Kay McFarland Japanese Garden

Japanese Gardens elements and symbolism

The Kay McFarland Japanese Garden began from Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Kay McFarland’s desire to leave an inspirational meditative space for others to enjoy in the Capitol city of the State she served. Completed in Fall of 2020 by architect GLMV, interpretation design of the gallery by Studio Tectonic, and final and authentic design by Garden Master Koji Morimoto, as a world class Japanese garden and event center.


Koji encourages those coming to enjoy the garden to touch the large rock just outside of Crane Gate and consciously transfer their negative energies, stress and worry to this stone.  This is so that visitors enter the garden with a proper mindset. The aim of this space is to provide a place of serenity where the person who enters may relax, recharge and reconnect to find harmony and balance with nature. Visitors to the garden will be entering a space that projects a different atmosphere than the Zoo. The garden design brings to life Koji’s central concept of the two journeys that we can take in life, from birth through maturation, meeting to unite as a couple and becoming a family. After entering, you will notice that the garden was designed to illustrate Koji’s theme by diverging into two pathways; a softer, colorful one curving with sound and a more silent, angular path with a more neutral palette. These pathways eventually merge at the small red bridge to unite. The red color of the bridge symbolizes the path to paradise and immortality.

  •  Origin Pool 
    • From underground, water flows up through a filter system into the Origin Pool. As the pool overflows filling two streams, journeys begin. 
    • The water features on the left of the garden, or the more fluid pathway, are generally streams, small ponds, and quiet pools. While the water features on the right of the garden, or the more rigid pathway, are flowing, moving over rocks, and creating sound. Each individual water feature has its own distinctive auditory effect; rushing, bubbling, or gurgling creating beautiful natural music for  visitors to enjoy.
  • Crane Pool 
    • The Crane Pool consists of a still pool with a lovely waterfall, a small red bridge, vertical standing rocks, and two bronze cranes. 
    • The Small Red Bridge at the overlook above the Crane Pool and Crane Tea House is a beautiful photo opportunity  and a lovely place to experience the waterfall that flows beneath it.
    • The waterfall flowing into the Crane pool and symbolic vertical rock formation represent ancestors, a male, and a female, with the water flowing through and past them towards the Crane Pool, representing their progeny.
  • The Koi Pond 
      • This is the largest pool of water in the garden. Water is an important element that represents tranquility, constant renewal, and the flow of life into the hereafter. 
      • Inside the pond, visitors  will find koi, the crane and turtle islands, water lilies and lotus, a heart rock, and the Kotoji Lantern.
      • Koi 
        • Koi are a type of Carp fish that are graceful, with gorgeous colors. Koi are often called “living flowers” because of their vibrant colors. Associated with perseverance in adversity and strength of purpose, koi are the perfect fish to incorporate in the garden. 
        • Japanese people have a deep connection with koi fish. This bond is built upon the culture and history between people and these fish. Koi fish are known for their longevity; in fact, they can live over 100 years. Koi fish historically were pets to families and to the community. These fish treated people with kindness and loyalty (kind of like dogs). This relationship is similar to people’s bond with bonsai trees, as it is passed on to future generations. Along with the fish itself, the stories of the past generations are carried to their children. The next time one sees a koi fish, whether by deciding to own one, or visiting one in the garden ,remember, “My experience with these fish, will live past me and these memories made will be carried on to my family.”
      • Crane and Turtle Islands
        • Japan is an island surrounded by water, this places significance on islands in Japanese gardens. Both the crane and turtle in Japanese mythology represent longevity, with the crane believed to live 10,000 years. If you stand on the pier, you can see the two across the pond near the lantern made out of rocks perfectly placed to give the shape of the creatures. 
        • The turtle is made up of a large stone emerging from the water representing the head of the turtle, while two smaller stones represent the front flippers and the back of the body is the earth behind these stones. In Japanese mythology, the turtle carries the world on its back. The turtle typically represents a long and happy life and is a symbol of wisdom, luck, and protection. The turtle is magic and unites heaven and earth, with the shell representing heaven and the underside representing earth.
        • There are multiple crane islands throughout the ponds. The male crane, in the Koi Pond, consists of one vertical rock and one horizontal. The female cranes are represented by two domed rock formations.
      • Water Lilies and Lotus
        • On a practical note, waterlilies lie flat on the water and provide the Koi with shade as well as helping to keep algae growth down. They also are an ancient symbol of enlightenment, spiritual growth and purity, spontaneous generation, and divine birth.
        • The Lotus is considered the “flower of Buddha”. It is an emergent flower, rising above the water from a long, strong stem anchored to the muddy bottom of the pond. With its growth from the muddy water to the air, it symbolizes transcendence and is considered a divine and sacred plant.
        • Located at the back of the Koi Pond, the Lotus plants have been transplanted from the pond on Chief Justice Kay McFarland’s property into the Koi pond at the Kay McFarland Japanese Garden. 
      • The Heart Rock 
        • When standing on the dock one can look down and see a heart shape protruding from the water. This happens when the water level of the Koi Pond is just right. The dock is where wedding ceremonies are commonly held, making it the perfect symbol of their union. Every rock in the garden was hand placed, begging the question, was the Heart Rock purposeful or just a beautiful coincidence? 
      • The Kotoji Lantern
        • Kay’s Garden lantern is a Kodoji lantern. It sits with one leg in the water and the other leg on a stone (the earth) to represent the harmony between land and sea. Historically, lanterns were used to guide visitors to the tea house in the evenings.

