Surrounded by Solitude: Japanese Tea Garden


Photo by John Hamilton

John Hamilton, Staff Writer

Journeying across the busy streets around Broadway and North St. Mary’s on a day that harbored cool winds and a comforting morning sun, I began my trip to Brackenridge with hopes of visiting the Japanese Tea Garden. Arriving at the park in the early morning hours meant seeing the sunrise held in each of the drops of morning dew that rested on the manicured grass and shrubbery surrounding the entrance. The staircase ascending to the stone pavilion held bronze plaques that told the story of the repurposing of the area, how this once-abandoned rock quarry had been formed into a mixture of cultural expression by an assortment of stone masons and other artists.

Reaching the summit of the staircase brought a view overlooking the entirety of the garden with interconnected ponds split by the shadows of handcrafted stone bridges. The waters were filled with koi fish dressed in scales of brilliant oranges, whites and jet blacks. The path down introduced plants and trees of all varieties, well maintained and impeccably arranged.  Gardeners worked diligently to keep the ecosystem thriving as I approached to ask which plants were which. A small Japanese Maple raised its branches toward the rising sun, the radiant colors of fall glowing inside each of its leaves. A waterfall rushed down the back of the garden, feeding the pond below with oxygen and carrying a mist along the wind. This place was once a quarry?

This question was answered quickly, as the stones in the pavilion and set along the path varied in size and shape; the only unifying quality was the mortar holding them together. The walkway around the garden was short, shaded by the shadows of bamboo and lofty palm fronds. At water level, the koi gathered in groups, gliding over the sandy bottom in streamline fashion. The outliers stayed under the turbulent waters from drop offs, relaxed in the shade by natural water jets. I was astonished to see a thin snake in the distant water, perhaps contemplating making a meal of one of the koi. It was a hose.

The garden was unimaginably quiet, somehow absorbing the sounds of the outside world and offering a small slice of tranquility that then extended into and around the rest of the park.  The azaleas and camellias opened like eyes as the sun grew higher. The final stop on the trip inside the garden was to another pavilion overlooking the outer reaches of Brackenridge.

Outside the garden, gravel paths form a maze around the San Antonio River, trickling with water and housing small groups of feeder fish fighting against the current. Large ducks waddled along the path down to their natural habitats, one stopping in the middle of a trail for a stare down. Limestone cutouts along the banks back up to the Witte Museum and other area attractions. Cypress and walnut trees are scattered around the park, and in the middle of them lies a void where a mighty oak has laid claim to a patch of land that extends far beyond its reaches.  Branches from the tree stoop to the ground, exhausted from fighting gravity, yet continuing to grow in every direction. The dirt around the trunk is turned over by the passing feet of people coming to admire the tree’s sheer size. If this tree were any bigger, it would have its own orbit.

This trip only encompassed one area of the park, leaving much more to the imagination. Trail signs showed extensive maps of weaving paths, connecting different areas of the park along the flow of the waterway. Brackenridge Park is a conglomerate of trails, fields, pavilions and attractions that allow for enjoyment of nearly any activity. The surrounding area, especially on Broadway, can serve as a revolving door into the stillness of nature or back to the paces of civilization. With free parking, free entry and extensive options for food in the area, it can be easy to spend all day here. 

Surrounding attractions include the Botanical Garden, San Antonio Zoo and Pearl Brewery located just south of the park across 281. The park is pet friendly, including the Japanese Tea Garden. Brackenridge is open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, and the garden is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Inside the garden is a small shop with food, trinkets, teas and a friendly staff. Located near the ever-changing heart of our city, Brackenridge Park is a dormant hideaway that houses local stories and the powerful idea of repurposing. If you want to see this idea on display, the garden just may be your cup of tea.