Cherry Blossoms in San Francisco: Hakone Gardens and the Japanese Tea Garden (Full Article)

The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013).

There are more than 300 public Japanese gardens in North America and the West Coast of the United States is the home of many splendid Japanese or Japanese-inspired gardens. If you ever pass through San Francisco I can recommend two remarkable Japanese gardens for a visit. The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the Hakone Garden in the City of Saratoga, about 50 miles south of San Francisco, East of San Jose.

Many regard Hakone Gardens as one of the top 20 highest-quality public Japanese gardens located in North America. San Francisco Philanthropists and arts patrons Oliver and Isabel Stine visited in 1916 several Japanese estate gardens in Japan, including in the Fuji-Hakone National Park region. In 1917 they set out to design a Japanese garden on the 18 acres of mountainside they had purchased in 1915 to create a family retreat.

The Koi Pond and upper Moon-Viewing House, Hakone Gardens, Saratoga (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013)
The Koi Pond and upper Moon-Viewing House, Hakone Gardens, Saratoga (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013)

Landscape architect Naoharu Aihara designed the garden, while architect Tsunematsu Shintani created the design for the upper Moon-Viewing House that overlooks the gardens from the slope of the hill. The house is a quiet retreat from where the reflection of the moon in the pond can be enjoyed at night. Hakone is seen as the oldest Japanese-style residential garden in the Western Hemisphere.

Hakone is a Hill and Pond Style Garden, a style that was most popular in the 17th century, with paths for strolling while views would be ever-changing. In Hakone the gardens include several elements. There is a Tea Garden with a Tsukubai (water basin) and stepping stone paths over moss.

The Zen Garden at Hakone Gardens, Saratoga (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013)
The Zen Garden at Hakone Gardens, Saratoga (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013)

The Zen Garden for meditation is located next to the Lower House and is a dry garden which can not be entered. Viewing allows for contemplation while watching the raked gravel area and several large stones that represent water and islands. Lon Saveedra, the Executive Director and CEO of the Hakone Foundation informed us that there are plans to restore the Zen Garden to a larger size as currently only a small area of this dry garden remains.

The Bamboo Garden at Hakone Gardens, Saratoga (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013)
The Bamboo Garden at Hakone Gardens, Saratoga (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013)

The Bamboo Garden or Kizuna-en represents the friendship between Saratoga and it’s sister city, Muko-shi, a suburb of Kyoto. Hakone also has a Camelia Garden, a Wisteria Arbor or Fuji-dana, a Koi Pond and waterfall, Azalea Garden and several significant carved stones.

Hakone passed in 1932 to the Financier Major C.L. Tilden and upon his death to his sister, Mrs. Walter Gregory. In 1959 she died and the garden fell into disrepair. In 1961 Hakone was rescued by Joseph and Clara Gresham, their son Eldon and wife Deon, and four Chinese American couples. They restored the gardens and it remained a private retreat. In 1966 the City of Saratoga acquired the estate, with in 1987 the Bamboo Garden being constructed. Observing the present state of the garden, I dare say that the garden’s authenticity suffered during that period to a degree from city council style maintenance and the impact of large-scale visitor facilitation.

The Tsukubai in the Tea Garden at Hakone Gardens, Saratoga (Photo: jan Haenraets, 2013).
The Tsukubai in the Tea Garden at Hakone Gardens, Saratoga (Photo: jan Haenraets, 2013).

By 1999-2000 the garden’s future was at risk but fortunate funding by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation allowed for the establishment of an independent Hakone Foundation. The foundation currently works closely with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and continues to restore the authenticity of the gardens, while working towards a goal to become a global forum for art, culture, and ideas from Asia and the Western Hemisphere.  Hakone Gardens received as one of twelve sites in the United States the Save American’s Treasures Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Hakone was also a filming location for the 2005 movie Memoirs of a Geisha.

The Lower House at Hakone Gardens, Saratoga (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013).
The Lower House at Hakone Gardens, Saratoga (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013).

The Japanese Tea Garden claims to be the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States and is located in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  The garden is located next to two most remarkable museums that provide a fitting cultural and natural setting.

The garden sits just west of the state-of-the art M.H. de Young Memorial Museum building, designed by the architects Herzog & de Meuron (realised 2002-2005). The collections of the museum represent a variety of cultures from all over the world. For the sustainable architecture enthusiasts it may be of interest to know that across the de Young Museum another stunning museum is located, the California Academy of Sciences. This is one of the largest museums of natural history in the world and reopened in 2008 in a new building by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The new building has won praise for its environmental friendly design and received a double Platinum certification under the LEED program. Its undulated roof garden is worth a detour when you visit the Japanese Tea Garden.

The Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco  (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013).
The Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013).

The origins of the Japanese Tea Garden date back to the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, as part of the original ‘Japanese Village’ exhibit, which showcased a Japanese-style garden.

The Zen Garden in the Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013).
The Zen Garden in the Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013).

After the Exposition, Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara was allowed to create and maintain the garden as a permanent exhibit. He became the caretaker and expanded the garden to five acres from the initial one acre exhibit. Mr. Hagiwara and his family lived there until 1942 when many Japanese Americans had to move into internment camps. After the war the Hagiwara family was not allowed to move back to their home in the garden and the site evolved with several additions made to the garden.

The Pagoda in the Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013).
The Pagoda in the Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013).

Presently the garden contains koi ponds, a Zen garden, an arched drum bridge and stepping stone paths. Beautiful traditional features include stone lanterns and pagodas. The garden is covered with native Japanese plants and many Cherry blossom trees which blooms can be enjoyed in March and April. A small café and shop provide the contemporary visitor facilities.

Official websites and sources: Hakone GardensThe Japanese Tea Garden, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, California Academy of Sciences.

Text and photographs by Jan Haenraets

With kind thanks to Muriel and Howard for the beautiful Spring day in charming Saratoga and the Hakone Gardens

Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada

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