Throughout the garden, there are three main forms of boulders, tall vertical rocks, horizontal rocks and all remaining rocks.

  • Vertical Boulders 
    • In different vignettes through the garden, boulders have been placed in vertical formations. The vertical boulders represent mountains as Japan is a mountainous country full of peaks and valleys. In Japanese culture, these rocks are considered heavenly. 
  • Horizontal Boulders 
    • Horizontal rocks are considered earthly and give shape to the garden.
  • All other rocks 
    • These rocks are considered humanizing since they are in a neutral position.

650 tons of rocks were harvested from the Wisconsin Minnesota border, hand-picked, and hand-placed in the Kay McFarland Japanese Garden. 


It will take 5-7 years for the plantings in the garden to mature and accomplish their intended purposes.  This includes creating visual barriers resulting in separate experiences on your journey through the garden.  These are similar to divisions in a Bento Box or a tackle box, which allow the visitor to appreciate each area without their senses becoming overwhelmed by viewing the garden in its entirety all at once.

The garden flora includes 40 plus varieties of plants.  These include flowers, flowering shrubs, grasses, trees, moss and water plants.

  • Plants 
    • It will take five-seven years for the plantings in the garden to mature and accomplish their intended purposes, including creating visual barriers resulting in separate experiences on journeys through the garden.  These are similar to divisions in a Bento Box or a tackle box, which allow the visitor to appreciate each area without their senses becoming overwhelmed by viewing the garden in its entirety all at once.
    • The garden flora includes 40 plus varieties of plants.  These include flowers, flowering shrubs, grasses, trees, moss, and water plants.
      • Flowering Shrubs 
        • Peonies, Hostas, Japanese quince, Azaleas, Rhododendrons, Viburnum, Kerria, American burning bush, Pieris japonica (lily of the valley) – has bell-shaped white flowers in the spring
      • Grasses 
        • Dwarf Greenstripe Bamboo – (a gold/cream variegated variety) This grass can be found in a large bed, that is located by the Eight plank bridge.  This grass was transplanted there after being harvested from  Zoo grounds near the hippopotamus exhibit.
        • Japanese comb grass (lime green coloration)
        • Liriope (blooms with small lavender flowers in late summer)
        • Horsetail (an ancient, tube shaped variety with strong vertical lines)
      • Trees 
        • Heritage Tree is located in front of the event venue. This spruce tree has been on site since 1920 and will be left in its natural state.
        • A Scotch Pine is across the path from the Heritage Tree. The scotch pine exhibits the natural S curve which is highly preferred and considered to be very desirable in Japanese gardening. This tree will also be left in its’ natural state as opposed to others that will be trimmed in the Newaki Style, to achieve desired shapes.
        • Cherry Trees – There are three varieties (species) in the garden:
          • Snow Fountain
          • Kwansan
          • Yoshino
        • Japanese Maples – There are multiple varieties (species) including:
          • 3 weeping
          • 4 uprights
          • Japanese white
          • Japanese red
        • Evergreens – There are multiple varieties (species) including:
          • Conifers
          • Cedars
          • Junipers
          • Golden hinokia (located just inside crane gate)
          • Mugho
        • Dogwoods
        • Magnolias
        • Camillia Stewartia – The garden features (3) of these;
          • one close to Crane Gate, one by the Tea House, and the other is located by the Origin Pond.
        • Talk about Seasonality 
        • Cherry Blossom 
        • Rock Raking 
        • Tree Bending
  • Turtle Gate
    • When reserved for private events, guests can enter the garden directly from the parking lot through the Turtle Gate.
    • The tiles on the top of the gate were imported  from Japan and laid with precision 
