The Kubota Mountain Side Garden

Kubota Garden is one of Seattle’s hidden gems. It is tucked away in the far southeast corner of Seattle, so it is not a spot you will find traveling Seattle’s main thoroughfares. It is well worth the drive or bus ride to enjoy this varied garden and its winding paths though.

The garden was originally the grounds of the Kubota Nursery. The gardens are filled with a variety of styles from Kubota’s native Japanese gardening to formal European gardens. Today, the City of Seattle owns the gardens and runs them as a park. It is an excellent place to explore a variety of garden styles, relax and get lost.

As mentioned, Kubota Garden is a bit off the beaten path in Seattle. The easiest way to get there is:

  • Driving, take the Martin Luther King (MLK) Exit on I-5
    • Follow the signs to MLK
    • When MLK takes a hard left turn continue straight onto Ryan Way
    • Take Ryan Way until you reach 51st Ave S
    • At 51st Ave S turn left
    • The garden parking lot is the first right turn on 51st Ave S
    • Note: If you go down MLK by accident you can turn right at Henderson St. and then take the second right onto Renton Ave to get to 51st Ave S.
  • Public Transit, take the light rail to the Rainer Beach Station
    • Get on the 106-bus headed to Renton from the train station
    • The bus stops at Kubota Garden a couple of miles after the Rainer Beach Station

Mountain Side Garden

This drawing is of the mountain side garden at Kubota. While most Seattleites would laugh at calling this hill a mountain the garden is meant to replicate the feel of a mountain and it does that wonderfully. It also brings an experience of mystery and transportation that is often missing in North American Gardens. All of which comes with a dash of history and a little sadness too.

Creating a Mountain from a Mole Hill

Fujitaro Kubota migrated to the United States from Japan and started a nursery on the site of Kubota Gardens in the 1920s. He brought with him the techniques and traditions of Japanese gardening as well as an extensive knowledge of horticulture. As a result, his nursery thrived providing plants and design services for Japanese and European style gardens.

In both Japanese and European gardens the recreation of natural environments was a common theme. Before the advent of fast and easy travel, people could rarely, if ever, travel to see great natural wonders. Gardeners would re-create the sense of these wonders for people in nearby gardens so they could have a partial experience of what it was like in these environments.

In the late 1920s, Kubota began building gardens on the site of his nursery as part hobby and part demonstration of his knowledge. For the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, he worked to recreate the experience of hiking up a mountain using this humble hill behind the nursery. From the approach to the hill pictured here we can see that it is hardly a mountain, but with some clever design it gives the sense of a grand hike.

Garden Illusions and Mysteries

An element that is sadly missing from North American gardens us a sense of mystery and wonder. North American gardens tend to be wide open and spacious, leaving little to the imagination. Kubota’s mountain side garden makes great use of illusions and mystery to take us on an experience.

The first illusion is the approach to the garden over this bridge. By giving us a full view of the garden from its base we get a sense of the hill towering over us. This gives a sense of height and scale to the experience we are about to have.

The next technique that Kubota used is to make the paths up the hill quite narrow and wind through dense hedges of Japanese holly. Two people can barely pass each other on these trails. This makes us feel that the trail is passing us by much faster than it really is and that the trail is taking much longer to complete.

This sense of the trail taking too long to walk is also accentuated by the tight switch backs up the hill. These make the path much longer than you might expect for the space. Plus the sense of a towering mountain that one gets from the approach primes you to believe that this trail will go on and on. Finally the hedges hide the paths from sight, leaving you to guess how much more trail is left.

Finally, there are regular overlooks and water features that cause one to pause as you walk up the hill. This in turn does delay one and make the walk longer. The end result is that one begins to lose sense of time on these small, winding trails buried in holly bushes and you begin to get the sense that perhaps you really have lost your way in the mountains.

A Sad Chapter for the Garden

With the outbreak of World War 2, the federal government detained Kubota and his family along with many other Japanese Americas. They had only days to close their nursery before being forced to leave by the federal government. They ended up at Camp Minidoka in Idaho and would remain there until the conclusion of the war in 1945.

Kubota was fortunate that a sympathetic family friend held his nursery in trust as he could not buy the land directly at the time as an Asian immigrant. When the federal government released the Kubotas, they could return to their nursery and rebuild. Millions of Japanese Americas were not so fortunate, losing farms and businesses that they were either forced to sell at steep discounts or the unscrupulous refused to release from their stewardship.

Kubota continued to build and maintain the gardens until his death in 1973. The City of Seattle acquired the gardens Seattle in 1987 and now maintains them as a park. Expansions and additions have been made to the garden in the years since the city acquired the gardens, but the space continues to retain the character that Kubota worked to imbue in the site.

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