Thursday, June 9: I have been wanting to visit some of the well-known gardens around Philadelphia before spring is over, so I take the opportunity today to drive up for an overnight trip. My goal is to see four gardens: Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, Morris Arboretum, Chanticleer, and Winterthur. It turns out I don’t see THOSE four gardens, but I do see four gardens (minus Morris Arboretum, plus Longwood Gardens).
It’s always a challenge to outsmart Washington area traffic, especially when you have to go around the Beltway, which I must do to get to Philly. I decide I’ll leave at 10:00 a.m., when rush hour should be over. Lately, it seems that rush hour is NEVER over, and today is no exception. It takes me longer than I expect to get to my first garden, Shofuso, arriving around 2:00! Shofuso closes at 4:00, and so does Morris Arboretum, which I also plan to see today, so I must hurry if I want to see them both.
Shofuso Japanese House and Garden is a traditional-style Japanese house and nationally-ranked garden in Philadelphia’s West Fairmount Park that reflects the history of Japanese culture in Philadelphia from 1876 to the present day. It was built in Japan in 1953 using historic techniques and time-honored materials. The house was exhibited in the courtyard at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and then moved to Philadelphia in 1958 to the site of several previous Japanese structures dating to the 1876 Centennial Exposition (from Shofuso’s brochure).
I end up by accident at the Fairmount Horticultural Center, but there is no one selling tickets and I don’t see another soul around. I figure this must not actually be Shofuso, so I hop in my car and drive further along the road.
On my way to my car, I find this sculpture titled “The Wrestlers,” artist unknown, from 3rd century B.C. (cast in 1885). These men are engaged in the Greek sport pankration, a blend of wrestling and boxing. This sculpture is based on the 3rd century B.C. Greek original, which was lost in antiquity. First century B.C. Romans made a marble copy, which was restored in 1853 and later displayed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. This cast was made from the Italian marble copy.
I drive down the quiet road and finally come upon the actual Shofuso. After buying my ticket, I’m told to remove my shoes and put on paper socks to walk through the tea house.
According to the garden’s website: “Shofuso is a 1.2 acre Japanese garden listed as the third best Japanese garden in North America by Sukiya Living, and named the “Best Hidden Tourist Attraction” by Philadelphia Magazine.” It was named to the Philadelphia Historic Register in June 2013.
In Japanese tradition, architectural spaces designed to be used for tea ceremony gatherings are known as chashitsu. Typical features include tatami mat floors, shoji (translucent paper screens reinforced with lattice), a tokonama (decorative alcove) and a ro (sunken hearth). The ro is covered with plain tatami and is not visible in the warm months.
Tea ceremony is at once an art form, a spiritual discipline, a way to socialize, and a window on Japanese culture.
“Waterfall Painting” by artist Hiroshi Senju (b. 1958) was installed in 2007. He is known for his large-scale waterfall paintings, primarily working in the nihonga style. Nihonga is used to describe paintings that have been made in accordance with traditional Japanese artistic conventions, techniques and materials. While based on traditions over a thousand years old, the term was coined in the Meiji period (1868-1912) of Imperial Japan, to distinguish such works from Western-style paintings. Nihonga typically combines pigments derived from natural materials (e.g. minerals, seashells, corals) in a medium of animal glue, which is then applied to washi (Japanese-style paper) (from a plaque at Shofuso).
Tea houses such as this have two rooms: the main room where the hosts and guests gather and tea is served, and a mizuya, or water room, where the host prepares the sweets and equipment.
Once I leave the tea house, I’m allowed to put my shoes back on to walk around the garden. The pond is lush and serene. I find one young man meditating on the shore and I try not to disturb him.
In front of the tea house are colorful boxes of incense and some fish-shaped wind socks.
I find some small-scale pagodas in the garden.
In a bamboo grove, I meet Jizo, one of the most loved of all Japanese divinities. Traditionally, he is seen as the guardian of children, in particular those who died before their parents.
A frequent sight in Japanese gardens, the granite tsukabai, or basin, is a testament to the Japanese ideal of purity. Washing hands before entering the tea house was customary as a purification ritual.
I didn’t mention that one of the reasons I chose these two days to visit the Philadelphia gardens is that the weather forecast was perfect, with blue skies and temperatures in the low 70s. It couldn’t be a more perfect day to walk around outside.
It’s lucky that Shofuso is so small; I’m finished walking around by 2:40. On my MapQuest, it looks like it takes some 25 minutes to get to Morris Arboretum, so off I go.
When I get to the gate at Morris Arboretum a little after 3:00, I’m told it will cost me $17 for less than an hour (as they close at 4:00). I tell the woman at the gate I will try to come back tomorrow, as it seems quite a steep price to pay for less than an hour. After doing a U-turn and heading back to the road, I put Chanticleer into the MapQuest after reading that they’re open until 5:00. I zoom to that garden, arriving at 4:00. I still only have an hour, but it only costs $10. Somehow that doesn’t seem so painful a price to pay.
Chanticleer ends up being my favorite garden of the four I see. I’ll definitely have to come back when I can take a long lingering stroll.