Recently I had some time between two places I needed to be and a free ticket to the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park so I thought I’d zip in, see it quickly, and be on my way.
Wrong! Can you zip through something Zen? No.
The garden is there as a calm place of refuge. So, no zipping. Funny how it works. The entire garden is a place of stillness, designed to be a retreat from hectic daily life. I was lucky to be the only one there first thing in the morning when it just opened. So I did have a solitary experience. But I’ve been to see the polar bears at the zoo first thing in the morning and, trust me, alone in a garden is not the same as alone watching huge things splash in water.
The path through the garden gently curves and is made of different textures, not an even surface, so you have to pay attention to where you are putting your foot. It gently suggests that we pay attention.
The garden is very carefully designed to display certain principles and symbols and to share space with the surrounding southern California canyon that it looks down on. I know something of the symbolism of rocks and water from Chinese painting and a Japanese garden incorporates rocks and water as expressions of a wider world. Japan is a nation of 3000 islands. Naturally water is important. So water basins and waterfalls are in the garden to reflect that larger environment and to produce the calming sounds of water.
Water basins and ponds do that. When I was there, it had just rained and I had the additional pleasure of seeing water caught by chance in a stepping stone. Water, the ocean, is also represented by raked sand or gravel. Koi represent longevity but these guys are used to tourists and are pushy fatsos. They rushed to the rim of the pond as I stood there, barging into one another with mouths wide open, obviously looking to be fed. They are a bit of comedy in the garden.
Rocks, usually an odd number of rocks, represent islands. Bonsai trees, living trees sculpted as miniatures, bring to view the gnarled twists of large trunks. Both present the concept of the garden as a reduced scale of a wider world.
The Exhibit Hall had some of Taemi Tsuda’s botanical illustrations. They are detailed studies of small things, cherries, crab apples, crocus. Very much the same subjects as Chinese painting. Here, though, the paintings show the vitality of the object through its botanical details. I couldn’t get a picture of them but the exhibit is there until June 3, 2012.
Taemi Tsuda’s small paintings were my favorite “encounter” in the garden.
Except for the fatso Koi.