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The Secret “American Japanese” Garden in Seattle

On the way to downtown Seattle, there’s a freeway sign advertising a tourist attraction that’s always intrigued me: “Kubota Garden,” it says. I asked my friend, native Seattleite and Beacon Hill boy Omar Willey about it. “You’d know about it if you went to St. Paul school, which was the next block up,” he tells me, “but you could drive up Renton Ave. for years and never see it.” After years of living in the Pacific Northwest, I finally got to go see what the garden was all about. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Kubota Garden is twenty acres of land in South Seattle, devoted to a stunning “American Japanese” landscape, as the Seattle Metro Parks sign advertises. Even on a typical cold Northwest winter day, I was able to walk through Gerard Tsutakawa’s swirling bronze gate and to feel the calm inside that space. I could hear the faint roar of I-5 occasionally, but the garden’s hilly landscape also sheltered me from much of the sound. There is a stunning granite platform overlook, called an ishigaki; I found out later that the platform was just added in 2015. There are curved bridges, quiet ponds, spaces of stone and grass, places for the eyes to rest.

Gerard Tsutakawa’s swirling bronze gate. Photo courtesy of Vicky Murakami-Tsuda.

As with all gardens, there’s a wealth of stories behind this one. More about the history of the garden is available from the Kubota Garden Foundation, but I wanted to know even more. The president of the Kubota Garden Foundation, Joy Okazaki, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the garden for me over e-mail; our conversation is lightly edited below.

How and when did you first encounter the garden?

I grew up less than a mile from the garden. We always drove by and our parents noted that garden was owned by the Kubotas, and was private, but as kids we’d sneak in to discover bridges, streams, and ponds with tadpoles in them.

Moon Bridge. Photo courtesy of Vicky Murakami-Tsuda.

What is one of your favorite stories that you like to tell about the garden or its features?

One of my favorite stories about the garden is the story of the fossil stone, located near the necklace of ponds. As the story goes, Fujitaro Kubota used to talk to Mr. Marenakos of Marenakos Timber Company and ask him to bring back some stone from the mountains while he was up there harvesting timber. It was said that he actually influenced Marenakos to bring back stone for other landscapers and soon they gave up the timber company and became the Marenakos Stone Company of today.

One day, Mr. Marenakos called Fujitaro and told him he “had a stone for him.” Lo and behold it was a remarkable stone with fossilized giant horsetail in it. The fossil was said to have been carbon dated at thousands of years old!

Spring Pond. Photo courtesy of Vicky Murakami-Tsuda.

What kinds of traditional events and gatherings did the Japanese American community hold at the garden?

The Kubotas were very generous in sharing the garden with many of the prefectural community clubs (Kochi-ken, Hiroshima-ken, and Okayama-ken) and church groups. We don’t have a confirmed list, but that’s what we have heard.

Do you know the history behind the garden being designated an American Japanese garden”? (I was struck by that on the sign as I entered the parking lot and garden).

Many first time visitors will notice that the garden is not a traditional Japanese garden, in fact that is often a criticism from people who do not know the history of the garden. Fujitaro chose to design and develop the garden using many Japanese plant materials and native Northwest plant materials in a Japanese landscaping style. But unlike other Japanese gardens outside of Japan, it does not try to emulate a specific garden, style, or period in Japan.

One of my friends, a native Seattleite, says that the garden used to be a hidden treasure—people didn’t really know about it. When did the signage go up by the freeway?

Signage at the corner of the side street where you turn into to get to the garden’s entrance and parking lot. Photo courtesy of Vicky Murakami-Tsuda.

Despite the garden being public since the City purchased it in 1986, there are still many people that don’t know about it, or confuse it with the Japanese Garden in the Arboretum. One of the Foundation’s early objectives was to do publicity for the garden, and getting the freeway signs and directional signs on City streets was a project over 10 years ago. The foundation pays annually to maintain the freeway signs.

What motivates you to serve as foundation president?

The garden is such a special place, an urban sanctuary in southeast Seattle. The garden’s story is that of the Issei pioneer, who came to America to discover his passion and build a landscaping business, raise a family, and to create this wonderful garden, despite not being formally trained and being incarcerated during World War II. People are still discovering this garden and learning its story; and the foundation is organized to support the City’s stewardship of Fujitaro’s dream. There’s still a lot of work to do, to assure the garden is sustained and maintained for generations to come.

What seems to be a common thread among people who serve on the foundation and/or volunteer at the garden?

The garden draws people from all walks of life, often for many different reasons. Some come because of the ties to Japanese landscaping, others come because many of the trails and plantings are like a quick visit into the foothills, some enjoy the peacefulness of the garden, others enjoy the flora and fauna. Everyone who volunteers for the foundation or garden understands what a wonderful place it is, and work to help perpetuate it.

What are your hopes (personal and/or Foundation-wise) for the garden’s future?

I hope some day to see a visitor’s center at the garden, so the foundation can have a presence at the garden, provide permanent restrooms, community/education/event space, and other amenities. This would allow us to offer more programs and events at the garden. We hope to work with the City to start planning for this project in the next year or two.

Heart Bridge. Photo courtesy of Vicky Murakami-Tsuda.


© 2016 Tamiko Nimura

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