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Dawn I Frazier’s Hidden Place to Relax her Soul: Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden in Pasadena

Every Thursday morning, Dawn Ishimaru Frazier (82) looks forward to driving down the street of Pasadena to Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden. Within five minutes, she is in the world of tranquility and relaxation. “I like the quiet time the garden provides for my soul to relax,” she says.

The “Nisei-han” Japanese American widow found this “hidden gem” several years ago, when she came to the garden with her Fujinkai for the first time. The beauty and serenity impressed her, and she immediately signed up to volunteer. “I like being in the dirt,” Frazier explains. Her first assignment at the garden was to pick up dead Azaria leaves, but she was quickly promoted to trim Camelias and now takes care of hydrangeas. You will see her in her gym clothes from 8 a.m. until 12 noon on Thursdays.

Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden is located just south of the Huntington Hospital in the City of Roses. The original owners, Charles and Ellamae Storrier Stearns, hired the Japanese gardener, Kinzuchi Fujii, in 1935 to design and create the garden in their private property. Fujii worked on the garden until 1942, when he was incarcerated during World War II. After a long period of inattention, the current owners Jim and Connie Haddad painstakingly restored the garden to its original design after spending several years and millions of dollars. The garden is operated by a non-profit and has been open to the public since 2013. It is believed to be the only remaining Japanese-style garden created before WWII for a residence in Southern California.

Dawn Ishimaru Frazier

Frazier was born in LA in 1936 to Issei Kurahiko Ishimaru from Fukuoka and Nisei Chizuko Ueda of Seattle. They lived near today’s Sawtelle Japantown. After President Roosevelt signed the Executive Order 9066, someone told her family that if they would move to northern California, they would be able to avoid being interned. So, her family packed and drove up to Fresno only to find that it was just a rumor. They were interned in Jerome then in Rohwer internment camps in Arkansas during WWII. After the camp, the family moved to Oxnard to work on a lemon orchard, then back to Reedley near Fresno. Reedley was a town of Mennonites who welcomed the Japanese Americans after the camp. Frazier saw a need for occupational therapy (OT) for the returning soldiers and decided to become an OT, receiving a degree from Mills College.

While she worked at a clinic as an OT in Modesto, she met her future husband and orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Calvin Frazier. They worked in Northern California for a short while, but eventually moved to La Canada and ran a successful private practice for 20 years until his passing in 1997. She downsized recently and now lives in a two-bedroom condo in Old Town Pasadena. Her new home is meticulously clean and tidy, all done without a cleaning lady.

Like most of the Nikkei today, Frazier may not get involved in the Little Tokyo community events or activities often, but she does her part in the local community by contributing her knowledge on the Japanese culture and Nikkei experience to be the bridge between the U.S. and Japan. She prefers Storrier Stearns over bigger organizations because of its flexibility. “I do not have to go to many meetings. There is no dress code or strict regulations to volunteers,” she adds. Proximity to her home is also an advantage. “The garden loosens and expands your views and feelings. I can be Nombiri.” Since she does not drive at night or too far any more, the volunteer work at the garden gives her social opportunities, too.

Ichinosuke Umekawa

Frazier is excited about the up-coming event at Storrier Stearns that she wants to promote to the Nikkei community. The garden will be hosting a fundraising event called “Taste of Japan” on Saturday, April 6. Besides various Japanese food and drinks, the special entertainment guest from Japan is Ichinosuke Umekawa, an up and coming fusion dancer of ballet and Kabuki. It is suited that a Japanese garden owned by Caucasian owners is hosting a Japanese performer who is incorporating Western and Japanese dancing techniques.

Connie Haddad, the co-owner of the garden, has much to praise Frazier. “Dawn is not only an extremely committed volunteer but also a very generous supporter of the garden,” she says. Frazier is one of the major donors there, though she is so humble she never mentions it herself. The garden currently has several other Japanese Americans volunteers in and around Pasadena, who give their time and labor for the garden without seeking any spotlights.

“Most of Nikkei do not know about Storrier Stearns yet. I wish more came to appreciate the beauty of this Japanese garden,” Frazier says. “I know I am contradicting. I want more people to come, but I want it to be hidden and quiet,” she laughs.

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The Taste of Japan will be held from 5-8 p.m. on Saturday, April 6 at the Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden on 270 Arlington Dr., Pasadena. The admission is $60, including valet service. The reservations can be made online here, or you may call (626)399-1721.


© 2019 Makiko Nakasone

Japanese Garden Storrier Stearns Taste of Japan volunteer