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

<i> Karl Schoenberger, a staff writer for the Business section, is currently studying on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard</i>

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.

Still, I felt a compulsion to find out what Kato’s intentions were. Did he leave behind any plans showing how his 7700-square-foot legacy was supposed to look? I wanted to know what Kato was saying to me through this botanical relic, through generations of decayed and replanted vegetation. His spirit was present in the haggard pines; it was reflected in the murky ponds, where goldfish flitted about and coquettish pink blossoms yawned atop lily pads.

The integrity of this voice--if it was his--had survived more than three-quarters of a century. Kato, whoever he was, haunted the place. Is it pure coincidence that our daughter’s dependable nanny insists she has twice seen a male ghost in the garden? Dressed in black, he appeared suddenly during daylight and then vanished. I asked the nanny what kind of features the ghost had, assuming it must be an Asian apparition. The man had no face, she said, but he seemed to “belong” to the garden.


Unlocking the secrets of Kato’s garden became an obsession, but I also wanted to know more about what I was doing here in this lush little oasis on the outskirts of a city in distress, taking refuge in an illusion of time and space. What meaning was I projecting onto Kato and his microcosm as I sat by the tea shelter and drank my coffee in the morning haze, observing the garden dumbly through a drowsy trance?

Sierra Madre, with its goofy July 4th parade and its volunteer fire department, has a placid tree-lined ambience that reeks of Midwestern, white-bread values. Populated by 10,800 souls--or 9,360, depending on the welcome sign--it seems like a town you could not invent if you tried. But the truth is, it was invented with calculated artifice, as was nearly all of Southern California. In 1881, an ambitious real estate huckster from Massachusetts named Nathaniel C. Carter bought 1100 acres on the incline rising to a mountain range called, at the time, the Sierra Madre. He laid out a plan for a utopian community, much in vogue at the time, this one for gentlemen citrus ranchers.

To sell the dream, Carter went back east and returned with trainloads of tourists and prospective buyers. The Sierra Madre tract, significant because it was the site of the trail head for the burro-ride ascent to the Mt. Wilson summit, acquired a reputation as a retreat from the urban afflictions even then plaguing Los Angeles and Pasadena. By the turn of the century, riding on a speculative land boom, Sierra Madre was well established as a prosperous town with its own water system, post office, amateur drama society, sanitarium and cigar factory.

The date of Kato’s arrival in Sierra Madre, much less California, remains unknown. But the debut of his patron, a wealthy Southern heiress named Thomasella Hardeman Graham--the “THG” in the pond-bottom glyph--is well established. The strong-willed daughter of a plantation owner and cotton miller who built the town of Pinewood, Tenn., Graham started traveling with a chaperon in her teens, making grand tours of Europe, Asia and the American West, and did not stop until she landed in Sierra Madre in 1908, at the age of 38. Graham knew of Sierra Madre because of Frank Sauerwein, a consumptive painter of Native American and Western scenes, whom she discovered in the late 1890s at a hotel art gallery outside the Grand Canyon.

She admired the young artist so much she took him along on one of her European trips and gave him a gift of $4,000--a staggering sum in those days--to study in Italy. Sauerwein, in turn, invited Graham to stay at his cottage in Sierra Madre, which he rarely used. When Sauerwein died of tuberculosis in Connecticut in 1910, he bequeathed the shack to Graham. The patch of ground around it, shaded by a large pepper tree, became the nucleus for Thomasella Graham’s Italian-Japanese-Californian fantasy. Graham, who had once dreamed of buying a villa in Italy, decided instead to construct her own Italianate manor that, in those unimaginably smog-free days, afforded a Tuscan view of vineyards and orchards sweeping all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

To build her palazzo , she hired architect Robert D. Farquhar (he would later design the California Club building Downtown and UCLA’s Clark Memorial Library). As villas go, the Graham house is on the small side, with three second-floor bedrooms, a downstairs maid’s room, English oak paneling in the dining room and terrazzo floors in the butler’s pantry and kitchen. Last inhabited in 1991, the building still stands, but is now behind a chain-link fence warning trespassers that the structure has been condemned because of earthquake damage. Graham expressed her grandiose visions of culture by naming her 5.5-acre property “Italia Mia,” incorrectly entered in county land records as “Mia Italia,” the story goes, because a craftsman inverted the words on the wrought-iron fence that still encircles the old estate.


