It is, it seems, a kind of spiritual axiom: Often, at least, the holy, the sacred, or grace show up in the least likely, the most unexpected places, people, and experiences. God, a friend likes to say, “has a preferential option for the unlikely,” meaning the small, overlooked, and unprepossessing.
Few would pick the far reaches of Rainier Valley in southeast Seattle as a likely location for what may be Seattle’s loveliest park. Few would imagine this diverse, hardly upscale area is home to a park of unusual beauty and spiritual power. But there it is, a hidden treasure, with nearby noisy highways, busy freeways, buzzing power lines and the main flight path into Sea-Tac.
It is Kubota Garden, a few blocks from the gritty urban scene of Rainier Avenue and amid the low prestige environs of south Seattle.
At anytime of the year the Kubota gardens are lovely, but especially now, in the autumn season. The graveled pathways are dusted with red and gold maple leaves. The robins, finches, and pine siskins compete for the dark purple berries on the laurel. As you cross the moon bridge or stand near the mountainside waterfall, the water reflects the brilliant shades of autumn leaves and sky.
Kubota Garden is now a Seattle Parks and Recreation Park, but it didn’t start out that way. It was unlikely from the beginning.
In 1927 an immigrant from Japan’s Shikoku Island, Fujitaro Kubota, bought five acres of recently logged swampland. Even then, however, Kubota was not the official owner. He couldn’t be —it was against state law for immigrants from Japan to own or lease property. It was not until 1966 that state law was changed and Kubota became the legal owner.
But who owns dreams anyhow? And Kubota Garden was Fujitaro Kubota’s dream, one he and his family labored at for decades, creating a garden which combines distinctively Northwest plantings with Japanese features and sensivity.
Another bit of unlikeliness: Kubota had no background or training in gardening. His first jobs in the states were in a sawmill and managing property in the International District. But he learned gardening as he went. He not only created these gardens but established the successful Kubota Gardening Company. Kubota Gardening did the landscaping at Seattle University and at Bainbridge’s Bloedel Reserve, as well as many private homes.
Over time Kubota acquired additional plots and the property grew from the original five acres to 20. He favored mature trees and shrubs to attain a more finished look. He also brought in more than 400 tons of stone to create streams, waterfalls, and reflection pools.
During the Second World War the Kubota family was forced from their property and sent to an internment camp, Camp Minidoka in Idaho. For four years the gardens were neglected. Neglected but not lost. On his return Kubota, along with his sons, Tom and Tak, started over.
The gardens were threatened yet again in the late 1970s and early 80s. Developers had the gardens in their sights and a city permit in hand. They planned a 268-unit housing complex on the land. But family and friends, neighbors, and clients, and those who had grown to love the Gardens appealed to the city. Seattle declared the Kubota Garden an historic landmark in 1981.
In 1987 the city acquired the property from the Kubota family. Today the gardens are jointly managed by Seattle Parks and Rec and the Kubota Foundation. And they appear to be doing a great job. There is new and dramatic entrance way. The gardens are well kept and massive new rock pieces are being added.
These days, it's the perfect place for an autumn walk.
As you walk, ponder the paradox or the many paradoxes of Kubota Garden. The creation of an immigrant barred from owning land. Rescued from developers who were confident the land would be theirs. And the greatest paradox: finding this beautiful, peaceful oasis of the spirit where you might least expect it.
If you go: Kubota Garden park is at 9600 Renton Ave. S. Directions from Kubota.org are here.