Soon after completing my post, Depictions of Tea in Art, last November, in which I mentioned my favorite painter, Johannes Vermeer, I resumed my journey examining this Dutch master’s work up close and in person. From February 16 to March 31, 2013, the Getty Center exhibited Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. I then visited San Francisco to see Girl with a Pearl Earring, perhaps Vermeer’s most famous painting. Neighboring the de Young Museum inside Golden Gate Park is the five-acre Japanese Tea Garden – the State’s oldest public Japanese Garden constructed originally for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition!
The $2 park guide includes a map and chronicles notable events, but mentions nothing about the landscaping approach and design concept. I recalled my visit to Sakai’s Daisen Park, where a language barrier did not prevent me from learning how the garden was created in the traditional tsukiyama rinsen kaiyuu style (築山林泉回遊式). The Japanese Tea Garden’s dense plantations and stately structures were all very soothing to the eyes; I only wished there was more information on the architects’ design philosophies, endeavors, and goals, which might enable guests to appreciate the busy tourist attraction in a different light.
The Japanese Tea Garden is clearly a strolling, promenade garden, thus of kaiyuu style. Based on the little I know about tea gardens, it does not seem to have a prominent roji (露地) element that is supposed to harmoniously encompass its chashitsu (茶室), or tea room. Roji, literally “dewy ground,” is the essential tea garden complementing and providing a pathway to the tea room. Commercialization and the tea house’s sheer size suggest that roji is never part of the design scheme.
The tea house serves various green teas. I had hōjicha and chilled kinako kuzumochi.
A visit to San Mateo’s Japanese Garden followed RoboGames 2013 the next day. Designed by Nagao Sakurai (1896 – 1973), Tokyo Imperial Palace’s landscape architect, this urban garden also has its own rustic tea house, which led me to wonder if there is any public Japanese garden in the States that does not have a tea house or tearoom. What constitute a Japanese tea garden? A tearoom? Japanese garden and Japanese tea garden seem synonymous. I was also curious about Mr. Sakurai’s landscaped Kokyo Gaien National Gardens’ magnificent Japanese Black Pines Forest. As it was approaching closing time, I did not get the chance to ask questions.
The exhibit posters always magnify Vermeer’s works multi-fold, which makes the viewing of the actual paintings even more delightful and indelible. At the de Young Museum, I was especially impressed that the docent did not once call Girl with a Pearl Earring the Dutch Mona Lisa, for Vermeer’s masterpiece is in a class all by itself.