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Hakone Gardens in Saratoga is tranquil, not techie

Hakone Gardens in Saratoga
Hakone Gardens in Saratoga
William Baeck © 2014

I’m a big fan of places that have the ability to not remind me of other places. Hakone Gardens doesn’t remind me at all of Silicon Valley.

That’s not a bad thing.

It might seem ironic to find such a lovely bit of Zen amid the high-tech. But it also makes a certain kind of sense, because Hakone itself was created out of an irony: the oldest Japanese-style estate garden in the Western hemisphere was dreamed up by a pair of quintessential westerners and has never had a Japanese owner.

It began in 1915, when San Franciscans Oliver and Isabel Stine purchased 18 acres of Saratoga mountainside just above the city and hired Japanese landscape gardeners and architects to design a summer retreat inspired by Isabel’s trips to Japan.

She named the resulting place Hakone, after the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park in Japan. The estate passed to financier Major C. L. Tilden in 1932 and then to his sister after he died. In 1961 it was sold to a group consisting of the Gresham family and four Chinese-American couples. Five years later it was sold to the city of Saratoga, and since 1984 it has been administered by The Hakone Foundation, a non-profit organization.

Passing through the front gate added by the second owner, Major Tilden, you’ll find a replica of what a Shogun’s estate would look have looked like long ago. Strolling through the terraced hillside you’ll encounter waterfalls, koi ponds, wisteria and bamboo, chaparral, and the Cultural Exchange Center, built to look like a Kyoto tea-merchant's house and store from the 19th Century.

There are four principal gardens: the Zen Garden with its dry raked gravel and large stones, the Hill and Pond Garden that twists around a waterfall and pond, the serene Tea Garden—a sea of moss and stepping stones, and the Bamboo Garden, with examples both local and from around the world.

Step out of the valley and into the Shogunate.

If you go

Hakone Gardens
21000 Big Basin Way, Saratoga
(408) 741-4994
Open daily from 10 am to 5 pm. Closed Christmas and New Years day
Cost: $8 for adults, $6 for 65+ and students 5 to 17 with valid ID, free for children under 4
Location map
Hakone Website