I came to the Japanese Garden because I thought it would be serene here. I’m having a bad day, and spending some quiet time alone in the peaceful environment of manicured footpaths and miniature bridges, gentle streams, colorful fish and artfully arranged rocks will help me to feel better. I’ll sit quietly in the bosom of nature like a Buddha. Everything will be ok.
I park the hatchback in the corner parking space I see as soon as I pull into the entrance, secure my belongings, lock the car, and embark upon my walk.
Today is New Year’s Day – January First, and it’s not warm outside, exactly. But it’s not frigid either, and the sun is shining in a blue sky. I button up my denim jacket and I try to walk briskly for a while, in hopes it will invigorate me.
It’s nearly a mile from the parking lot to the Japanese Garden. I have to walk along paved paths through the rest of the park to get there, down a big hill and through fields with cows, deer, and other animals on display. There is a bobcat exhibit and several enclosures for birds of prey, but I bypass these by taking a detour path that goes past restrooms and a shack with vending machines that dispense plastic bottles of chemically flavored beverages.
There are people everywhere. A lot of people, in fact – mostly families. Young couples with young children. Here and there are older couples too: some with adult or college aged children, some not. There are a few pairs of young people here and there. I see them as I walk along the paths. There are black and brown people, and of course, white people. I hear not only English but Spanish and several Asian languages in the snatches of conversations I hear as I walk by. It’s nice to see such a diversity of ethnicities outdoors together in a public green space, enjoying our fair city.
The Japanese Garden is on the south side of the park, parallel to the river. One long side of the garden ends at a chain link fence, and immediately on the other side is a footpath, railroad tracks, a small belt of woodland, and then the river. I enter the garden from the west through a distinctive Japanese gate. The fence on my right is hidden in a small stand of bamboo.
Even though it’s winter and nothing is blooming, the lovely vista of the garden invites reflection. Oneness with nature beckons. I stroll into the garden and breathe in the fresh air.
A small stream meanders alongside the path before me for a few hundred yards before opening into a large pond at the other end of the garden. There is a sort of miniature cliff, a rockfall about a hundred yards up the path to my left, just beyond the treasured, mature Japanese maple tree in its own perfectly curated bed. In the warm months of the year a cheery waterfall sprays over the rocks and flows down to join the stream but the water is not flowing over them today. People are climbing on them, but there is no one sitting in the little hut near the silent falls, and I climb up the rocks. After a few minutes I finally make it to the bench inside the hut, and decide to sit there for a while.
Kicking up my legs on the bench, I look out on the pristine expanse of nature before me: below are the Japanese maple in its honored location, paths crossing inside the garden beyond it, and trees beyond that to the chainlink fence, with the railroad and the river beyond. The sun shines brightly but deflected through enormous pine trees on the other side of the maple, and although the air is chilly and my ears and the tip of my nose are chilled, I am not cold. It’s nice to sit here in the sun.
I take off my jacket, fold it and lay it beside me on the bench. I look at my phone – it’s three minutes after the hour. I’ll sit here for an hour. Decompress.
Breathe in, breathe out. I can hear the murmur of voices from other visitors to the garden on the paths below, but nothing distinct enough to understand. The air is cold but the sun shines brightly. After a few minutes some tourists in sports logo’d clothing clamber up onto the dry waterfall rocks, pose for photos, leave. This happens several more times over the next twenty minutes.
A train comes by. I hear it first in the distance, from the west, and the low rumble builds slowly over a minute or more. Suddenly the engine appears on the right, pulling dozens? hundreds? of cars behind it. The train barrels down the track and disappears to the left. Its passage is loud, although I can still hear the voices of my fellow garden visitors below over the din, barely. A pair of cyclists roll by on the small path beyond the fence, traveling in the opposite direction from left to right. I hear some kids yelling down below. All of a sudden my fantasy of finding solace here evaporates like a burst bubble and the reality of the setting shifts into focus: I am sitting in the corner of a city park. This is an urban environment. It takes nearly ten minutes for the train to pass.
I shift my weight on the bench. Breathe in, breathe out. A much younger version of me would probably have pulled out the novel I was currently reading by now, but I didn’t bring it. The point was to try to be here anyway.
A younger version of me (but perhaps slightly older than the reader) would have lit a cigarette and smoked it as I sat here in the little hut next to the absent waterfall. I think about that for a few minutes. I imagine a long Dunhill blue between my fingers, the smoke coiling and curling as it rises, the satisfying ache as it settles in my lungs, the acrid taste in my mouth. I imagine flicking ash over the side of the little hut’s half wall to land on the rocks below. Although I gave up smoking years ago, I feel a perverse satisfaction imagining all of this.
High-pitched shouting intrudes on my little smoking reverie. About a half dozen children have arrived at the rocks below. A couple of adults look up from the path below, one of them propped up by an empty stroller as the kids begin to scramble up the rocks towards me. The tallest appears to be the leader: a slender, athletic girl about eight or nine years old, with wild black hair that sprouts at all angles from her head. She wears a pair of tight-fitting cotton pants in a cartoonish leopard print, a lurid purple t shirt bearing an athletic clothing company advertisement, and athletic shoes with colorful socks. She should be freezing but apparently her activity level is so high her body is having no trouble maintaining body temperature no matter what the climate of the surrounding environment. She’s an athlete, no doubt, and she runs and climbs over the rocks, yelling out to her smaller comrades several times a minute.
