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Art : The Urban Geographer 

Walk softly and carry a good master plan

The Japanese (Chinese) Japanese Sunken Garden

Just about everyone who’s lived in San Antonio long enough has memories and stories to tell about the Japanese Sunken Garden in Brackenridge Park. In the popular imagination it has always been a curious piece of exotica, providing the perfect place for a leisurely stroll that evokes a landscape somewhere on the other side of the International Date Line.


I’m being a little vague here, and you really can’t fault me for not knowing which Asian country or culture this place is supposed to suggest in its present state. I’ve seen a few Japanese gardens in other American cities, and I remember with affection the ones in Portland, Oregon, San Francisco (Golden Gate Park), Los Angeles (Huntington Estate) and Austin (Zilker Park). Walking on paths under pines and fine-leafed maples, amid moss-covered berms, sculpted boxwood, and dense clusters of bamboo, I encountered waterfalls, carved stone lanterns, and carefully placed boulders of hard, dark stone. Yes, there was a definite sense of Nippon in each of these places. Back here, however, we’ve let our wonderful Japanese garden turn into something you might find on a South Pacific island. The profusion and predominance of exotic flowering plants and banana and palm trees now provide a setting more hospitable to orangutans than Zen monks, samurai, or geishas. What happened?

In the initial vision of Park Commissioner Ray Lambert, there was a sincere effort to create a special place with authentic cultural references, including an intent to import plants from Japan. Lambert had the good sense to entrust Japanese artist Kimi Eizo Jingu with the task of bringing a distinctly Japanese character to the abandoned San Antonio Portland Cement quarry. Overall, Jingu’s work was quite masterful, especially in the layout of landscape features that transformed a big hole into a serene natural oasis. Seen from the air, the organic arrangement of the twin ponds and central island is strikingly like the asymmetric water-and-islands plan of Kyoto’s Saihoji Temple garden, but without the luxuriant moss. Meandering paths on the islands and along the ponds’ edges created an ever-changing progression of revelatory station points, with views that stir the imagination.

It’s not that people in present-day San Antonio don’t know what a Japanese tea garden looks like. There’s a pretty excellent one a mile to the east, in the Botanical Center on Funston Street. This one, constructed in 1989, has all the hallmarks of a traditional garden setting. Detailed in the most skillful manner by craftsmen from Kumamoto, our sister city in Japan, it’s a real gem of a place. Fortunately for every one of us, it sits inside a protective fence that keeps out the depraved souls who don’t travel without their permanent-marking pens.

To be fair, the challenge of maintaining a Japanese garden with authentic materials is no easy thing, considering the unforgiving heat and humidity of central Texas. And the lack of a sensible policy that ensures the protection of the garden’s distinct features has always made this public, city-owned facility in Brackenridge Park an easy target for vandals and thieves.

Fortunately, things are about to change. Currently, restoration work to stabilize the large central pagoda/pavilion and Jingu House is near completion. Later this summer, the Friends of the Parks will receive a master plan from Bender Wells Clark of San Antonio and SWA Group of Houston outlining a comprehensive plan of action. We should expect that these sober designers will advocate a reasonable return to the first inspired impulses of Ray Lambert and Kimi Jingu.

I really hope it all comes about, and with generous community support. There is an inherent optimism about a formalized Japanese garden, circumscribed not only by spatial rules but also by a clearly defined catalog of appropriate plants and stone elements. In a Japanese garden, the spirit of nature is very present and alive, providing a restorative stimulus that counters the fracturing stresses of urban life. In such a place, it is possible to experience the healing ability of nature that saves us from the darkness at both extremes of humanity: those who see the environment as raw materials only and those who destroy it wantonly out of ignorance. Seeing the potential, it would be foolish not to make the most of it. Here is the perfect opportunity for us to reclaim this site and turn it into a sustainable celebration of nature. We should all resolve to participate in this effort.

To ask how you can help, please call the San Antonio Parks Foundation at 212-8423 and ask about the Japanese Tea Garden Fund.

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