Recharging in the San Mateo Japanese garden


I was hoping to visit the Japanese garden in San Mateo Central Park after reading about it in the book Quiet Beauty: The Japanese gardens of North America. Happily, I managed to make that visit earlier this summer, the same day we saw the digital art exhibit at PACE. So if you do plan a trip to this part of Silicon Valley, consider experiencing two different aspects of Japanese culture in the same day and see both together.

The garden opened in 1965, following the signing of a sister city agreement between San Mateo and Toyonaka in 1963. It was designed by Nagao Sakurai, who had created several other American Japanese gardens, including the dry garden in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park (1952). It is a stroll garden built around a central pond that is fed by a waterfall. Two wooden bridges transect the pond; of these, the first is more prominent – an arched bridge with numerous fat carp swimming beneath it.

As you loop around the pond, you encounter lush foliage, eye-catching rock formations and a series of beautiful views, punctuated by unique features: the stone pagoda, the waterfall, the viewing pavilion and the tea house. This is a wonderful place to visit and attracts a different crowd from the garden in Golden Gate Park: more local families spending time outdoors, not so many camera-toting tourists on a deadline. Highly recommended.

Japanese Garden, San Mateo Central Park
San Mateo, California
Permanent attraction

Above: pathway near the viewing pavilion. All photos: SF.

Below: looking in through the main gate.


Below: view across the pond towards the arched bridge; there are carp in the water, and you can see the main gate again, this time from the inside.


Below: view from the arched bridge, looking towards the second bridge; you can enjoy the contrast between the trees and the local office block architecture.


Below: five-storey stone pagoda, donated by the City of Toyonaka.


Below: plaque on the pagoda.


Below: waterfall.

Below: reflections on the water; contrasting arrangements of rocks.

Below: the second bridge.


Below: many shades of green.


Below: pine trees.


Below: view looking back to the second bridge; you can see the arched bridge in the background.


Books: 101 Japanese gardens you have to visit – in North America

image cover quiet beauty

Visually stunning, this glossy hardback features 26 Japanese gardens from the United States and Canada, each photographed in loving detail. A further 75 gardens are listed (without illustrations) in Appendix 2, which is helpful because you are likely to find more that are within reach of your own home. It was a revelation to me that there are so many Japanese gardens on this continent, and so far I have visited only one, the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park.

The introductory essay is excellent and fills in the historical background. I was struck especially by the trend observed in the second half of the 20th century, a trend away from absolute authenticity to a broader conception of the North American Japanese garden as a kind of hybrid, where the designer is empowered to be more artistic or to respond to the specific qualities of the local environment.

This local adaptation comes across in the stories of the individual gardens. For instance, the Nikka-Yuko garden in Lethbridge, Alberta, where due to the harsh climate they have found they can use only plants local to southern Alberta. Or the Suiho’en garden at a water reclamation plant in Van Nuys, California, where the express purpose of the garden was to soften public opinion regarding water reclamation and reuse of sewage effluent – hence the name meaning “Garden of Water and Fragrance”.

My only reservation was that the texts on individual gardens sometimes felt pedestrian, laboring over the chronology of which feature was added when, or dwelling too much on visitor amenities – catering, weddings, corporate events. However, the gorgeous photography more than compensates.

Quiet Beauty: The Japanese Gardens of North America
Kendall H. Brown, 2013.
Tuttle Publishing, 176 pages, $34.95 (hardcover).

This book was received as a gift from family.

Architecture of Life at BAMPFA

bampfa hall

We made a family visit recently to BAMPFA, the newly reopened arts centre for the University of California, Berkeley. The acronym stands for Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and while the focus is on both art and film, we went to see the inaugural exhibition, entitled Architecture of Life.

I found this a hugely energising show to explore, and I would love to go back. It takes the twin themes of architecture in the human world and architecture in the natural world, and interprets them in an open and unstructured way. It brings together works from different cultures and different periods, so that you abandon all thoughts of context and give yourself up to the visual ride, just focusing on the objects in front of you. Several exhibits are drawn from scientific projects, increasing the sense of an inter-disciplinary, trans-boundary adventure.

Given how the format emboldens you to look at things together and make unexpected connections, it seems counter-intuitive to zero in on objects with an Asian link, which is my usual practice here. However, those I find myself highlighting are as mixed a selection as any I might have chosen, so in that sense it is representative.

“Home-for-All” in Rikuzentakata is a series of five models by Japanese architects, seeking to create a new structure in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The final version was constructed by volunteers, using cedar logs damaged by the sea.

Photographer Yuji Obata (b.1962) pays homage to an early photographer of snowflakes, Wilson Bentley (1865-1931), through his photographs of snowflakes in freefall. He uses a technique perfected over years in the snowy mountains of Hokkaido.

