Kuni’s Garden

(left) Kuni on the rockery in her garden-1929ca, (right) garden w/maple in October, 2018

A 1933 article about Kuni Mukai’s garden marvels at the miniature landscape she had created. Gardens designed by a Japanese woman are rare, on Vashon and in Japan. Without Kuni Mukai to describe how she designed her garden, we are left to the few historical records. And questions. Kuni’s father was a landscape artist, and from his work she may have experienced how classical Chinese and Japanese landscape art offer a glimpse and suggestion of a greater whole. Like Haiku, a Japanese garden is a miniature poem that evokes, hints, and leads one to the sense of connection with nature.

The Mukai’s tackled the garden in the expansive way they approached their life and business. The rocks they chose and placed each had a special role to play. That early article describes a half buried nine ton boulder. Kuni designed her garden around this glacial erratic left behind 10,000 years ago when the ice retreated. It forms the backbone of her small mountain. Other boulders are not native rock and come from east of the Cascades; basalt and volcanic rocks. Were they picked up on a return run after a strawberry shipment? Did the Mukai’s keep an eye out for special rocks on their delivery trips? Did friends bring rocks they had found, knowing the Mukai’s were on the lookout for rocks with special character? Are some rocks gifts from long passed friends?

Koi in pond and special bird stone, post war

Another classic element in Kuni’s garden is water. It had bubbled down the rock face of the mountain and into the ponds. The historical opinion was that these waterways were streams and at one time even a small canoe, a gift from Tribal friends, was tied into the reeds. But Kuni had lined rocks along the edge of the ponds, which in classical design suggests boats. Did Kuni, as she left Japan as a mail order bride, watch her home islands grow smaller as fishing boats streamed around her departing ship? Knowing that she would never return to Japan, had she created an image she could see from her window; the small boats moving over the water with the islands looming? Had B.D. Mukai supported his wife’s garden to ease their longing and savor memories of the home they had left?

They shared their garden’s unique beauty designed to bring the mountains, streams, and perhaps the sea into miniature relief, with neighbors and friends. Kuni hosted tea parties for spring cherry blossom viewing, and the garden was featured in postcards and visitor’s photos. When the Mukai’s created their garden, the landscape of Vashon was raw. The ancient firs, hemlocks, and cedars had been logged. The Mukai home was surrounded by open fields. In that bare landscape Kuni’s garden would have offered an echo of the mountains and streams that surrounded Vashon.

It is a feat that her garden has survived and is being revived more than 80 years after the first rocks and plants were placed. The recent renovation of the ponds surrounding the small mountain was carefully planned and completed this year. A meticulous restoration crew from Turnstone Construction under the careful direction of landscape architects, Karen Kiest and Bob Horsely, were committed to bringing the landscape artistry back to life. Their work will reconnect us with the past and with this small garden, bring us closer to that sense of home lost, a new home created and shared.

Kuni with north garden, 1950ca

The 1933 article closes with a mention that the artist and designer, Kuni Mukai did not appear when there were visitors, perhaps letting them take from the garden their own experience and memories. That, “like a bird song from an unseen bird the garden may be enjoyed for the garden’s sake.”

Come enjoy the garden and its renovation. Follow our future efforts and background on how to restore historical gardens and our talented designer’s work in future articles.