Our family enjoys the zoo and amusement rides at Como Park, but this past weekend we were looking for a more low-key excursion. We decided to bypass the big and busy attractions for two lesser-known ones — the Como Ordway Memorial Japanese Garden and Cafesjian's Carousel.
Grandma was in town, and we had only a couple of hours to spare. I hoped the twisty path and small scale of the Japanese garden would delight my 5-year-old daughter and give the grown-ups time to talk. And I thought the nearly 100-year-old carousel was more likely to charm our intergenerational threesome than, say, the Screamin' Dragon Roller Coaster.
With parking lots sure to be full on a Saturday, we took the Como shuttle, a free service especially helpful now that parking is by permit-only on many nearby residential streets. We parked in a lot by the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, and less than five minutes later, we were boarding a bus wrapped in the brown-and-white pattern of a giraffe.
"Do you think it looks like a giraffe?" I asked the 5-year-old.
"I think it looks like FUN!" she said gleefully.
When you're with kids, the journey is always half the pleasure. After a six-minute drive down Como Avenue, the bus dropped us off in front of the Como Zoo and Conservatory Visitor Center. We could hear the organ music of the carousel, but we opted to head first for the garden.
The most direct route to the Japanese garden is through the main entrance of the
The garden opened in 1979, created according to plans that were a gift from Nagasaki to honor its sister-city relationship with St. Paul. When the relationship formed in 1955, it was the first such relationship between cities in Asia and the United States.
Designer Masami Matsuda meticulously crafted the small garden to look as unplanned as possible and evoke larger landscapes from nature. Boulders rise from a carpet of periwinkle ground cover like mountains from a woodland. A crescent of small rocks slopes down to the edge of a pond, mimicking a stony beach. Like a dollhouse, the Japanese garden c onjures up a world in miniature.
My daughter skipped down the path and across a stone slab bridge to tortoise island, a common element in Japanese gardens. Standing in the center of the tiny island, we noticed how rocks along the perimeter outlined the shape of a turtle, a symbol of longevity in Japan.
We sat on a flat rock overlooking the
The koi have been removed temporarily from the ponds because gardeners recently used chemicals on the plants, but we saw other wildlife.
"Oh, duckies!" said my daughter, as she spotted bobbing male and female mallards.
We searched out the five lanterns in the garden, including three carved stone lanterns that were part of the World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904 and were brought to Minnesota for a Japanese garden that was in what's now the Como Park golf course.
While the garden might not interest older children for long, we saw many other families happily walking with toddlers and preschoolers. A father was taking photographs of his young daughter in a white dress. We also took advantage of the garden backdrop to take pictures of grandma and granddaughter sitting on a rock.
My only regret is we didn't get to see the rustic teahouse, added in 1991 as part of a larger renovation. That section of the garden is accessible only with a volunteer guide and during tea ceremonies, which are offered to the public periodically during summer and early fall.
"It's very serene," said my stepmother, as we looped back toward the exit, still listening to the soothing sound of the waterfall.
After the peacefulness of the garden, we entered the bustle of the zoo visitor center to grab lunch at Zobota Cafe. (I wish there was a teahouse in the Japanese garden that served food, like the one in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.) After lunch, we made a quick visit to the polar bears and then walked to the carousel.
It was easy to find, thanks to the loud and cheerful music pumped from its restored Wurlitzer band organ. We bought our tickets and waited a few minutes in line before a volunteer gave an announcement and dozens of people streamed onto the platform to search out their perfect mount.
Sixty-eight hand-carved horses ride counterclockwise in four rows, and my daughter considered many of them before she settled on a big dapple-gray horse on the outside. It had a flowing mane, bared teeth and an alligator incongruously painted on its side in gold leaf. Like most of the other horses, it still sports much of its original paint. My daughter straddled the black saddle and looped the leather reins around her arm.
The horses are available to "adopt," and the donated money goes toward repairs. A plaque on the platform identified the horse as being sponsored by Cleo Cafesjian, who happens to be the wife of Gerald Cafesjian, former vice president at West Publishing and the carousel's main benefactor.
The carousel looks like it has been in Como Park as long as the glass conservatory 200 feet away. But it's a relative newcomer in its current location. It was built in 1914 for the Minnesota State Fair and operated there for decades before being dismantled in 1988.
St. Paul couple Peter Boehm and Nancy Peterson sought a $1 million loan from the city of St. Paul to save the horses from being auctioned in New York, and then spent the next several years spearheading efforts to pay off the loan and restore the carousel. After operating from 1990 to 1995 in an indoor rooftop garden in downtown St. Paul, the carousel reopened in 2000 in its pavilion at Como Park.
All I can say is I'm very grateful to the people who brought it here and the people who maintain it, many of whom are volunteers.
My daughter beamed as her horse sprung up and forward. I rode next to her in a middle row and couldn't decide which was more fun - watching her smile as she sailed around, clutching her shiny brass pole, or watching the mechanical magic that makes it all happen.
If you look up, you can see where the brass poles attach to a shaft that turns and raises and lowers the horses. If you look toward the center column, you can see the Wurlitzer organ and catch a glimpse in a mirror of the turning paper roll that provides the music, similar to a player piano roll.
The carousel doesn't get your adrenaline going like the Screamin' Dragon, but there is retro romance in riding the horses just like families did nearly a century ago.
The music stopped and the platform slowly spun to a halt. My daughter's horse rose to a stop just above mine. She looked down and said, "I want to go again!"
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Como Ordway Memorial Japanese Garden
Where: Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in Como Park, 1225 Estabrook Drive, St. Paul
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily May 1 through Sept. 30
Cost: Suggested donation of $2 adult and $1 child
Information: 651-487-8200 or comozooconservatory.org
Target audience: People seeking Zen-like calm
Crowd pleaser: The waterfall
Special events: Como Park Japanese Lantern Lighting Festival is Aug. 21.
What: Cafesjian's Carousel
Where: Como Park, 1245 Midway Parkway, St. Paul
Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Open Mondays on June 13, July 4 and 18, Aug. 15, Sept. 5 and 19. (After Labor Day, open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends only through Oct. 31.)
Cost: $1.50 per person
Information: 651-489-4628 or ourfaircarousel.org
Target audience: People seeking retro romance
Crowd pleaser: Seeing your child grin
Special events: Free days are June 13, July 18, Aug. 15 and Sept. 19
Tip: Pack a lunch to eat in Como Park or stop for food in the zoo.
Avoid: Parking hassles. Take a Metro Transit bus (612-373-3333 or metrotransit.org) or bicycle (routes at cyclopath.org). Free shuttles also run daily through Aug. 7 and weekends through Sept. 25 to the Como Zoo and Conservatory visitor center from a parking lot on Como Avenue south of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.