A Japanese Oasis

Hidden just under your nose as one of the Central Valley’s best-kept secrets is the Shinzen Friendship Garden in Fresno’s Woodward Park.

By Will Freeney | memo247365@gmail.com

Have you ever thought it would be nice to get away, to find beauty and serenity that takes you outside the mundane surroundings and events of your daily life in Fresno? Sure, we are blessed with the majesty of the Sierras nearby – in Kings Canyon, Sequoia National Park, and Yosemite. Yes, the lulling rhythm of waves breaking gently on sandy shores can be enjoyed along the Central Coast just a few short hours away. What if you really need a getaway, though, and don’t have hours or days to get to your getaway? What if you are sated with the Sierras and the coast and really desire something more exotic?
The answer could be as close as Woodward Park. Tucked away in the center of the park, easily overlooked if you drive through on your way to one of the many other features of the park, lies Shinzen Friendship Garden – an oasis of elegant natural beauty. Japanese gardens offer a very different form of landscape enhancement than, say, traditional English gardens. The controlling principle in Japanese gardens is beauty and serenity as opposed to the order and uniformity of English gardens. The result is a pocket of tranquility, a place to relax while treating the eyes to a wide array of botanical wonders and enhanced landscape features.

Shinzen Friendship Garden offers all of this, and its origins lie in the pursuit of that central element of its name – friendship. Following World War II, many American cities fostered sister-city friendships with Japanese cities, and Fresno was one of them – choosing Kochi, Japan as its sister city. The most common translation of Shinzen is “goodwill,” which reinforces the emphasis on friendship. Shinzen literally means “before god,” which can indicate an altar or place of spiritual attention. Once there, you will see how the garden evokes that kind of serenity. The vision for the creation of Shinzen Friendship Garden was born in 1967 and fostered by the donation of land for Woodward Park by Ralph Woodward. The nascent concept was nurtured by the Woodward Park Japanese Development Committee, led by Ben Nakamura. The actual design of the park was accomplished by a succession of contributors – Kodo Matsubara, Paul Saito, and Shiro Nakagawa, with assistance from the City of Fresno. The garden itself reached maturity with its incorporation and dedication in 1981. A Board of Directors for the associated 501(c)3 oversees maintenance and management of services and programs.

In addition to the original features of the garden, the Clark Bonsai Collection has made its home in Shinzen Friendship Garden since autumn 2015. This collection of over 100 miniature trees is an amazing testament to the horticultural art of bonsai, but it is also a “living museum” offering lectures, training, and workshops in the pursuit of bonsai.

There is no better time than now to experience Shinzen Friendship Garden. It is springtime when the garden’s year-round beauty is augmented by many fragrant and colorful blossoms. Springtime also marks the seasonal shift in the Friendship Garden’s hours of operation. From April 1st through September 30th, the garden is open not only on weekends and holidays (10 am – 7 pm) but also on weekdays Wednesday to Friday (10 am – 7 pm).

Lastly, but most importantly, the advent of Spring is marked by the celebration of the Spring Cultural Festival this April 15th from 10 am to 4 pm. Performances start at 11 am, with Koto (traditional Japanese stringed instrument) in the Tea House and Lusheng/Fashion Show/Dance in the Main Garden.

The performances continue in the main garden throughout the afternoon, with a varied assortment of regional dances, including Hula (Hawaiian), Khymer (Cambodian), Teocalli (Aztec), Polynesian, and Tounkara (Malinese). Simultaneously, there will be a Tea Presentation in the Tea House at noon, followed by an Ikebana (formal flower arrangement) presentation at 2pm.
In addition to expanded awareness of Japanese culture, visitors to Shinzen Friendship Garden during the Spring Blossom Festival this April can expand their knowledge of relatively recent history – McLane High School’s current Art Venture Project, “Gaman: Enduring the Seemingly Unbearable with Patience and Dignity — images and stories of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans at Manzanar” will be on exhibit throughout the day.

Should you become hungry in the midst of all this aural and visual stimulation, lunch will be available from 11 am to 2 pm, provided by Taste Catering. For those for whom no outing is complete without an opportunity to shop, the Spring Cultural Festival will be offering a wide array of unique and artful products from independent vendors: Contours in Clay, Fresno Gift Pic, Designs by Camille, North American Satsuki, Bonsai Center Naturals, Hilda Vandergriff, Wired Stone Creations, Chieko’s Art, Pastimes Pottery, Partners N Art, Beasley Ono Garden, Soaps N’ Stuff, and Lady Heather Soap Company.
So, mark your calendar. Dedicate your Saturday afternoon to experiencing new sights and sounds in an exquisitely exotic locale virtually in your own backyard. The cost of admission ($5 for adults, $1 for students, seniors, and children 4-14) plus parking ($5 per car, $3 for seniors) is well worth it. For that price, you can experience that alternative getaway and absorb new cultural experiences along with your serenity – and without the jet lag and expense of a trip to Japan.

If – as likely will be the case – you are charmed by the Shinzen Friendship Garden and stimulated by the abundance of cultural and historical education provided at the Spring Cultural Festival, you can look forward to more events later in the season.

The Toro Nagashi (Floating Lantern) Festival takes place late in the summer at the conclusion of Obon. Obon is a traditional Japanese celebration in which the souls of the ancestors are honored and are believed to return. Toro Nagashi, in which lanterns are set afloat on a nearby body of water, represents the return of the ancestors’ souls to the afterlife. The release of several hundred lit lanterns on Woodward Lake, in this case, will be both a solemn and joyful spectacle well worth experiencing in person and will be held at the Woodward Lake shore adjacent to the Shinzen Friendship Garden on August 11th.
Additional events this year include Art & Music in the Garden on May 5th. For upcoming details on these events and for comprehensive information about Shinzen Friendship Garden and the many opportunities for meaningful getaways that it offers, consult their website (www.shinzenjapanesegarden.org) or give them a call at (559) 840-1264.

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