Shinzen Japanese Garden’s beauty threatened by vandals

VANDALISM IN SEASON ­— The Shinzen Japanese Garden in Fresno’s Woodward Regional Park is a five-acre Japanese garden designed in part by Japanese American landscape architect Paul Saito. The garden, split into four sections according to the seasons, offers a colorful shoreline along the lake during the fall and beautiful flowers in the spring. The garden recently faced issues with vandalism as stone lanterns (bottom right) were pushed over and damaged.                   photos by Tom Skelton and Richard Kassabian

VANDALISM IN SEASON ­— The Shinzen Japanese Garden in Fresno’s Woodward Regional Park is a five-acre Japanese garden designed in part by Japanese American landscape architect Paul Saito. The garden, split into four sections according to the seasons, offers a colorful shoreline along the lake during the fall and beautiful flowers in the spring. The garden recently faced issues with vandalism as stone lanterns (bottom right) were pushed over and damaged. photos by Tom Skelton and Richard Kassabian

A recent spate of vandalism has raised concern for a Japanese garden in Fresno, Calif. The local media reported that the Shinzen Japanese Garden, located within Fresno’s 300-acre Woodward Regional Park, had seen several of its granite stone lanterns turned over and broken in recent months, worrying the park’s caretakers.

Richard Kassabian, president of the garden, said the park’s supporters have recently made progress in maintaining and improving the garden, but the vandalism has hampered the organization’s efforts.

Shinzen DamageWhile the city owns the five-acre garden, the Shinzen Japanese Garden organization helps maintain it with the help of volunteers and fundraisers. Kassabian said the garden has experienced constant vandalism since he joined the organization in 2000. Recently, however, there has been an escalation in frequency — vandals have been jumping the fence to fish in the koi ponds or destroy the ornaments on the Japanese bridge posts, according to Kassabian. Most recently, a $900 granite lantern had been pushed over and broken.

“They seem to like pushing over the lanterns,” Kassabian said. “It seems to be getting progressively worse. Security is really lacking in the area.”

Kassabian, however, said it is not just the Japanese garden that has been targeted. “The city has their maintenance yard behind the Japanese garden. I’ve heard they have had some issues with theft as well and have now installed security cameras. We are considering doing the same.”

The economy is partly to blame for the issues the garden has suffered. Kassabian said the city laid off 33 of its groundkeepers in June of 2010, including the Japanese garden’s gardener. The garden is also normally only open on weekends outside of the summer months. The lack of foot traffic and security measures, Kassabian said, may be why more people are breaking in.

One of the most shocking cases, however, was when Kassabian found a homeless couple living in the authentic Japanese tea house built on the garden grounds last May. The tea house, built in 1990 by Japanese craftsmen, is one of two such tea houses in the United States, according to the garden. The tea house is fitted with an alarm system and is normally closed to the public, but Kassabian said the city disabled the system after one too many false alarms.

“I had just finished taking a tour of third graders through the garden when I noticed the back door was open. I went to go secure the door when I found the homeless couple inside,” he said. “It scared me when I found them, though luckily I haven’t seen them since.”

With the local publicity, however, he has received a “pretty good” response, and the organization is looking for more supporters, both financially and in the form of volunteers to maintain the garden. Volunteers currently meet every third Saturday to clean the grounds and help make improvements.

The city also signed a memorandum of understanding with the organization in September of 2011 to outline each party’s responsibilities for the garden, according to Kassabian. The two parties currently share the responsibilities in maintaining the grounds. The city takes care of the lawn and irrigation system, while Shinzen’s volunteers prune the trees, weed and make improvements.

The city also currently collects admission from regular attendees, but abdicated the responsibilities for scheduling weddings and professional photographer shoots to Shinzen. Kassabian said Shinzen was able to get four or five times more weddings ceremonies last year than in previous years under the city’s management. Originally, the city only held weddings prior to the garden’s opening from 8 to 10 a.m. on weekends, but Shinzen opened the garden to weddings whenever it was open.

The Shinzen Japanese Garden, dedicated in 1981, symbolizes the friendship between Fresno and its sister city, Kochi, Japan.

Landscape architect Paul Saito designed the garden. Saito, who initially worked for the city of Anaheim, Calif., took on the Japanese garden as one of his first private projects in 1972. He has since become a board member of the garden and continues to plan and design improvements for the five-acre garden. Saito said he is currently working to plant a grove of sago palms, and is also designing a new wedding area.

“The goal is to be self-sustaining,” Saito said. “By extending visiting hours and holding more weddings, we can self-sustain our own staff and also add security and lighting at night.”

Saito said Shinzen is currently drafting a master plan for the garden. The plans include a cultural center and a restaurant. “We want to enlarge it to be a Japanese village,” said Saito. “We are looking into adding a bonsai nursery, a Japanese cultural center and a restaurant. This way we can have weddings in the garden, and then follow with a banquet at the cultural center that’s catered by the restaurant. That is how San Diego’s Japanese garden does it.”

Kassabian, however, said not everyone is on board with the idea for the restaurant. “Some people are for it, some are against it,” he said. “The cultural center will generate more activity and revenue, but, for the restaurant, some people are concerned about any kind of commercial development.”

Saito, who said he wants to ensure the self-sustainability of the garden, hopes to tap into potential visitors that otherwise pass through Fresno without stopping. Those include the tour buses that pass through town on their way to Yosemite National Park. “Woodward park is located right off the Yosemite Freeway. If we can build a restaurant, we could encourage those buses carrying tourists to stop there.”

Currently, the Shinzen Japanese Garden hosts several events throughout the year. The garden hosts the Spring Blossom Festival and Bonsai Show in April, along with the Fresno Japanese American Citizens League-sponsored Shinzen Run, which attracts several hundred walkers and runners. At the end of summer, the lake is site to the toro nagashi (floating lantern) ceremony.

The merit and beauty of the garden persists, despite any setbacks due to vandalism. “The Japanese plums flower starting in January, they’re flowering right now actually … and the garden becomes full of flowers throughout the months of spring,” Saito said. “And there are beautiful colors in the fall, … the autumn section of the garden is right on the lake, so you can see the beautiful colors reflected in the water.”

Kassabian said while there is work to be done, the garden has “good bones.” “Overall, it’s beautiful, but … as they say there’s always room for improvement.”

The Shinzen Japanese Garden, located at 114 West Audubon Drive, in Fresno, Calif., is open all year on weekends and holidays from 10 a.m. to dusk. During the summer months, the park is also open Mondays through Fridays 5 p.m. to dusk. For more information on the garden, to make a donation or to become a member of the garden, visit www.shinzenjapanesegarden.org or call (559) 840-1264.

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