I have found it tempting to imagine that Graham, mourning Sauerwein’s death, built the Japanese garden as a Bohemian memorial. And others have speculated about Graham’s feelings for Sauerwein. “Thomasella never married,” wrote local historical society stalwart Phyllis Chapman in an August, 1982, article in the Sierra Madre News. “Was it because her feelings for Sauerwein were of the heart, too, and no one else filled that void after his death?” Placed below the Italian villa, a majestic alley of Irish yew trees, a conventional flower garden and a marble fountain imported from Florence, a Japanese garden is at odds with everything else on the Graham estate. Whatever its inspiration, Kato’s garden cries out for explanation.


Graham was far from alone in her Oriental fascination. By the early part of the century, a Japanese garden had become a sign of sophistication for the social elite, following the rage for Japanese art that swept Europe in the late 1800s. In Southern California, rail baron Henry E. Huntington created what he called an “Oriental garden” around a large pond on his San Marino estate, after acquiring the necessary plants, gates, lanterns and other accouterments from a financially distressed tea garden in Pasadena in 1912. As it turns out, the garden--which sprawls uncharacteristically--is not really a Japanese garden at all, but a studied improvisation by Huntington’s gardener, William Hertrich. Also in this faddish cross-Pacific cultural firmament, G. W. Wattles built a Japanese garden on his Hollywood estate that is now open to the public as Wattles Gardens Park, and the antique-dealing Bernheimer brothers reassembled a 17th-Century Japanese temple villa in the Hollywood Hills as the tourist attraction “Yamashiro,” which is now a restaurant. Since the name Kato (pronounced KAH-toe and common in Japan) is not connected to Huntington’s garden, I was hoping he had a hand in the tea garden that Huntington had stripped. But Kato’s services were not needed there, either. That garden, built around 1903, was the work of a curio dealer named George Turner Marsh, who had designed the Japanese garden at the 1884 California Midwinter Exposition in San Francisco. It survives as Golden Gate Park’s famous tea garden, a continuing tourist attraction, where the fantasy of Japanese landscaping made one of its earliest marks on American pop culture.

The other seminal event in the introduction of Japanese landscaping in California was the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco’s Presidio Park, where an ambitious three-acre “Imperial Japanese Garden” was laid out by H. Izawa and a crew of temple architects and professional gardeners from Japan. This seemed a perfect place to find Kato, but here, too, he goes unmentioned in the guidebooks and pamphlets. If the Pan-Pacific Expo did not bring Kato to America, it seems plausible that it served as inspiration for Graham. Although there’s no record of her actually visiting San Francisco at the time, her cosmopolitan interests would have likely drawn her there.

The history gained importance as my wife and I struggled to restore the garden and wondered if we were making the right decisions. We argued about whether the sago palms, characteristic of some Edo-style gardens, belonged on the hill, or in the garden at all. It became essential to get a better idea of what it might have looked like 70 years ago. After six months of searching, I found a Sierra Madre resident who had seen it in its prime.

She was Yoneko Hashimoto, the 75-year-old daughter of Yukataro Aisawa, who built the garden’s rustic azumaya tea shelter and served as Italia Mia’s groundskeeper for many years. The Aisawa family lived on the estate from about 1922 to 1930, while Hashimoto attended elementary school. “Miss Graham,” she says, was an authority on horticultural matters and taught her father his gardening skills, including the Japanese techniques of which he had no prior experience.

Aisawa continued to work as a gardener in Sierra Madre until he was detained on suspicion of espionage, shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Federal authorities arrested the gardener because of his activity in Sierra Madre’s Japanese Assn., which operated a Saturday language school and community center serving the 20 or so families of Japanese ancestry. Like other Japanese community leaders throughout the Western United States, Aisawa was eventually cleared of suspicion and reunited with his family behind barbed wire in an internment camp.


