Hidden off of Big Basin Way near downtown Saratoga, Hakone Estate and Gardens feels like a secret oasis in the Santa Cruz Mountain foothills. Catch the gardens during the day and it's a surprisingly convenient and beautifully maintained respite from the traffic and chaos of Silicon Valley.
Visit during their annual seasonal cherry blossom viewing nights, Hanami at Hakone, and it's an ethereal, almost otherworldly experience. Resplendent blossoms are uplit by a soft pink glow coming from lights at the base of each blooming tree's trunk, and the air is suffused with an intoxicating blend of the floral aroma of the blossoms and the crisp scent of the surrounding redwood forest.
Hakone Estate and Gardens has hosted its hanami night cherry blossom viewings since 2018, with a pause in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Shozo Kagoshima, executive director of the gardens. Hanami, the Japanese tradition of viewing flowers, particularly cherry blossoms, dates back to ancient times and celebrates the arrival of spring and its natural beauty.
The cherry blossom season has long been a popular time for people to visit the gardens, and the nighttime viewings grew out of a desire to accommodate more visitors, he explains.
"We decided we'd try opening up in the evenings to give people more opportunities," Kagoshima said.
One challenge with hosting this annual event, however, is knowing when the cherry blossoms will actually bloom. Typically, the blooms occur between mid-March and mid-April, but with all of the chilly storms that have hit the Peninsula this winter, the blooms took their time unfurling this season.
But they've finally emerged, and the result is spectacular, especially at nightfall.
"When you come up the drive, and it's lit up, it's pretty impressive," he said.
A complex history
The idea for the gardens reportedly came after San Francisco couple Oliver and Isabel Stine saw the Japan Pavilion at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, according to the 2021 Images of America book "Hakone Estate and Gardens" by Ann Waltonsmith and Connie Young Yu. Oliver was a well-connected founder of the O.C. Stine Real Estate Company and a millionaire at the time, and encouraged Isabel's interest in Japanese culture (she had been raised in San Jose and grew up fascinated by the Japanese music and rituals she saw in Japantown and the nearby Buddhist temple.)
After Oliver died in 1918 and left Isabel widowed at 37 with three children, the family turned its attention to building up the Hakone gardens in Saratoga, named after Japan's Fuji–Hakone National Park.
At the time, Isabel Stine's celebration of Japanese culture and landscapes stood in stark contrast to the prevailing anti-Asian sentiment. In fact, Sen. James Phelan, a San Francisco mayor and U.S. senator who built the practically neighboring European-style estate of Villa Montalvo, favored Japanese and Chinese exclusion policies and ran a reelection campaign in 1920 using racist slogans like "Keep California White." (His reelection campaign was ultimately unsuccessful.)
A patron of the arts, Stine later remarried in 1924 and led the effort to establish a permanent opera in San Francisco and bring the West Coast premiere of the Puccina opera "Madama Butterfly" to the city in 1925.
But during the Great Depression, she was no longer able to afford to keep the Hakone property, so she sold it to Maj. Charles Tilden, founder of the East Bay Regional Parks District, in 1932.
Tilden and his family preserved the park through World War II. However, James Sasaki and his family, who had tended the gardens, were forcibly evacuated and incarcerated at a relocation camp for Japanese Americans in Topaz, Utah.
In March 1942, the Sasakis built a fire and burned everything Japanese that the family owned, including heirlooms, kimonos, the kids' practice kendo swords and Japanese children's books, before reporting to an assembly center in the East Bay. They weren't released until September 1945, but waiting for them when they arrived by train back in Oakland was Tilden's stepdaughter, who drove them back home to Hakone, according to the book.
The property in 1961 passed to a partnership of two white couples and four Chinese American couples who used the property as a private retreat and ultimately, in a move to keep it from being subdivided, sold the gardens to the city of Saratoga in 1966. The city, which was in its infancy then and didn't have a Parks and Recreation Department, turned to the community for help, and the Hakone Foundation sprouted up to manage and operate the gardens, facilities and gift shop at the property.
If you go
Hanami at Hakone admission is 5:30-9 p.m. weeknights through April 14 and costs $16-$18 per person plus Eventbrite fees. Tickets are by advance purchase only; buy them at eventbrite.com.