Tucked away on 18 acres in the Saratoga Hills is the serenely beautiful Hakone Gardens. The customary Eastern garden celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2015 and is recognized as one of the oldest traditional Japanese-style gardens in the Western Hemisphere. Open to the public, it is one of Saratoga’s most notable parks. Hakone Gardens was one of the filming locations for the Academy Award winning 2005 feature film, Memoirs of a Geisha.
In 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Hakone Gardens its Save American’s Treasures designation and the garden was also placed on the United States National Registry of Historic Places in 2013.
The History of Hakone
San Francisco philanthropists and art lovers, Isabel and Oliver Stine, were the original owners and creators of this timeless garden estate. Mrs. Stine was captivated with the beauty of the Japanese exhibits at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco and decided to create a garden of her very own in this style. The Stines purchased 15 acres in the Saratoga Hills in May 1915 on which to build their summer estate and Isabel bought plants, architectural adornments and trees from the Expo’s Japanese Pavilion exhibit, making arrangements for them to be brought to the couple’s Saratoga property. She traveled multiple times to Japan, once in 1915 and a second time in 1917, to experience and gain inspiration from its historic Japanese gardens.
Once she returned from her last trip, she began in earnest on her garden, which she christened Hakone after a small town located in Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Enlisting the expertise of a Japanese imperial gardener, Naoharu Aihara, Isabel’s garden was created in the hill-and-pond style suitable for the landscape of their undulating property. Prominent architect Tsunematsu Shintani designed and built the Moon Viewing Upper House, the Lower House and created the koi pond, using Japanese materials and techniques as well as employing many artisans from Japan.
In 1918, Oliver Stine died unexpectedly. Isabel continued with their dream of an Eastern-inspired retreat in Saratoga. She and her three children spent vacations there and hosted numerous social events at Hakone. In 1924, Isabel married Francis W. Leis, at a ceremony at Hakone.
Major Charles Lee Tilden purchased Hakone from Isabel Stine Leis in 1932. Tilden made improvements and modern conveniences to the buildings and added features that gave Hakone the formal look of a Japanese garden estate. He hired Japanese craftsmen to build the striking main gate, “the mon”, added the upper pavilion, the wisteria arbor and numerous lovely pathways. Tilden also employed a Japanese gardener and caretaker, James Sasaki, who lived with his family on the grounds of Hakone. Sasaki lovingly tended to Hakone for over three decades.
Upon Tilden’s passing, his step-daughter inherited Hakone and upon her death, it passed onto her son. In 1961, he sold Hakone to a partnership of six couples. Over the next five years, a variety of improvements and restorations were undertaken until in 1966, they decided to sell it to the City of Saratoga to prevent it from falling into the hands of developers. Since that time, Hakone Gardens has been painstakingly preserved and maintained as a park by the City of Saratoga. Various foundations have been formed over the years to ensure financing of the garden’s constant and expert care, expensive maintenance and on-going restoration and improvements.
Visiting Hakone Gardens
A visit to Hakone Gardens can be anything you want it to be. Take a tranquil and reflective stroll along its pathways in the hill and pond garden, meditate at the Zen Garden while contemplating its patterns of rocks and gravel or take a docent-lead tour to learn about Hakone’s history, plants and the significance of the various architectural adornments. There are also traditional tea ceremonies, origami classes and storytelling events as well as formal zen meditations.
Each year, Hakone Gardens hosts a Lunar New Year celebration, the Matsuri Spring Festival and their Chakai, or Grand Tea Gathering. The Japanese tea ceremony, also referred to as the Way of Tea, is a cultural activity revolving around the preparation and presentation of macha, powdered green tea. The tea gathering at Hakone Gardens is “one of the most important and enjoyable tea events in the greater Bay Area” and one of the few places outside of Japan where this event occurs. Public tea ceremonies also are offered the third Sunday of each month from April through November.
On the first Tuesday of each month, Saratoga residents and two guests can enjoy free admission with proof of residency. The Gardens are also available for private and corporate events.
‘A masterpiece of architectural and botanical beauty’, Hakone Gardens is one of the Bay Area’s true treasures, an oasis to be preserved and enjoyed by people living in the Silicon Valley and beyond.