|Hakone Gardens in fall colors. Photo by C.G.
Terraced on the eastern slopes of the Santa Cruz mountains just off the city of Saratoga, Hakone Gardens is an escape to manicured and lush Japanese gardens you only see in period movies. Depending on the season, the garden dons the golden and crimson hues of autumn, the lush greens of winter, the tender blossoms of spring or the bold colors of summer. Though I usually wander where nature is wild and rebellious, I admire beautiful gardens where plants are harmoniously arranged, seemingly haphazardly to the lay eye but for the experts, according to a precise and seamless script. That, Hakone Gardens is and more.
I visited this garden on two occasions before but never at the peak of the Indian summer colors and really wanted my girls to see the maple trees in their fall splendor. An excursion on a late November afternoon fixed that and despite rainy skies, we enjoyed a very pleasant walk in the garden with hardly any other visitors. Relatively small – 18 acres only – Hakone is carefully organized in micro-gardens with different moods around the ever-poetic moon viewing pond and tea house.
What My Kids Like
In traditional Japanese gardens, my girls look for a few staples: stepping stones in the pond where they can “walk over water,” arch bridges to climb high in the sky, ponds to spot koi carps swish by amongst lilies, and garden paths leading to secret pavilions. Oh, and stone pagodas too because they’re mysterious. The authentic replica of Japanese Samurai or Shogun’s estate garden, designed by one of descendent of the imperial gardening family members, Hakone Gardens has all that.
How I Found Out About Hakone Gardens
Hidden in plain sight, Hakone Gardens is one of the known gems of the Silicon Valley but unless you look for a Japanese garden, it’s not exactly on the main thoroughfare.
Three years ago, I “discovered” Hakone Gardens when researching filming locations for the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. I knew the Bay Area had been featured quite a bit and found out that the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, the Golden Gate’s Japanese Tea Garden and Hakone Gardens had all been used throughout the movie. The first two I knew but not the latter. As the garden scenes had left me magical impressions, I planned our first trip to Saratoga. On the third trip, here’s how I like to see the garden.
What To Do
The entrance to the garden isn’t free but instead of paying your dues to a person in a booth, you go inside the store and buy tokens that will get you through a turnstile. Each time my girls are disappointed that they have to give away their token – I’m too – but they still like the turnstile. It’s unusual for a garden.
Past the entrance, the path leads you to an open pavilion where you can embrace a view of the garden. From here you stand on the verge of quiet waters and even the most rambunctious toddler would pause to appreciate the curvy lines, green volumes and period costume possibilities. A fair number of brides and grooms tied the knot under this wisteria trellis so think of it as an invitation to warm fuzzy feelings.
From there, we like to explore anti-clockwise starting to the right of this pavilion. My girls find the first crossing over the pond and run around in moderate doses as this is not a playground and other visitors may expect low sound levels. By the time we cross over, they’re headed uphill towards the tea pavilion or Moonviewing House.
Believe it or not, this 1918 structure was built entirely without nails and you can peek through the clear windows to view tatami mats and a surprising collection of bamboos. Did you know bamboo could be shaped by forcing the shoot to grow through various containers? That’s how you get square bamboo. Hmm, wicked.
From the Moonviewing House, kids can’t resist walking through the wisteria tunnel, a straight-ish path lined by cobblestones that gradually leads up the mountain. That’s where a creative parent could photoshop floating spirits or sneaky trolls in the picture.
Follow the paths to the top. On your way, you can glimpse out on the valley through an opening in the foliage but the area under the viewing platform is somewhat messy and I prefer to stick to the orderly spirit of the garden.
Once you reach a small stone pagoda and fenced shrine, follow the dirt path til you reach a door. This is the entrance to the bamboo garden, or rather bamboo forest given the density of green stalks.
Animal- or Kung Fu Panda-loving kids will know that bamboo is the favorite food of their favorite white and black bears. In fact, adult panda bears eat between 40 and 80 pounds of the luscious green stalk every day. How’s that for eating your greens? But there’s more to bamboo than endangered species.
What kids may not know is that in Japanese culture, bamboo wards off evil spirits – hence the presence of exterior bamboo blinds on houses and of bamboo groves around Shinto shrines. On a symbolic level, bamboo symbolizes strength and flexibility, two virtues children must acquire to pass the “no you can’t watch TV all day but I’ll play Monopoly with you” test. So there, it’s good to know bamboo isn’t such an idle plant.
To “tune in” with the bamboo forest, you can sit with your child on the stone bench and listen to the bamboo stalks creaking with the wind. No wonder people set bamboo groves to music on YouTube.
In the lower part of the bamboo grove you can walk on the stepping stones in the gravel garden and that pretty much concludes your tour. On your way out, enjoy a last view of the pond and a stone pagoda.
As I write this, I wish I was there but I’m not. Sigh. I think I’ll brew myself some green tea and dream of bamboo shrines in the mountains next to hot springs bubbling over rock-lined river beds.
- Hours: weekdays 10am – 5pm, weekends 11am – 5pm, closed Christmas Day and New Year’s Day
- Fees: $7 entrance fee per person $5 for seniors (65 +) and students 5-17, free for children 4 years and under
- Website: www.hakone.com
- Address: 21000 Big Basin Way, Saratoga