Inside the Gates of Kotani-En by Elizabeth Nava Finley, sF April 1991

Contrary to popular thought, not every inch of Santa Clara Valley is devoted to the technology of tomorrow.  Hidden in the hills outside Saratoga is an amazing Japanese garden built in a style that is 800 years old.

This refuge is called Kotani-En, variously translated as “small stream through a park” or “home of the Zen master between two hills.”  In spring, the plum trees and camellias drip their pink petals across the path and the waterfall murmurs and splashes.  The only other sound is the rhythmic clip of pruning shears, wielded by a man in plaid shirt and jeans.  He is Bill Robson, who has owned this magical place since 1969.

“It owns me,” he politely corrects any erroneous impression.  “I am the gardener - also, the plumber, the cabinetmaker, the electrician and the soils engineer. I’m the one who keeps this ancient, centuries-old garden.”

Build in 1920s, Kotani-En is the most authentic Japanese garden in America.  Its zigzagging, tile topped rogue wall seems to have materialized out of some old scroll painting, while the gnarled branches of cherry trees and cryptomeria appear to have survived eons, not near decades.  The massive gate, handcrafted of cedar without the use of a single nail, is crowned by slate-gray tiles.  Once inside, a stone path veers to the right, toward a rustic bamboo shelter where the garden panorama unfolds.

Ahead rises a small hill crowned by a traditional samurai residence, a string of pavilions half-hidden in tall bamboo and evergreens that are pruned into intricate shape.  Below, in the heart of the garden, the surface of the koi pond reflects the posts and railings of a Buddhist temple, an identical replica of one in Japan.  Seen through fringe of bright green willow leaves, the temple gleams with carved mahogany panels, one showing a seated figure of Ben Ten, smiling as she plays her lute.  Near the house are more delights:  prized antique bonsai (gifts from the emperor of Japan in 1920), a sparkling spring-fed waterfall, paths that disappear into mysterious groves, the play of sun and shadow.

A total of four-and-a-half acres have been transformed into a classic hill-and-water garden, similar to a samurai’s home circa 1200.  That was the beginning era of the Tokugawa shogun - the most powerful of the feudal lords and samurai warriors.  By this time, Zen Buddhism has affected every aspect of Japanese culture.  Zen landscape architects were influenced by the black-and-white scroll paintings of the Chinese Sung Dynasty that showed tiny human figures dwarfed by mountain landscapes of jagged rocks and gnarled trees.  To translate this wilderness into a domestic garden, trees were pruned into dramatic shapes, and rocks were brought in and arranged into naturalistic and symbolic groupings.

Like ink drawings, these garden compositions are structured around line and mass rather than color.  Color accents are found in the blossoms of permanent shrubs and in seasonal trees like plums, cherries and camellias, and the flowers punctuating the evergreen background.

To maintain the rustic one, all structures are of natural materials - stone and tile fences, wood and bronze buildings, carved stone lanterns - and left unpainted to weather to quiet, monochromatic tones of brown and gray.  Underfoot are stepping stones, pebbles and pine needles.

Not content to create an idealized natural setting, the Japanese garden designer tries to merge his creation with the rhythms of sunlight and seasons.  A lake or pond is situated where it reflects the sky, the passing cloud and the brilliance of a full moon.  Stands of bamboo clatter hollowly in the breeze.  Willows and other deciduous trees are placed where their green leaves can catch the midday sunlight, while red-leaved Japanese maples are planted on a western hillsides where they flame up briefly as the rays of setting sun strike them.

Kotani-En demonstrates many of these devices and conventions against finely modulated background of evergreens.  junipers, yews and pines are carefully pruned in upright, leaning or cascade style and varied with such colored forms as Golden Hinoki cypresses and Blue Atlas cedars, among 200 species of plants in the garden.

But without constant attention, the carefully pruned conifers grow shaggy and formless, the rustic and impermanent structures decay, and the garden is lost, a fate Kotani-En barely escaped.  The story of how this garden came to be built and restored a generation later makes a good yarn, so filled with chance meetings and fortuitous occurrences that it would no doubt make some old sage smile and say chance had nothing to do with it.

Kotani-En had its beginnings early this century when a San Francisco financier named Max Cohen had a good meal in an Arizona restaurant.  He asked to meet the chef and was introduced to a Japanese immigrant named Takashima.  Cohen immediately hired him to cook at his homes in San Francisco and in Santa Clara County, where his house was situated on 30 acres of apricot orchards.

When in Santa Clara County, Takashima would often be found at a specific spot by a creek, where he would sketch buildings and gardens.  Once Cohen discovered his cook was really a Kyoto-trained landscape architect (anti-Asian prejudices had kept Takashima from practicing his art), he became caught up in the dream of building an authentic Japanese garden in this chaparral-covered canyon.  Cohen gave the go-ahead, and in 1918, Takashima sailed to Japan to hire workmen and order materials for the undertaking.

