Zilker Botanical Garden: Isamu Taniguchi Japanese Garden

Aside from the new-ish Hartman Prehistoric Garden, my favorite section of Zilker Botanical Garden is the venerable Taniguchi 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.

16 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    OOOOOOOooooooo That first photo of the bridge going over the stream made my heart skip. I love finding streams like that in the mountains. Lovely garden.

    Yes, it’s a pretty bridge in a picturesque spot. I’m glad you enjoyed the photo, Lisa. —Pam

  2. Dee says:


    I loved the tour of the Japanese garden. I especially liked the bridge made out of “shaggy cedar” beams. If you come over to my new garden blog, http://www.reddirtramblings.com, you’ll understand why. :-).

    Thanks again,


    I took a gander at your site, Dee, and understand why you prefer cedar in pieces rather than as trees. Many Austinites feel the same. Thanks for commenting and introducing me to your blog. I’ll be back. —Pam

  3. Nicole says:

    What a very beautiful garden, with obviously a lot of thought and effort in the details. I love the first shot and also your favorite spot, and love the harmonious aspect to Asian garden design in general. What fun you must now have combining two favorite activities-gardening and travel!

    Yes, it’s very fun. I notice you did some of the same on your trip to Hawaii. —Pam

  4. Priscilla says:

    That garden is beautiful. I love Japanese gardens so much. It’s my goal when I get a home to have a Japanese garden. They just have a calming beautiful feeling to them . I love how this one looks I’ll have to go visit it one day when I go to Austin. I live so close but I’m too lazy to drive an hour away. I’m not comfortable in places I don’t know I always get lost. It’s sad that people have no respect for the garden and the plants.

    You should come see it sometime, Priscilla, since it’s just a short drive between San Antonio and Austin. Austin’s pretty easy to get around in. For one thing, it’s much smaller than your city. And Zilker Garden is located right off MoPac, near downtown. Plus it’s free! —Pam

  5. Our favorite spot is the bench under the palm, with the bamboo on the left and a pool in front. We’ve visited a lot of Japanese gardens in other states, some of which were more impressive, but with more of a ‘committee’ feel – this one is intensely personal. I like the use of Texas natives like Sophora secundiflora/TX mountain laurel along with traditional plants like azaleas, wisteria and Pittosporum. When the double-flowered ornamental pomegranates are blooming it turns me into a puddle. Mr Taniguchi must have been a wonderful person.

    Lovely, lovely photos, Pam.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Thanks, Annie. I have never sat on that bench that you mention. Usually I come with the kids, and they keep me on pace. But I like to climb the hill with that big oak and just stand and stare down into the koi pond/wisteria island. I agree that Taniguchi must have been an amazing person to have created such a lovely garden, laden with symbolism, especially taking into account his age, volunteer status, and lack of funding. How did he do it?? —Pam

  6. carolyngail says:

    Hi Pam,

    That garden is so WONDERFUL ! I’ve toured the gardens of Japan and my husband’s native country, Korea and I must say that I am so enthralled with Asian gardens.

    Hi, Carolyn Gail. You are lucky to have been able to tour gardens in Japan and Korea. I’d love to visit Japan one day and see firsthand what their gardens are like. —Pam

  7. Ki says:

    I fondly remember walking the meandering trails of the garden while visiting Austin many years ago. I was struck that a single person could transform a hillside. More amazing that he was so elderly when he did it. Makes me feel like a slug. Just constructing the extensive watercourses alone was quite an accomplishment. Thank you for the photos. I had a cheap disposable film camera at the time and all of the photos were quite disappointing but your photos are a vivid reminder of the wonderful time spent at the gardens.

    Isn’t it amazing, what Taniguchi accomplished in his seventies? I’m glad you enjoyed the photos, Ki. —Pam

  8. Diana Kirby says:

    Thanks for the tour. I usually go through there at Zilker Gardenfest – which is my favorite thing to do in Austin. My husband and I were married in the Japanese Garden — on the path next to the bridge with the Koi joining us as guests, so it hold special memories for me. Or, I suppose, we were guests of the Koi!

    How wonderful! What a beautiful place to get married. Maybe you’ll post a photo from your wedding in the garden one of these days. I’d love to see it. —Pam

  9. Erin says:

    I grew up in Austin and the ZBG is one of my favorite places. Thanks for the photos – I haven’t been there since the new bridge was constructed, and there is clearly a field trip waiting in the wings.

    Discovered your blog searching for others’ references to fragrant white mistflower (which I finally just planted in my own garden), and am delighted to have a new favorite blog. I only began to garden after I moved from Austin, and my visits back are now peppered with discoveries of the glorious plants that were there all along in my own hometown (wow, me and Dorothy, I guess – there’s no place like home, click click click).

    I look forward to reading your delightful observations.

    Hi, Erin. Thanks for visiting, and for the kind words about Digging. I hope you enjoy your white mistflower. I appreciate mine at this time of year, and so do the butterflies. —Pam

  10. Rachel says:

    The Taniguchi Garden is one of my very favorite special places in Austin. I’m overdue for a visit – thanks for reminding me!

    I hope you get to visit sometime soon, Rachel. —Pam

  11. I lived in Oita Prefecture for two years just north of Oita City in Beppu City at a time when the sister city-ship was being established. Once I even met the governor. So this spot in Zilker has a special meaning for me. Yes, the Japanese says basically the same thing:

    ooita, oosuchin (Austin), ryoushi (mutual/paired cities), no matsunagai (long future) yuuco (friendship) shinzen (also friendship) wo negai (wish) kenritsu (to erect). Heisei 10 (in the tenth year of the emperor Heisei), juuichigatsu (the eleventh month) kizou (presented) ooita-shi (Oita City)

    Thanks for the insider information, MSS. I figured that you’d know if they were pulling one over on us non-Japanese literate Austinites. All kidding aside, it’s pretty neat that you’ve lived near our sister city in Japan. I would expect Zilker’s Japanese garden to have special resonance for you. —Pam

  12. fran sorin says:


    I love your photos depicting the fall in your garden….exquisite. And how I envy the weather that you are experiencing now. Although we had a late fall arrival in the east and even though some of my hybrid climbers are still in intermitten bloom, there are no echinaceas, few asters and salvias that are in their glory now. Indigo Spires is one heck of a salvia….just think that blue is stunning. Thanks for the tour. Fran

    You are very welcome, Fran. Thanks for stopping by. We’re seeing a succession of cool days now, with stretches of warm weather in between. They’re predicting a very warm and dry fall for Austin, so I’m waiting to see how long the garden will stay in bloom this year. —Pam

  13. […] Japanese garden is smaller than Austin’s Taniguchi Garden at Zilker Botanical Garden, and the pond is dry due to the watering restrictions (were there no […]

  14. […] this time). Stay tuned for posts about the main attractions: the Hartman Prehistoric Garden and the Isamu Taniguchi Oriental Garden. Comments […]

  15. ashley gloria says:

    i absolutely fell in love wth this place. tho we went in february, it was still so beautiful!! My boyfriend of 6 yrs proposed to me on february 19,2011 under the large pittosporum that arches in the Taniguchi Garden. So we plan on returning sometime soon to do engagement pictures. I encourage anyone to check this place out. You wont regret it.

  16. […] For a previous visit and more about Austin’s sister city in Japan, check out my earlier post about the Japanese Garden. […]