Everyone knows about Rainier Beach’s not-so-secret garden.
Kubota Garden is a rare, historic gem — a public, 20-acre, Japanese-style garden that has been admission-free since residents lobbied the city to purchase the garden in 1987. Over nearly 100 years, it has become a haven for reflection, koi-spotting, bird-watching and dog-walking, as well as a prime-time location for wedding, quinceañera and graduation photos. Today, the garden attracts more than 100,000 annual visitors.
But this nursery-turned-public-garden has its challenges. With the park’s outsized reputation, visitation is growing faster than the space and staff can handle in order to keep South Seattle’s verdant crown jewel shining.
In this hilly refuge off Renton Avenue South, koi wriggle under the garden’s red Moon and Heart bridges; gravel paths spiral past waterfalls, through woodland trails and a mountaintop overlook, all adorned with botanical wonders chosen by the garden’s creator, Fujitaro Kubota, a first-generation Japanese American immigrant.
Here’s how the neighborhood’s green gathering space came to be — and what’s new and still-to-come at a changing Kubota Garden, more popular than ever, including upgrades that visitors can expect this year.
Rainier Beach roots
Self-taught Fujitaro Kubota helped bring Japanese-style garden design to the Northwest.
Starting with 5 acres of swampland, Kubota built a nursery/design business on the grounds in 1927, clearing and shaping the land. During World War II, he and his family were forcibly incarcerated for four years at Minidoka in Idaho. After re-establishing the business postwar, Kubota designed gardens at Seattle University and Bainbridge Island’s Bloedel Reserve. In 1973, Japan honored Kubota with the Order of the Sacred Treasure for raising the international profile of Japanese gardening.
It was always a family business; Kubota expanded his namesake garden with the help of his sons, Tak and Tom, and his grandson, Al, continues Kubota Gardens Landscaping in Renton.
The garden’s taproot reaches deep into the heart of the Rainier Beach community. In the early 1980s, the Kubotas decided to sell the property, and a 268-unit apartment building was approved despite city landmark status. Neighbors, gardeners, clients and the Japanese American community banded together to save it from bulldozers — and in 1987, the city bought the garden.
“In the early ’80s, the family considered selling to developers,” said Joy Okazaki, Kubota Garden Foundation president, “but ultimately the community pushed the city to figure out a way to buy the garden.”
Okazaki, who grew up in Rainier Beach, used to sneak into the garden with friends decades ago, before it was public. She once attended a city planning meeting on determining the garden’s fate while home from college. Today, she is volunteer president of Kubota Garden Foundation, which manages events and fundraising at the garden, while Seattle Parks and Recreation maintains the grounds.
“The people that advocated for the purchase of the property were largely from the community — some were in the design field or had worked with the Kubotas, but largely they were voices from Rainier Beach community clubs,” Okazaki said. “And when we started the Foundation, they were our first members.”
The secret is out
A spot like this doesn’t go unnoticed for long.
The design of Kubota Garden blends traditional Japanese aesthetics and plants with native Northwest flora to create a hybrid of unique beauty and character. The core 4.5-acre display area is both a city landmark and National Historic Landmark, while the garden’s mountainside rises 65 feet and is studded with 400 tons of hand-placed stone. Look for a 90-year-old Tanyosho pine, a 35-foot tunnel of weeping Blue Atlas Cedar, a mature golden larch, a 200-year-old fir tree and a veritable arboretum of Japanese maples.
Popular year-round, the garden’s special draws include rhododendrons blooming in May and the fireworks of Japanese maples in October, attracting visitors from around the world.
The growth of the garden’s popularity may be unsustainable.
Some 115,000 visitors admired Kubota Garden in 2022, more than double the number tallied in 2014, the first year the Foundation counted. Visitation is predicted to reach 200,000 by 2026, according to a city of Seattle Master Plan updated in 2019. Yet the parking lot only holds 35 cars; there are no plumbed restrooms, only portable toilets; and the staff consists of a handful of gardener positions and roughly 200 volunteers, Okazaki said.
The Foundation has worked with the city to increase access to the garden, exemplified by the Metro Flex shuttle ferrying visitors from the nearby Rainier Beach Link light-rail station to the garden. And Okazaki is grateful to be one of few gardens with a freeway sign on Interstate 5 enticing visitors.
But popularity brings added pressure to the garden.
By comparison, the 3.5-acre Japanese Garden at the Washington Park Arboretum is about one-sixth Kubota’s size. The University of Washington-managed garden charges admission and is closed once a week for maintenance. For Kubota staff, it’s a constant balance of needs versus resources.
“More feet means more wear and tear on the turf and trails,” said senior gardener Giles Morrish. “We are open every day of the year, so that’s hard. Every day we’re using either a miniature dump truck or backhoe and working around visitors. That’s a safety issue every day, and some people aren’t happy about having equipment there.”
There are random destructive events, too, like car break-ins and night parties. Much of Morrish’s time is taken up with administrative work, calling for tough choices. The garden boasts more than 100 Japanese black pines, for example, typically pruned twice yearly. But Moorish, hands full, said he’s happy to finish pruning one-third of them once a year.
Changes coming to Kubota
To ease these challenges, the 2019 Master Plan update called for an expanded parking lot, double the current garden staff, restrooms, directional signage, stormwater management to protect adjacent Mapes Creek — at one point, so much silt collected in one pond, you could walk across the grass growing in it — and a visitor center.
Since the update was published, an open picnic area has been added as part of a planned gathering plaza, and a new, on-site nursery now supplies plants for the garden, as well as for Seattle Parks and the Green Seattle Partnership.
Still to come: Two gender-neutral restrooms and a new ADA-accessible path from the plaza to the terrace overlook are expected to be completed by June. The new parking lot is designed, but it needs funding for construction.
An $800,000 Neighborhood Street Fund Grant is funding traffic and stormwater improvements on 55th Avenue South, near the garden’s entrance. A sidewalk installation is planned on 55th, as well as flashing lights to help pedestrians cross Renton Avenue South. These will be coordinated with the parking lot expansion, to be started this year and slated to conclude in 2024.
Remaining admission-free is one of the garden’s greatest strengths and challenges, Okazaki said. But it’s key to keeping the garden accessible to all, especially the neighborhood residents.
“To the extent we are able, we’d love for the garden to be free forever,” she said. “We are working very hard to provide free events, access and programs. I think someday the garden will probably close [earlier] at night. The risk to the garden is pretty high. We hope we can do that without having to add an admission charge.”
To many in Rainier Beach, and around Seattle, Kubota Garden is priceless.
“It’s a place of reflection and history — it connects with so many different people of all cultures; those are the things that make it stand out,” Okazaki continued. “We have soapstone carving, Butoh dance performances, summer jazz concerts, Taiko drumming, things that use the garden as a stage. But most people are coming because it’s a special place.”
Okazaki sees people embracing their own ways to enjoy the garden — in full traditional dress for an African wedding or a quinceañera celebration, or quietly meditating in the grove of Sawara cypress, aka the Fera Fera grove.
While Okazaki and staff are excited to plan for the garden’s 100th anniversary, in 2027, the Kubota Garden Foundation president knows there is more to do to keep the garden thriving into the next century.
“People are still discovering the garden,” she said, noting that a study showed 50% of visitors are first-timers. Okazaki wants to introduce young people to the park and enlist their support to keep Kubota Garden a free resource.
“If I can get people to come to the garden, the rest is easy,” Okazaki said. “The garden sells itself nine times out of 10. People will say after they’ve gone through, ‘How can I help?’”