Features & Columns

Saratoga's Historic Japanese Garden Celebrates Special Milestones

Hakone Estate & Gardens emerged a century ago and the legendary Japanese-style
oasis now finds itself right smack in the middle of its centenary
Giant koi fish have quite the life hanging by Moon Bridge at the Hakone Gardens. Photo courtesy of Hakone Estate & Gardens

In some cases anniversaries last three years. Hakone Estate & Gardens in Saratoga emerged a century ago—give or take a year—and the legendary Japanese-style oasis now finds itself right smack in the middle of its centenary. The celebration began in 2015 and continues through 2017. On the 18th of September, a grand gala unfolds on the property for $200 per person.

Unlike the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park or the Friendship Garden in Kelley Park, Hakone was originally constructed as a private estate. Philanthropists Isabel and Oliver Stine attended the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and became so obsessed with Japanese concepts that they decided to buy vacation property outside of Saratoga and build their own garden. Isabel went to Japan, where she discovered the town of Hakone and later commissioned gardeners, designers and architects to build out the estate. Initially, the Stines used the property as a summer or weekend retreat.

"Back then, there were no wineries or tech companies," says Shozo Kagoshima, Hakone's executive director and a Westmont High School graduate.

As we sat in Kagoshima's office, he explains that it was pointless trying to determine which exact moment the estate and gardens officially "began," so the organization opted for a multi-year centenary celebration. In pure Zen fashion, there was no beginning.

Following the Stines' stewardship, a few subsequent owners operated the property for decades until the city of Saratoga purchased Hakone Gardens in 1966 to be a city park. Kagoshima and I agreed that eastern cycles of life, to this day, affect every aspect of the property and its current situation. This year is not only the centenary of the estate's inception, but also the 50th anniversary of Hakone's era as a public facility. Saratoga, as a city, likewise celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Major spacetime trajectories are thus converging in a triple-shot of present-time awareness. I picked a great moment to borrow a car and drive back up to Hakone.

Kagoshima and I walked around the gardens to contemplate the beginningless and endless existence of this fabulous place, where Japanese foliage effortlessly dovetails with California native wonders, where tortoise shell bamboo exists side by side with coastal redwoods and live oaks. As with many Japanese gardens, every component of the landscape operates in harmony with each other. Every piece of the composition seems to exist for a reason: the arrangement of the pond and the waterfall, the placement of each rock and shrub, the schemes in which the paths snake their way through it all.

Even the Cultural Exchange Center, built as recently as 1991, contributes to the property by regularly hosting business meetings, exhibits and private events. Architects in Saratoga's sister city of Muko designed the structure as a replica of a Kyoto tea merchant's house. In a pure example of peace through citizen diplomacy and global exchange, the structure was shipped in pieces from Japan to Saratoga, then assembled by local carpenters in the mortise and tenon method without nails.

What's more, despite the relative lack of distinct seasons in Santa Clara Valley compared to Japan, the foliage at Hakone does indeed evolve. Nothing is permanent.

"When we hit the cold snap last November, things changed dramatically," Kagoshima says. "The colors on the deciduous trees, they really changed."

To this day, every facet of the Hakone property still radiates vibes of peace and tranquility. Structures installed by the Stines remain. Weddings take place every weekend from March to November. Public tea ceremonies unfold on a regular basis, embroidering the threads of philosophy, tea and gardening. When navigating the trails at Hakone, surrounded by the infinite wisdom of Japanese garden aesthetics, one feels nowhere near Silicon Valley.

After we completed a few trails, Kagoshima gave me the lowdown on a four-part future plan for Hakone, recently approved by the Saratoga City Council. Historical buildings will be renovated. A new visitors' area and gift shop will emerge. The pond will be overhauled, making the water slightly deeper so the fish can swim lower and remain healthy during the summer heat.