Reading Spirited Stone brings back memories of many visits to Kubota Garden.

I remember my first visit to Kubota Garden. I was looking for a place to spend a beautiful day outside with my family. I was very happy to find a free Seattle park named Kubota Garden. A garden stroll was a perfect choice. I knew very little about the place, only that it was once owned by the Kubota family, and now it is a public park in Seattle for all to enjoy. The fact that it was free felt like a welcoming gesture to me.

Once we arrived, I immediately sensed that it was not a traditional Japanese garden. There was something wild, personal, spontaneous, and informal about it. Kubota Garden has always felt welcoming and generous in many ways. One can choose to wander on many paths. Lie down on the grass. Sit on a rock. Have a conversation. It’s unlike being in a traditional Japanese garden, which can feel more like a temple or a church, where a sense of quiet reverence is expected.

A visitor enjoys a stroll through Kubota Garden. Courtesy photo.

The book Spirited Stone fills in the stories that reinforce my impressions. We are so lucky in Seattle to have this unique public space. And the more we know about it, the more unlikely that it still exists for all. “It was a garden built in many ways for the excluded, by the excluded, using the only techniques and materials that were available.”

It was built by an immigrant, Fujitaro Kubota, who couldn’t even own the land the garden sat on. And solely because of his Japanese heritage, he and his family were uprooted and sent to Minidoka prison camp during World War II. How fortunate that the land was not taken away from him during the war and Kubota was able to come back to it and rebuild the garden. That the garden has survived overwhelming odds of gentrification. That it continues to be nurtured and valued.

The publisher provides this summary of Spirited Stone: “Novelists, poets, scholars, and garden enthusiasts examine the legacy of…Fujitaro Kubota, whose unique gardens transformed Seattle’s landscape in the 20th century. Kubota immigrated to the U.S. in the early 20th century, worked as a nurseryman, and eventually bought 20 acres of clear-cut forest in southern Seattle that he shaped into a beautiful and enduring Japanese garden. Today, the public garden serves one of Washington’s most diverse zip codes. Kubota also created a memorable garden in the Minidoka prison camp while he was incarcerated there during World War II… To Kubota, everything has spirit. Rocks and stones pulsed with life, he said… Essayists include National Book award winner Charles Johnson and New York Times best-selling author Jamie Ford… Photographs by Gemina Garland-Lewis. Nathan Wirth, and the Kubota Garden Foundation are interwoven with original poetry by Samuel Green, Claudia Castro-Luna, and others to make this a unique book where every page presents a different view of Kubota’s garden.” Charles Johnson says in the Foreword’s first sentence, “Kubota Garden is a magnificent work of art.” I think anyone who’s visited the garden would agree. So in a way, any book about it can only succeed if it is also a piece of art.

Spirited Stone is beautifully designed. I love the spaciousness of the margins. I love the many and varied photographs: close-ups of plants and stones, formal art portraits of the garden, snapshots at the garden showing the diversity of people enjoying it, and historical photos of the Kubotas in their garden or at work, and at Minidoka. The photos also mimic the many visual delights of Kubota Garden such as panoramic vistas, small vignettes, hidden views, and micro scenes. The garden invites us to wander and get lost in it, in a good way. There are lots of views and places to spend time to enjoy. It invites us back season after season, to choose our paths. The place is not just an “Instagram” destination, with an iconic view frozen in time and place.

The book will appeal to many fans, whether a garden enthusiast, lover of local history, ethnic history, photography, or poetry. There are many gems to discover, such as Shin Yu Pai’s poem “ashide no yu (Garden Poem).”

The book is divided into four sections: PLACE, SPIRIT, EXILE, and GROWTH. PLACE is not only about the actual garden, but also about Fujitaro Kubota’s place in Northwest garden history. It’s about Kubota Garden’s unique functions in the immigrant community, and in the very diverse Rainier Beach neighborhood.

SPIRIT is about the Japanese, Shinto, and personal spirit that the Kubotas brought to creating their garden and other gardens in the city, especially their use of stone, and an appreciation of the garden as a spirit imbued place.

EXILE is about the Minidoka years, about the healing work Kubota did in the concentration camp using gardening projects. It also features a first person narrative from the garden’s point of view, and how the garden can be a place of shared experience for Minidoka survivors and other exiles.

GROWTH is about the ever changing, ever evolving garden. And its caretakers, the Kubotas, Fujitaro, son Tom, and Seattle Park’s lead gardener Don Brooks to continue the vision of the garden that was never about holding it still like a museum artifact.

I fully enjoyed the mix of essays, photos, scholarly essays, fictional imagining, and poems. We’ll have a chance this month to meet some of the writers, poets, and photographers of the book. 

Wing Luke Museum is hosting a live online Book-O-Rama for Spirited Stone on Saturday, November 7, 2-3PM. To find out more, go to http://www.wingluke.org/single-exhibit/?mep_event=3432    

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