradition. It also offers garden and teahouse tours daily and variety of programs and festivals showcasing Japanese arts and culture attracting thousands of visitors from the Great Lakes and Bay Regions and beyond.

Saginaw’s treasured landmark welcomes the public to appreciate and enjoy
the unique and authentic beauty of Japanese cultural traditions.

It all began with friendship
Saginaw became a sister city with Tokushima, Japan in 1961. The initiative was spawned by Hiroyuki Takagi from Tokushima, a young exchange student at Michigan State University, who lived in Saginaw while pursuing his field of study. When Hiroyuki returned home, he took with him a dream and enthusiasm to form a relationship between two cities.

When he appealed to the Tokushima’s mayor, he was asked ‘Why Saginaw? Why not a well-known American city, like New York or Los Angeles?” Hiro replied, “The people of Saginaw may ask, ‘Why Tokushima?” It was his persistence, sincerity, and the support from his Saginaw host family that finally made his vision come true on August 24th, 1961.

The idea to build Saginaw-Tokushima Friendship Garden has contributed to the creation of an urban oasis, an idyllic safe haven for more than half the century

As a reminder of a tangible friendship between the two cities, the Saginaw city council dedicated a property to the cause in 1963, and spent the next five years planning and fundraising to create the garden.

The City of Tokushima sent two stone lanterns, in addition to their greatest contribution, and the landscape artist, Yataro Suzue. With 45 years of professional experience, the 68-year-old took over working operations together with Lori Barber, Saginaw native, garden designer. He spent 80 days in Saginaw overseeing the construction, which included the placement of literally every rock, some weighing up to four tons, all without speaking a word of English. Mr. Suzue also donated several boulders excavated from Tokushima’s Anabuki River and shipped by air. These rocks rarely found elsewhere were prized for their bluish green color. “All I want to do is to recreate beauty. God made nature, but gave people the power to create the art that constitutes it,” Mr. Suzue stated.

“Beauty is not trickery, not illusion…but arranging elements like trees, water, and rocks in a way that there is no crowding, no competition for attention.” (Yataro Suzue, Tokushima’s native landscape artist, 1971.)

The three-acre Tokushima-Saginaw Friendship Garden in the heart of Saginaw’s Central Park System near downtown, has offered free admission for more than 50 years. The scenic garden encompasses an open field with matured trees to the shore of Lake Linton overlooking Ojibwe Island. Visitors are guided to the featured rock landscapes—the waterfall, the winding stream under the vermillion arch bridge, stone lanterns, and Tokushima’s Blue Rocks.

Nestled in the garden—Awa Saginaw An
On August 7, 1978, Saginaw City Council deeded half of the garden property, 18,000-square-feet, to Tokushima as a sign of friendship, with the hope that someday an authentic Japanese teahouse would be built. Half of the teahouse would be Saginaw’s property and the other half, Tokushima’s property, with both cities splitting the cost of construction.

Tsutomu Takenaka, teahouse architect of Sen Art Studio in Kyoto, and city planning officials from Tokushima visited in 1980 to draw blueprints of the construction. Due to the economic hardships of those years, however, fundraising faced difficulty. Through perseverance, the two cities finally reached their funding goal in November 1984.

The inside framework of the tearoom was crafted and assembled in Japan by master carpenters trained in the centuries-old art of Japanese joinery, which use no nails, screws, or power tools. Each wooden piece of the structure was carefully chosen for its quality and natural texture and then intricately notched and fitted together by hand. Once the framework was completed in Japan, it was disassembled and brought to Michigan. Then Japanese craftsmen reassembled it inside the pre-existing shell and on the foundation built by American workers in Saginaw. American and Japanese carpenters working side by side to build the teahouse, a one-year project, came to fruition.

Jihei Takeuchi, a master Japanese carpenter from Kyoto, left an impression on his American counterparts. Trained as a sukiya daiku, an expert in centuries-old teahouse construction methods, he made little noise working with his traditional tools. Instead of power tools, the sukiya daiku shaped wood with nomi, a set of incredibly sharp chisels. Insisting that harsh rubbing would “kill” the natural grain of wood, Takeuchi would not use sandpaper. Instead, he used a kan-na, a plane made from a block of wood and a sharp piece of metal. In place of nails, wooden pegs were used to join pieces of wood in incredibly intricate patterns. No paint or varnish was used because it would mask the natural beauty of the wood. How sturdy could a structure built without modern equipment be? Jihei Takeuchi guaranteed his work to last “for 300 years.”

