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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

Hakone Gardens moves forward with major renovations for its next century

Beverly Xu
Stacked two-people high, three dragons dangle banners from their mouths and bounce up and down to the crowd’s delight.

Hakone Gardens, located on Big Basin Way off of Highway 9, was founded by Isabel Stine, a San Francisco philanthropist who was inspired to build Hakone after being captivated by the Japanese Pavilion at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Hakone was originally landscaped by master gardener Naoharu Aihara, and built by architect Tsunematsu Shintani. 

After its construction, Hakone was used as Isabel and her husband Oliver Stines’ vacation home, where Isabel would go on to host cultural events, operas and even her wedding to Francis W. Leis after her husband’s passing. In 1966, after being passed through many hands, Hakone opened to the public as an official Saratoga city park.

After more than half a century as a public park with the same infrastructure that had served only a small family, the Hakone Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the funding and operation of the garden, is committed to bringing it up to date to showcase its beauty for a growing number of visitors.

Now the oldest Japanese garden in the Western Hemisphere, Hakone Gardens is considered a national heritage site, and is maintained by the Foundation. The foundation’s leadership involves an executive board that runs the foundation, a board of trustees to manage the foundation’s assets, a group of independent honorary advisors and a dedicated staff for the garden led by executive director Shozo Kagoshima.

Jacob Kellner, Hakone’s head gardener, has worked in grounds maintenance at Hakone for over 14 years. Kellner visited Japan in October of 2015 to study Japanese gardening as part of the Sendai volunteer garden-building program and has seen how irreplaceable Hakone is to Bay Area residents and visitors from all over the world.

“My volunteer landscaping work in Japan really helped to remind me of the passion held by landscapers of this style,” Kellner said. “Much thought and detail is put into the location and position of each stone, plant and water feature to create a Japanese style garden.”

Kellner believes that, like all Japanese gardens that require utmost thought and detail, Hakone provides a place for people to relax and “commune with nature” as a breath of fresh air during their busy days. He hopes that visitors feel a sense of peace and refreshment.

Under Kagoshima’s leadership, Hakone has been working on several projects and making plans for future refurbishments. With funding from Santa Clara County, Hakone is currently repairing and restoring the upper garden pathways that have yet to be renovated in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But due to the large-scale garden construction, the paths will be fixed under these guidelines, allowing the garden to be accessible to a wider range of visitors. According to Kagoshima, the steps will be rebuilt with recycled granite from San Francisco, which will not only divert pounds of granite from the landfill, but will also decrease the cost of construction overall. 

The second project they are pursuing is replacing the roof on Mon, the representative main gate displayed in brochures and wedding photos. The old shingles have already been removed and scheduled to be replaced with new cedar shingles. 

Once the renovations in progress are completed, the garden is working toward implementing the Hakone Master Plan. In 2022, the garden attracted 62,000 visitors, and now aims to renovate the once-private, one-family garden to be able to accommodate the large number of visitors. 

The plan is split into four phases: 

  • Renovating and restoring the Koi fish ponds and the surrounding area.
  • Renovating existing buildings and structures.
  • Constructing a new visitor entrance and improving customer services.
  • Renovating the Cultural Exchange Center

In total, the project is estimated to cost $27.3 million, although the price tag will likely be lower: Since Saratoga is a public entity, it makes more sense to set a high estimate to account for unforeseen circumstances. 

Phase One, the Koi fish ponds, is third in line for renovations after other renovations not part of the Master Plan — so far, $1.1 million out of a necessary $3 million has been raised to provide greater protection for the koi from predators and heat. Already, a new pump house has been installed to increase oxygen levels in the pond and make all areas hospitable for the fish, while running a remarkable $300,000 below budget. 

“The pond is an original feature of the gardens and is over 100 years old. It now leaks water due to severe cracks in the lining,” the Hakone Foundation stated in an FAQ about the pond renovations. “We are losing over 15,000 gallons of water on a weekly basis. Even if we weren’t in a drought situation, this is a terrible waste.”

While the educated estimate for the first phase of renovations was about $4 million, Hakone was able to plan adequate renovations within a $3 million budget. The money will also be directed at preventing loss of a considerable amount of water, recontouring the surrounding hillside and renovating the pathways that run alongside the ponds to meet ADA requirements. The reconstruction is set to begin in fall of 2024, and finish by the summer of 2025. 

“The gardens provide visitors the opportunity to experience a little bit of Japan, without having to actually go to Japan,” Kagoshima said.

 To paint a fuller view of Japan for visitors, Hakone holds cultural activities, such as Hina Matsuri (Japanese Doll’s Day or Girl’s Day), Tanabata Festival (Japanese Star Festival), Toro Nagashi (Japanese Floating Lantern Festival) and the Lunar New Year Festival throughout the year.

“Offering events such as the Lunar New Year Festival is an opportunity to present different types of Asian cultural activities,” Kagoshima said.

Junior Minh Do, an inter-district board member of LEO, organized a few activities for the New Year Festival at Hakone: picking up jelly beans with chopsticks and giving away hóng bāo (Chinese red envelopes typically holding cash) filled with chocolate coins and candy. Later on, the school’s LEO club also plans to teach an art class at Hakone focusing on Japanese arts and crafts. 

Since he was a child, Do recalls enjoying the Koi fish ponds, walking through the beautiful bamboo forest, attending Hakone’s springtime Cherry Blossom Festival and savoring the Chinese New Year dim sum. 

“Hakone is really a staple; it’s like a landmark of Saratoga,” Do said. “And we find it’s really important to spread more awareness, not only about Japanese culture, but about Asian culture as well with this Lunar New Year festival.”

These continued traditions are juxtaposed with recent renovations, representing Hakone’s move towards modernization while maintaining traditional aesthetics and values. While preserving its natural beauty and its role as a much-needed respite from today’s fast-moving society, Hakone and its staff are working to ensure that visitors can discover Hakone in all its magnificence and historical value. 

“Hakone Estate and Gardens is the crown jewel of Saratoga’s parks. It is a historical asset that has been a part of the city for over 100 years,” Kagoshima said. “The Foundation’s goal is to ensure the gardens are here for at least another 100 years not only for the residents of Saratoga, but also visitors from around the world to enjoy.”

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