By that time, elements of Japanese style were becoming a familiar part of the West’s design vocabulary.  Authentic Japanese homes and gardens had been featured at world’s fairs and international expositions since the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia.  That first pavilion featured porcelains, a tea concession and an authentically built two-story home.  Although the outdoor plot fronting the exhibit couldn’t be described as a garden, it did display stone lanterns and bronze cranes surrounded by a bamboo fence.  Inspired copies of this building and its grounds appeared all over the Eastern seaboard.  Old photographs show doughty New Englanders wearing kimonos and posing in front of their teahouses before the turn of the century.

This was an area of rampant eclecticism in interior design, any new style was welcomed, and Japanese vases, paper fans and lanterns joined the fashionable clutter in stylish parlors.  By 1900, basic principles of Japanese design - for instance, geometric simplicity and the use of natural materials - had been absorbed by American architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and the Green brothers, and were evident in the Prairie and Craftsman schools of design.  

Japanese gardens also fit the temper of the times.  Unlike the rigidly geometric patterns of French and Italian plantings, the Japanese garden had the winding paths and irregular groves of the English landscape garden that was still the reigning style for both suburban yards and great urban parks, like Golden Gate Park and New York’s Central Park, both of which were under construction at the time.

In California, the passion for Japanese gardens was sparked by two major exhibitions, the Midwinter Fair of 1894 and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.  The former featured a Japanese village sponsored by Oriental arts dealer George Turner Marsh, who brought in Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara to create an authentic one-acres garden.  The hit of the event, the garden was expanded and modified over time by Hagiwara, who had obtained the lease to the property, lived there and managed the construction until he and his family were interned in 1942.  The present day Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park is the oldest existing Japanese garden in the county.

The 1912 exposition gave San Franciscan another chance to see a garden created by designers schooled in the ancient traditions of the country.  The three-acre world’s fair garden was created by architects attached to the imperial household, and from then on Japanese designers were commissioned to create gardens in their national style.

That exposition inspired another Japanese garden in Saratoga:  Hakone, which now is a public park.  It was created by architect Tsunematsu Shintani and gardener Naoharu Amhara in 1918, the same year Takashima began work on Kotani-En.

It took 10 years, $250,000 and 12 men to finish the garden and structures using only hand tools and traditional construction techniques.  The cedar, mahogany and bronze used for the house, temple and gate were fitted together with mortise-and-tenon joinery and splint-and-wedge techniques without the use of nails or screws.  Reportedly, Takashima banned tractors from the site, using horses and mules, in the time-honored way, to pull the huge rocks into place.  The only concession to western taste is the letter C - for Cohen - in the roof tile mosaic topping the gate.

While neighbors shook their heads over the mounting costs, Cohen by all reports was enchanted by Takashima’s creation, even insisting on being carried to the site on the stretcher when he was too sick to walk down from his Spanish-style house up the hill.  Cohen died in 1935, as dis Takashima.

The property was held in probate for 14 years, then went thru a series of owners, not all of whom were dedicated to its upkeep.  In the ‘40s, the garden was vandalized in the wave of wartime anti-Japanese sentiment.  In the ’60, it suffered from such insensitive modifications as the installation of plate-glass windows in front of the shoji screens and the incongruous insertion of a vegetable garden bordered by chain-link fence.

A chance encounter in the late 1960s puts the property in the hands of Robson, a designer of computer hardware at a time.  He was conducting a routine engineering survey of an old house a friend was considering buying, when he noticed photographs of Kotani-En hanging on one of the walls. He asked about the property and was told it was nearby and for sale.  Robson raced over and put in an offer.  Two weeks later, he was the owner of a historic, semi-derelict Japanese classical garden.

Since then, Robson has kept a busy schedule of repairing and renovating the garden.  Beyond the daily maintenance, the lanky westerner has found himself sitting on the floor of a Japanese tatami factory, learning how to sew the traditional floor mats.  On a business trip to Kyoto, he discovered a shop where bronze lanterns have been made since the 16th century and bought up a few dozen for the eaves of the house and temple.  He researched the garden’s history and prepared the documentation for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and listing as a California landmark.

Nature has not always been a benign factor at Kotani-En, the earthquakes of 1989, five-pointers in August and November and the big 7.1 quake in October, cracked the concrete basin that forms the pond, collapse the main bridge,, snapped the bronze cranes off their spindly legs and tumbled the stone lanterns into the water.  Now Robson is welding birds, wading in pond sludge and replacing plants that died in last winter’s frost, in addition to his usual round of caretaker chores.  He has an astute understanding of what is required of him.  As he stands at the huge main gate, he points out a small door off to one side,  “see that?” he asks.  “That’s the owner’s entrance; he has to stoop in humility to go into his garden."