A strict hierarchy governs the list of objects that can hold our childrens’ attention. Any body of water ranks high. Drilling down a little, moving water trumps standing water. Knowing this, I directed them towards the little waterfall. They’ll be playing there for hours, I presumed with a confident smirk. But as they approached the waterfall an enormous koi swam by in the pond, torpedoing my presumption. I was well aware that animals outrank water and an animal in the water is the four-star general of the child-attention chain-of-command. At that point the only thing that would have pulled them back to the waterfall was a grizzly bear showing up to fish for spawning salmon. And that would have been unlikely, given that we were at the Osaka Japanese garden on Chicago’s south side.
Osaka is Chicago’s Japanese sister city. I don’t think they gave us the garden, but they did send us a couple of the cherry blossom trees growing there. It’s called a Japanese rock garden on the signs and websites, probably avoiding the use of the term “Zen garden” so as not to trigger a first amendment lawsuit.
As far as Japanese gardens go, this one isn’t bad. As far as Japanese gardens in major American urban centers go, it’s amazing. It’s in good shape, there is very little litter, and I haven’t seen any Yakuza graffiti.
The garden is located in Jackson Park, which is right next to the Museum of Science and Industry. The garden has a great view of the dome of the museum rising up behind the lagoons in the park. Unfortunately, further back, in turn rising up from behind the museum’s dome, is an ugly apartment building that adds nothing to the zen quotient.
The garden is about the size of half of a football field. There is a crushed gravel path that meanders through the garden. As an adult, I seldom get the opportunity to meander, so I try to stock up every time I go. In addition to the waterfall (which, unfortunately, is not always on), there are some small hills, a bridge, and other accents that make the place a very attractive place to spend time.
Spend time doing what? Yes, that is a good question. It’s a zen garden; attaining enlightenment doesn’t usually make for exciting action (“He’s out of time outs! The clock is winding down! Can he achieve oneness with the universe before time expires?!”). By far the most popular activity in the garden is taking pictures. When I bring out-of-town guests to the garden their cameras inevitably get a workout. My three children know that they will have to spend the first five or ten minutes of each trip posing and smiling into the sun.
The garden is attractive enough that it attracts a wide variety of people looking for a unique backdrop, so much so that photography can become a spectator sport. On the nicer weekend days there will be a parade of people dressed up, followed by their lackeys with tripods and cameras. The subjects include the obvious: wedding couples, gaggles of bridesmaids, and graduating students with their proud (high school) or impoverished (University of Chicago) parents. I have also spotted some groups of people in get-ups that I didn’t recognize. As one example, while my kids were entranced by the koi there was a photographer shooting a pair of women who were wearing what looked like ¾-length saris with a pair of spandex tights and knee-pads underneath. Perhaps a Hindu roller derby duo? The Brahmin Brawlers?
I have never seen the place loud or rowdy, but on the weekends it’s not exactly pin-drop quiet. For instance, there’s often that loud-mouth guy yelling at his kids to stop throwing pebbles at the koi (no matter how many times I tell them otherwise, they are convinced they are feeding the fish). And last weekend someone showed up on one of those little mini-motorbikes that are about 18 inches tall, the kind the Shriners would ride if they had a motorcycle gang. He didn’t stay long, but the damage was done: spiritual transcendence went 0-for-4 the rest of the afternoon.
Summer and fall are the best times to go; the leaves on the trees add a lot. Winter can also pay off on a day with snow on the ground or when it’s cold enough for the pond to have frozen. In the spring there are no leaves on the trees and the path will probably be muddy; visitors will need to self-generate their zen at that time of year.
The garden is probably not worth a special trip on its own from downtown, but it’s an easy half-mile walk from both the Museum of Science and Industry and Lake Michigan and would make an easy addition to those destinations. The website http://www.hydepark.org/parks/osaka2.htm provides an exhaustive treatise on the details and history of the garden.