Backyard Zen: Home of club owner Yoshi is serene Buddhist re-treat with a story

OAKLAND, Calif. _ The surprise is not that Yoshi and Gengo Akiba harbor a Zen Buddhist temple next to their Japanese-style Oakland house and garden. It isn’t that the temple happens to be next door to St. Albert’s College, whose European grandeur is just as unexpected in this residential Chabot Road neighborhood. It isn’t even that the Akibas’ serene setting lies just minutes from the buzzing motion of College Avenue and Rockridge BART.

The surprise is that the original house, a seemingly perfect fit for the nightclub co-owner and Buddhist priest, wasn’t made for them.

The Akibas used to live above Yoshi’s Japanese Restaurant and Jazz House when it was in its Claremont Avenue location. They often took walks in the Rockridge neighborhood and lingered before this unusual house. “My husband is a Zoto Zen priest,” Yoshi Akiba says. “He and I used to watch this house.”

One day, she recalls, “the elderly lady who owned this place waved at us and invited us in.” The owners, it turned out, were an elderly couple who loved Asian culture, so much so that they created this unusual oasis in the residential neighborhood.

Not long after this meeting, the husband died, followed by his wife a year later. The house went up for auction in 1988. The primary bidder was a man who wanted to raze it and build an apartment complex.

Given the asking price, the apartment building seemed inevitable. But Yoshi’s partner and former husband, Kaz Kajimura, urged the couple to reconsider. “My partner said we would never be able to find land like this in the area,” Akiba says. The solution was to borrow against the Yoshi’s jazz nightclub and Japanese restaurant, now located in Jack London Square. Kajimura not only supported the couple, he now lives on the house’s second floor.

The temple, completed in 1994, has quietly attracted passersby curious about the architecture, Zen Buddhist disciples in their search for satori (enlightenment), and visitors looking for respite. Students come to the Akibas’ house to take classes in tea ceremony, calligraphy and tai chi.

In many ways, their house echoes the Buddhist principle of karma, in which the spirit of good or bad deeds revisit the person who performed them. In this case, it’s the karmic aesthetics of the grounds itself, created by the original owners’ love of Japanese culture and perpetuated through the Akibas’ teachings.

The temple, assembled by Japanese craftsman, was actually from Japan. Plans for the sanctuary met with some opposition from neighbors who feared blocked views, building-height violations and crowds of temple-visiting tourist buses, although the Akibas tried to explain that Berkeley already had a Zen center.

“We don’t need another Zen center,” says Yoshi Akiba. “We wanted a place you can just sit quietly and be content. That is our concept.”

Visitors are asked to call ahead, although sometimes, a passerby peering over the gray, weathered gate might be invited in by the Akibas or a Zen student. Occasionally, the visitor will be assessed by Goro, the 100-pound Akita who keeps watch over the grounds and protects the koi pond’s carp from hungry egrets.

The fish pond, in which the Akibas installed a cleaning system, is just one of the stops a visitor is tempted to make, even though the temple doors are three dozen steps from the gate. To the right of the freshly swept steppingstones and gravel path is the house and most of the garden’s Japanese maples, cherry blossoms, apple trees, oak trees and bamboo.

Once at the sloping temple door, visitors shed their shoes and enter a sanctuary of light and wood. The entryway to the hall contains chant books and bells. The deep rhythmic resonance of the bells, played with sticks, helps foster a deeper concentration during zazen, or sitting meditation.

The chants are read aloud during services. “All the Karma ever created by me,” reads one chant, “Since of old through greed, anger and self delusion/Which has no beginning born of my body, speech and thought/I now make full open confession of it.”

Inside the high-ceilinged hall, meditators sit on raised platforms on either side. Although spacious, the temple accommodates only 18 people. Cushions ease the discomfort, and blankets stored in compartments, where people can also stow their personal possessions, ward off the chill of 6 a.m. zazen. There is no heat _ achieving satori in Zen Buddhism requires a certain degree of toughness.

In the center sits Bodhisattva, or Buddha, upon the meditation altar, before which only the abbot, or head priest, kneels. At the front, a curtain rolls up to reveal another altar, the elaborate Buddha hall. Normally, the hall where people can seek guidance is in another part of a temple, but the curtain _ closed off during meditation services _ accommodates the display in the condensed one-room building.

Most of these items come from Japan. Some came with the help of the Zen monastery in Japan where Gengo Akiba served for 10 years during his formal training. Among the imports is an incense called eihegi, a heady, relaxing scent that gently fills the space. The light, spaciousness, scents and absolute uninterrupted quiet are punctuated only by Goro’s occasional barks and the squawks of Kajimura’s macaw.

“When you meditate, this place is magic,” Yoshi Akiba says. “We are so lucky.”

The Akibas built another addition _ a second floor to the existing house _ with the help of the original architect, Noboru Nakamura of VBN Associates in Oakland, who had designed the house in the 1960s.

“I did the original home for Mr. and Mrs. Edmund,” the original couple, says Nakamura. “They contacted me. I was the architect for the Japanese Trade and Cultural Center in San Francisco and the Nihonmachi project four blocks adjacent to that.” The area, which he designed in a joint venture, is the core of Japantown.

His intention was to allow every room to have a view of the garden, part of a philosophy that emphasizes nature in an otherwise urban area.

Travelers to Japan, the Edmunds wanted to duplicate the structures they had seen and loved abroad. Nakamura, who has since been behind projects such as the AMC Kabuki Theatre, persuaded them to meld Western and Asian themes.

“When you build in the United States, to build a Japanese home, you really don’t want to slavishly imitate Japanese architecture, but you want to recall some of the elements,” Nakamura says. “I think the materials and so forth and the form give it that flavor.”

The addition brings height and light to the long, narrow space, and increases the bedrooms to five and baths to 3 1/2.

An eclectic decor of Japanese elegance and American comfort defines the home. Rivaling the temple’s artistry, though, is the intimate tearoom just a sliding shoji screen away from the dining room. The room was designed and built by a Japanese contractor who specializes in teahouses. The painstakingly hand-sanded blond bamboo floor and walls of the hallway absorb and reflect light and the joints of the bamboo subtly emerge as delicate etchings.

Tatami mats cover the floor of the tea room itself. Hidden beneath one small square mat is an electric heating coil used to boil water. Tea-green walls and rice paper impart a soft, tranquil glow. A tiny cut-out connects to the open-shelved room next door, which can also be seen behind a short screen behind the hallway. Arrayed with various pots, cups, dishes and implements used in the tea ceremonies, what could ordinarily be considered a pantry becomes a stunning artistic display.

The straw, incense and bamboo blend to give off a woody, natural bouquet. It mingles with the fragrance of the steeped tea leaves, made for guests or students who sit cross-legged or kneeling on the tatami mats.

It’s difficult to believe that the house was not designed for the Akibas, although the kitchen _ built for much taller occupants _ is a giveaway. Still, in the karmic spirit, a certain measure of fate does seem to be part of the design.

One day a woman passed by the house. “I recognized her as the maid of the couple who used to live here,” Gengo Akiba says. Pleased to learn that the Akibas were the new owners, the maid said Mrs. Edmund would have been happy. “‘I hope the couple will buy the house,”‘ the woman said, recalling her former boss’s words.

Adds Yoshi Akiba, “She wanted to carry on her spirit and love of Japanese culture.”

Want to visit?

To arrange a visit to the Zen temple, call 510-653-1916.

PHOTO will be available from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099.

(c) 1999, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

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