A pair of college girls sit on the rocks not far away and talk desparagingly about another girl’s boyfriend; apparently neither this third girl nor her beau is there. They are sitting about ten yards away from the hut, and the little gang of elementary schoolers is running and posturing and shouting on the rocks around them.
The relatively peaceful atmosphere of the train roaring by a few minutes ago seems like an idyll of some mythological past now. I decide to get up and walk to the other end of the garden. Hopefully I can find a more sedate spot there to seek serenity in what’s left of my hour in the Japanese Garden. I put on my jacket and carefully make my way back down the rocks, past the maple, and back to the path by the stream. I follow the path and the stream, which passes under quaint bridges before it flows into a pond that fills the east end of the garden.
It takes a few minutes to make it to the pond, as packs of adults, children, and strollers pass by in groups of three, five, eight. Nobody is moving very quickly, since the path is not really wide enough for two to walk abreast, and everyone has their phones out, snapping photos of each other and themselves.
When I get to the pond there are about a dozen people waiting to cross the stepping stones to the small island. I stand in line for a few minutes and when I get closer to the front of the line, Leopard Print Pants and her posse of little serenity-destroyers are there ahead of me, leaping from one round stepping stone to another, yelling at each other. One of them, a smaller boy with his jeans tucked into his cowboy boots, stands crying on the shore next to his mother, who is scolding him. Apparently he fell into the pond just before I arrived, and now he is no longer allowed to jump on the stepping stones. HIs mother is the same large, tired-looking woman I saw standing with the stroller on the path below the absent waterfall fifteen minutes ago.
“How did they get here before I did?” I wonder absently as I walk across the stepping stones to the small island on the north side of the pond. A large golden fish swims lazily by only a few feet away, but the water is murky and the children don’t notice it – they are too busy with their game, trying to keep up with Leopard Print Pants as she leaps from stone to stone.
Finally I get to the island and away from the pack. Leaving the noisy youngsters behind I stroll down the path to the bridge on the other side and walk around the pond from the south, through a small stand of cypress trees. There is another hut on the west end of the pond, across from the stepping stones and the island. I make for that.
This hut is newer than the one by the falls, and nobody has scrawled graffiti on the walls yet. Nobody is in it and I sit on the bench inside. My view of the pond is framed by the charming rustic carved wooden rail and the roof supported by unfinished posts.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Leopard Print Pants and her entourage have left the vicinity, and a large group of tourists arrives at the stepping stones now. It looks like one large extended family: adults, young children running around, babies, strollers. They take turns snapping photos of each other standing or kneeling on the stones for several minutes, each taking a turn posing in the midst of the water. Then they stand in a huddle on the shore with their heads bent down over their phones.
While the Extended Family group finishes post-production on their instagram photos, the Social Media Influencer and his Official Photographer arrive. They stand on the shore waiting for Extended Family to disperse, and then proceed to their work. The Influencer strikes poses on various stepping stones, standing, squatting, looking at the camera, looking away from the camera. They confer. Official Photographer strikes her own poses trying to capture the perfect angle. The sun shines down on the pond, trees reflected in the water.
Breathe in, breathe out.
An older couple sits side by side on a bench on the far side of the pond, quietly reading books. They appear to have been there for some time, and they appear quite comfortably ensconced there in a little nest with their coats and other belongings around them on the bench. They’re too far away for me to see if they are observing Social Media Influencer and Official Photographer too – perhaps they’ve realized a kind of private nirvana over there on the other side of the pond, on their visit to the Japanese Garden today.
The park’s marketing copy describes the Japanese Garden as “cool, shaded and intimate” on their website. “Sounds are muted and even children become more introspective and observant. While not a religious garden, the space is unmistakably reflective.” it reads, tongue-in-cheek. I have found it too boisterous and distracting to be able to reflect on anything here today.
I came to the garden seeking some kind of inner peace, but so far that peace has eluded me, so far I have been kept from achieving the tranquility I so desperately sought.
I get up to leave. Social Media Influencer strikes a new set of poses on a different stepping stone, and the old couple just reads in the background of the scene like a pair of bodhisattvas, emitting their aura of contentment across the pond.
As I make my way back to the west gate, I pass by the waterfall rocks again. Mother and stroller sit near the path on a blanket now. She has set out a picnic, and Leopard Print Pants and team are back on the rocks, which echo with their shrill voices.
“Don’t these parents understand that this isn’t a playground?” I think. As I approach the gate I hear the whir of a small motor. A green dune buggy about the size of a house cat bursts through the entrance, followed soon after by a couple of teenaged boys and their parents. One of the boys holds a radio controller in his hands and he maneuvers the little car down the path ahead of him, filling the garden with the magnified buzz of a baritone mosquito. I wait for them to pass and make my way out of the garden, through the park, and back to the car.
I put Wish You Were Here into the car’s compact disc player and pull out of the parking lot for the drive home. Richard Wright’s fat synth horn makes mournful announcements over a shimmering sea of fake strings as the car rolls out of the parking lot, through quiet city streets to the ramp that leads to the toll booth before the bridge. I drive through and David GIlmour takes over the solo, bending the high g as he enters. The car speeds across the bridge, sunset glints on the river below as I drive across, and for a moment I feel it. For a moment, everything is ok.