Friday, April 27, 2012

Visit to Hakone Estate and Gardens

This week I finally had the opportunity to visit Hakone, the oldest Asian estate and gardens in the Western hemisphere. Located in Saratoga, CA, about 20 minutes from San Jose and the hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley, Hakone occupies 18 acres in the hills just outside of town.

Hakone was established in 1915 by Isabel and Oliver Stine, a wealthy couple from San Francisco. It went through several changes of ownership over the years, fell into disrepair, was lovingly restored, and then sold to the City of Saratoga in 1966.

Entrance gate to Japanese garden

I’m by no means an expert on Japanese gardens. However, having visited the Portland Japanese Garden (PJG) several time in recent years (see 1 2 3 4 5 6), I knew I would start comparing the two. Both are magnificent places of tranquility and beauty. The PJG seems to be built on a grander scale and feels more like a public garden; Hakone has the feeling of an intimate retreat and it is indeed much used for corporate events, weddings, receptions, etc.

Panorama of Hill and Pond Garden

My traveling companion and I started our exploration in the Hill and Pond Garden seen in the panorama above. As is the case in Portland, every plant, every rock, every decorative item seems to be in the perfect place. That is the genius behind Japanese gardening. Some people find the result too sterile and calculated, but to me the effect is immensely soothing.

Moon bridge over koi pond
Moon bridge over koi pond
Just  few of the many koi
Wisterias along the pond
Snow viewing lantern near koi pond

The timing of our visit was very fortuitous. The wisterias (see panorama above) and the azaleas were in full bloom, lighting up the hillsides with their colors so bright they almost look fake.

Stone lantern and azaleas
Azaleas in full bloom

But even where there were no flowering plants, the green from the grasses, moss and other small plants was a soothing sight, especially against the ever present rocks.

Stone with a hollow serving as a natural water basin
Retaining wall with moss-covered rocks

Hakone has one thing the Portland Japanese Garden does not have: a bamboo garden. As a bamboo lover, I had heard stories about how lovely it is, and I was not disappointed.

Sign post to bamboo garden

Strolling through a well-maintained grove of bamboo—here moso (Phyllostachys edulis), probably the most elegant of all bamboos—is an experience that I find almost transcendent. Here I was, so close to Silicon Valley, and yet I could just as easily have been in China or Japan. The fact that there were very few visitors aside from my friend Eric and myself added to the illusion.

Grove of moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis)
Grove of moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis)
Tranquil path through bamboo garden
Grove of moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis)
New moso shoots
The culm sheaths look and feel like velvet
Old sun-bleached moso culms

The bamboo garden at Hakone has one of the rarest and most sought-after bamboos of all, tortoise shell moso. It is almost never available for purchase, and when it is, it’s through private channels. At an American Bamboo Society auction in 1999, a tortoise shell moso sold for $7,000.

Tortoise shell moso, a naturally occurring mutation of Phyllostachys edulis
Tortoise shell moso

We also saw bi-colored moso (Phyllostachys edulis ‘Bicolor’)—yellow culms with a green sulcus. While nowhere near as rare as tortoise shell moso, it’s still quite uncommon.

Bi-colored moso (Phyllostachys edulis ‘Bicolor’)
Bi-color moso (Phyllostachys edulis ‘Bicolor’)

Wherever you looked, there were stands of perfectly maintained bamboos. I think even people who are normally pretty blasé about bamboo would fall under its spell in a place like this. The rustle of bamboos leaves in the wind is one of nature’s tranquilizers.

Robert Young bamboo (Phyllostachys viridis ‘Robert Young’)
Looking down towards the lower part of the bamboo garden
Kanju-ji lantern in lower part of bamboo garden
Kanju-ji lantern, my favorite lantern style.
One day I’ll find one at a price I can afford…
Misaki lantern and vivax bamboo (Phyllostachys vivax)
Vivax bamboo (Phyllostachys vivax)
Yellow vivax bamboo (Phyllostachys vivax ‘Aureocaulis’) with some culms that have reverted to all green. The area beyond the bamboo is the parking lot. As you can see, there weren’t too many visitors that day.
Yellow vivax bamboo (Phyllostachys vivax ‘Aureocaulis’)
Traditional sleeve fence

Leaving the bamboo garden, we walked by the office…

Hakone office surrounded by bamboo

…to the other end of the estate. Even there, bamboo was a prominent part of the plantings.

Cultural Exchange Center, an authentic reproduction of a
19th century (Edo period) Kyoto tea-merchant's house and shop
LEFT: Gate near the tea garden
RIGHT: Katsuga lantern near main gate
Leopard or snakeskin bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra ‘Bory’)
Golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) with compressed internodes that resemble tortoise shell moso. While tortoise shell moso is extremely rare, golden bamboo (a complete misnomer because its culms are green, at most fading to an olive yellow with age) is very common.
Phyllostachys aureosulcata ‘Spectabilis’
Stand of Phyllostachys aureosulcata ‘Spectabilis’
Harvested bamboo poles for sale at gift shop. The perfect souvenir for visitors who come in a pickup truck!
Price list for bamboo poles

While the extensive use of bamboo creates a tranquil Asian atmosphere, trees native to California serve as a subtle reminder of where we actually are. I love how harmoniously the Japanese garden elements integrate into the archetypical California landscape.

Main gate flanked by massive redwood trees
Lower house and Zen garden protected by a California oak tree
Another oak tree with twisted branches
Even the parking lot has its oak sentinel

It is ironic that it took a visit from a German friend to prompt me to visit Hakone. He lives half way around the world and had been there before, whereas I live just two hours away and had never been. But now that I know how beautiful Hakone is, I will be back very soon.


  1. What a place! Will have to add it to my list of west-coast gardens to visit someday.

    Thank Eric for me. :-)

    1. Knowing how much you love bamboo, wait till you see my post from the bamboo garden at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills :-)

  2. Trust me to hover over the koi photo the longest, lol!

    Seriously stunning! I was going through the photos posted on FB last night, saying wow after well whilst seeing those well maintained bamboos and the general composition of the garden.

    As for bamboos, no chance of a heterocycla here though. We'll have to make do with aurea :)

  3. Beautiful photographs. I am using your panoramic shot for my desktop image. Thanks!