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Zen center hopes to purchase historic Mukai farmhouse and garden

After weeks of internal discussion, the Puget Sound Zen Center has decided it would like to buy the Mukai House and Garden, a property it hopes to steward as both a historic site and a regional center for Zen Buddhism.

Koshin Christopher Cain, abbot of the Vashon-based center, said his sangha, or congregation, has been building a fund for a few years to enable it to purchase property and establish a permanent home. It currently rents space in Ellisport.

The Mukai site, a modest farmhouse with a traditional Japanese garden designed and created by a Japanese-American woman who practiced Buddhism, seems like a perfect fit for the small but growing organization, Cain said. The group considered making an offer on the adjacent property, site of the historic barreling plant, but decided both properties would be more than the group could financially take on, he said.

The farmhouse and garden are owned by Island Landmarks, a nonprofit headed by Mary Matthews, a former Islander who now lives with her husband, J. Nelson Happy, in Texas. Matthews and Happy own the barreling plant as private individuals. Last month, according to Ken Zaglin, a Vashon real estate agent, Matthews asked him to begin the work of listing the two parcels, located near the center of Vashon town on 107th Ave. S.W.

The Zen center, Cain said, "has a lot of energy" to give to the farmhouse and garden.

Were they able to buy the 2.5-acre parcel, he said, the center's members would transform the living room in the farmhouse into a meditation hall and establish an endowment to restore and care for the garden. The group would use the land behind the house as a place for walking meditation and a site for a large organic garden. At some point, the group might build a few small cottages or other structures to accommodate visiting monks.

Cain said the group would also make sure the house was frequently open to the public and that a portion of it was given over to its rich history as the homestead of the Mukais, a well-known Japanese-American family that once ran a thriving strawberry growing operation on the land. The barreling plant was where B.D. Mukai and his son Masa cold-processed the berries for shipment across the country until the internment order of World War II forced them to turn the property over to a manager and move from Vashon.

"We have decided we would make great stewards of the house and garden," Cain said. "We feel strongly that we'd be a good fit, you may even say a great fit, with that property and could shepherd it into the future."

Of particular interest to the Zen center members is the traditional Japanese garden, designed by B.D. Mukai's second wife, Kuni, who practiced Buddhism. Historic preservationists consider the garden a remarkable legacy of the region's Japanese-American heritage and a regional treasure. It's considered one of the few traditional gardens ever designed by a Japanese woman.

"Kuni put her heart and soul into making that garden and house special, and what a great place for the Zen center to be — to celebrate it and occupy it," said Chris Ezzell, an architect and board member at the Zen center. "It wouldn't be a museum, per se. It would be a place that would be actively used."

Since news of the properties' potential sale broke on Vashon, several people interested in historic preservation and Japanese-American culture have stepped forward to try to figure out a way to ensure the Mukai spread is protected and preserved. A few weeks ago, about 30 people — including representatives from Historic Seattle and 4Culture, quasi-governmental agencies based in Seattle — came together to discuss the properties' future.

"There's a lot of interest among Islanders to try to figure out the best outcome for the property," said Glenda Pearson, an Islander who organized the meeting.

"No one jumped up with a check," she added, referring to those who attended the meeting. "But people are mulling over some of the ideas that came out of it."

Kathleen Brooker, executive director of Historic Seattle, said on Thursday that she'd had three meetings just that day about the Mukai property. The group often acts as a temporary holder of historic property, providing temporary financing until another partner can step forward and permanently take on a site. It's possible, she said, that Historic Seattle will play such a role in this instance.

"Local ownership is the preferable outcome," she said. "We'd try to identify the partners to work with and see if we can be of help. We may not be needed."

Both Brooker and Pearson said the Zen center could be an ideal owner, although purchasing only the farmhouse leaves the fate of the barreling plant up in the air, they noted. But at least one private individual has stepped forward with interest in the barreling plant as a warehouse and office space for his company, they added.

"I think the fit is right," Brooker said of the Zen center's potential ownership of the farmhouse. "Their fit is compatible with the house. Their interest seems compatible with the Japanese heritage. To me it seems like it might be a nice use."

Cain said the Zen center, a small congregation with about 20 active members, has been looking for a permanent home for a while. The group holds meditation sessions six days a week, holds occasional non-residential retreats and brings in guest speakers to discuss Buddhism and Japanese art and culture. Even before it knew the Mukai house was a possibility, the group had talked about creating a Japanese garden once it found a permanent home, Cain said. Were it to purchase this property, "We'd throw a lot of energy into that garden, with the community's help.

"We see the garden as an Island resource. It could really be a jewel for the Island," he said.

He and his congregants also envision holding a Mukai festival once a year, when the cherry trees next to the house are blossoming.

"We could imagine pulling off a beautiful event," he said.

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