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The Golden Door

Garden Design Magazine, Winter 1984-1985
by Ken Druse

A long America's western coast many gardens show a Japanese influence. Sometimes it's a single black pine contorted by man or nature. In other situations, it's an attempt to create the Japanese ideal: a design that presents the natural environment in microcosm. But the reality of transporting a purely Japanese landscape to our shores is an undertaking fraught with difficulty. Perhaps one can find a master with knowledge of the preceding one or two thousand years of Japanese landscape design. But then there's the need to find a team of skilled artisans to maintain the work. As if that weren't enough, consider the differences in the topography and climate. Plants actually grow slower in the rocky soil and misty summers of Japan. Interpreting the Japanese style for a country where plants grow as much as three times faster in the rich soil and sunny summers, where maintenance is done by machine more than by man, takes inordinate skill. No one knows this better than Takendo Arii, the garden designer of the Golden Door.

There is an area north of San Diego that might be called "Spa Country." Clubs and resorts offer visitors various different versions of Utopia. The Golden Door presents a unique persona, based on the teachings of Zen spirits. The goal is to improve inner beauty as well as physical beauty through natural foods and comfortable, clean living. And the magnificent setting is even more nourishing for body and soul.

The Golden Door is nestled in a spacious stretch of land along the beautiful, jagged red mountains of San Marcos. The climate is much like that of the Mediterranean: gorgeous, sunny days with little or no rain-fall. Though that presented Mr. Arii with a problem, a larger one bothered him more;and it is one familiar to nearly all professional designers. "Customers with preconceptions underevaluate the skills and devices based on Genuine landscape techniques, causing discouragement to the designer, and forcing compromises," he explains. "And in America, it's hard to know
exactly what 'Japanese' really means."

He adds that on the West Coast, many influences converge to become lost in a scrambled philosophy. Some Japanese emigrated many years ago during the Meiji era (circa 1867). Then the view of American Japanese was shattered during World War II.
Now there is the current popular influence of trade and cultural exchanges.

After Mr. Arii completed his famed series of gardens for San Diego's Marine park, "Sea World,"

He sought another project of similar scope. He found the challenge of developing a purely Japanese landscape in America appealing, but he wanted to avoid his pet problems. It was the founder and president of the Golden Door, Deborah Szekely, who made the project irresistible. She isn't a dilletante. "She has a deep understanding of Japanese philosophies, " he says. "Her demands for a genuine Japanese landscape matched perfectly with my dreams of creating a variety of beautiful sectional gardens in one place.

What they have created together is a voluptuous setting for rest and relaxation. There are, of course, the usual accouterments of a health spa-gym rooms and cosmetic areas. But guests walk in the woods and through the gardens to begin their day; they end it with a soak in a Japanese tub and a massage. Beautiful antiques fill the interiors and the whole place is permeated by what Deborah Szekely calls "naturalness. " Nearly all the food
for guests is grown on the spa's grounds. There are fruit trees everywhere even a chicken farm-and everything's organic.

Ms. Szekely spared no effort or money to create her perfect place, giving Mr. Arii total control. But he still had to cope with the realities of creating such a landscape in America. Since vegetation grows so quickly here, it is necessary to use machinery to maintain the lawns and do the trimming. However, elaborate Japanese curves cannot be handled by American machinery that is built for the geometric Western landscape. Also, American contractors tend to use young trees instead of selecting more expensive (and hard to find) mature specimens. Therefore, the garden can change radically in five years. Technical skill and patience are virtues not often found, so the Japanese ideal had to be adapted to the site and situation. Mr. Arii personally trained the Golden Door's Mexican workers in a maintenance style compatible with the gardens and the realities of America.

The central court, located at one end of the main building, gets little sunshine in winter. Surrounded by a block wall that doubles as a retaining wall, this court is approximately 530 square feet. Hand-sized pebbles pave this space and flat stones were used for stepping in the aisles. The concrete-block walls are hidden by bamboo hedges; the bamboo is supported by stakes made from fallen oaks collected from the wild. Beneath the tall bamboo, dense grasses create a secondary level that adds depth to the planting. "In order to create a three-dimensional feeling, a water stream was made in front of the Koetsuji temple hedge, and a bamboo conduit provides the movement, " says Mr. Arii. The temple is called the Bell House by visitors. Its large bell was salvaged from a Japanese monastery destined to be razed for a highway. While it once called monks to prayer, at the Golden Door it sounds each resonant hour. Another court is located at the building's end, but it lies in full sun for most of the year, offering a lovely view of the mountains from the veranda. "I put much emphasis on the stepping stones to give a spacious feeling, " says Mr. Arii, "and to create a natural connection with the gardens and the beautiful scenery - " All the stones were brought from the local mountains and indigenous Monterey Pines, Pinus radiata, were cultivated for garden trees. Mr. Arii also used Koelreuteria, golden rain trees. Ranked among his favorites, they are suitable for many locations.

The Prayer Rock-a huge boulder ringed by a Japanese rope-is an awe-inspiring feature of the gardens. Inspiring too is a sand garden for meditation. These are just two hints of the extensive earth moving and regrading that created this place.

In order to change the narrow feeling of the foot of the hill and to give continuity to the garden's lower level, soil fills out the slope. Concurrently, other areas of the slope were cut boldly to open views and produce more space. Along with low stone walls, a tall bamboo hedge was installed to suggest spaciousness in the vertical direction. Now the view seems perfect.

Yet most of the 160 acres comprising the site of the Golden Door have been left in the natural state. Wild animals abound. "Birds drink water from the conduits and eat nuts, and squirrels jump from tree to tree." Guests leave their troubles along with their cars at the parking lot to enter the golden gate. Walking along a bridge nearly twenty meters long, they pass under venerable oak and pine trees that Mr. Arii left in the landscape. By the time guests sign in, they already have begun their transformation within the Golden Door's atmosphere of incredible calm.



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