A small turtle sunbathed on a rock in the middle of the koi pond at Saratoga's Hakone Gardens on a recent Wednesday, his neck outstretched as if unable to get enough of the scented breeze, gently kissed by spring blossoms. Do turtles have noses?

Or perhaps he was absorbing the chattering sound of the waterfall, the buzz of happy bees and the snip, snip, snip of a gardener's shears. Do turtles have ears?

It's pleasant to ponder such questions without asking one's smartphone. Indeed, a visit to Hakone is not a time for crowdsourcing, but individual reflection, inspiration and perhaps the consideration of reptilian sensibilities.

Spring has brings blossoms and new foliage at Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, Calif. on Monday, March 10, 2014.
Spring has brings blossoms and new foliage at Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, Calif. on Monday, March 10, 2014. (Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group)

Hakone is one of the treasures of the South Bay. Seated on 18 acres of hillside just past the storybook village of Saratoga, Hakone is known as the oldest Japanese estate garden in the Western Hemisphere. It was established in 1915 to be an authentic replica of a samurai or shogun's estate, commissioned by San Francisco couple Oliver and Isabel Stine, who had been enchanted with Asian garden displays at the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exhibition.

During the mid-20th century, the gardens fell into disrepair, but they were rescued in the 1960s by a group of prominent Chinese families. Today, Hakone is owned by the city of Saratoga and administered by the Hakone Foundation.


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Upon arrival, purchase your entry token in the gift shop, plunk it into a slot and pass through a turnstile as your last nod to modern civilization. Then move through the main gate into the lush heart of tranquillity. Right now, bright green Japanese maple leaves flutter next to the palest of pink cherry blossoms that are clustered together like someone tied hundreds of popcorn balls to the branches. Bamboo trees shoot to the sky, a panda's perfect pantry. Wisteria dribbles over a pergola. Stone lanterns, viewing porches, tearooms and paths that weave through the beauty and up into the hillside greet visitors.

In a traditional Japanese garden, it's all about the harmonious positioning of plants, stones and water elements, blending for an intended purpose. The Hill and Pond Garden was created for strolling, with the pond set on the slope, allowing the waterfall to drop into the mini lake below. The Zen Garden is a dry garden primarily for meditation. It is not entered by visitors, merely observed as one contemplates the raked pattern of gravel.

Nestled among the gardens are several historic buildings. The Upper House, built in 1918, sits on the slope of the Moon Viewing Hill. The Lower House was constructed in 1922, blending traditional Japanese construction with the early California bungalow style. The Cultural Exchange Center was built in 1991 as an authentic reproduction of a 19th-century Kyoto tea merchant's house and shop.

Up high on the hill, I sat on a simple wood-plank bench, carefully placed for a view through two redwoods, down over the gardens and out to greater San Jose in the distance. I was there only an hour or so, but even that was enough to encourage deep breaths and pondering. I let the sun warm me, my neck outstretched, taking in the gentle fragrant breeze. I am at peace. I am the turtle.

Follow Angela Hill at Twitter.com/GiveEmHill.

If you go

Hakone Estate and Gardens, 21000 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; 408-741-4994, www.hakone.com.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends
Cost: $8 general admission, $6 for seniors and students with valid ID.
Children under 5 get in free.
Programs: Hakone offers several cultural programs for groups, such as a docent guided tour, tea ceremony, meditation session, and an origami and storytelling class for children. Special programs must be reserved at least two weeks in advance. See the website for details.
Nearby eats: Restaurants and shops abound in Saratoga's historic village. For sit-down fare, there's La Mere Michelle for French onion soup and creme brulee, www.lameremichelle.com. Or try the Big Basin Café for a chai mocha and a tasty sandwich, www.bigbasincafe.com.