Contributed by Joyce H. Munro

I want to know who he is, the landscape architect named Y Muto, who travelled six thousand miles to work for John T. Morris at Compton. So little is known about him. But I see him in his work—the thoughtful arrangement of pagodas and stone slab bridge and bronze cranes of the Tsukiyama-niwa (Hill Garden) at Compton, the “way to paradise” arched footbridge of the Temple Gate Garden in Fairmount Park, the standing stones of spiritual meaning in the Overlook at Compton. These good-for-the-soul gardens, designed by Muto in the early 1900s, still reveal his handiwork. But I want to know more.

I want to know if this is the same Muto who created the Japanese garden for Alexander Tison, who had been Professor of American Law at the Imperial University in Tokyo. A perfectly composed Kaiyū-shiki-teien (Promenade Garden) at Grey Lodge in the Catskills where Tison spent summers. It could be that Tison arranged for Muto’s services through the New York office of the Yokohama Nursery Company. It could also be that this garden, whose elemental forms remain unchanged, was Muto’s first commission in the U.S.

I want to know if Muto’s workmanship inspired Kahlil Gibran when he vacationed at Grey Lodge a decade later. It had been a dreadful summer and Gibran was glad to escape the hustle-bustle of New York City. It could be that Gibran was recollecting Muto’s landscape when he wrote “Beyond the Throne of Beauty” some months later:

One heavy day I ran away from the grimy face of society and the dizzying clamour of the city and directed my weary step to the spacious valley. I pursued the beckoning course of the rivulet and musical sounds of the birds until I reached a lonely spot where the flowing branches of the trees prevented the sun from touching the earth. I stood there, and it was entertaining to my soul—my thirsty soul who had seen naught but the mirage of life instead of its sweetness.

I want to know if this is the same Muto who designed the Japanese garden for Major James Dooley of Richmond, Virginia in 1911. Maymont, the estate named for Dooley’s wife, sits atop a bluff on the boulder-strewn James River, where Muto’s artistic reimagining of the terrain is evident in a spirited cascade with an Azumaya (viewing pavilion) and stone steps alongside, Tōrō lanterns symbolically lighting the way.

I want to know if this is the same Muto who returned to the U.S. for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1914. Who choreographed gardens of quiet beauty for the Japan Pavilion—dwarfed trees and waterways, footbridges and stone pagodas. Or perhaps he exhibited methods of pomology, floriculture and arboriculture for the Yokohama Nursery Company under the great glass dome of the Palace of Horticulture.

I want to know if visitors to the Exposition, like Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Edison and Charlie Chaplin, lingered at Muto’s display. And if Camille Saint-Saëns was so taken with Muto’s nature poem that he determined then and there to compose new music for Victor Hugo’s poem, “S'il est un charmant gazon.”

I have a hunch this is one and the same person, whose full name, according to the 1914 passenger manifest of the S.S. Aki Maru, was Yonehachi Muto. Who was born in 1861 in Toyko. Whose distinguishing mark was a small mole on his right cheek. Who had been in the U.S. before, from April 1899 to August 1913. Whose son was Sataro Muto of Nakamura-machi, Yokohama. And whose descendants are more than welcome to contact me.

Whether my hunch is right or wrong, there was once a Mr. Muto who traveled to the West and left his distinguishing marks on our landscape. We can see him in the work of his hands where lines are blurred between ancient worlds and the present.


Gibran quote courtesy of The Philosophical Library, Inc.