Crossing one of Kubota Garden's bridges. Credit: Godfrey Guerzon
Every time I enter the bronze gates of Seattle’s Kubota Garden, I sense my heart rate slowing and my breath deepening as a feeling of serenity comes over me. Within minutes, a zen-like state infuses my spirit.
This hidden jewel of a park offers the perfect — and free — environment in which to take your kids on a fascinating nature walk. Although located in an urban area, this oasis feels miles away from traffic and city life. Grown-ups will enjoy the plants and peace while the kids will love the rocks to climb, “hidden” pathways, a waterfall, koi, ducks, turtles, curved bridges, ponds and streams.
Fujitaro Kubota, a self-taught professional landscaper, started this Japanese garden in 1927 with just 5 acres. Over many years, the garden expanded as Kubota added new features. Despite a four-year period during WWII when Kubota and his family suffered internment, the space was finally completed in 1962, though Kubota's son continued adding other elements over the years. Fujitaro Kubota died in 1973.
The gorgeous gardens, which present a fusion of traditional Japanese garden style and Pacific Northwest plants, are now designated as a historic landmark. The City of Seattle owns and operates the space as a city park.
Enter the garden
Kubota Garden's entry plaza is graced with several huge boulders, perfect for kids to climb. Once you’ve talked the kids off of the stones, enter through the beautiful bronze gate created by local artist Gerald Tsutakawa. The gate symbolizes leaving behind the everyday world and entering a sacred space.
Just inside, check out the huge hanging bell to your right. It is recommended that you ring the bell with your knuckles to let the spirits know you’ve arrived. Here, you'll also find a drinking fountain, and a small restroom sign will point you to the portable toilets.
Exploring plants, rocks, ducks and bridges
Although there is one large loop path, there are also many tiny, almost hidden, offshoots that take you to unexpected surprises, such as a giant wooden umbrella at one of the highest points of the landscape.
A brochure, available at the kiosk, includes a map that lays out a self-guided tour. Of course, you can also just wander about, making your own discoveries along the way. Challenge your crew to find stacked rocks, stone lanterns and curved bridges as well as ducks, fish and turtles.
While you wander, here are a few of my favorite things that your family shouldn't miss:
In an area called the Mountainside, the land rises 65 feet and features a waterfall built with stones from North Bend. You can view the falls from the main path, or climb up a side path to see the falls and the garden from another perspective.
The beautiful Heart Bridge with its bright red rails is a popular setting for wedding photos. Be sure to find the Moon Bridge, arching over Mapes Creek. Its steep incline is meant to represent the difficulty of living a good life: “Hard to walk up and hard to walk down.” There are other smaller stone and wood bridges over water to be found as well. While checking out the streams, keep your eyes peeled for resident ducks.
This body of water is fed by underground springs and houses wildlife, including koi and turtles. Hint: Watch the area of the pond with lots of green plants growing in the water, as the koi like to feed there!
Stone lanterns are a common element in Japanese gardens. Originally, the lanterns were used as votive lights in temples and shrines, and later to provide light during garden tea ceremonies. Look for the large stone lantern adjacent to the Spring Pond.
Get a different view of the landscape from atop a pavilion of terraced stone. There is also a large grassy area for getting wiggles out or spreading a picnic blanket.
Fera Fera Forest
This area, full of threadleaf cypress trees, reminds me of a fairy-tale forest. It is very quiet and completely different from the rest of the garden.
Every part of the garden is beautifully maintained, and you will see something new on every visit, especially in different seasons. Whether you and your family stop in for a short walk or a longer visit, I'm certain you will come away feeling refreshed.
If you go ...
Open hours: 6 a.m.–10 p.m. daily
Facilities: Drinking fountains and portable toilets are located near the entrance. A new restroom is part of planned park improvements and is scheduled to open soon. There are many benches throughout the park as well as a couple of picnic tables. Leashed dogs are welcome.
Getting there: Parking is free in the medium-size lot. A parking lot expansion is also among improvements underway. Street parking is often available as well. Note: There are signs posted in the lot to lock cars and not leave valuables. Kubota Garden is about a 1-mile walk from the Rainier Beach light rail station; to get closer on public transportation, try Metro route 106.
More info: A free brochure with a map of the garden is available at the kiosk near the entrance. Read more about the story of Fujitaro Kubota online.
More ideas for urban exploration with kids:
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2019 and updated for 2023.