At Japan House, Offerman's gazebo no longer off the beaten path

At Japan House, Offerman's gazebo no longer off the beaten path

URBANA — A gazebo tucked in the woods near the University of Illinois Japan House may be famous because of its creator — actor and UI theater alumnus Nick Offerman — but until now, it was quite literally off the beaten path.

No longer. A winding, landscaped sidewalk designed by Japan House founder Shozo Sato, Offerman's mentor at the university, now leads visitors to the gazebo, or "azumaya," built by the "Parks and Recreation" star and his California woodshop.

The concrete path was poured in May. Students and UI Arboretum staff have since been planting Japanese maples, azaleas, rhododendrons and other shrubs to create a new garden across the pond from Japan House in the arboretum.

Eventually, as funds are available, the sidewalk will connect to the longer path circling Japan House and a new garden on the nearby island, said Diane Anderson, the arboretum's horticulturalist.

"This is just the beginning," Sato said on a brief tour of the site this week.

Cynthia Voelkl, assistant director of Japan House, said it's part of a larger effort to link the Japan House garden with some of the arboretum's other features.

"The azumaya gift from Nick Offerman was just an incredible gift," she said. "It just totally changed that space. But there wasn't really any way to get to it, especially in terms of handicapped accessibility."

She said a donor approached Japan House to create a small garden space in honor of a loved one, and the staff worked with the arboretum to develop the small garden around the gazebo. The donors have made an annual commitment that will help expand the gardens over time, she said.

The current walkway circling Japan House, about a third of a mile long, was funded with a memorial gift by the family of Frank Kari, who received his doctorate in nutritional sciences at the UI. It winds through a hosta garden, a grove of cherry trees, the ponds and the formal garden around Japan House.

"When the Kari walkway went in, use of the arboretum just skyrocketed," Voelkl said. "It really changes how people use the space."

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The island in the center of the ponds, now accessible by a foot bridge, will eventually become another Japanese garden, she said.

"It's a work in process," Voelkl said. "There's still lots more to do. But we're really excited."

The new sidewalk connects the bridge to the gazebo and will feature two benches and a large memorial stone dedicated to the donor's loved one.

The fanciful design of the pathway matches the floor of the gazebo, with textured swirling designs imprinted into the concrete portraying the shadows thrown by trees in the dappled sunlight.

Sato said he wanted the walkway to beckon people into the garden and on to the gazebo, where they can sit and enjoy the view of the ponds and Japan House. Visitors coming off the footbridge, he hopes, will see the designs and think, "What is this?"

"It's an indication, in a silent way," he said.

The designs were created in wet concrete with a giant "paintbrush" made out of sliced bamboo plants, then filled with pebbles in spots.

Duce Construction poured the concrete in four sections, one at a time, so Sato and his helpers, including Anderson, had time to do the artwork.

He sees it as an extension of the tea ceremony at Japan House that introduces visitors to Japanese culture.

"So the path is not only a place to walk but where they can mentally, spiritually prepare to have a wonderful moment to share with other people," he said.

Sato claims some divine intervention on the project. He had planned to ask Anderson to cut down a large limb on a Hawthorne tree just off the path to open up a better view of Japan House, but before he could, the limb came down in a recent storm.

Sato told her, "I was going to ask you to cut that branch, and you would have said no, but God did it for me."

He and Anderson are still planning other facets of the garden.

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Offerman and his woodshop built and installed the gazebo in 2013. A bronze plaque near the ceiling honoring Sato reads: "Teacher and student walk the same path."

In the center is a table with a varnished redwood slab for its top and a base made from the curve of a giant redwood root. Offerman chose the wood from Sato's mountain property in northern California, where Sato and his wife lived for 25 years before moving back to Urbana full-time.

Sato, a master of Kabuki theater, was Offerman's artistic mentor at the UI. On a visit back to campus, Offerman was impressed by the new Japan House and offered to use his woodworking skills to help craft the gazebo, a key part of a Japanese garden, according to a 2015 video produced by the Office of Public Affairs. Offerman's designs blended the California craftsman style with Eastern influences.

"To have the chance to create a gift, a token of my esteem and gratitude for my teacher, is something that I'm incredibly grateful for, especially because it's something that will hopefully stand for many, many years to come," Offerman said in the video.

Sato also presided at Offerman's wedding to actress Megan Mullally, in a tea ceremony where they exchanged tea bowls. The garden wedding was a surprise to guests invited to their Hollywood Hills home for a housewarming party, Sato said.

"He said, 'Don't tell anybody, we're going to have a marriage ceremony at my house,'" Sato said. "Even his parents didn't know. Everybody came in jeans and T-shirts."

The two remain close, and Sato said he has sent Offerman photos of the new garden.

It will be dedicated at Japan House's 20th anniversary celebration on Sept. 8-9, which will include a performance at Krannert, a fundraising dinner on the grounds and a day-long Japanese festival that will include Japanese rock bands and other free performances, food vendors with an Asian twist, fireworks and other demonstrations.

Note: A previous version of this story misspelled Diane Anderson's last name in a couple of references. The News-Gazette regrets the error.