Picture a tranquil koi pond, stocked with the large, bright orange fish, surrounded by rock-lined walking paths, a waterfall, gardens, and a traditional Japanese tea house. Now picture all that in the middle of. . .Texas? Yes, Texas. Land of cattle drives and oil fields and the Alamo. If this seems like an odd juxtaposition, it is. And yet, it’s not.
One of the things that surprised me the most about San Antonio is what a multicultural city this is. I don’t mean Spanish, Mexican, and Native American cultures, because that’s to be expected for the region. But the city also has a pretty rich German history—and, as I learned throughout my visit, other European and world cultures have contributed greatly to the mosaic of this city as well. The Japanese Tea Garden is just one reflection of the contributions by Japanese settlers here, but it is a prominent one, and one with a colorful past.
I would have expected a Japanese garden in Texas to have sprung up from the mind of a Japanese immigrant, but that’s not the case. Built in a former limestone rock quarry, the design of the Garden was the brainchild of former City Parks Commissioner Ray Lambert, who revisioned the site as a public park site and “lily pond”. In the 1920s, Kimi Eizo Jingu, a Japanese-American artist, moved there with his wife, Miyoshi, where they raised 8 children and maintained the gardens while running the Bamboo Room, which served tea and light lunches. Unfortunately, the family was evicted during WWII due to rising anti-Japanese sentiment in the country.
The tea garden was taken over by a Chinese-American family and renamed the Chinese Tea Garden (which is why, when you enter the Garden, you see a sign on the front gate calling it a “Chinese Tea Garden”). It wasn’t until the 1980s that former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros restored its original designation as a Japanese Garden in a ceremony attended by Jingu’s children and Japanese delegates. You would think this would mean that people were using the park again, but apparently not. After years of disuse, the park was restored to its former glory between 2007 and 2011 and today, it is a Registered Texas Historic Landmark that is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Click on the link to read a pretty thorough and interesting history of the park.)
The Japanese Garden was high up on my list of things to do in San Antonio. I love visiting a city’s outdoor parks and public spaces. They give me insight into a new city and allow me a quiet respite away from the noise and crowds of the touristy areas for awhile. I had planned on taking the #7 Sightseer bus to the Garden (which is right next to the San Antonio Zoo), but as it turned out, I made a new friend in San Antonio, Teresa (“The Joyful Journeyist”), who offered to drive me out there.
Teresa told me that, coincidentally, the Japanese Garden was one of her favorite places. She had been there many times. . .but this was the first day she had seen the waterfall flowing. She was tickled by this. So was I; it was a lucky coincidence, especially in the middle of winter (January) when the Garden wasn’t at its peak. Don’t get me wrong—it was beautiful, even in January, with few flowers in bloom and many trees gone brown. I could only imagine how much more Eden-like it would be in the late spring or summer. Hotter than Hell, no doubt, but Eden-like at the same time.
In addition to the Tea House and Pavilion (which would make a lovely place for a wedding ceremony), koi pond, and waterfalls, the property features stone bridges and walkways, lush vegetation, and multiple walking paths around the property. There are nooks and crannies all over the place where you can stop and sit and enjoy some peace and quiet or read a book or simply contemplate the meaning of the universe. The walking paths reminded me a bit of Parc Guell in Barcelona, as there were sections where they went up and downhill. Some were lined with pointed stones that looked like dragon’s teeth. You can definitely do some urban hiking here.
Having become fast friends by now, we wanted a picture or two to commemorate the occasion. It was a comedy of errors. Teresa used her point-and-shoot, perched on her gorilla pod, attached to—I can’t even remember what now. She would set the self-timer for 10 seconds, but it kept snapping the photo before she could get into position next to me. We wound up asking a couple exiting the Garden to take a photo of us, and we took some of each other in the Garden as well.
Why should you visit the Garden on a trip to San Antonio? For all of the reasons I’ve mentioned above and this one: You never know what you’ll see here.
The memory that has stayed most vividly with me from my time in the Garden was when we passed a couple near the waterfall. The young mom was snapping photos. The dad was big and burly with a bushy beard and a do-rag on his head. He looked like a member of Hell’s Angels or some other fierce biker gang–the kind of guy you might expect to see in a bar brawl somewhere. Instead, he was gazing down at the tiny newborn baby he held in his huge hands, and he was giggling like a little kid. They were adorable—all the more so because the scene was so unexpected.
Kind of like a Japanese Tea Garden in the middle of Texas.
What You Need to Know:
Location: Brackenridge Park, next to the San Antonio Zoo at 3853 N. St. Mary’s Street.
Via Public Transportation: Take Bus Route #7, the “Sightseer’s Special” northbound from downtown San Antonio.
Hours: Daily from dawn to dusk
Food and Beverages are available at the Jingu House Cafe.