BY TYLER SIPE
For decades, a tall wooden Japanese torii soared over Seattle’s Seward Park. The structure’s red frame contrasted brightly with the park’s leafy-green trees.
Seattle-native Jerry Arai had a deep personal connection to the old torii. His father Allen K. Arai, one of Seattle's first Asian architects, was the designer of the iconic gate, having drafted it for $2 back in 1934 for the annual Golden Potlatch festival (now Seafair).
“It means a lot to be so personally connected to a piece of local history,” Jerry said of the torii that his father helped create, which was designed with inspiration from the famous O-torii (Grand Gate), or ’floating torii,’ located at Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, Japan. In the spring of 1935, the torii was relocated from its original downtown Seattle location to Seward Park. At its new home, the torii quickly became a popular meeting and gathering place for park visitors.
“It’s one of the first things I saw in Seattle,” said Paul Talbert of the torii, who relocated to Seattle from Salt Lake City in 1983.
But just a few years after Talbert made Seattle home, the torii was disassembled for safety reasons after showing signs of decay from the soggy Pacific Northwest elements.
Fast forward to 2011, the year of Seward Park’s centennial; Talbert and others celebrating the park’s 100th birthday shared memories of the old torii, and longed for a new torii to return to Seward Park.
Those early aspirations would eventually lead to nearly eight years of planning, volunteer work, community outreach, and fundraising for a new torii; and sometime in the spring of 2019, a Japanese torii will once again tower over Seward Park visitors.
When complete, the $350,000 torii will include upright columns made of basalt from the Pullman area and crosspieces made of red cedar from British Columbia.
In early October, committee members, donors, and supporters celebrated the groundbreaking of the new torii with a sake cask and a grounds tour by the torii's designer Scott Murase.
“The culmination of finally seeing the actual building of the torii is mind boggling. It has been a long road to achieve final construction,” said Joan Seko, who attended the ceremony and is a member of the Seward Park torii committee alongside Jerry Arai and Talbert.
“My ancestors are from Hiroshima-ken and my mother-in-law was born in Miyajimaya Island. My ancestral home is located just a stone’s throw to the island,” Seko reminisced. “The new torii gate in Seward Park will tie me to my memories of Miyajimaya.”
Talbert added that he, members of the committee, and donors hope the new torii will serve as an important symbol of Seattle’s Nikkei community, a celebration of all immigrants and cultures, and the importance of building friendships.
“It’s especially important these days with the current political climate,” Talbert said. “We hope the torii serves to inspire visitors.”