Main Navigation


Reflecting on the Japanese architecture and garden travel experience.

By Mira Locher, Architecture + Planning

Editor’s Note: Mira (Mimi) Locher, chair of the University of Utah School of Architecture, along with her architect husband Kuma, recently led a trip to Japan through the U’s Go Learn program, which combines education with a vacation to facilitate deeper connections between travelers and the communities they visit.

The Japan trip, “Architecture and Gardens of Japan,” gave travels a chance to explore the enormous metropolis of Tokyo, soak in traditional baths in the mountains of Japan, eat interesting food and learn about the deep meaning of the architecture and gardens of Japan.

Locher is an educator, writer and practicing architect working in the U.S. and Japan. In addition to serving as chair of the School of Architecture, she is a partner in Kajika Architecture. She is the author of three books, “Super Potato Design,” “Traditional Japanese Architecture” and “Zen Gardens.”

Below, Locher recounts the trip:

From architectural diversity to garden serenity, we discovered the ancestral and the emerging Japan. Prior to our spring travel departure, I delivered lectures on historic and contemporary Japanese architecture and gardens, which served as the academic component of this lifelong learning activity.  The University of Utah Go Learn travel group was comprised of 24 adults who hailed from Utah, Washington D.C., New York, Oregon and Colorado. I love to see Japan through the eyes of our participants, and below are the beginnings of the travel experience highlights:

Japan 2We met May 17 in Toyko to explore neighborhoods with significant historic and contemporary architecture through walking tours. The Meiji Shrine stood with majestic wooden pillars that one cannot begin to get their arms around. We gained new perspective looking through the glass floor of the Tokyo Skytree, the second tallest structure in the world at 2,080 feet (just behind the Burj Khalifa at 2,722 feet). From Tokyo, we traveled to Kyoto on the Nozomi bullet train, which reaches speeds upwards of 180 mph.

In Kyoto, the focus is really on temples, shrines and gardens, and we were able to visit eight not-to-be-missed sights. At the Ryoanji temple, its famous meditation garden is a raked bed of gravel with 15 rocks. You can sit on the veranda and look out at the garden, and at every viewpoint you never can see more than 14 out of 15 rocks. This represents an idea that even if your eyes can’t see the entire garden, your mind is able to see it. We sat in quiet observance.

Along our travels, we visited Himeji Castle, one of the largest castle complexes in Japan, dating from 1609. This structure has survived generations of human conflict and natural disasters, and it was designated as a national treasure in 1931.

In Fukiya, we attended a performance of a sacred dance called Kagura. At the conclusion of this very professional performance, the dancers removed their masks and we were surprised to discover that children, as young as age 6, performed the dance. Following the performance, the people of Fukiya placed soft-glowing lanterns along the village pathways to welcome us to their town. Moments such as this illustrate the unique value of this illuminating travel experience.