Noriko Ambe (b.1967) creates sculptures made from hundreds of small sheets of flat, synthetic paper, individually hand cut then stacked to create abstract forms in organic shapes.

Hyun-Sook Song (b.1952) is a painter whose work I first encountered on my visit to ART14 London. I was a little blown away to find three big canvases, more sombre though than those I saw previously. 21 Brushstrokes shows the shrouded body of the artist’s mother prior to burial, resting alone on a bier, and  has a particular bleakness.

These are just a few examples, however. The whole experience is diverse, stimulating and highly recommended.

Architecture of Life
BAMPFA, Berkeley, CA
31 January to 29 May 2016

Above: Atrium at BAMPFA. Photo: SF.

Below: Toyo Ito (b.1941) and others, “Home-for-All” in Rikuzentakata, 2012. 1:20 scale model; wood, styrene board, styrol, plastic. Photo: SF.

toyo ito home for all scale model

Below: Noriko Ambe, A piece of Flat Globe, Vol 12 and Vol 22, 2010-12. Cut YUPO. Photos: SF.

noriko ambe a piece of flat globe A

noriko ambe a piece of flat globe B

Below: Hyun-Sook Song, 21 Brushstrokes, 2007. Egg tempera on canvas. Photo: SF.

hyun sook song 21 brushstrokes

Below: Hyun-Sook Song, 4 Brushstrokes over Figure, 2012. Egg tempera on canvas. Photo: SF.

hyun sook song 4 brushstrokes over figure

Yoshida Hiroshi prints at the Ashmolean

yoshida window in fatehpur sikri
Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950) was a leading figure in Japan’s Shin Hanga (New Print) movement, seeking to revive traditional ukiyo-e printing by combining Japanese techniques with Western elements. From November 1930, he spent four months travelling in India and South East Asia. Following his return, he produced 32 woodblock prints of scenes from his trip.

This magical exhibition presents a selection of images from Indian sites, mainly architecture and landscapes. There is a strong emphasis on the technical brilliance of Yoshida’s printmaking.  For instance, A Window in Fatehpur Sikri show a sepia-toned interior with three figures sitting near a carved lattice window. For this one scene, Yoshida used five woodblocks for the lattice; four nezumi-ban (grey blocks) to deepen the shadow tones; and four wari-ban (split blocks with tapered ends) for the reflections on the marble floor.

His landscape prints are equally captivating. In the Kinchinjanga series, he follows Hokusai and Hiroshige in presenting views of a mountain in different conditions – morning, afternoon and evening. He uses the same set of woodblocks for each print but varies the image with different colours and techniques, a process called betsu-zuri (separate printing). The result is a dream-like display of colour and light effects.

Yoshida Hiroshi: A Japanese Artist in India
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
9 June to 13 September 2015

Above: Yoshida Hiroshi, A Window in Fatehpur Sikri, 1931. Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Height 40.1cm; width 27.6cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image at [Ashmolean image not online at time of writing.]

Below: Yoshida Hiroshi, Kinchinjanga – Afternoon, 1931. Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Height 27.6cm; width 39.8cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image at [Ashmolean image not online at time of writing.]

yoshida kinchinjanga

Cotswold Farm: Arts and Crafts with Chinese porcelain

cotswold farm exterior
Last weekend I joined a field trip to Cotswold Farm, an Arts and Crafts house with terraced gardens and terrific views. In the main, we were there to see the ceramics, but my overriding impressions are of the house itself. It is used by groups of clergy on retreat, though not on the day of our visit. Lucky clergy, I thought.

The farmhouse was built in the 1720s and expanded to twice its original size in about 1900. The Arts and Crafts interiors are the work of the architect Sidney Barnsley (1865-1926) and his assistant Norman Jewson. The library in particular is full of delights: wooden paneling, delicate plasterwork, metal sconces and curtains with rich embroidery.

We saw Chinese and Japanese ceramics, mainly blue and white export porcelain, collected by J. Dearman Birchall between 1860 and 1900. One of our guides was Colin Sheaf (Bonhams), who explained that at this time there was a surge of interest in blue and white export porcelain of the Kangxi period (1662-1722), pioneered by such well-known figures as Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These pieces had been sitting around in country houses since they arrived in the early 18th century but were now re-presented as the height of fashion. This shed new light on my visit to the Russell-Cotes Museum in Bournemouth, another late Victorian collection that includes blue and white porcelain.

Not everything came from China or Japan, it turned out. Certain pieces that seemed to be Imari ware were reproductions by the French Samson firm. Our guides chose to keep quiet about this at first, and they fooled the group very nicely.

Cotswold Farm
Near Cirencester, Gloucestershire

This visit was open to members of the Oriental Ceramics Society; information on how to join this group can be found on their website.

