Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Hakone Gardens
Trip Date: February 12, 2005
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: February 25, 2005

Earlier in the month a good number of you gathered in the parking lot at Hakone Gardens on a Saturday morning. I didn't have enough fingers and toes to count you, but the turnout was very satisfying and I thank all those who participated. If you’ve never visited this garden before, you should treat yourself to a real local gem—in fact, its one of the best on the West Coast. The garden itself is not large, covering only about 18 acres.

Based on the classical Japanese hillside garden, popular as villas with the Japanese wealthy classes in the early nineteenth century, Hakone began as a private garden 90 years ago. The typical Japanese hillside garden usually includes ponds with waterfalls, a master stone, a worshipping stone, a guest isle, meandering pathways with stone lanterns and traditional Japanese residential style structures. Hakone has all that.

The inspiration for Hakone Gardens originally occurred to San Francisco cultural maven, Isabel Stine, after she attended the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. She was enchanted by the strolling garden at the Japanese pavilion and was moved to press her husband, Oliver, a prominent San Francisco real estate developer and attorney, to build her such a garden. To honor his wife’s wishes, he purchased a tract of logged-out hillside land above the village of Saratoga, California. The Stines intended the garden to be used as a summer retreat for entertaining their friends and family. As soon as the land was secured, Isabel traveled to Japan to tour and gather more ideas for her garden. She visited one of Japan’s most beautiful destinations, Hakone National Park, just to the south of Mt. Fuji.

By 1918 she had Japanese landscape gardener Naoharu Aihara on retainer to design the gardens. Aihara came from a family of gardeners whose prestigious clients included the emperor of Japan. She also secured the services of architect Tsunematsu Shintani to design the Upper House, which was built in 1917. It was constructed using traditional Japanese building techniques—that meant that no nails were used in the original structure; however, many later repairs did not conform to traditional methods. The Lower House was built in 1922 and became the caretaker’s residence in 1927. It has undergone many more alterations than the Upper House, which retains its traditional charm. Stine sunk about $100,000 into her all-consuming garden project between the years of 1917 and 1929. Her husband died in the early 1920s and in 1932 the Saratoga property was sold to East Bay financier C.L. Tilden. He had the large wooden main gate added to the garden.

By 1966 Hakone had fallen into neglect and was purchased by the city of Saratoga to prevent it from being obliterated by developers. The garden became a city park. The city hired Tanso Ishihara, a landscape gardener trained in Kyoto, to bring the gardens back into order. He repaired the ponds and waterfalls, helped with the addition of the hillside paths and the camellia bushes, restored the existing paths and put down additional ground cover. Gradually he pruned all the plants and restored the beauty of the garden to a point where it became a popular tourist attraction. He consulted with renowned Japanese architect, Kiyoshi Yasui, and formed a master plan to expand the gardens into the surrounding 18-acre site.

As the ongoing work continued, new features were added. An enchanting bamboo garden was established in 1987 and the new Cultural Exchange Center was constructed in 1995. The Hakone Foundation was formed to maintain the garden for future generations and in 2000, the foundation signed an exclusive 55-year lease with the city of Saratoga to insure the preservation of this beautiful park. The garden is used for many private and civic functions and if you have the resources you can book it for a wedding, retreat or other event. 

The horticultural design scheme provides for year-round viewing, with each season bringing a new palette of flora. Visit in the spring to see the wisteria and cherry blossoms contrast with the brilliant greens of the new leaves on the Japanese maples. During the summer you’ll see blossoms appear on some of the water plants, groundcover, shrubs and trees. In autumn the Japanese maples and other trees give you a show with their brilliant hues of red, orange, gold and yellow. Even the winter months can be spectacular when the many early-blooming camellias explode in brilliant pinks and reds. 

Listed below is an approximate calendar of what you might expect to find in bloom:

  • January Flowering plums
  • January through April Camellias
  • February Daphne and Andromeda
  • February through March Violets
  • March Flowering cherries
  • March through June Azaleas
  • April Wisteria and Rhododendron
  • May through June Iris and Peonies
  • May through September Water lilies
  • October through November Fall colors
If you call the garden, at 408-741-4994, you can inquire about which flowering plants are blooming.

To get to Hakone Gardens drive to Saratoga and make your way west on Big Basin Way through the center of the village. Prepare to make a left turn shortly after you pass over the narrow bridge at the edge of town. If you miss the turn then you’re in for a wild and winding trip to the sky on Highway 9. Hakone Gardens is open on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., on weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and during special events. Call ahead to make sure. Entry into the garden is free, however there is a $7 per car parking fee.

© 2005 S.R. Hinrichs