    • Similar to the Crane Gate, the Turtle Gate was made entirely without screws in the traditional Japanese fashion, with the exception of the door hinges and metal plaque. The metal plaque was hand-made by Koji and marked with a red square, his signature. 
    • The metal plaque depicts the 12 cherry blossoms representing the 12 months of the year. The red dot is Garden Master Koji Morimoto’s signature and the 3 stylized lines represent love, life, and harmony.  Upon entering either gate, these stylized lines are repeated on the walkway. One can see these lines also by the entrance to the Zen Garden. 
  • Crane Gate - 
      • Crane Gate is the preferred entry into the garden, giving way to the upper sacred garden area. 
      • In Japanese gardens everything is balanced. Before crossing through the gate a visitors will see two stones: to the right a small stone, meant to set one’s discontent and sorrows on and to the left a larger taller stone. These two rocks will become balanced as the discontent and sorrows weigh down the smaller stone making it equal to the left larger stone. 
      • The gate was made entirely without screws in the traditional Japanese fashion, with the exception of the door hinges and metal plaque. The metal plaque depicts the 12 cherry blossoms representing the 12 months of the year. The red dot is Garden Master Koji Morimoto’s signature and the three stylized lines represent love, life, and harmony.  Upon entering either gate, these stylized lines are repeated on the walkway.
      • Crossing through the gate visitors have  two choices. Which path is chosen is meant to symbolize one’s way of life; to the right, ridged and full of structure, or to the left, fluid and full of adventure. 
  • Moon Bridge 
    • The Moon Bridge is symbolic of passage to an important place or state of mind. In the Kay McFarland Japanese Garden, it marks the passage between the sacred upper garden  in to the lower garden. In other gardens, the bridge may symbolize a journey between one world and the next or a passage to an important place or state of mind, for instance, from child to adult or single to married. 
    • Before reaching this bridge, the rigid and fluid paths are more narrow and meant for a single person but after the two paths merge and cross over The Moon Bridge the path opens up and becomes wider and is now meant for more than one person. 
    • The red color is significant in Japanese culture as red is significant and natural is second. This means if something is more important it should be colored red rather than left natural to highlight its significance. This bridge is the more significant in the garden as it symbolizes a change in a person therefore it was painted red. The black caps on this bridge reflect the Buddhist ideal of striving to reach the high point.
    • After the Moon Bridge, the Nishinogata lantern can be found to the right. This lantern represents love, brightness, and protection from evil as those who passed over the Moon Bridge continue on their journey.
  • Go-Juno-To Pagoda - 
    • A very ornate and delicate five-foot vertical pagoda showcases  exquisite detailing. From bottom to top the five layers of the pagoda represent earth, fire, water, wind, and space.
  • Ginkgo Yatsu Hashi Bridge or Eight Plank Bridge - 
    • This bridge tells a story dating back to the year 931. In the story, a nobleman from Kyoto was exiled to the countryside and forced to leave his true love behind. On his way back to her, he crossed eight narrow bridges over eight shallow streams. This bridge represents the quest for true love.
  • Red Crown Crane Sculpture

    • Pair of cranes courting one another made by World class artist Paul Rhymer

    • Paul comes from a family of artists and has drawn and painted his whole life.  After receiving an Associate of Arts degree from a local college in 1984, he accepted a job at the Smithsonian Institution doing taxidermy and model making and retired in 2010.  As a result of so much three-dimensional work in his museum job, his own personal artwork gradually began to transform from painting and drawing into sculpture.  Being an avid birder, waterfowl hunter, and taxidermist gives him constant anatomy and behavioral learning experiences that inspire his sculpture.

