A Day at the Japanese Gardens

22 Sep

With our first of several guests, Claudia, in town last week, Mustard Seed and I took her to Austin to explore the environs a bit.  We started with some lunch at Shady Grove, a place with a beautiful oak-covered patio that takes trailer-park chic to a new level and has an absolutely delicious Hippie Sandwich that you must try if you’re ever in the area.

Then we headed a short distance to the Japanese Botanical Gardens in Zilker Park.  They were built in the 60s by a Japanese immigrant whose children went to the University of Texas.  As thanks to the city of Austin for their education, he built these gardens.


The gardens are on a hillside in the shadow of downtown, blending treetops with skyscrapers.  You first come across an open rose garden presided over by an arch that feels a bit like modern Texas ruins. Then rock paths lead you down the hill where you stumble on a delightful koi fish pond with channels of water running into it.  Ordinarily, a high pile of rocks also spills a waterfall down into it, but the drought currently precludes keeping it on.

Ordinarily, you would also find lots of very large koi, but as the garden keeper, who was cleaning the pond told us, only Kryptonite, the invincible fish, is left.  All the others either died or, more likely, were stolen.  He recounted in an amiable New York accent his involvement, along with the police, in a SWAT-style raid on a house where the stolen fish were believed to have been secreted away.  He donned a bullet-proof vest, waited patiently while the cops kicked in the door of the house, and then, anxiously expecting a reunion with the fish he obviously has a soft spot for, was escorted to the back where there were fish in tanks.  Sadly, he didn’t recognize any as fish from the gardens.  Thus Kryptonite remains the sole resident of the pond.


The plants in the garden are all native or very well-suited to the area.  A number of xeriscaping techniques have been incorporated to make the garden low maintenance.  We saw blue mulhy grass, purple coneflower (echinacea), Esperanza Goldstar, social garlic, dessert willow, and various types of cactus, among other things.  Bamboo is not native to Texas but grows very well here–almost too well, in fact.  I love the graffiti on these bamboo stalks, the thought that not only will these messages be obliterated with time, they will be completely healed over by the plant.

We took lots of time to explore, to send acorn caps down the channel, pretending it was a roaring river, to see if they would capsize on arriving at the ocean.  We found mesquite pods.  We looked at leaves.  We climbed the small hill that overlooks the boat-shaped island in the pond.  We jumped from rock to rock.  Here, my uncle, who accompanied us, shows Mustard Seed some wonder of the garden.


St. Francis of Assisi gives a sermon in a shady corner.

And nearby a lizard tries to look natural as prying eyes try to get a closer look.

After the gardens, we did something so refreshing I think we may do it all next summer.  We took a dip in Barton Springs, a natural cold spring within Zilker Park.  It costs about $3 per person, and the spring water has been pooled, so that you’re swimming in natural, chemical-free water, but you’re also free from most critters (except the salamander colony that resides on the far side, which tends to be shy anyway).  The bottom is cemented, but moss grows very thick on it, so walking is a bit tricky.  But the temperature of the water after all these triple digit days…heavenly!  Hint: the best way in is all at once!


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