Jim Bier

In 2000, James Bier of Champaign, began the development of the Japan House gardens which now surround the building. These gardens and the surrounding ponds made a visit to Japan House an immersive experience and strengthened the way in which it could wordlessly teach about Japanese aesthetics and the quest for tranquility during the tea ceremony and in the gardens.

As a teenager, Jim Bier loved art. He involved himself in painting, woodworking, carvings, fine arts and music.Bier loved music so much that he considered going to college to study music and to continue his training in piano.In college, however, he decided to work toward an undergraduate degree in geology. He absorbed his studies wholeheartedly and enjoyed every moment of it.Bier graduated in 1953 fromCase Western Reserve University.After his studies, Bier was drafted into the army at the end of the Korean War.While he was in training, the war ended. It was then that he was sent to Japan.Bier fell in love with Japan, the culture and the captivating beauty of the country.He traveled extensively during his time there, from climbing in the mountains to exploring the vast amount of culture.When Bier returned, he was admitted to the University to pursue a master’s degree in cartography. Hegraduated from the University in 1957andwas offered a job in the geography department at the University.

He began working full time, and after about eight years, he had saved enough to invest in land for a house and a garden.Bier was inspired by the Japanese gardensand homes he saw during his time overseas, so much so that he wanted to have something similar at his own residence.At the time, Bier had no prior knowledge of gardening.He bought some land and needed to fill it up, so he started studying.Once his homeand gardens were up to par, they garnered a lot of attention from around the community. People would come in busloads to tour Bier’s home before the newJapan House was realized.

Bier was friends with Professor Shozo Sato, the Director of the original Japan Houselocated at 902 West California, Champaign. They shared a similarpassion for Japanese art. When Satoretired, Professor Kimiko Gunji took over as the new Director.The original Japan House was torn down and an initiative to build a permanent structure within the Arboretum began where Gunji could teach Chado, Japanese tea ceremony. This gave Bier the idea of designing the Tea Garden for the Japan House.When he introduced this plan to Gunji, she loved it; however, the Japan House did not have the funding for such an elaborate garden.Bier decided to donate his own funds and volunteer his own time to the project. After years of cultivating his own gardens, he wanted to move on to something larger, and of higher quality.Bier’s involvement and commitment to the gardens only expanded from there.

Each side of Japan House features a distinct type of garden: to the east, the Dry Garden, and on the west, the Tea Gardens. Tea gardens are an integral part of Japanese tea ceremonies;guests always go through the garden first. Thetime spent here is used to free oneself, and have a moment of tranquility surrounded by the lushness ofnature.The stepping stone path isruggedand uneven, rather than smooth, which is meant to ask the walker to slow down and take in the moment as it comes.

The Dry Garden, however,relies heavily on rocks and rock placement, and includes the iconic raked gravel often associated with Japanese gardens.Though seemingly simple, the use of rocks in Japanese gardens is highly complex, Bier explained.“The rock structure in a garden, the colors of the rock, where they come from, how they’re placed in the ground; many, many things to consider, how to use thatrock,” he said.The first thing he notices when looking at a garden is what the gardener has done with theirrocks.

When looking at his gardens, Bier sees the imperfections. Yet, guests at the Japan House see the opposite.Bier said he likes to talk to visitors of the Japanese garden, but not as a designer, rather as a typical worker. He does this because he likes to hear their true opinions.Bier does garden work on Mondays and Fridays for several hours each day. He directs his volunteers with patience and delegates duties for them to complete.

Bier looks forward to each season, where more work on the gardens will always need to be done.He has ordered new plants and is planning on updating a few of the older bamboo fences in the Tea Garden.Someday, he hopes, Japan House will be recognized nationally for its Japanese gardens.Bier encourages others to follow in his footsteps; not with gardening or cartography, necessarily, but with life.

“It’s not work, it’s a hobby —it’s just plain fun. Working on thegardens is the same way. It’s hard work; sweaty, dirty. But I love it,” Bier said, “And what is icing on the cake is that other people love what I’m doing.”