    • Paul’s work has been exhibited in such prestigious art shows such as the National Sculpture Society, the Society of Animal Artists, and Birds in Art. His wildlife sculpture is at the National Zoo, National Museum of Natural History, the Denver Zoo, Woodson Art Museum, Hiraim Blauvelt Museum and various public buildings and parks and private collections thought the US. He is on the Boards of Directors for the Society of Animal Artists and the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art.

  • Machiai or Waiting Room 
    • This is where a person goes to sit and wait for their mind and body to prepare to experience the garden. 
    • At the foot of the waiting room, look down, a stepping stone can be found to adhere to the ancient traditions. Stepping stones are used to slow a person’s pace prior to entering a garden structure. 
  • The Crane Tea House
    • Leading up to the Crane Tea House visitors are greeted with the Rok-kaku-yukimigata lantern and a stone basin and bamboo fountain intended to be used for the ritual bathing of hands and feet done before entering. 
    • The entry to the Tea House is known in Japanese culture as the building’s face. On either side of the face are large smooth stones. These are actually only the top of very tall stones that have been buried vertically in the ground. In addition, specially created classical style vertical round poles sit on both sides of the entryway.
    • Along with the water element, there are stepping stones, each one further than the next to force one to slow down before entering the structure. 
    • Designed with simplicity and tranquility in mind, the Crane Tea House uses limited materials providing one with a place for reflection as they gaze upon the Crane Pool. The tradition of a tea ceremony dates back to the 9th Century and was brought to Japan from China. Ceremonies would last for 4 ½-5 hours and every aspect of the tea ceremony is steeped in ritual and meaning representing purity, tranquility, respect, and harmony.
    • Bronze Cranes 
  • The Gallery and Event Venue
    • Inside the Gallery, one will find a wall acknowledging donors who made this project possible. Directly across from the entrance into the Gallery is a display wall, commemorating the accomplishments of the late Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Kay McFarland. The other seven walls explain the nature of a Japanese garden through comparison photography from Japanese and Kansas landscapes. Next to the Gallery is an Event Venue for celebrations and meetings.
    • Outside the Gallery and Event Venue are two Katshuga lanterns. These lanterns are based upon the dream of a monk in which he saw a Spirit riding a sacred white deer out of the mountains. The lotus leaf topped lanterns have images of the white deer on each side.
  • Event Venue 
    • The Event Venue is the perfect place to hold an event due to its exotic and tranquil atmosphere. The Event Venue offers indoor and outdoor options while providing an experience that you will never forget. Beautiful landscapes and wild experiences await your group.
    • The Event Venue has it all from technology including large monitors and speakers to take your event to the next level. Our contemporary and elegant Event Venue can can seat up to 200 people, with lots of outdoor space in the garden 
    • The Event Venue also has a Private Room and a Private Garden that can be used during rentals. From the Private Garden, one can enter into the main garden via a private gate. 


For more rental information please visit Private Events.

  • Addison’s Dry Rock Garden or Zen Garden
    • This hidden gem can be found on the west side of the event venue. It has an eight-stone grouping representing the immortals (godly spirits that guide one’s life). The dry landscape technique is a combination of stones and sand to suggest water and mountains. Boulders are placed to represent islands (a piece of land in an infinite ocean), an eagle’s nest, and mountains of Japan’s diverse landscape. The largest rock in the entire garden can be found at the far right, it weighs in excess of 7 tons. Rick’s Rock, a unique stone befitting its’ namesake, is a tall stone with a dramatic pink band. 
    • Patterns are raked into the stone to suggest a ripple pattern, representing water, or other patterns such as peacocks. This raking is done in the traditional Japanese style with four and eight tined rakes. These rakes were handmade by Rick Knight, the zoo’s horticulturist and grounds manager.
    • In a Japanese Garden, Zen Gardens are intended to be a place for meditation. The dry landscape is based on the art of existential emptiness and nothingness, providing a meditative character to the garden.

Join us in welcoming in the spring and celebrating life at the Kay McFarland Japanese Garden located in the Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center. We will be hosting a two month long event April - May with a variety of activities and events. From Arts and Crafts to Yoga and Art and Wine classes, we have a calendar of events for all ages! We will be kicking off this event April 10th with our Opening Day festival.

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