As a little girl in the 1920s, Hashimoto romped on the lawns of the Graham estate and played with her younger sister in the garden, “which looked a lot different then.” It was more lush, she says, filled in with the bamboo-like nandina. A huge tree on the northeast corner of the garden (she cannot remember what kind) muted the harsh sunlight that was scorching the zoysia grass on a recent Sunday afternoon. The only evidence of that tree is the remnant of a steel cable that was used to anchor the trunk as it deteriorated, one small puzzle solved in the archeology of Kato’s garden.

Hashimoto never met Kato. Considering the tightknit nature of the town’s Japanese community, this suggests he probably was not around when she was old enough to remember. She does recall hearing Graham talk about him, however, conversations that left an impression that Graham brought Kato over directly from Japan, which was encouraging news. If Kato had been brought over temporarily, it would explain why his name had eluded public mention.

Yet Hashimoto’s reminiscences also raised questions about Kato’s very existence. As a child she played almost exclusively in the garden’s shallow retaining pond, because her father forbade her from approaching the larger main ponds and bridges. But she has no memory of the “KATO” inscription on the bottom of the pond. She first learned of it in the 1960s, after Graham had died, the estate had been subdivided, and our bungalow had been built. Could it have been scratched into the cement after the war, fabricated to bolster the garden’s legitimacy? What if Graham, a horticulturist in her own right, invented him for prestige purposes after designing the garden herself, using as her guide the various texts and publications on Japanese landscaping available at the time?

A gardener named Kato does not appear in the old directories kept by Southern California’s early Japanese community. He does not surface in the city directories for Pasadena and Sierra Madre. Local historical society documents describe Kato as having been on the “staff of the Imperial Gardens” in Toyko, a claim impossible to trace. The archivist at the Japanese American National Museum couldn’t offer any clues about the gardener.

Then, one morning I thought I had a breakthrough in my quest for Kato as I was perusing the ledger of acquisitions kept by the historical archive at the Arboretum of Los Angeles County. Item A-69-326-535 jumped off the page: “One set blueprints Italia Mia garden plans.” Gertrude Bailey, a longtime employee of Graham, had donated them to the collection in 1969, along with Graham’s wicker baskets, sock darner, mouse trap and a Japanese tooth powder box. But the red line drawn across the entry for the garden blueprints, curator Sandy Snider explained, meant they were “missing from the inventory.” I was free to look anyway, she said. My frantic search through acid-free preservation boxes and dusty old trunks turned up nothing.

I was already harboring suspicions that Kato was apocryphal when I had a long conversation with Kendall Brown, a lecturer in fine arts at USC, who is compiling research for a book on the history of Japanese-style gardens in California. Brown pointed to the book “Landscape Gardening in Japan” by Josiah Conder, first published in 1893 and popular among horticulturists in Graham’s day. All the characteristics of an Edo-period tsukiyama - sansui (hill and water) garden, the variety built on the estate, can be found among the book’s detailed sketches. Brown thinks non-Japanese landscapers like George Marsh and Huntington’s gardener, William Hertrich, relied heavily on the book as a reference.


Indeed, Graham and Hertrich were said to be friends who swapped information on plants and collaborated in experimenting with cuttings such as Cycas revoluta (sago palms), of which four mature specimens survive in the garden. If Hertrich and Graham were in close contact, she could have gleaned from him lessons in the craft of Japanese garden design, using miscellaneous props and unskilled labor. “Maybe Kato was simply a hired hand,” suggested Brown as he looked out on the garden from the tea shelter. “Maybe Tommy Graham wanted a Japanese garden because Henry Huntington had one. It was the fashion. This was an era when women dressed up in kimonos. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had a copy of Josiah Conder’s book and told some hired hand, ‘This is what I want.’ ”


We may never know whether Thomasella Graham was the sole auteur of the garden, but she dominates its story. A refugee from the social strictures of the Deep South, Graham came to California, as so many did, to establish her independence.

In Sierra Madre, Graham is remembered as a tough woman who fought tenaciously to preserve the community’s trees when she served on the city Planning Commission. Perhaps it is her masculine spirit that haunts Kato’s garden. She never married; her close companions were always women. In the early years it was her chaperon from Tennessee, Ida Munsell, whom Yoneko Hashimoto recalls as a school marm who befriended her with great tenderness during the years she lived at Italia Mia. Later in life, after selling the Italia Mia estate and moving into one of the smaller houses down the street she owned as rental property, Graham was inseparable from Florence Pride.

