Tag Archives: gardens at lake merritt

What is Art?

I taught a high school photography class last year at a charter school in Richmond… though most of the kids had cell phones with cameras and were fond of taking quick snaps of each other striking poses, few had been exposed to the idea of photography as art, or even the idea of Art itself.

I put together a handout for them that they begrudgingly plodded their way through, then promptly discarded as they raced out the door at the sound of the bell.  What I realize now is that it was way over their heads.  The idea of Art is a heady one indeed.

The definition I came up with after consulting various sources was this:

Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.”

There was more to it than that, but that’s it in a nutshell.  And if you agree with that definition, which I personally do, then all kinds of things can be considered Art.  The “elements” one is arranging can be paint, paper, fabric, metal, concrete, words, one’s own body parts, the ingredients of a pie, a pocketful of pennies, plants in a garden, the list is really endless

And what I’d like to focus on for the next couple of days are the gardens, specifically The Gardens at Lake Merritt. As I mentioned the other day, I truly feel that these are a little known secret that need to be exposed to the world. They’re fantastic and my pictures do not do them justice, as I was there during the not-so-pretty light of the middle of the day and was too lazy to go back and get better pictures later. Sorry.

The Gardens are a seven-acre collection of themed gardens… today we’ll look at the Asian gardens: Bonsai, Torii Gate, and Japanese.


The Bonsai Garden is Northern California’s only public bonsai collection and is home to over 200 amazing specimens, though they are rotated frequently, so generally around 50 are on display at any given time. This demonstration garden has some rather historic (and artistic) features including the oldest documented bonsai in the United States, as well as many viewing stones (suiseki), a dry waterfall and stream-bed, and an authentic Japanese garden gate (no nails or screws). The garden was developed and continues to be supported exclusively by volunteers and donations, so don’t forget to throw a few bucks in the basket, or better yet, donate some time (contact bonsailakemerritt@gmail.com).



Just west of the Bonsai Garden is the Torii Gate, a traditional Japanese gate commonly found at the entrance to Shinto shrines; it marks the entrance into a sacred space. The original Torii gate was a gift to the City of Oakland in 1969 from our sister city Fukuoka, Japan. Did you know we had a sister city there?? I didn’t. Fukuoka has many features similar to Oakland… it’s a port city, has a similar moderate climate, experiences occasional earthquakes, and is praised for its green spaces in a modern metropolitan setting.

The gate was rebuilt in 2002 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the sister city relationship by the Oakland Fukuoka Sister City Association (OFSCA), which is dedicated to fostering and promoting cultural awareness, understanding, and friendship between the peoples and cities of Oakland and Fukuoka. For more information, please visit http://www.oakland-fukuoka.org.



Ok… you still with me?! There’s one more. It’s actually called The Japanese Garden, and is not immediately adjacent to these other two, so you’ll have to do a bit of exploring, but then again, that’s half the fun! The garden was built back in 1959 by members of the Japanese-American community under the direction of designer Hisaichi Tsugawa, and recently received some necessary improvements to the aging gate at the hands of local wood-working artist Jay van Arsdale and many of his students from Laney College. It’s quite lovely… please check it out.


Grand Lake Love.

So I spent a good chunk of my Saturday meandering around Lake Merritt and the Grand/Lake area… I started at the Farmers Market which is simply awesome and definitely one of my favorite things about Oakland.  It’s a wonderful combination of fresh farm produce & flowers, prepared foods, artisan goods, live music, and more.  They even have a stand with massage therapists & tables ready to ease any remaining work-week stress right out of you!  I made my way to the food court where a great lo-fi funk band was playing… I think they were called Sprocket (not sure about this though).  Check out these little tykes… they were totally groovin’!


Then I pedaled around the lake… and at 11:45am sharp, the bell tower of The Lady of the Lourdes church (featured last week) started chiming what I believe is a portion of one of Beethoven’s symphonies… it played for several minutes, which I honestly had never heard before. Pretty cool.

As I rounded the next corner, I came upon a group of about 50 people on a lawn section adjacent to the lake, doing the Thriller dance.  Yes, Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  They were doing it without the music, but anyone who knows the video (is there anyone who doesn’t?) knows this dance!  A group of random passerbys (myself included) stopped to gawk and laugh.  It was quite hilarious.

What I’ve since learned, is that this group (and others) are preparing for an attempt at the Guinness World Record for the largest simultaneous worldwide dance to Thriller on October 24th (called Thrill the World).  It’s just a week away folks, so if you want to get in on this ridiculous fun and dress up like a zombie and get down with the funky grooves, there’s one last rehearsal scheduled for this Thursday, October 22nd.  Click here for full rehearsal schedule as well as a link to practice the dance at home.  How can you not love this???

After leaving the zombies-in-training, I parked my bike and spent a lovely time strolling through The Gardens at Lake Merritt. It’s amazing how many people cruise the lake every day – bicycling, pushing their strollers, running their dogs – but how few people know of this gem. Located on the north side of the lake within Lakeside Park, the gardens are comprised of a seven-acre collection of themed gardens. I’ll have more info on this in the next couple of days, and will be focused most of this week on all the cool things that are happening around Lake Merritt. It’s really the heart of our city.