Kubota Garden, in southern Seattle, is one of the most beautiful gardens I've spent an afternoon in, despite not having the beautiful and colorful displays of flowers that abound in most gardens.
It is also the least didactic garden I've ever visited. Most gardens are eager to help you know the names and qualities of what you're seeing, sometimes even a little too helpful. I don't really resent that; I'm usually ready to listen and learn. But Kubota, it seemed to me, wanted me to learn, but not to teach me. It would tell me nothing, and I would come to understand everything.
I hope that's not too over-the-top philosophical. True, as I was leaving the garden I found a small pamphlet explaining the names and histories of different parts of the garden—but even then, I was on my own to discover. The only signs I saw in an hour-and-a-half of wandering were near the end and said, simply, "EXIT."
So, as I entered the garden through its arch, I had nothing to stop me from wandering down paths that ranged from narrow but not overgrown to paved and wide enough for maintenance vehicles. Some connected back to ones I had left; others did not.
But all of them were lined with green, in almost all the shades green comes in. There were large leaves and small and evergreen needles, contrasting with each other. But each time I began thinking in terms like "symphony in green," I'd turn a corner and find a small cluster of brightly colored flowers.
As is usual for me, I didn't know their names; I only knew their delicacy, intricacy, in some cases fervor. I was reminded again and again that nature varies to much that nearly anything I could say about it was true, and a lie, or at least an understatement as well. Green is not just green; but as much as the other colors interrupted the green they were also part of it, or contrasting enough to remind the green to be green.
When I first heard about Kubota and its history as an "American Japanese Garden," I expected more formality, more conscious placement of various types of plants, more placement of man-made objects within the model of nature. And it is a carefully planned and planted garden: Just too subtle for easy categories.
The garden has an unusual history; it started as a one-man project, and remained so for many years. Fujitaro Kubota emigrated to the U.S. in 1907, age 28, and went to work as a railroad laborer. By 1922, he had learned gardening and started a landscape and later landscape design company. He bought the first five acres of the garden in 1927 when it was basically swampland.
In the beginning, he did all the work himself, eventually aided by two sons, Tak and Tom. Within three years, he added another 25 acres and used it as home, office and nursery for his landscape business, while also creating garden features that made it a center for the local Japanese-American community.
The Kubota family, like thousands of other families of Japanese ancestry, was interned in camps during the war, in their case in Idaho. One son left the camp to join the army, while the other worked as an army interpreter. And Fujitaro Kubota carried on his trade by creating a community garden in Idaho.
After the war, Kubota and his two sons rebuilt the business and extended the garden's features; after his death in 1973, Tom Kubota continued working on the garden until his death in 2004. The city declared the core of the garden a landmark in 1981, and bought the garden from the Kubota family in 1987. It's now maintained by the city Parks Department and volunteers from the Kubota Garden Foundation.
I was fortunate enough to be guided to Kubota by my Seattle Airbnb host; it, and the Airbnb, are located in very south Seattle, away from the central core and most other attractions. It is not as well-known as it should be, which some might argue is a good thing. It's definitely a car trip; 15 or 20 minutes from the Space Needle but an hour using two buses and a significant walk.
Kubota Garden admission is free; the garden is open from 6 am to 10 pm every day; there's a comfort station, but no gift shop of other visible facilities. Just a great place to spend anywhere from hours to minutes, with everything to see and enjoy, and nothing more required.