Susana Figueroa and the Shinzen Friendship Garden
Oct 25, 2017 11:00AM
● By Melissa Mendonca
Story by Melissa Mendonca
Photos courtesy of Shinzen Japanese Garden
Of the many images of home in her head during a nine-year stay in Los Angeles, Susana Figueroa holds those from Fresno’s Shinzen Friendship Garden dear. A snapshot from a second-grade field trip jogs her memory. She and her sister sit on the deck of the garden’s koi pond. “It almost seemed like a faint memory, like a dream,” she says.
Those images were brought back to clear focus when Figueroa returned to Fresno and presented herself to the Cultural Arts Rotary Club as a child of the area who had gone off to UCLA, gotten some professional experience, and was ready to reinvest in her home town.
That presentation led to a volunteer opportunity at the garden, which in turn developed into paid opportunities that have brought her to her current position as director of operations. Each day can bring a visit to the koi pond she and her sister once enjoyed so readily.
As she comes to work each day, she passes through the entryway, called a mon, that reminds her of the purpose of the garden. Constructed through Japanese carpentry and design, it is a beautiful gift from Fresno’s sister city of Kochi, Japan, which provides a warm welcome to the garden that sets the intention of friendship, beauty, contemplation
“The conversation about building the Japanese garden began in 1967,” says Figueroa. “We needed to reconcile with Japan. At the time, it was common to establish Japanese gardens and sister cities.” That conversation found payoff in 1981 when the garden opened in Woodward Park. “Its purpose was to establish and forge relationships with Japan,” she adds.
Continuing to this day, representatives from each community travel every year or two to deepen the mutual respect between the cities. “We host them for events,” says Figueroa of the garden’s Kochi kin. “We have had a ceremony of planting a tree in their honor.” It’s all an intentional effort, she says, “to be present in each other’s lives.”
For the general public, the garden has something to offer beyond the opportunity to participate in this friendship and reconciliation effort. “You are able to walk through it and have your own reflections and feelings and thoughts about it,” says Figueroa. “It’s a serene space. It’s a place to leave the city feel. You can escape the rush-rush lifestyle.
“A typical Japanese garden is supposed to be very mute of colors. So, green upon green upon green,” she says. The Shinzen garden was designed for all four seasons, offering an opportunity to see something new as the weather and plants change throughout the year. In November, she says, “Our leaves really change color and it changes the entire feel of the garden.”
December lends itself to what she describes as the winter silhouette. “The trees that do lose their leaves are completely bare,” she says. “In the bonsai garden it’s called the winter silhouette because it’s when you can really observe the branches and how they flow.”
Indeed, the bonsai garden, a small yet vital segment of the garden, has become the crown jewel of Shinzen. “The collection came to us through the Golden State Bonsai Federation,” says Figueroa. “There was a lot of effort from the Fresno Bonsai Society to develop the display. It could have been placed in a variety of different places.”
Donated from the private collection of Willard and Elizabeth Clark at the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in Hanford, the offerings include legacy bonsai that were tended to by friends and neighbors of Japanese Americans forced to leave their plants while interned during World War II.
“Some of these reflect that part of our history,” says Figueroa. “Once our visitors understand that, it really is a full scope of events that took place within our garden.”
The garden grows on five acres of land owned by the city of Fresno but maintained by a nonprofit organization. While the city provides a part-time gardener, the need is for at least three full-time gardeners. Each third Saturday of the month, volunteers descend on the garden to keep it maintained and help bridge that gap.
The garden is popular for photographers as well, and is a well-loved location for weddings and private events, as well as quinceanera photos.
“I would love to share it with everyone in Fresno,” says Figueroa with determination, noting that tours can be arranged for schoolchildren and private groups, such as Master Gardeners. There are many scenic areas for them to capture photographic memories. The koi pond may just be the best. •
Shinzen Japanese Garden
114 W. Audubon Drive, Fresno
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October-March: Saturday, Sundays and Holidays 10AM-5PM
April-September: Monday-Friday 4PM-7PM; Saturday, Sunday and Holidays 10AM-7PM