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California Japanese-Style Gardens: Tradition and Practice

Articles: California Japanese-Style Gardens: Tradition and Practice
A small grove of ginkgoes (Ginkgo biloba) and a carpet of mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) symbolize a forest at one end of the Zen garden, Huntington Botanical Gardens. Photograph by James Folsom - See more at: https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/california-japanese-style-gardens/#sthash.Xd9FEtny.dpuf
A small grove of ginkgoes (Ginkgo biloba) and a carpet of mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) symbolize a forest at one end of the Zen garden, Huntington Botanical Gardens. Photograph by James Folsom

A season can be counted in days; a garden’s life counted in hundreds of years.

Garden making was barely underway in California when, in the late nineteenth century, Americans became enamored of Japanese culture and art, including gardens. Suddenly, a thousand-year-old tradition involving many styles of gardens in Japan became telescoped into American gardens called “Japanese,” featuring the natural arrangement of water, stone, and plants, embellished with picturesque lanterns, a variety of bridges and garden buildings, and artistically pruned plants.

Stone bridge across the lower pond in the Storrier Stearns Garden. Author's photograph - See more at: https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/california-japanese-style-gardens/#sthash.Xd9FEtny.dpuf
Stone bridge across the lower pond in the Storrier Stearns Garden. Author’s photograph

This fashion for Japanese gardens spread rapidly after Japan, isolated for several centuries from foreigners, opened its borders for trade with the United States in 1858. Beginning with the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago, Japan exhibited at most world fairs. These lavish exhibits included large gardens, structures imitating Buddhist temple buildings of past centuries, garden teahouses, and theaters. All kinds of decorative items were displayed and sold; thousands of plants were brought from Japan to be installed in the gardens.

Enthusiastic nineteenth-century travelers wrote books to acquaint the public with Japan. Writer Lafcadio Hearn, in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, reported that “everything Japanese is delicate, exquisite, admirable” and reports the impulse to possess everything he sees

. . . not [just] the contents of a shop; you want the shop and the shopkeeper. And streets of shops . . . the whole city and the bay . . . all Japan, in very truth, with its magical trees and luminous atmosphere.[1. Hearn, Writings from Japan, an Anthology, p. 24]

Edward S Morse, in Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, warned that the craze for Japanese decorative arts, with the resulting increased availability of items made by Japan for export, and by Westerners copying Japanese motifs on non-Japanese items such as wall paper, was resulting in a “mixture of incongruities that would have driven a Japanese decorator stark mad.”[2. Morse, Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, p. xxviii]

Similar hodgepodges arose when Westerners attempted to adapt gardens—seen on a visit to Japan, in books, or at fairs, hotels, and commercial teahouses—to American homes, creating scenes that never existed in Japan out of elements that, in Japan, would never be used together.

One of the earliest of our many existing Japanese-style gardens has this hybrid history. In 1894, Japan was at war with Korea and did not participate in the Midwinter Exposition in San Francisco. But there was a Japanese garden display at the fair. GT Marsh, an antique dealer, installed a one-acre “Japanese village” complete with teahouse, theater, drum bridge, and decorative gate. When the fair ended, the city kept the garden as part of Golden Gate Park, where it is now known as the Japanese Tea Garden.[3. Brown, Japanese-Style Gardens of the Pacific West Coast, p. 32] Marsh went on to create other commercial tea gardens throughout California. About this time and on into the 1920s, many of the great estates of the gilded age installed Japanese gardens. Some were small tea gardens, consisting of a Japanese teahouse, often authentic, set in a naturalist landscape; others were opulent creations featuring large ponds crossed by bridges.

The Depression put an end to grand estates, and the vogue for Japanese gardens cooled in the thirties as American relations with the Japanese government became strained. Shortly after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, all persons of Japanese ancestry in the western United States were sent to internment camps for the duration of the war.

For various reasons, by the sixties, Japanese style was again fashionable. Many great estates that could no longer be maintained privately became public, and those with a Japanese garden found that section not only the most popular but also the hub of bonsai and ikebana societies. Beginning in the thirties, Modernist architects deeply admired the elegance and simplicity of Japanese gardens, with their abstract compositions of green mounded shapes, sculpted pines, and contemplative rock arrangements. By the sixties, magazines such as House Beautiful and Sunset had begun to popularize these architectural and garden ideas. Servicemen who had been stationed in Japan after the war returned home with a love of Japanese style. The deep need to heal the rift between two countries formerly at war led to municipal “friendship” and sister-city gardens.

