Crossing Cultures

At the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, an Asian arboretum creates an international experience in the middle of Durham.


With one step, Paul Jones travels nearly 7,000 miles. With one step, he leaves Durham and enters Toyama, Japan.

The process works as quickly the other way. If Jones turns 90 degrees and takes another step, he’ll be back in Durham. But he doesn’t want to leave, not just yet.

Jones is the curator of the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, located within the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, just across the street from Duke University Medical Center. The arboretum is one of four different gardens that make up the 55-acre tract in the middle of Duke University’s west campus.

It turns out, Durham and its sister city, Toyama, Japan, have a lot in common. Both cities have reputations for medical research; industries focused on technological developments; and similar latitudinal coordinates. Durham, at 35 degrees latitude, lies slightly to the south of Toyama at 36 degrees. This linear relationship provides a similar climate and offers Jones the opportunity to educate residents about Asian plants within the Durham city limit.

Deliberate details

When most people take that continent-transporting step through the cedar gate of the Sister Cities Japanese Pavilion — located inside the arboretum to commemorate the partnership between the cities — they don’t recognize exactly where they are. But that’s OK, Jones says. To him, every detail is important, noticed or not.

Since 1994, Jones has taken periodic trips to China and Japan to study the botanical gardens of those countries, gather new plant species, and bring them back to Durham’s Asiatic Arboretum.

In China, some of the most unusual species are located in the more remote areas of the country, sometimes through rocky, mountainous terrain, sometimes accessible only on foot. Jones and his team must have a letter of invitation from a host when they apply for their visas, obtain permits to enter protected areas, and get clearance in advance for the species they intend to bring back with them. It’s a long process, but Jones does it so others don’t have to. His goal is to make the world a little smaller, to place Asian plants within the reach of people who visit a garden in Durham.

Inside the arboretum, a stream trickles down through a quartet of small boulders; a rivulet makes its way through an opening in a stacked-stone wall toward the basin. Jones points out the intentional size and placement of the boulders, the deliberate opening in the wall, the flow of water over the precipice toward the basin.

When taken together, the graceful curve of the elements mimics Japan’s Noto Peninsula. The four boulders invoke Japan’s Tateyama Mountains; the flow of water represents the area’s waterfalls. Each boulder was carefully selected and rolled in on logs, following the Japanese tradition.

Jones explains all these details as if telling his favorite secret, one he shares with anyone who will listen.

The quest for authenticity goes beyond the plants and landscaping. The elegant teahouse has beams — made from the heartwood of Southern longleaf pines — that crisscross in a traditional Japanese style. The posts out front melt into their support stones as if nature fused them together.

The machiai shelter, where guests await the start of a tea gathering, is constructed with stucco imported from Japan. The materials are intentionally simpler and humbler than those of the teahouse itself, to signal the more informal function of that preliminary structure.

Jones knows that if one of those details is missing, if he takes just one shortcut, he won’t provide an authentic experience.

Hospitable host

For Nancy Hamilton, her passion for detail is in the process of tea. Hamilton, coordinator of cultural programming for Duke Gardens, studied Japanese tea gatherings for eight years.

Inside the teahouse in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, Hamilton, with her gentle voice and graceful, purposeful movements, serves as a host for tea gatherings throughout the spring, summer, and fall.

A tea gathering, she says, is about creating a moment, about respite, about aesthetic appreciation for the surroundings, and about connection. She strives to transport participants somewhere else, if only for a few moments.

Hamilton points to the cedar gate at the Japanese Pavilion’s edge called the outer roji, where guests step through and leave their preoccupations behind.

They pause in the waiting shelter until they hear the sound of the host pouring water into a ceramic basin. That simple splashing sound stands out among the peace of the garden and signals the beginning of the tea gathering.

At the basin, guests greet Hamilton and cleanse their hands. Then they remove their shoes and crawl through the teahouse door.

These traditional steps of preparing for a Japanese tea gathering eliminate marks of social status and promote equality. Whether guests crawl through a door in a village in Japan or in a garden in Durham, they receive the same level of respect.

Hamilton never wears a watch; she wants to stay focused on her guests. She purifies each utensil with a cloth after each step, brushes the lid and tea scoop, and wipes the tea bowl. She repeats the action for every cup she prepares. These motions communicate personal attention to each guest.

“It’s all a heartfelt act of hospitality, of giving,” Hamilton says. “The host is conveying the importance of the guests to her.”

When the guests reciprocate the thanks, they do so not so much for her tea, but for her temae, her attention. With every tea gathering, Hamilton teaches that hospitality is a universal concept, a theme of respect that stretches across continents and cultures.

Our State Exclusive Video

Join us for a traditional Japanese tea gathering at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham. Video produced exclusively by Jenny Tenny for Our State.

‘The ultimate compliment’

Behind the teahouse, the doors open onto the surrounding garden and pond.

Once, a Japanese woman, who frequently visits the garden, stood here and said the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum makes her feel transported back to her hometown.

“That’s the ultimate compliment,” Jones says.

That recognition of authenticity makes every mile he traveled worth it. Jones knows he captured every detail just right; he knows he made the world a little smaller. With a feeling of satisfaction, he turns around, takes one step, and travels nearly 7,000 miles back home.

All the rest

While visiting the Asiatic Arboretum, also check out the three other areas within the Sarah P. Duke Gardens.

H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants
Most of the 900 species and varieties of regional native plants, such as the ‘Turk’s cap’ lily (above), were rescued from land facing development.

Exclusive Our State Video
Doris Duke Center and Gardens
Just inside the main entrance and behind the Doris Duke Center, the Page-Rollins White Garden (above) serves as an introduction to the sprawling gardens beyond.

Historic Gardens
The Italianate-style Terrace Garden (above) is the oldest part of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, but the space constantly changes, with different annuals and perennials each season.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens
420 Anderson Street
Durham, N.C. 27708
(919) 684-3698

North Carolina native Jamie Chambliss is a former editor and writer for Atlanta magazine.

This entry was posted in Gardens & Gardening, May 2012, Piedmont. Bookmark the permalink.

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