Above: Cotswold Farm. Image at

Below: Cotswold Farm, the library. Image at

cotswold farm library

Below: Cotswold Farm, interior. Image at

cotswold farm interior

Travels in California, part 4: Japanese tea garden

pic lake & flat bridge

On our previous visit to the Japanese tea garden we managed to choose a misty autumnal morning. This time we visited in February, which meant we had brilliant spring sunshine, not a cloud in the sky – although it was cold enough that we had to sneak off for warming cups of coffee halfway through our visit.

I think the joy of this garden lies in wandering the paths and letting the vista of trees and water unfold around you. Last time, the leaves were starting to change to yellow. This time, many trees were still bare from winter, encouraging the eye to focus more on the pines and other evergreens, with their sculpted topiary.

Points of interest include the very steep drum bridge (taiko bashi), which was designed and built in Japan by Shinshichi Nakatani (1846-1922) for the 1894 San Francisco Midwinter Fair, where the history of this garden began.

Glorious in their vivid red are the five-tier pagoda and matching ornamental gateway, both acquired after the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The underside of the gate is decorated with a series of painted roundels containing images of flowers.

In a secluded corner lies the Zen garden, designed in 1953 by Nagao Sakurai (1896-1973), a leading landscape architect. This is a dry landscape garden (karesansui) in which the rocks symbolize a miniature mountain scene with stone waterfall, and the raked gravel represents a body of water such as a river.

I think we enjoyed it every bit as much as last time. Our young son was making his first visit and the parts he loved best were the stepping stone paths (tobi-ishi) and the fish (oh, yes).

Japanese Tea Garden
San Francisco, CA
Permanent attraction

Above: Japanese tea garden, San Francisco. Photo: STF.

Below: Looking through the drum bridge. Japanese tea garden, San Francisco. Photo: STF.
pic humped bridge

Below: Ornamental gateway with pagoda nearby. Japanese tea garden, San Francisco. Photo: STF.
pic gateway decoration

Below: Zen garden. Japanese tea garden, San Francisco. Photo: STF.
pic zen garden

Fond memories: San Francisco and the Japanese garden

pic1 tea garden
We are making plans to travel to San Francisco for a short visit, so I have been trying to refresh my memory by looking through photos that I took on my last trip, which was back in September 2009! These are from a misty morning visit to the Japanese tea garden, to which I’m hoping we can return. The garden is situated inside Golden Gate Park and features various structures, including the Tea House, which can be seen in the picture above. It began as a one-acre garden created for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition. It then became a permanent fixture and was expanded to its current five acres, under the auspices of Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara (1854-1925). I shall look forward to exploring the garden at a different time of year, this time with a small person in tow …

Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco
Permanent attraction

pic4 tea garden

Architecture prize for Shigeru Ban

I was so interested to read this piece in The Independent.  Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has won the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize.  His inspiring projects include using paper and cardboard to make temporary structures for disaster zones, such as a cardboard cathedral for Christchurch, New Zealand, following the 2011 earthquake.  I shall have to investigate if his work has reached the UK.

Sensory play at the RA’s architecture show

pic li xiaodong

Sensing Spaces is not so much a show about architecture as a series of installations that you explore at will.  With some trepidation, I booked tickets for a family visit.  I was both relieved and amused to find that plenty of other parents had had the same inspiration.

Whatever your views on children in museums, I found that in some strange way sharing this visit with a three-year-old enhanced my appreciation of the project, both in the sense of understanding and of enjoyment.  The main premise of the show is that sensory experience is central to our interpretation of designed space.  Sense impressions are going to hit young children harder and invite a more immediate response.

Li Xiaodong (China) constructs a shady labyrinth with translucent white floors lit from beneath, and tall walls packed with vertical tree branches – in the artist’s words, “like a walk through a forest in the snow at night”.  Passing various cubby-holes, you reach an open space with a big mirror-wall and pebbles underfoot.  You are at liberty to pick them up, handle them, drop them, run across them, jump up and down on them, and listen to them crunch.

In different circumstances, the installation would lend itself to quiet contemplation, particularly with its suggestions of Zen dry landscape gardens and teahouses.  A similar quality of stillness is apparent in the installation by Kengo Kuma (Japan): two darkened rooms housing intricate structures made from whittled bamboo sticks, infused with hinoki wood scent (first room) and tatami scent (second room).  Small lights set into the floor accentuate the visual rhythm of the undulating sticks, but really it is the extraordinary scent that predominates.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined
Royal Academy, London
25 January to 6 April 2014

Above: Installation by Li Xiaodong. Royal Academy, 2014.

Below: Installation by Kengo Kuma. Royal Academy, 2014.

pic kengo kuma