Hakone Gardens — Tranquility in the City

Laura A. H. Elliot

September 22, 2018

On the edge of Silicon Valley, nestled among state and county parks in Saratoga, lies Hakone Gardens the oldest Japanese estate and gardens in the Western Hemisphere. Enjoy a tranquil journey to ancient Japan’s storied past through 18 acres of chaparral, woodland and stunning manicured Japanese gardens.

Hakone Gardens

Hakone is the name of a village in the Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan, bursting with healing onsen hot spring resorts, the result of a volcanic eruption 3000 years ago.

Dramatic views of Mt. Fuji greet tourists from all over the world at the village conveniently close to Tokyo, yet a world away. Hakone has been designated a Japanese National Geopark for its important geological heritage and breathtaking landscapes, no matter what the season.

The story goes that Isabel Stine became enchanted with the village when she sailed to Japan after falling in love with the Japanese way of life and aesthetic at the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. So much so, that after the exposition, she had elements from the Japanese Pavilion brought to her in Saratoga including plants, trees and ornamental fixtures.

Together with her husband Oliver, the philanthropists decided to have their own summer retreat designed as a Japanese garden.

Legend has it that their design took its inspiration from the gardens of the Fujiya Hotel in Hakone, Japan. In building her own Hakone, Isabel faced many challenges. She commissioned Naoharu Aihara, from an ancient line of Japanese Imperial gardeners, to design and plant a garden in something known as the hill-and-pond style, best adapted to the unique topography of Saratoga’s mountainous landscape.

The ancient art of Japanese gardening had its beginnings in the Asuka and Nara Period around the 500 A.D. Many Japanese gardens today still use specifications from an 11th-century text entitled Sakuteiki, regarded as the world’s oldest gardening manual.

Legendary architect Tsunematsu Shintani flawlessly executed the design and construction of the Moon Viewing Upper House, the Lower House and the Koi pond.

When Isabel’s husband died suddenly only a year after beginning construction, she soldiered on to complete the wonder, hosting exquisite Japanese cultural events, always inviting San Francisco society to attend. A co-founder of the San Francisco Opera, Isabel hosted the first West Coast performance of Madame Butterfly at the estate where she also married her second husband.

Hakone Gardens

The second owner, Major Charles Lee Tilden added the Moon Gate, Upper Pavilion, wisteria arbor and elegant pathways giving a more formal look to the gardens.

Over a century old, and created to last forever, you can see the passion of the creators in the caretaking of today.

The meticulously maintained foliage, ponds and walkways all breathe peace into the lives of the overworked and stressed by honoring the concept that Japanese gardens express the Japanese ideal of the seamless blending of art and nature. A belief that had its roots with the introduction of Buddhism to Japan about 500 B.C.

The Hakone Foundation organizes various programs throughout the year like Lunar New Year celebrations and National Gardening Week, but they also foster cultural programs including hosting exchange students, and a Sister Garden relationship with the Northern Culture Museum in Nigata, Japan.

The experience at Hakone calms the senses while breathing life into the imagination with distinct venues.

The peaceful Hill and Pond Garden mesmerize with a waterfall hypnotically spilling over into a lake. A gorgeous bridge with enchanting views gently carries you over the lake to charming, winding paths that perfectly slow your pace. The Zen Garden, a private dry minimalist garden for meditation, features beautiful raked patterns, bamboo, and a bed of mosses.

Enter The Tea Garden after your feet mindfully step on mossy stones and indulge in the purification of your hands at the tsukubai, a Japanese wash basin––all in preparation for the beauty of the tea ceremony in the privacy of a plant enclosure. The Bamboo Gardens provide a fantastic retreat from the every day and hold many different varieties of bamboo.

Hakone Gardens

Worn, unfinished woods of the garden structures recede into the background complimenting the harmony and balance here, where seasonal flowers and foliage add various punctuations of color which once provided a dramatic location for the filming of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” winner of three Academy Awards.

When visiting Hakone Gardens be sure to buy a little fish food for the pond if you bring the kids. Also make a day of it by visiting a local winery and taking advantage of a lovely, cozy picnic area just outside the gardens to feast. A perfect place to ease your mind before or after the experience at Hakone––one that stays with you long after you’ve finished your last Zen Garden meditation.

Laura A. H. Elliot
Laura A. H. Elliot

Laura writes to encourage with a focus on life-changing, planet-healing stories featuring self-discovery, pilgrimages, ecotravel and journeys of the heart. Besides traveling to 24 countries on 6 continents and counting, her passions also include sailing, very dry champagnes, red shoes, humanitarian work, learning new languages, family, and playing guitar. Website

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