HAYWARD’S JAPANESE GARDENS: The best secret place that’s for everyone

A HIDDEN GEM IN THE EAST BAY ­— The Hayward Japanese Gardens, nestled in a residential area near downtown Hayward, Calif., provides a peaceful escape for visitors. Designed more than 40 years ago by the late Kimio Kimura, the 1.2-acre garden features a mix of Japanese and California trees, a koi pond and pavilions. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

If you know, you know: Tucked away in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Hayward, Calif. is a stunning Japanese garden. It’s not a secret place, but walking in, it feels like you have stumbled upon a great one. 

The garden is a quiet haven, so quiet that you can hear your footsteps, and is a place truly designed for a leisurely walk. The grounds take up only just over one acre of land, but with its winding paths and multiple pavilions, the garden feels much larger and invites a wide range of people to come use and enjoy its space. As you explore, you might see families with toddlers running the path and exploring koi, seniors taking a leisurely stroll, or young adults posing for quinceañera (a traditional celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday that Latin American cultures observe) and wedding photos. 

The garden’s design is both traditional and unique at the same time, blending Japanese gardening principles with the local Californian trees and shrubs that were there long before the Japanese garden. Given the blend of Japanese and native Californian plantings, one could argue that this would more accurately be described as a Japanese-American garden. 

Designed and primarily constructed by late landscape designer Kimio Kimura, the garden uses 800 tons of stone and 4,500 plantings layered against each other to create the illusion of endless views no matter where you look. The result is a peaceful, timeless enclave that completely hides the surrounding city. 

Kimura also constructed, painstakingly by hand, the multiple pavilions and bridges that are in the garden, using blowtorches to give the wood an aged look as opposed to staining, and deliberately building bridges with slight angles built in, allowing people to continue a meandering path even while crossing. 

Formerly part of the old Hayward Union High School, the space where the Japanese Gardens originally was a run-down botanical garden (Botany Grounds) that hadn’t been maintained for years. Making the garden into what it is today was a true community effort, with particular support and contributions made by the local Japanese American community. 

Robert Sakai, a key figure in developing the initial park concept and whose family used to own a local nursery, shared about the many efforts undertaken to galvanize local leaders and fundraise for the Japanese Garden. “Local (JA) nurseries donated plants and money to make the garden possible, along with personal donations of plantings. Many of these names are part of the JA community. At that time, Hayward had many nurseries owned by our community, some started even before the war.” 

Robert Sakai (L) and former Hayward Area Recreation District Superintendent Wesley Sakamoto reflect upon the garden’s early beginnings at one of the pavilions. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

Wesley Sakamoto, former superintendent of the Hayward Area Recreation District when the garden was being constructed, found and recommended Kimura to design the Japanese Garden. “Kimio even went so far as to personally go to people’s yards to dig up and replant trees that people wanted to give and donate to the garden.” 

Even the koi that swim in the ponds were donated by Kinji Shibuya, a local celebrity, professional wrestler and actor, who also happened to be a koi enthusiast. 

The beauty of this garden is not only found in its intentional design aesthetic, timeless views and immaculate upkeep, but in its physical manifestation of the Japanese American community’s efforts. While many of the original nurseries who donated are no longer in business, their contributions remain today, flourishing in this garden. The space is a true gift for the community, designed for everyone who discovers it to enjoy. 

The Hayward Japanese Gardens are open every day of the year except for Christmas day, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 22372 N. Third St. in Hayward, Calif. For more information,  call (510) 881-6700 or visit https://www.haywardrec.org/Facilities/Facility/Details/Japanese-Gardens-100. 

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