Aside from the new-ish Hartman Prehistoric Garden, my favorite section of Zilker Botanical Garden is the venerable Taniguchi Oriental Garden (also known as the Japanese Garden). Created as a labor of love and opened in 1969,
. . . the Garden was built by Mr. Taniguchi when he was seventy years old. Working without a salary or a contract, Mr. Taniguchi spent 18 months transforming 3 acres of rugged caliche hillside into a peaceful garden. As is often done in Japan, the ponds were designed in the shape of a word or ideogram. In this case, the ponds in the first half of the garden spell out the word “AUSTIN”, reflecting the fact that these gardens were constructed as a gift to the city.
—Zilker Garden website
And what an amazing gift it has continued to be. I’ve enjoyed this garden immensely for more than a decade, and my kids have practically grown up in it. In October we attend the Moon Festival, and in the spring we return for the Zilker Garden Festival. In between, when the weather is nice, we pop over to the garden for a pleasant stroll. Or rather, a mad dash, as my kids zip up and down the rocky steps, over the moon bridge, through the tunnel, across the stepping stones that seemingly float across the ponds. They like to explore every nook and cranny in this garden, but at top speed.
This time I was on my own, and I enjoyed a much more contemplative visit. Here is the formal entrance to the Japanese garden, although you can enter from several other directions as you walk down the hill behind the garden center or follow the stream from the rose garden.
Friendly ties with a sister city, Oita City, resulted in this lovely gate.
On the other side, in Japanese, it says something similar, I presume. Though you never know.
This stream is your companion in the Japanese garden. It flows past the gate toward a waterfall that splashes down the cliffside. From there it fills lily and koi ponds.
In the center of the garden, a bamboo-and-stone teahouse commands a view of downtown and Zilker Park’s soccer fields. Or it used to. Right now you mostly see tree branches and tall bamboo, which obscure the view.
According to the garden’s website, the characters on the teahouse read, “TEN-WA-JIN,” which translates to “Heaven, Harmony, and Man.”
The upper pond is quiet and fishless.
At one end, a calming, green vignette.
The moon bridge, recently reconstructed from shaggy cedar posts supported by a steel arch, anchors the picturesque heart of the garden. Here you see it through a rock tunnel near the waterfall, accessible via “floating” stepping stones from the bridge. You have to slow down to see this garden—unless you happen to be a kid, in which case you can manage the tricky stepping at high speed.
This path leads from the moon bridge to the lower ponds and eventually to the rose and prehistoric gardens.
This is perhaps my favorite spot in the Japanese garden. A large pittosporum arches over the path, the pond flashes with the colors of huge koi, and “floating” stepping stones lead from the main path to an island and then back around to the pittosporum. A wisteria lights up the island with lavender in the spring. Nearby, a huge, spreading oak stands sentinel on a rocky hill.
Here I am walking across those stepping stones. You must have good balance.
The koi seem almost tame and swim up for a closer look.
Another rules sign, like the one in the Prehistoric Garden, tries to teach visitors how to behave in a public garden, so that its beauty can be preserved for others to enjoy.
But not everyone cares.
The Japanese garden is probably what most Austinites visualize when they think of Zilker Garden. A popular spot for bridal and quinceanera photos, it holds a special place in Austin’s collective heart. I hope that Taniguchi’s gift will be preserved for many decades to come.