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In Search of Mr. Kato : A Quest for the Creator of a Mysterious Japanese Garden Conjures Up a Faceless Ghost, Modern Prejudices and a Willful Heiress

October 09, 1994|Karl Schoenberger | Karl Schoenberger, a staff writer for the Business section, is currently studying on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world ; A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream , A flash of lightning in a summer cloud ; A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream . --FROM THE DELUSIONS OF APPEARANCES, THE DIAMOND SUTRA

It was hidden beneath a layer of muck on the bottom of the small retaining pond by the back fence, scratched faintly into the concrete and visible only because I had drained off the putrid water and shoveled out the rotting sycamore leaves. "KATO" was written in childish block letters beneath a barely legible date, "1916," and above the initials "THG" and "EGO." They had said it would be there, the former property owners. This was where a man known only by his surname, Kato, had etched his signature after meditating on the landscape for three months and then building the ponds, the bridges, the stream bed and the waterfalls for what was said to be the oldest privately owned Japanese garden in Southern California.

My wife and I had acquired the property on an impulse, instantly seduced by the overgrown and unkempt garden behind the modest bungalow. From the living room you look past a screen of spindly bamboo and the trunks of redwood and cypress trees, to a pond banked by myrtle and azalea shrubs, and beyond that to the old azumaya , an open-air tea shelter, shaded by a huge live oak.

From the tea shelter, you can see the four stone-encrusted ponds spanned by little concrete bridges, one of them designed in a zigzag pattern to evade demons in hot pursuit. To the north, a snow lantern stands on an island in the main pond, next to a large rock jutting out of the water in a shape suggesting a tortoise, auspicious for its longevity. This pond and its waterfall are guarded by sculptured pine trees and flanked by a hillock studded with irises and sago palms. A curtain of yew trees backs this tiny universe, and above their tops the San Gabriels serve as borrowed scenery, framing the upper limits of the garden.

At first glance, the landscape was moody, contemplative, confusing--and familiar. My wife, Susan, and I had lived many years in Japan, and had undergone a subliminal indoctrination to the Japanese ethos, a mind-softening process cynical gaijin call "tofu-nization." Maybe we were quivering cakes of bean curd, vulnerable to the sorcery of this garden. And so we ended up owning an incredible yard with a small house attached.

The Japan thing, though, does not explain it all. I was recovering from a brain tumor that was about a year or so in remission. I felt robust, confident that my health had been restored, but I was also aware of how fragile, and brief, life can be. I suppose I was looking for hidden meaning, and this garden struck me as a cosmic window--if only I could learn how to see through it.

I had more mundane motives as well, because our first encounter with Kato's garden came two months after the Los Angeles riots. Before we went house-hunting I had agonized over persevering in the city or retreating to the suburbs. During the riots a flying ember had set fire to the roof of our apartment building. We were on a delayed honeymoon in Italy, taking the obligatory gondola ride in Venice at about the moment quick-thinking neighbors dowsed the flames with garden hoses, leaving no more damage than a soggy bedroom. Discomfort with the neighborhood was nothing new, however. Earlier that year I had awoken at 3 a.m. to a blood-curdling scream, squinted out my bedroom window to see a man holding a pistol to my neighbor's head and, for the first time, dialed that metaphor for American urban life, 911.

On the evening we went to check out a report of a private Japanese garden in Sierra Madre, I was brooding about the bid we had placed that morning on a large Craftsman house in Hollywood, a half-block from a strip on Sunset Boulevard notorious for its prostitutes. I was receptive to buying some quiet and peace--or at least forestalling L.A.'s creeping nightmare. This seemed liked a place where I could enjoy a little instant rapture and perhaps meditate on some of the ambivalent feelings I had about my 10 years studying and working as a befuddled foreigner in Japan.

The irony, of course, was that once we settled in, we found it difficult to sit down and relax without seeing another onerous chore begging to be done: pruning, raking, weeding, digging, replanting. Dead trees had to be removed, the ponds needed to be drained and cleaned. My primordial dread of yardwork, acquired long ago in suburban Chicago, reawakened. We sought bids from two prominent Japanese landscape architects; each said he could restore the garden for about $1,000 a day. We had no choice but to go it alone with the help of a mortal, two-hour-a-week gardener.

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