Last week I was driving along Skyline Boulevard because I love the dramatic changes the road weaves you through. From the moist, musky, shade of the towering redwoods to the exposed rocky meadows, driving along this mountain ridge is powerful. I drove all the way to Saratoga and encountered Hakone Gardens. I had read about this Japanese garden years before and its majestic bamboo collection, but I never made it out because it seemed too far. Over 100 years old, and the oldest Japanese garden in the western hemisphere, this was definitely worth the wait.
Even in January, the beauty of Hakone Gardens was breathtaking. The evergreen shrubs, like the camellia plant had a few white blossoms hanging on their branches but for the most part, the show-stopping plants were asleep. The bones of this garden were evident and harmonious. Fusing art with nature is the guiding principle in Japanese garden design. With the patience of time, expert craftspeople, designers, builders, and fine gardeners, Hakone Gardens has created a sense of peace and purpose in the middle of residential Saratoga.
The heart of Hakone Gardens centers around the waterfall and expansive pond. Mimicking streams flowing into lakes, this water feature feels like it was created by Mother Nature. There aren’t any awkward boulders in straight lines, or exposed tubes showing the innards of how this thing works. Carefully placed boulders of different sizes were carefully carved into the hillside. With time, the evergreen shrubs grew in around the boulders to nestle them in even more. Koi were keeping warm by the viewing pavilion as there was a sheet of ice formed on the surface of the pond. I can only imagine what the viewing pavilion looks and smells like in the spring when the wisteria is in bloom.
The skeletons of the carefully manicured bonsai were living sculptures. Without the leaves to cover up the intricate branch structure, I was able to appreciate the time and effort spent on each offshoot. Evergreen shrubs are the workhorses in Hakone Gardens all year long, while the deciduous plants that change color and lose their leaves in the winter provide seasonal beauty and interest.
Another guiding principle in Japanese garden design is the importance of creating harmony through materials that are not too loud. Worn, unfinished wood from the Moon House does not compete with the evergreen shrubs and groundcovers that surround it. Bursts of color come throughout the seasons, never all at once. This is so that you can appreciate the cascade of purple blooms on the wisteria vines in spring and the camellia blooms in winter. Evergreen shrubs of osmanthus release the perfume of apricots all year long next to the tea house even though you can barely see the flowers.
This surprise encounter with Hakone Gardens was better than if I were to have ever planned it. I can’t wait to go back in the spring!