Zen living in Oakland

The Rev. Gengo Akiba and Yoshie Akiba's garden includes a koi pond. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

The Rev. Gengo Akiba and Yoshie Akiba’s garden includes a koi pond. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

OAKLAND, Calif. — Aside from running the renown jazz club and Japanese restaurant Yoshi’s in Oakland, Calif., the club’s owners and former married couple Yoshie Akiba and Kaz Kajimura share a uniquely Japanese home in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland.

The home, built in the early 1960s next to a great brick Catholic priory, features several hallmarks of traditional Japanese homes — wooden beams, narrow hallways, rooms floored with tatami and a Japanese garden with a koi pond — and serves as a quiet place of contemplation for local neighbors.

Purchased in 1988 through an auction, Akiba and her husband, the Rev. Gengo Akiba, added a detached Zen meditation hall on the property in 1994. The property has since been recognized as an official Soto Zen temple called the “Kojin-An,” the “good people’s gathering place.”

The Akibas, Kaz Kajimura and his wife and a Zen Buddhist disciple share the large two-story house, but they were not the original tenants. Designed by Noboru Nakamura, an Issei architect, the home was built for Walt Edmund and his wife. According to Nakamura, who is now 90 years old and living in Orinda, Calif., the Edmunds asked him to design a Japanese-style home.

“My mother’s side of the family were all in building and architecture,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

DISTINCTIVE FEATURES — An oak tree continues to grow within the inner courtyard of the Rev. Gengo Akiba and Yoshie Akiba's Oakland, Calif. home. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

DISTINCTIVE FEATURES — An oak tree continues to grow within the inner courtyard of the Rev. Gengo Akiba and Yoshie Akiba’s Oakland, Calif. home. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Nakamura said his uncle was a master builder in Japan. After serving in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II, Nakamura went to the University of California Berkeley to become a draftsman. Nakamura said he did not work on many homes and the Oakland property was the only Japanese-styled home he helped design.

“Mr. Edmund was in the military and the couple loved Japanese culture,” Akiba said. Walt Edmund passed away but his wife continued to live at their home through the 1980s. Akiba said she befriended the widow while taking a walk through the neighborhood. “She would often invite us in for tea.”

While Akiba said Edmund wished that someone like the Akibas would live in the home, nothing was promised. After Edmund’s death, the house was put up for auction in 1988 and the Akibas entered a bidding war with an Italian entrepreneur who wanted to build an apartment building on the large plot of land.

“Just when we thought we would have to step down, (the entrepreneur) decided to step down instead,” Akiba said. “I guess it was fated to be.”
Luck played a significant role in several aspects of the house. In addition to the auction, the home also avoided structural damage. An oak tree nestled within the interior garden of the home threatened a support beam if it grew too crooked. “If this tree didn’t grow straight up, we would have to cut it down,” she said. “We prayed everyday, ‘please don’t grow crooked.’” More than 20 years later, the tree towers over the house, but has yet to hit the support beam.

The house also survived the 1991 Oakland firestorm, which burnt much of the Berkeley Hills. “I remember opening the door here and spraying the house down with water,” Gengo Akiba said. “The mountains were on fire and the smoke and soot was really bad … They were even saying the church next door was in danger.” He said the house was saved thanks to a shift in the winds before the flames made it any closer to her neighborhood.


The tea room at the Rev. Gengo Akiba and Yoshie Akiba’s Oakland, Calif. home. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

While much of the original house stayed unchanged, the Akibas have made several notable changes to the property. They added a second floor to the building where the Kajimuras live as well as the Japanese tea room. The biggest addition, however, is probably the detached zendo (meditation hall).

Akiba said her husband studied to become a Soto Zen Buddhist priest in Japan and had come to the San Francisco Zen Center to teach. He helped officially open the Kojin-An, which started in an attic of a private home on Claremont Avenue in Oakland in the late 1980s. After they married and purchased their current home, Gengo Akiba went to Japan to solicit donations to build the new zendo.

Kajimura told the Nichi Bei Weekly he takes care of the Japanese garden. “We kept the original feel of the garden when we built the zendo, but we redid the pond, added the waterfall and put in the white pebbles then,” he said in Japanese.

While the Kojin-An includes Akiba’s private residence, she said she wants to share it with those living in her neighborhood. Five to six calligraphy students gather in the spacious study each Saturday to practice under Yoko Muroga, Gengo Akiba’s calligraphy teacher. Yoshie Akiba teaches the Omotesenke school of tea to about 20 students throughout the week and the Akibas hold morning meditation services for an average of five or so neighbors six days a week.

Yoshie Akiba said the house and the lessons she teaches all stem from Zen Buddhism. She explained the tea ceremony, flower arrangement and other Japanese traditional arts descend from Zen Buddhism. “I really love Japanese culture and art — wa-kei-sei-jaku (harmony, respect, purity and tranquility),” she said. “I hear it’s important to have that in this country and that’s perhaps why I open my house for people, to help them realize that.”

To schedule a visit to the Kojin-An, visit http://oaklandzencenter.org.

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