The garden pulls you in; first via a wooden bridge, then a concrete walkway that soon gives way to a dirt path. The path, lined with rocks, lowers you closer to the river. Trees shroud the sunlight, and a small area under a second bridge interrupts the trail, providing a place to sit. The path continues upward and carries you to a small waterfall and back up to where you started.
The Japanese Friendship Garden sits on an island on the Snake River in Idaho Falls, just south of the Broadway Bridge. One of the most well-known landmarks of Idaho Falls, the gardens are the most visible product of the relationship between this small American city and a Japanese village 5,000 miles away.
With a population that is 89 percent white, Idaho Falls isn’t the most culturally or ethnically diverse city. However, the city’s membership in the Sister Cities International program helps bring a bit of Japanese culture to Eastern Idaho’s largest city.
Sister Cities International is a non-profit organization that facilitates more than 2,000 partnerships in 145 countries worldwide. The program began in 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed a way cities across the world could connect and share their culture. Eisenhower hoped that fostering friendly relations with diverse cities would prevent conflict in a world where nuclear war was a constant threat.
Idaho Falls entered into a sister city partnership with Tokai, Japan, in 1981. Since then, student and adult delegations from each city have alternated visits to the other each year.
Tokai is a village known for several nuclear research centers and an agricultural economy dominated by sweet potatoes, an interesting detail juxtaposed to Idaho’s large potato-growing economy and the Idaho National Laboratory, known for nuclear research, near Idaho Falls.
In 1991, on the 10th anniversary of the Sister City partnership, Tokai donated a stone lantern to Idaho Falls, which today sits at the edge of the gardens. Lanterns of this kind are the product of more than four months of labor and are valued at over $100,000.
In the succeeding years, a team of volunteers built a garden around the lantern, carving paths and planting trees and bushes.
Idaho Falls designer Edward Zaladonis is chiefly responsible for much of the architecture in the garden. In 2012, Zaladonis built an entrance to the gardens. He and several other volunteers soon after began plans for the addition of a pavilion.
Zaladonis and his wife joined the student exchange program with Tokai several years ago. They helped raise funds to send students to Japan and served as chaperones to students participating in the exchange.
Zaladonis maintains a Japanese garden at his own home, and his interest in Japanese culture and architecture inspired him to put his skills to work on the Friendship Garden.
Four years of planning, along with thousands of hours of labor and 8,000 pounds of roof tiles shipped from Japan, went into the construction. An Eagle Scout project gathered lava rock used to build walls and an overlook near the pavilion.
The pavilion opened October 2016 in a ceremony attended by city officials, residents and representatives from Tokai.
The Friendship Garden reminds us of the diverse cultures that exist in the world and the power that forming bonds between cultures can have on communities willing to extend a hand to enrich one another.
Even in the winter months, where most of the plants deny the garden their natural beauty, the Friendship Garden serves as a place to forget you’re in the middle of the downtown district of a city.
Most of the rocky island sits below the bridge and the street level, removing the distractions of traffic from sight. Listen and you’ll hear them, but the flow of the Snake River and the cover of the trees envelop you and pull you away from everything happening outside.