Three Historic Japanese Style Gardens in Saratoga
Japanese-style gardens have enjoyed several periods of popularity in America, most notably the WWI era and then again in the 1950’s. In Santa Clara Valley, three notable gardens appeared in the early part of the 20th century. All three are located in the West Valley; all three are located near Highway 9 and are situated within two miles of each other. The three gardens are known as Nippon Mura, Kotani-En and Hakone.
The earliest garden was Nippon Mura, located near the rail line of the Interurban Railway. Of the three, it is the garden that has mostly disappeared, it’s charming structures now nearly buried under layers of additions. Most of the scenic garden has been paved for a parking lot.
Today the site of Nippon Mura is known as Hacienda Inn, a restaurant and hotel located on Highway 9 between Los Gatos and Saratoga. But garden sleuths may recognize the significance of the area by the giant eucalyptuses that still appear in the parking lot. The oriental style eaves and rooflines of the early building are also still visible, although finding the shapes among the all the subsequent additions is a challenge.
Nippon Mura was created in 1902 by Mr. and Mrs. Theodore J. Morris. They acquired 30 acres on the newly opened “Blossom Trolley Line”, the electric railway that ran from downtown San Jose, through Los Gatos and back down Saratoga Avenue into town. Mr. Morris was connected with the China Japan Trading Company in Yokohama for thirty years, and when the couple retired to California, they re-created a Japanese style inn.
At the time Nippon Mura was opened, the Saratoga area was already well known for its summer homes and retreats. Nippon Mura offered summer cottages in what is described as a semi-Oriental style, situated in a garden landscaped with wisteria, iris, cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums. The Torii tearoom was an important garden feature. Nippon Mura attracted distinguished guests from both other states and foreign lands.
The other two gardens, Hakone and Kotani-En were both created a little later, around 1918. It is frequently noted that the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, held in San Francisco in 1915 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, had a tremendous impact on an appreciation for Asian culture. This show is thought to have influenced the appearance of these two gardens. Both gardens were created by wealthy San Francisco families as summer retreats.
Hakone was created for Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Stine. Isabel Stine was quite enchanted by Japanese culture and fashioned her garden after a mountain resort and lake in the Fuji-Hakone National Park in southeast Honshu. Mrs. Stine would frequently dress in a Japanese kimono and dressed her children in Japanese clothing when they were living at their Saratoga retreat.
Hakone was created on seventeen acres and includes several buildings. The estate is built into a very steep hillside. There is a two-acre garden designed by Ihara, reportedly the court gardener of Japan. A very handsome redwood and bamboo gate marks the formal entrance to the garden that features two pools and a bridge in the Shinto tradition. Pebble walks are lined with iris, maples and many varieties of bamboo.
The Stine family sold Hakone to Major Charles Lee Tilden in 1932 and the property stayed with various members of the Tilden family until 1958. Badly neglected and overgrown with poison oak and other weeds, the garden was then purchased by a consortia of six concerned families. The six families worked many years to clean out the invasive plants and to restore and preserve the original features. The families enjoyed the garden but realized that it needed to be shared with the larger community. So they sold it to the City of Saratoga as a city park in 1964. Today Hakone is a local landmark and is owned by the City of Saratoga but operated by a non-profit board.
Kotani-En is a national landmark, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 by its current owner. The construction of Hakone also commenced about 1918 and took 10 years to finish. The garden was commissioned by San Francisco industrialist Max M. Cohn in 1918. Mr. and Mrs. Cohn lived in San Francisco and Mr. Cohn was associated with Crown Zellerback, the Clorox Company and others. It was reported that he made a substantial amount of money selling printers ink to clients like the San Francisco Examiner.
Today Kotani-En is privately owned and is one of the most interesting and unusual Japanese style gardens in existence. The garden is situated in a ravine and straddles a natural creek. The creek has been dammed to create a small pond that is surrounded by many rare maples, evergreens and other specimens that were originally imported from Japan. Many of the large boulders that line the side of the ravine were also selected in Japan and shipped to Saratoga.
The architect was Mr. Takahashi Takashima, an architect that Max Cohn discovered working as a cook in an Arizona resort. The garden features a pond and waterfalls, a 13th century style residence, a Buddhist temple, stone lanterns, iron sculptures of cranes and turtles and Torii gates. Kotani-En was constructed by Japanese craftsmen using period tools. No nails were used in construction and all structures were put together with mortise and tenon.
The structures are made of cryptomeria cedar and mahogany with gilded bronze lanterns and a glazed ceramic tile roof. The interior of the house features traditional construction and furnishings. The garden temple is dedicated to the deity Ben-ten and the entire garden is surrounded by a Roji wall that is fifteen feet high in some places.
Kotani-En, the Japanese garden is apparently part of a much larger design and installation coordinated by landscape architect Emerson Knight. Max Cohn died December 2, 1935, and his obituary refers to his development of “Little Brook Farm” on Bainter Avenue. The obituary mentions that nearly all of the 20-acre estate was landscaped. It lists a one-acre Japanese garden as well as other gardens including wild flowers, cactus, vegetables, a barbeque grounds with hot and cold water, a dance pavilion, a small outdoor theater, dovecotes, a swimming pool and a residence. Emerson Knight installed two known plaques with his name. One is dated 1924 and located on the entrance to the amphitheater.
All of these remarkable properties could use some additional research since most of the information currently available comes from secondary sources. The relationship between Emerson Knight and Takashima needs additional study. Since both Hakone and Kotani-En employed workers reportedly brought from Japan, and since the Hume apricot ranch that was adjacent to the Cohn estate also employed Japanese workers, the relationships should be explored.
Clippings from the files of the Saratoga Museum
National Register application for Kotani-En
Saratoga’s First Hundred Years by Florence Russell Cunningham. Panorama West Books, Fresno, CA, 1967.