In addition to deploying Japanese specialists, the construction of the teahouse utilized materials imported from Japan to make it truly authentic. Building materials used to construct the teahouse convey humility and harmony with nature. The designer envisioned the structure to be simple and humble. In order to achieve this aesthetic effect, for example, knots in the wood as well as pieces of bark were left untouched. From the Kitayama Mountain of Kyoto came the finest Japanese cypress. Mud processed and shipped from Shikoku Island plastered the walls. Traditional Japanese tatami flooring made of woven straw covered the tearoom, and shoji, paper screens, filtered the light from the windows. Even the stepping-stones were carefully chosen in Japan and brought here. Mr. Takenaka would have accepted nothing but the best. If the building materials were off by an eighth of an inch or if the wood looked too dark or too light, work would stop until suitable replacements were found. Takenaka reached into his own pockets to cover extra expenses. “If I created an inferior-quality structure, Americans would say, ‘so, this is an example of Japanese standards.’ I don’t want that to happen. I want to show the best.”

Roji—a gateway to the world of tea ceremony
Guests at a tea ceremony begin their experience by walking through a chaniwa, tea garden. Like most Japanese gardens after the 12th century, the chaniwa features a few, if any, flowering plants. Evergreens and shrubs are preferred as they tend to stay green all year long. They symbolize the longevity and wisdom of old age as revered in Zen.

The guests enter the garden through a bamboo gate called Nakamon. This gate is narrow, requiring visitors to enter one at a time discouraging conversation with each other. The path through the garden, roji, consists of stepping-stones laid over the mossy ground. Attention is called on, while taking steps from stone to stone, to shifting one’s thoughts from the external world to the “here and now.” The roji leads to a stone water-basin called Tsukubai. Here, the visitor finds a bamboo ladle used to collect water pouring from a kakei or kakehi, bamboo spout. Rinsing your hands and mouth at the tsukubai symbolizes purification—washing away trivial daily concerns and clearing the mind.

The Roji ends with a kutsunugi-ishi, “shoe-removing-stone.” As the name suggests, this is where the guests remove and leave their shoes before entering the teahouse. This stone is carefully chosen for its shape to serve the intended use. The Awa Saginaw An’s kutsunugi-ishi weighs over 5000 pounds, and like all the roji stepping stones here was imported from Japan.

Upon entering the tearoom, guests move directly to the tokonoma, alcove. Equivalent to one-tatami-mat length, the tokonoma displays objects for viewing by the guests. Though their arrangement may vary, the items placed in a tearoom’s tokonoma customarily include a hanging scroll, s flower vase, and art objects on display. The left hand column of a tokonoma is called a toko-bashira, pillar, and is the most important aspect of the alcove as its form influences the character of the room. A guest kneels in front of a tokonoma, bows as a gesture of appreciation and respect for the host’s thoughtfulness, and proceeds to view and admire the objects displayed for their benefit.

Modern Tearoom – Ryurei Style
Along with a tatami mat tearoom, the Awa-Saginaw An has an adjoining Ryurei-style room. The eleventh Grand Tea Master Gengensai originated this style for the 1873 exhibition held in Tokyo. His new adaptation used benches and tables, along with a stand for the placement of tea utensils. The tea master created this style in consideration for Westerners, who were unaccustomed to kneeling on a tatami mat. Although Gengensai’s deviation from the tradition was initially met with criticism from the school of tea ceremony, this accommodation demonstrated his sincere desire to share chanoyu, tea ceremony, with the world while preserving the essence of authenticity for the Japanese.


Masumi Azu-Boles
Executive Director

Mami Roush
Administrative Assistant

Alicja Dennis

Austin Brown

Board of Directors

Mr. Todd Hall, President
Glastender, Inc

Mr. James Gerding, Secretary & Treasurer

Ms. Masumi Azu-Boles

Prof. Monika Dix
Saginaw Valley State University

Ms. Renee Harvey
eXp Realty

Mr. Phil Karwat
City of Saginaw

Mr. Michael Wooley Warner
Norcross & Judd LLP

Director Emeritus

Miss Holly Furlo
Saginaw Valley State University

Ms. Yoko Mossner

Mr. Les Tincknell

Tokushima Members

Mayor Sawako Naito

Mr. Hiromu Morizumi

Ms. Michiko Shundou

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