by Karl Bareis
In January 2023, the central entry gate at Hakone Gardens was refurbished with the help of a grant from Santa Clara County. The gate is registered as a historic building and is listed on the National Register of historic buildings.
The original 1937 gate was designed and constructed by Shinzaburo Nishiura, with his brother Gentaro carving the ornate ornamental elements which make this gate an important cultural property.
Soon after the Gate was completed in 1938, the Pacific War broke out and the brothers, along with 120,000, other Japanese Americans were interned. The Nishiura brothers built more than 30 homes, gardens, and temples during their long careers in the Santa Clara Valley.
From Forest to Finish
By the time the gate was commissioned, the garden was already in place, and the Moon Viewing house was situated above the pond as it is today. Those early buildings were all built with local redwood. By the 1930’s much of the remaining redwood forests in the area had been set aside as State Parks. Impressed with the durability of redwood, Shinzaburo set out to find a suitable redwood log to use for the large Shoin-style gate.
His search eventually took him to Mill Valley in Marin County where he met the owner of a small mill who understood quality and grain density and could saw the huge-diameter logs needed to create the central cross beams and massive posts needed for the gate. A single log was selected. By carefully inspecting the grain, Shinzaburo worked with the sawyer to quarter-saw the pieces he needed. Some of the boards created in Mill Valley were 24” wide. The grain patterns of the ancient redwood are still preserved. By looking at the cross section of the largest timbers we can surmise that the tree was at least 800 years old.
Carpentry Then and Now
When the Nishiura carpenters arrived in America they carried with them tools and techniques which had been used for centuries in Japan. The steel they carried as knives and blades were hand-forged laminated steel. The same techniques used by sword-smiths were used to laminate super-hard high carbon steel with softer more malleable iron to make tools which could hold a sharp edge.
Together with tools the brothers carried books, handed-down for generations, that described the secrets of ‘kiwari’ ⽊木割 proportions which remain the basis of Japanese building systems.
Understanding the principles of proportions ⽊木割 allowed the carpenters of old to break down the elements of a building into structural units. Carpenters in Japan built scale models of each important building before cutting the first tree. The model is also used in creating miniature household shrines and Buddhist altars.
Household Shrine 神棚
Kamidana 神棚 – the household shrine is found in every traditional home. It is situated where each individual knows the spirit of the “place” resides. Comfort is given to family members by starting their day placing offerings from the earth and sea: water, salt and rice, as well as vegetables from the family garden before the “kami” guardian of the home.
The small kami shrine in the exhibit is one built to be used in Santa Clara County. It was built with tight-grained “cut-off” wood, which normally would be placed in the scrap piles, but in the Nishiura household they were put to use as scaled-down versions of village shrines, honoring the myriad sprit guardians which protect the people.