While the lavish, pre-war, Japanese-style gardens are much admired and visited, not much is known about individual garden makers except that the gardens had usually been designed, constructed, and maintained by Japanese or first generation (issei) Japanese immigrants.[4. Brown, Japanese-Style Gardens of the Pacific West Coast, p. 12] Entwined with the history of Japanese-style gardens is the social and labor history of these immigrants. A paradox of Japanese-style garden making is that it flourished in the early twentieth century at a time when Japanese immigrants were faced with racial prejudice and legal discrimination, barred from becoming citizens and, in California, owning land. Garden making became one of the few occupations open to them. It is estimated that roughly thirty percent of the Japanese American labor force, prior to World War II, was employed in the gardening or nursery trades. The Japanese American National Museum’s new exhibition Landscaping America: Beyond the Japanese Garden (June 17 to October 21, 2007) explores the myriad ways Japanese Americans have contributed to shaping the landscape through their work designing, building, and maintaining a variety of outdoor environments.

Inspired by plans for this exhibition, The California Garden and Landscape History Society will be devoting this year’s conference to California Japanese-Style Gardens: Tradition and Practice. In addition to exploring the topic through the exhibition and lectures, we will be visiting several gardens that span the history of Japanese-style garden making in Southern California.

Moon bridge, Huntington Botanical Gardens Japanese Garden. Photograph by James Folsom - See more at: https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/california-japanese-style-gardens/#sthash.Xd9FEtny.dpuf
Moon bridge, Huntington Botanical Gardens Japanese Garden. Photograph by James Folsom

Huntington Japanese Garden, San Marino, California

In 1903, GT Marsh created one of his commercial tea gardens in Pasadena. The garden was set on three acres complete with many artifacts and a few buildings. About the same time, Henry Huntington was building his Beaux Arts mansion and landscaping the adjacent grounds, turning his San Marino citrus ranch into one of the grandest estates in the country. The house was finished in 1910; in 1912, it was decided to create a Japanese garden in what was then an unsightly canyon. William Hertrich, landscape manager, reports that Huntington was in a hurry since he planned to occupy the house by the next year. Hertrich was able to buy Marsh’s tea garden and thus acquire mature plants, along with the buildings and ornaments. Additional artifacts were acquired from Japan including lanterns and miniature pagodas:

[A] Japanese craftsman designed and constructed the Full- Moon bridge, and . . . the ornate enclosure for the temple bell. . . . At the time the garden was completed, a Japanese family . . . was hired to live in the two-story Japanese house that had been built on the far slope of the canyon, and to care for the garden. An Oriental atmosphere was thus produced and was further enhanced on occasion by t h e family’s custom of dressing up in Japanese costume for special holidays.[5. Hertrich, The Huntington Botanical Gardens, 1905-1949, pp.78-80]

By the late forties, the garden had fallen into a state of extreme neglect due to a lack of money and labor available for proper maintenance. Today, however, the planting is back in scale and beautifully maintained as the Japanese Garden of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. The traditional nineteenth-century Japanese house now features three furnished rooms: one for dining, one for sleeping, and another for tea. All rooms face out into the canyon garden. The alcoves along the walls are decorated with scrolls and seasonal ikebana flower arrangements, created by the San Marino League. Notable additions to the garden over the years include the Zen-style rock garden, completed in 1968, that reflects the modernist interest in simple gardens, and a bonsai court where rare specimens are displayed.

Storrier Stearns Garden, Pasadena, California

In the 1930s, Charles and Ellamae Storrier Stearns bought an early 1900s, three-story, Georgian-style, brick mansion off fashionable Oak Grove Avenue in Pasadena. The property had formal gardens and two tennis courts. In the mid-thirties, they decided to replace the tennis courts with a Japanese garden. Construction on the garden began in 1937 and was almost complete when Kinzuchi Fujii, the garden’s designer, was relocated to an internment camp in 1941.

Work was eventually completed, and, upon the death of Mrs Storrier Stearns in 1950, the property was subdivided and sold at auction. Ganna Haddad Poulsen, an art dealer and owner of Poulsen’s Gallery on Lake Street, bought the lots containing the Japanese garden, horse barn, and tennis warming- hut. She then built a one-story house adjoining the garden. The garden began a slow decline in 1976, when the State of California, through eminent domain, took part of the property for a freeway project. In 1981, a fire destroyed the original teahouse that had been built in Japan to Fujii’s plans, then disassembled and shipped to Los Angeles for reassembly in the garden. Poulsen died in 1985, leaving the property vacant.

