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Shofuso Japanese House & Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park

Posted on Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Guest Blogger: Andrew Terranova, Concierge, Sofitel Philadelphia, and Tour Guide, The Constitutional Walking Tour

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Shofuso Japanese House and Garden

Shofuso Japanese House and Garden

Fairmount Park, the largest municipal park in the City of Philadelphia, and one of the largest urban parks in the world, is a treasure trove of wilderness, architectural jewels and stunning vistas. While wandering through this botanical nirvana, it’s hard to believe you’re still in the limits of one of America’s largest metropolises. This past Memorial Day 2019 weekend, I decided to visit the grounds with some friends who were unfamiliar with the park and show them my two favorite spots, the Shofuso Japanese House House and Garden and the Belmont Plateau.

Know before you go: Fairmount Park can be somewhat tricky, yet fun, to navigate, with its twisting and narrow forest roads through 10,000+ acres. I would suggest driving there with GPS. This part of Fairmount Park is not very accessible from Center City by foot, so a car is a way to go. Ample parking is available at both spots.

Shofuso House

Shofuso Japanese House and Garden

One of Philadelphia’s hidden architectural gems is a total departure in style from the Georgian design of Society Hill and the Brownstown rowhomes of Rittenhouse Square. Tucked away along Horticultural Drive in Fairmount Park is the stunning and surprising Shofuso House, which means Pine Breeze Villa. Surrounded by Southern Magnolias, Japanese Maples and Cherry Blossom trees, the bucolic setting will make you feel like you’re in a fairy tale (their FAQ section on the website says they DO allow cosplay!). It’s a very peaceful and tranquil setting. After you pay your $12 admission to enter the building, you are invited to wander through the charming grounds and house. Be mindful, you must remove your shoes to enter the house. Soft disposable peds are available if you’re not wearing socks.

It is no wonder that Philadelphia Magazine named Shofuso House as Best Hidden Tourist Attraction.

The Shofuso House was given as a gift to the City of Philadelphia from Japan, built in Nagoya, by Japanese mid-century modernist architect Junzo Yoshimura in 1953 as a symbol of post-World War II peace and prosperity between the two nations. Using all traditional techniques and materials for building found in Japanese culture, the structure was originally exhibited in the courtyard of the MoMA in New York City for two years before being moved to Fairmount Park. It was restored in 1976 to celebrate the American Bicentennial, and in 2007, contemporary Nihonga artist Hiroshi Senju added his creations of twenty waterfall murals to the interior of the building.

Koi Pond, Shofuso Japanese House and Garden

Moving through the building, you get a sense of life in 17th Century Japan. One room is a music room featuring a traditional Koto. Some rooms are barren, giving a sense that this would be a great place to meditate with a cup of ginger tea. A lazy, meandering integrated creek wanders through parts of the house into the garden. The airy, open feel gives one an atmosphere of peace and tranquility. It’s lovely to ramble through the house and get lost in all of the nooks and crannies, since there are new discoveries around every corner. Let your mind at ease and explore all the Shofuso House has to offer.

But without a doubt, the greatest features of the Shofuso House are the surrounding gardens, with a large pond, an island, waterfalls, pagodas, numerous cute little bridges and exotic foliage from Japan. The pond is one of the greatest ponds you’ll ever see outside of Japan, stocked with dozens of gigantic Koi fish that are sociable with visitors. If you don’t believe me, spend the $2 on Koi food and feed them yourselves. I guarantee you’ll make new friends. My friend, Wendy, got so affectionate with the Koi that they let her pet them! Some of the Koi are absolutely huge! And they make funny bubbling noises as they gobble the food on the surface, almost like they’re talking to you. A tepid little turtle, not to be ignored, even swam up to get in on the action.  The Koi fish is symbolic in Japanese culture, and it is closely associated with the country's national identity. It is a symbol of luck, prosperity, and good fortune in Japan.

We spent about 45 minutes at the Shofuso House, but you could easily spend a lazy few hours there just relaxing in the sun, feeding the fish and meditating. Next year, I’ll try going back for high tea at the Suburu Cherry Blossom Festival in the early Spring for a total sensory overload.

From the Shofuso House, it is a short ride to the Belmont Plateau up Horticultural Drive, across Montgomery Drive to the stunning Belmont Plateau for the best view you’ll ever get of Philadelphia.

Belmont Plateau

Belmont Plateau

When the Fairmount Park Commission rededicated its Belmont Plateau section in 1984, it called the Belmont Plateau “Philadelphia’s most scenic overlook.” And truly, there is no better place to see the Philadelphia skyline in all its glory than from Belmont Plateau. When you get there, you’ll see families from West Philadelphia barbecuing, kiters kiting and children playing under the shady maples. Off in the distance, like the Emerald City of Oz, Center City Philadelphia shines as a beacon of pride for locals and visitors alike.

The hill of the Plateau is about four miles northwest of Center City, and it is under the watchful eye of the Belmont Mansion. In 1745, William Peters built the Palladian home from his money as the Penn family’s land agent. In 1900, all you would have seen is William Penn atop City Hall. Today, you will get views of almost the entire city’s architectural triumphs – the Comcast Towers, Cira Centre, the FMC Building, etc. It’s a wonderful spot to let your heart swell with civic pride as you view one of the most breathtaking vistas in the country.

The Belmont Plateau and its trails are a wonderful place for jogging, flying a kite, barbecuing or just sitting out on the seemingly endless miles of grass and enjoying a picnic with loved ones and the dogs. Moreso, it’s just a great place to sit back, relax and think to yourself “I love Philadelphia!” 

Insider Information

In 1991, Belmont Plateau was "put on the map" by Philadelphia native Will Smith, the actor, comedian, producer, rapper, and songwriter, with his song entitled, "Summertime." IN addition to mentioning Belmont Plateau at 1:38 mark of his song, Smith also recorded the music video in Fairmount Park,

"Back in Philly we’d be out in the park
A place called the Plateau is where everybody goes..."


Additional Information

Shofuso Japanese House and Garden
Horticultural and Lansdowne Drives (GPS Coordinates: +39°58’53.04″, -75°12’46.08″)
Philadelphia, PA 19131

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