Real Estate

Japanese roots

College Terrace couple recreates traditional garden with help from former Hakone curator

When Japanophiles David and Lou Ellen Willis bought a woodblock print of Kyoto rooftops some 35 years ago, they did not expect to someday have one just like it -- and an authentic garden to match.

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.


Architect: Henry Wood, Mountain View, 650-961-1926,

Landscape designer: Jack Tomlinson, 408-379-6486,

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

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Like this comment
Posted by just curious
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 13, 2010 at 10:24 am

Anyone know if there were any Japanese-Americans living in Palo Alto before WW2? Were they imprisoned during the war? Were they allowed to return to Palo Alto after war? This story just got me thinking about local history.

Like this comment
Posted by Mitra
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 15, 2010 at 11:08 am

We are so lucky to have the Willis' Japanese House right in front of us. It truly is a peace-rendering living art. From our living room window, we can just watch it change with the time of the day or year as shadows or light play on it. It's a marvel to have aesthetics like this treasure brought into our lives daily.

Like this comment
Posted by Michelle Hillekamp
a resident of another community
on Jul 16, 2010 at 11:00 am

Hakone Garden is a jewel in Saratoga. I met Jack Tomlinson in 1980 when he first took over the garden. My sister was visiting from Germany and right away I took her to Hakone. She became the first volunteer and returned every year to work there. I know this was a time for healing for her as she was a World War Two surviver. The garden brought her back to herself again. Thank you, Jack. Hakone is your creation. May it continue to be a place of healing for all those who come to visit.
Michelle Hillekamp
Santa Cruz California

Like this comment
Posted by Tritone
a resident of another community
on Jul 16, 2010 at 6:07 pm

David & Lou Ellen -
Congratulations! Your finished home and garden looks even better than I imagined it would! The garden must be truly relaxing-a real haven from the outer world-I'm sure you spend lots of time there in contemplation....Look forward to see it in full elegance some day.

Lopez Island

Like this comment
Posted by Terry Boyer
a resident of another community
on Jul 18, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Jack designed a garden for my bride in 1988. Next came the grading, koi pond and setting THE STONES. He personally went to the quarry and chose 24,000 pounds of stone. I had blind faith and it was justified.
He changed a Rose Garden cottage into a refuge from the outside world.
With a small library re: roofed gates, fences, stone setting, pruning, etc. Jack guided us along to a different way of living. Yin and Yang have changed our lives.
Now we are in Petaluma and the the first thing to go in was a Koi pond.
Jack has been to Japan many times and has spent many hours showing off his world class set of slides highlighting the finest Japanese gardens in the world. I guess he now has to digitize them.
I consider him one of my greatest friends and have watched his career cover many facets of the Japanese life style.
It was not that long ago the Japanese Ambassador personally honored Jack Tomlinson at a reception held for him at Hakone Gardens in Saratoga. It was an honor to have witnessed it.

Like this comment
Posted by Daxin
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 20, 2010 at 12:47 am

I have had the good luck of touring this house and garden twice withing a week. It is a wonderful masterpiece with meticulous attention to details and craftsmanship, which happen to be the essence of Japanese culture. The garden is very authentic and soothing. I love the antic lantern and massive stone well in the front yard. Both of these have the aged look that is just what a young garden needs. Currently some of the azaleas in the back yard are a little stressed, and the white gravels can be too bright during daytime, but with more maturity and shade from the great specimens of Japanese black pines, these issues should just dissolve

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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