With plans for the freeway changing, Poulsen’s son, James Haddad, decided to rebuild the teahouse and restore the long-neglected garden. As a step toward saving the garden, it has since been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Kendall Brown described the garden in his 2003 letter of Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places as:

[I]n its design and construction, the Storrier Stearns garden represents one of the best pre-war examples of a Japanese hill and pond style stroll garden outside Japan. It is a wonderful place to learn about Japanese landscape design. In its grand size, at almost two acres and with a 25- foot-high hill with waterfall, the garden was constructed on an unmatched scale. The number and quality of the ornaments, including a massive dragon lantern, and of its architectural features, most notable the tea house, are also quite rare. The design, with two large ponds, one spanned by granite bridges more than 15 feet long, was unparalleled at the time.[6. Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places: June 22, 2003 letter from Kendall Brown]

While researching this garden, Brown located Kinzuchi Fujii’s family. His son, Frank Fujii, had helped with the making of Madame Ganna Walska’s Japanese garden at Lotusland in Santa Barbara, and was still working there. Frank Fujii possessed his father’s original plans for the garden and many photographs taken during construction. He also had an autobiography written by Kinzuchi and a sales letter that he used to solicit work. Kinzuchi considered the Storrier Stearns garden his masterpiece and he took the plans with him in one of the two suitcases he carried into internment. His story, one of the few we know of these early immigrant garden builders, reflects the hardship and discrimination that these men faced.

Born in 1875, Kinzuchi came to San Francisco in 1903 from Yamaguchi prefecture, where he had been a carpenter. He hoped to build gardens but, instead, worked at a variety of jobs: washing dishes, selling china, sharecropping, and carpentering. He traveled in the Midwest with a carnival and briefly owned a restaurant in Virginia. Back in California in 1923, he found work as a carpenter and laborer on some garden construction projects including the Gurdon Wattles garden in Hollywood. Later, he began to build small gardens in the Ojai and Santa Barbara areas but, at the same time, had to work at additional jobs sharecropping strawberries and flowers to support his family. With the commission for the Storrier Stearns, he achieved his dream of creating “a real uncompromising Japanese garden in the United States.” In his sales letter, he goes on to say that The inevitable cement lanterns and semi-circular wooden bridges for Japanese gardens are just as unnecessary as paper lanterns and umbrellas are useless and vulgar in decorating Japanese houses. . . . Expensive materials are not always essential for Japanese garden-making, but common timber, rocks and shrubbery, which may be found in and around the plot, should be transformed into real assets only when handled by the true artist.

Today, the future of this garden is uncertain. During its years of decline, some of the artifacts were sold off and others disappeared. The elaborate gates are now in the Japanese Friendship Garden of San Diego. Haddad has rebuilt the teahouse, taking care to follow the original plans and using traditional building methods and materials wherever possible. He has not been able to renovate the plantings, and the garden is overgrown and weedy. Nevertheless, it is a charming spot. Large native sycamores (Platanus racemosa) lean into the pond, and the surrounding rocks give this garden a quiet elegance. It appears as if the landscape has been left in a natural state, with man-made additions of an elegant granite bridge to cross the water and a pavilion built at its edge for gazing at the garden. That is the genius of Kinzuchi Fujii: this was once a flat area of two tennis courts; now it is his masterwork.[7. The information on the Storrier Stearns garden is from manuscripts owned by Mr James Haddad and material compiled by Kendall Brown]

Covered waiting bench at the upper pond in the Storrier Stearns Garden. Author’s photograph - See more at: https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/california-japanese-style-gardens/#sthash.Xd9FEtny.dpuf
Covered waiting bench at the upper pond in the Storrier Stearns Garden. Author’s photograph

James Irvine Garden, Los Angeles

Also known as Seiryu-en or Garden of the Clear Stream, the James Irvine Garden was designed by Takeo Uesugi and completed in 1979. The garden was built with a grant from the James Irvine Foundation, donations from the Japanese American community and the labor of over 200 volunteers, largely from the Pacific Coast Chapter of the California Landscape Contractors Association, the Cen-tinela Chapter of the California Association of Nurserymen, and the Southern California Gardeners’ Federation. The stones, over 250 tons, were gathered from the Mt Baldy area, and plants were donated by Southern California nurseries. It continues to be maintained by volunteers.