They had an evening ritual of sitting out on their porch and having two whiskey sours each, administered punctually by a trusted male friend who kept the booze out of their reach until the appointed hour, according to their neighbors Pat and Pauline O’Neill, now in their 80s, who occasionally joined them for drinks. The pair also made a habit of playing with their Ouija board. One of the O’Neills’ most cherished possessions is an antique photograph depicting Graham at age 16 with Munsell, sitting in a gondola in a Venetian canal. The photograph was passed on to her by Gertrude Bailey, Graham’s longtime employee and final companion, who died last year at the age of 94.

Lesbianism was not a subject discussed openly in that era, so Graham’s private life remains uncertain. But it is clear that she had little interest in men. Harry Graham Schneider, her grand nephew who heads her only line of surviving relatives, inherited her collection of Sauerwein paintings and letters, but doubts the artist was ever her lover. “To put it bluntly, she didn’t need men. She was independent as hell,” says Schneider, a bank chairman in Lake Providence, La. “My aunt was one of those flag-raising feminists.”

Schneider visited Sierra Madre on several extended trips, the last of which was in 1947, when Graham was about to sell Italia Mia for the surprisingly modest sum of $30,000. She apparently had made some bad investments during the war; Schneider suspects she was cheated by her lawyer as well. “She couldn’t afford to take care of it. She would have died a pauper,” he says. “She hated to give it up, not just the house, but the yard. That Japanese garden was her pride and joy. She used to work all the time in the garden. She had a full-time gardener, but she was always out there in her hat and gloves, kneeling and working in the dirt.”


Thomasella Graham, the rebellious Southern daughter, died in 1957 at 87 years of age. According to her wishes, her remains were sent back to Pinewood, Tenn., for burial next to her parents’ graves.

Just as Graham’s legacy was looming very large and hope of establishing Kato’s existence was deteriorating, I got a call from a friend at a local real estate office, who stunned me with a tale of Kato’s being at yet another historical Sierra Madre estate. On the property was a mansion and the remnants of a Japanese garden built in 1917, the year after Kato would have finished his work at Italia Mia. The original owner was a J. Gamble Carson, who disappeared in the early 1920s, shortly after being accused of murdering his wife. Nolie Howard, the current owner, said her parents bought the property in 1947. The seller had told them that “a Mr. Kato” from Japan had meditated on the terrain for one month before laying out an exquisite three-tiered Japanese hill-and-water garden, with streams, waterfalls, bridges and ponds.

All that survives is a pathetic shell of the middle tier. There is an empty pond (no signature on the bottom), a concrete lantern and bridge, flanked by a chaotic overgrown hillside. A metal railing, installed to help Howard’s elderly mother negotiate what is left of a zigzagging stroll path, scars the hill. After the estate was subdivided, “a tenant with a big dog” let the garden go to waste, according to Howard. Only a few original trees, including a conspicuous sago palm, remain.

Still, the asymmetrical balance of the rocks, the lumpy stonework in the bridge and the concrete toro lanterns reveal a stunning resemblance to the Italia Mia garden. If this was not Kato’s doing, it seemed highly probable that the two gardens were made by the same person or crafted from the same designs. If Kato had stayed on in Sierra Madre to build this garden after finishing the one for Graham, the Sierra Madre News, a gossipy community weekly still in operation, would have probably noted his presence in town. But Howard found no reference to Kato when she scanned the microfilm of old editions. I had no luck either. What I did find was a note saying that all editions between October, 1915, and September, 1916, a critical period for the Kato garden at Italia Mia, were missing.

Remnants of early Japanese landscaping are not unusual in Southern California. “I think there are more (old Japanese gardens) out there than we realize,” says Bruce Coats, an authority on Japanese gardens who teaches art history at Scripps College. “The old estates have been subdivided and people have parts of these gardens in their back yards and don’t really know anything about them.”

