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.

A Foodie’s Review

by Saeed Alkurdi

Persian cuisine, a favored mistress of my home life. Containing strong flavors of garlic, turmeric, cardamon, and cloves, all playing together like a ballet on your tongue. It’s a delicious melody that is easy to fall in love with over and over again. However, finding a place in Fresno where Persian dishes are prepared as well as the recipes you’ve grown up with has proven to be challenging, but not entirely impossible.

Phoenician Gardens is that rare find that proved the impossible was possible. It’s a restaurant where one can sit back and enjoy a casual lunch or dinner. Take out is available in case you’d rather take your special order home. It’s a first class ticket escape from the grind of everyday food, minus the passport, complete with a wait staff that is equipped with excellent service and a kind disposition.

Inside, the restaurant is spacious, clean, and the interior design suits the name ‘Phoenician Gardens’ quite appropriately. There are booths available, along with tables which are comfortable and able to accommodate small parties of 2, upwards to medium sized parties of 6.

I arrived on a Saturday night and much to my surprise there was more than enough seating available leading me to believe that reservations aren’t necessary on a regular basis. I was immediately seated by the host and asked for my drink order, which arrived a minuted later. My order of lentil soup and kibbeh (seasoned meat fried in a shell of wheat grain) was the starter. Lamb shank was what I ordered as my entree. The lentil soup arrived within a few short minutes and was, to put it bluntly, magnificent. The soup was hot and perfectly seasoned with salt and lemon. A few bits of carrots were added for some sweetness, along with a touch of minced parsley… these small touches helped the appetizer sing. The kibbeh was piping hot, crispy on the outside and lightly seasoned on the inside. It also contained pine nuts on the inside which I thought were excellent.

When the lamb shank arrived it looked simply stunning, and in fact all the plates I could see leaving the kitchen appeared just as impressive as what I had in front of me. The lamb was fork-tender and perfectly seasoned with salt, allspice, cumin, cloves, and garlic. The vegetable accompaniment that stewed alongside the lamb was saturated with all the same juices and spices, which was utterly sublime. The rice was seasoned with turmeric and cooked exceptionally well. The remaining vegetables of squash and carrots were a little undercooked leaving them a little too crisp for my taste, however, they were seasoned and coated well with olive oil.

In the end, it was a wonderful meal thoroughly enjoyed by what I am sure is one of many happy customers. The dish, the environment, the service… like I said, a terrific escape from the daily grind, one I hope you’re able to enjoy yourself.

Art Through Recoil

Blank canvas… unlimited potential or utterly terrifying in all the right ways. Or, perhaps it’s a resonant surge of both. It’s a quiet unsettling call for a challenge, one you either answer or you don’t. Nothing sends the blood racing through the veins of an artist quite like the promise of an empty canvas.

The exhilaration of such a moment was enough to have Fresno artist, Tifferz, pursuing it full time. She dove in, took the plunge, left her career, and is now chasing down that dream like it’s the last bus out of town.

Did that make you uncomfortable? For a second it did, admit it. The mere mention of leaving a career you’re good at to pursue something of the uncertain would make most people squirm in their seats. But that’s the point. Tifferz makes it her business to bring out the thing that sends you shifting awkwardly under your skin through her artwork.

“For Tifferz, it is important to embrace uncomfortable thoughts and images for what they signal to our emotions. Things which we initially recoil have valuable, and often misunderstood, significance.” Stated in an excerpt from her website. She’s not going for shock value, it’s something a little more subtle than that.

“It’s being too comfortable that makes me uneasy. I feel that pulling yourself out of your comfort zone is all about growing up and expanding your horizons… Every day I sit at my canvas I’m uncomfortable. My head fills with thoughts of ‘Am I good enough?’ ‘Will my work sell?’ Can I really make this dream a reality?’ That’s my fuel, that’s what I thrive off of. I love that every day I am challenging myself to build the dream I want more than anything. To share my art with the world,” says Tifferz.

Three years and counting, Tifferz is successfully making her dream a reality. Things are more of an adventure these days and she finds inspiration everywhere she goes, absorbing the potential in everything she sees.

“I think, sometimes, I drive my boyfriend crazy when I tell him all of the different ideas I have going on my head at one time. When I’m out and about… I stop and take pictures. I sketch them in my sketchbook or save the image for further inspiration down the road. Music is also a big inspiration… I usually paint to Louis Armstrong,” shares Tifferz.

The New Orleans spirit is present in Tifferz’s work, but not entirely because she’s listening to Satchmo while in the zone. It isn’t necessarily pulsating in the actual subject matter of her work, it’s the overall presentation of how the piece was assembled. Tifferz’s art is typically found with loud and bold colors that waltz over the canvas with zero apologies.

“When you walk down the streets of the French Quarter, you can see history all over the place and at the same time, you can feel so much life running through its veins… I feel like my work reflects my time in the city,” offers Tifferz.

Currently, Tifferz is working on a set of new pieces and as a result, taking a break from shows. She’s been very fortunate and has actually run out of her original artwork for viewing. Now is the time to go back and hit the blank canvases running, and she’ll be doing it in a different way this time.

“I’ve started to work on larger, more elaborate pieces. I’ve recently started doing collage pieces and I love it! … It challenges me to think outside the box and not be too focused on one area of the painting,” Tifferz states.

Of course, previous works are still available to view online by visiting her website www.TifferzArt.com, but there’s no timeline yet in when her new series will be ready for showing. In the meantime, fans of her work may actually commission Tifferz for custom, personalized pieces of art. Just visit her website and start the conversation, she’s happy to take on new challenges as clients are always helping her stretch the artistic muscle and move in directions she never quite anticipated.

“I’ve had some clients this year test my artistic limits and it was great. I’m learning what I am capable of through my commission work. For instance, up until this year, I had never done figure work… I didn’t realize that I’d like painting the human form, and now I’m loving it,” says Tifferz.

Stay connected with Tifferz’s artistic journey by following her work on Facebook under ‘Tifferz’ for her artist page and ‘Tiffany Salter’ for her personal page, on Instagram @tifferz_art and on her website, www.TifferzArt.com.