Inspired by houses they had seen on extended trips to the islands, in 2008 the couple decided to level the 950-square-foot College Terrace cottage they had lived in for more than three decades and replace it with a Japanese-inspired dwelling, complete with a black tile roof, carved wooden trim and sliding-door cabinets for storing mats.
Set on completing their new home with an authentic garden, the Willises turned to Jack Tomlinson, who tended Hakone Gardens in Saratoga for 33 years. "We really wanted to get as close to Japan as we could," Lou Ellen said.
Tomlinson, newly retired and "bored stiff," said he was happy to spend six months designing and planting a 1,200-square-foot garden based on time-honored Japanese principles.
The back yard is a traditional tea-ceremony arrangement, where guests can wash hands in a basin before imbibing (the Willises transformed their detached garage into a teahouse, which they someday hope will live up to its name).
During the year since the Willises and Tomlinson toasted the garden's completion with sake, it has changed with the seasons. Cherry blossoms and pink azaleas blossomed in springtime, while red lace-leaf maples and a persimmon tree will yield fall foliage. Most of the garden's traditional Japanese plants came from local nurseries and do well in Northern California's climate, Tomlinson said.
He began the arrangement by placing heavy stones — "the bones of your garden" — with a small tractor. "Japanese gardens are very architectural," explained Tomlinson, who studied gardening in Kyoto. "Even though the ephemeral things like trees will change throughout the year, there's a basic structure."
Placement is paramount in Japanese horticulture, which aims to create a living picture to view from the house. Elements of the garden serve as mental props: Vertical stones summon distant mountains, white gravel evokes a moonlit stream and a stone lantern suggests a goose climbing ashore. "Just the suggestion is enough to get your mind leaping," Tomlinson said.
Unlike many Western gardens, which are oriented toward the street or active use, Japanese gardens are private and passive. "You can't really play croquet out here. It's more for enjoying nature, experiencing the seasons and having a landscape from your house," Tomlinson said.
The garden also accommodates moon-viewing, a popular event in Japan. When the moon is full, "the gravel turns this light, light blue ... and the moonlight casts shadows of trees on the white wall," Tomlinson said.
The garden is a place of refuge, Lou Ellen finds. "You can escape from the outside world. It's very nice, because my mind is always going too fast," she said.
Maintenance is also low-stress. Gravel helps with drainage, and there is no grass to mow. The garden does not come to the edge of the house to improve cleanliness and avoid stray roots. The only challenges are warding off the neighborhood mole and "training" trees into shape using ropes and bonsai pruning methods.
From their front porch, the Willises take in velvety irises, camellia hedges and copper rain chains (Lou Ellen compared the sound to "a thousand birds chirping."). Stepping-stones lead through moss to a faux well; it provides the crucial water element that suggests lushness, prosperity and coolness during hot summers. An antique lantern that literally weighs a ton adds a sparing human touch (a certified stone-setter assembled the pieces).
Acquired from a warehouse in Piedmont, the lantern was one of dozens of Japanese artifacts that the Willises had collected over decades. "We had all this stuff stacked in the back yard of our old house, and people said, 'What's that pile of rocks?' We said, 'Wait,'" recalled David, a design engineer.
Today, collectibles such as prints, vases and tansus, cabinets of indigenous Japanese wood, are at home in the Willeses' one-story house, designed by Mountain View architect Henry Wood.
Lou Ellen, who teaches nursing at San Jose State University, introduced her husband to Japanese culture. She inherited the interest from her father, who served in the Pacific during World War II. "I'm sort of a percent Japanese," she joked.
An interest in things Japanese has pervaded California for more than a century and still runs strong, Tomlinson said. But few people reconstruct truly authentic spaces.
The Willis home has become a neighborhood landmark. "People ... stop their car in the middle of the street," Lou Ellen said.
Despite its Japanese roots, the house has a Palo-Alto accent. The kitchen is modern and spacious, and traditional cabinets store curios instead of dishes. The Willeses may be sticklers for authenticity, but they will not make you take off your shoes.
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Architect: Henry Wood, Mountain View, 650-961-1926, www.woodarchitect.com
Landscape designer: Jack Tomlinson, 408-379-6486, email@example.com
Goal of project:
Build a Japanese-inspired house and traditional garden
Unexpected problems/hidden costs:
Custom-built features inflate cost by 10-15 percent, relative to size
Year house built:
2,000 sq ft (house), 1,200 sq ft (garden)
Time to complete:
12 months (house), 6 months (garden)
$30-40,000 for garden, including antique lantern