Hakone Gardens still peaceful and tranquil after 100 years

Hakone Gardens, a public park in the city of Saratoga, is tucked in the Santa Cruz mountains. The 15-acre Japanese garden can see hundreds of visitors on a busy weekend. 

A visit to Hakone winds you through a garden built more than 100 years ago. 

The executive director of the garden, Shozo Kagoshima, took us through this hidden gem. 

"This is probably one of the most popular areas here with the fish and koi," said Kagoshima.

Unlike other Japanese gardens, Hakone was not built as an exhibition. Instead, it was much more personal. 

Oliver and Isabel Stein fell in love with Japan and its culture at the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915. They decided to build a garden on 15 acres in Saratoga and named it after Japan's famous Hakone National Park.

"They built it as their personal retreat," explained Kagoshima. "They lived in San Francisco. Mr. Stein was a developer and Mrs. Stein was into arts and culture and so they wanted to have some place to go on weekends and holidays."

The gardens have had several owners since then, including Charles Tilden and his family. The city of Saratoga bought the property and opened it to the public in 1966.

"The mission of Hakone, the foundation, (is) to use Hakone Gardens to promote Japanese culture, Asian culture and arts, music, and entertainment," said Kagoshima.

Still even now, as you stroll through the property, you can still see this garden through Mrs. Stein's eyes.

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"(The upper house) was actually built in 1917 (and) it was designed by a Japanese architect," said Kagoshima. "The building is over 100 years old and we haven't had to do too much work."

More than a century later, the view from that house is still breathtaking. "Mrs. Stein wanted to see the beauty from the upper house," said Kagoshima, "and so that's where you see the beauty of the garden, you look down and see all the features of the garden."

One favorite spot is the koi pond. There are small fish in the pond that were just born this year and large Koi who are well used to all the visitors that buy food from the visitors center to feed them.

It would be easy to just stay in one place, which is why these two friends visiting the garden said they planned on staying for hours.

Olga Taracheva from Palo Alto called the gardens atmosphere, "unforgettable." Her friend Kate, who was visiting from North Carolina, said, "I think people who built it put a lot of thought in every spot and every place."

There are so many spots to explore and many spots you could miss. "That was one of the benefits of the pandemic," said Kagoshima, "We had a one-way path set up so it forced people to see everything."

The one-way path is gone now but here's an insider tip, you should follow the arrows.

The gardens are beautiful all year but some spots are especially spectacular in certain seasons. The wisteria arbor blooms in late April, the cherry blossoms are also beautiful in spring.

While this was built as a personal retreat, the cultural exchange center is also a reminder of lessons to be learned.

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"We do try to take social responsibility and our current exhibit in the Cultural Exchange Center is on Executive Order 9066, which is on the internment of the Japanese citizens," said Kagoshima.

That internment is personal, it forced Hakone gardener, James Sasaki, to leave the gardens for several years.

"He and his family were interned in Topaz, Utah for four years. He was welcomed back by the Tilden family after the war, " said Kagoshima, "but we have two other board of trustees one who was interned as a child and the other whose mother was interned during the war."

More than a century later there are stories to be told in the beauty that endures.

A space that in these difficult times continues to give people something that is timeless, peaceful and tranquil.