Access to the garden is through the main building of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center on San Pedro Street in downtown Los Angeles. A large room with a glass wall looks out on the garden. The window frames the garden, displaying it beautifully in the style of Japanese gardens that were designed to be viewed from a fixed point in an open room or veranda.

Springtime in the James Irvine Garden. Photograph by Ed Ikuta - See more at: https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/california-japanese-style-gardens/#sthash.Xd9FEtny.dpuf
Springtime in the James Irvine Garden. Photograph by Ed Ikuta

This is a small garden, just 8,500 square feet in a long narrow triangle. The main feature is a 170-foot stream running down the longest axis. Water drops from the high end of the garden, then splits around a turf mound and reunites in a quiet pond at the base of the garden, where it seems to disappear out of the contained garden and into the city. From a door on the lower floor, a path winds around the garden, leading across a wooden bridge, up to the cascade at the top, then down the other side of the garden and across another wooden bridge to the upper grass mound, or on back down. Low plantings create a sense of rolling hills, and the grassy open turf mounds expand the space. Populating the garden are typical Japanese plants such as azaleas, Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), Nandina domestica, and bamboos, as well as non-Japanese natives like Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis indica), and Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium).

Uesugi calls this “a Japanese American garden, but with the spirit and principles of a Japanese garden.”[8. Brown, Japanese-Style Gardens of the Pacific West Coast, p. 166] The design inspiration comes from a much-admired, late nineteenth-century Kyoto garden, Murin-an (a retreat without neighbors). That garden had been built as a place of retreat and retirement from the active political life of its owner, Prince Yamagata Aritomo, a famous Meiji-era general and former prime minister. For the James Irvine Garden, Uesugi designed the course of the stream to represent three generations of  Japanese American experience: the cascade represents the turbulent times and struggles of the issei (first generation immigrants) against prejudice and economic barriers; the division of the stream stands for the conflicts of allegiance and loyalty faced by the nisei (second generation) during World War II; the quiet pool is symbolic of the hope for a peaceful experience for future generations, with the seeming continuation beyond the garden suggesting the goal of becoming a part of the American community.

In 1981 the garden was awarded the prestigious National Landscape Award from the American Association of Nurserymen in recognition of the garden’s contribution to community beautification.

Japan has a centuries-long tradition of garden making; in California we have little more than a one-hundred-year tradition of making gardens inspired by those of Japan. These California gardens can be seen through the many filters of time and culture, or they can be appreciated for what they reveal to us of the essence of the natural world. Regardless of their backgrounds, observers of Japan’s gardens agree that the love of Japan’s natural landscape and the appreciation of a single natural object—from poetry found in a stone or the picturesque quality of an ancient gnarled tree—infuse all Japanese gardens. Japan is a land where the blooming of cherry trees is a major celebration. While that may be the showiest and headiest of times, all seasonal changes are closely noted. Pico Iyer describes autumn in the gardens of Kyoto this way Japanese autumn [is] never wild or febrile, as in other treefilled lands, but diffidently spectacular in its tidy, daily miracles . . . And the people who came to inspect the scene were miraculously quiet, as hushed as viewers at some play . . . the observations of the seasons seemed akin, almost, to a playing of the national anthem; a solemn, silent act of faith.[9. Iyer, The Lady and the Monk, Four Seasons in Kyoto, p. 112]

It may be naive to think that we can do more than superficially appreciate Japanese gardens without an understanding of the culture and intentions of the garden makers, and even more of a folly to attempt to recreate them in another culture. On the other hand, lovers of gardens and gardening can see in the many excellent gardens that have been created in America, especially on the Pacific Coast, the art and the instinct for working with nature that goes into making these Japanese-style gardens, and be inspired to a finer level of garden making and appreciation.

James Irvine Garden. Photograph by Ed Ikuta
James Irvine Garden. Photograph by Ed Ikuta


Brown, Kendall H. Japanese-Style Gardens of the Pacific West Coast. New York: Rizzoli, 1999.

Hearn, Lafcadio. Writings from Japan, an Anthology. Edited by Francis King. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Hertrich, William. The Huntington Botanical Gardens, 1905-1949. San Marino, CA: Henry E Huntington Library and Art Gallery, 1949.

Hirahara, Naomi, ed. GreenMakers; Japanese American

Gardeners in Southern California. Los Angeles:

Southern California Gardener’s Federation. 2000.




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