Sierra Madre has at least one other relic of a Japanese garden, this one hidden behind the elementary school, Sierra Madre School. The issei fathers of the two dozen Japanese-American children who attended the school in the 1920s built a small garden there as a gesture of good will to celebrate the completion of a new building in 1930. It had a tiny fish pond, a miniature bridge, a bonsai pine tree and a stone lantern. But amid the anti-Japanese passions of the war, schoolchildren vandalized the garden. All that remains are a few stones buried in the dirt, an overgrown pine, a skinny sago and the bridge, signed by cement man Roy Kaya, March 1931.


Helen Obazawa, now 74, was one of the Japanese children attending the school. She has vivid memories of visiting Italia Mia’s Japanese garden, when the school staged “tea party” field trips during a unit on Japan in social studies. The children played there in a rikusha they built, she recalls, and practiced bowing upon entering the tea shelter. “Miss Graham liked parties.”

Graham’s idea of having the Aisawa family live on her estate during the 1920s has parallels with other Japanese gardens of distinction. Huntington had gardener Chiyozo Goto and his family live in the small Japanese house he obtained from Marsh’s Pasadena tea garden, from where he also hired Goto. Makoto Hagiwara, an entrepreneur who had the teahouse concession at Golden Gate Park, lived there with his family. The presence of Japanese gave these gardens a diorama effect, which no doubt amused visitors.

In San Antonio, Tex., Kimi Jingu and his family lived in the stone teahouse on the grounds of a Japanese garden the city built on the site of an old quarry in 1917. A park commissioner wanted a more “authentic atmosphere.” But after Pearl Harbor, the city turned off the water and evicted Jingu’s widow, Alice, and her five children, who had no other means of subsistence. They were replaced with a Chinese couple, and the city renamed the park the “Chinese Tea Garden.” The family eventually found their way to Los Angeles, where Alice Jingu became a successful actress--her credits include the film “Teahouse of the August Moon.”

The entertainment value placed on Japanese culture is reflected in some of the old photographs of the Italia Mia Japanese garden. They depict kimono-clad Japanese men and women in what appears to be a scene from a movie. A 1931 Sierra Madre News article mentions the use of the garden by an unnamed Hollywood film company as a set for a “Japanese story,” but these photos are puzzling, undated and without captions. They were in a photo album we acquired with the property, given originally to a former owner by the local historical society along with an unsigned and garbled essay on the history of Japan and the supposed symbolism of the Kato garden.


Kendall Brown, the USC scholar, says all gardens--especially Japanese gardens--are “rhetorical statements.” Gardens cannot be separated from their political and social context, he insists, and that is why the Japanese government helped build them at expositions in the United States, when it was testing its fledgling diplomatic skills after 2 1/2 centuries of feudal isolation. That is why the Jingus were evicted in San Antonio and the little garden at Sierra Madre School was trashed by children whose Japanese playmates had been sent away to internment camps. And that is why Graham hired Kato, or invented him, to enshrine her liberated life in California.

Yet to say a Japanese garden is merely a political metaphor that can be interpreted, a physical asset copied out of a book, owned, bought and sold or appraised by a bank, misses the whole point. The humbling lesson to be learned in the search for Kato is that my wife and I are mere custodians of this garden, never mind what the deed says. A nagging riddle, found in the Kato etchings at the bottom of the small retaining pond, goes directly to the question of ownership. Someone wrote “1916, KATO, THG,” all of which is easy enough to decipher, but what about the letters on the lower right: “EGO”?


This has been interpreted to mean “Edo,” as in the old name for Tokyo, seat of the Tokugawa shogunate, and a reference to the Edo style of garden design. But I have looked at those markings over and over again, and they definitely say “EGO,” matching the initials of no one I have found remotely connected to the garden. Was it a co-worker? Was Kato’s English so poor that he misspelled Edo?

Or was he familiar with Freudian theory and, fresh from the experience of toiling for the indomitably proud Thomasella Graham, scratched in the word “EGO” by her initials as a cryptic Zen message to future generations? After all, Kato’s training would have been in Japan, where the discipline of landscape architecture is inseparable from the tradition of Buddhism. Perhaps this is the key to understanding the ultimate meaning of Kato’s garden, that the notion of self is an illusion in this transitory world, where gardens decay and are rejuvenated, cities rise and burn, property owners come and go, and venerable gardeners appear, and then vanish.