The Portland Japanese Garden

Lantern and maples. Photograph by George Waters

Lantern and maples. Photograph by George Waters

“Here I saw the same soft spring as in Japan.”

Poetry stone in the Portland Japanese Garden

In most gardens an especially fine tree, a striking flower border, or a well placed building stands out and pleads for notice. Despite its size and diversity, in the Portland Japanese Garden, in fact a series of gardens, wholeness and unity are evident throughout. From the parking lot to the center of the garden, care has been taken not to call attention to any one element, but to harmonize and relate settings one to another.

The garden occupies a bluff 500 feet above the street, hidden in a forest of Douglas firs. Visitors pass through a roofed lower gate and walk up, enjoying the landscape even before the entrance is reached. The main gate is massive, with a day-tiled roof and three large doors of Alaskan cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis). Outside the gate is a Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora) with lacy bark and slender needles. Its companions are three Japanese black pines (P. thunbergiana) inside the gate beside a stone basin. These trees are a female and a male, like the Chinese yin and yang. Greeting visitors just inside are two ornate Foo dog-lions, also female and male.

Stone steps in autumn. Author’s photograph

Stone steps in autumn. Author’s photograph

In the 1960s, when construction of the garden was just beginning, Portland was building a new civic auditorium. The granite stairs of the old auditorium, donated to the garden, were used to pave paths near the koi pond. At one point the granite slabs create a zig-zag bridge across a stream.

The granite stairs are not the only recycled material incorporated into the garden. Granite cobbles used for paving were salvaged from Portland streets when concrete and asphalt replaced them. These cobbles had arrived in the Pacific Northwest as ballast in sailing ships of the nineteenth century, which carried away native timber to larger markets.

The site of the garden was previously occupied by the city’s zoo. What is now Heavenly Falls was once the bear den. In 1963 the area was leased to the Japanese Garden Society, which retained Professor Takuma Tono of Japan to create a design. Most of his design has been completed, and new design and con­struction continues.

The Pavilion

A pavilion constructed of Alaskan cedar in traditional Japanese style is flanked on its long east and west sides by covered porches. This building is used for events such as lectures, flower shows, and bonsai displays. The pavilion was dedicated May 18, 1980, attended, coincidentally, by the eruption of Mt St Helens, which can be seen to the northeast. From the west terrace one can look out across a landscape in miniature with a sea of white sand and a gentle coastline of stylized azaleas, maples, birches, camellias, and cherries. This is the paradise garden that mortals may view but not enter.

Sea of sand with islands of plants in the paradise garden. Author’s photograph

Sea of sand with islands of plants in the paradise garden. Author’s photograph

The white sea of granitic sand is carefully raked into a pattern. The sand, imported from Japan, is now scarce and can no longer be purchased. The ridges formed by raking represent ripples and waves. The persistent Northwest rains would quickly destroy designs produced by raking if other kinds of sand were used, but the hard Japanese sand holds the pattern.

In the distance is a small stone bridge in the construction of which Professor Tono labored for an entire week. Stones are valued as much as plants in Japan, and are crucial to a garden’s identity and harmony. Each rock is placed with extreme care, arranged so that its power can be released and repositioned again and again until the builder is completely satisfied.

Special Plants

Strolling the garden’s paths, one encounters a boxwood more than a hundred years old, moved from nearby St Mary’s Academy, and a twenty-five-year-old plant of Rhododendron yakushimanum grown from seed. Japanese timber trees (Cryptomeria japonica) rise above the fragrant deciduous azalea Rhododendron schlippenbachii, which flowers just as new leaves begin to appear in spring.

A large arbor frames a tower given to the garden by Portland’s Japanese sister city, Sapporo. The arbor, held aloft by concrete pillars made to look like tree trunks, supports Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis). Most gardeners are familiar with Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda), the flowers of which open gradually from the top of the raceme to the bottom, but those of the Chinese wisteria open nearly all at once, creating a more spectacular, though briefer, display.

Camellia japonica and C. sasanqua are found throughout the garden, as well as Kalmia, Pieris, Enkianthus, azaleas, and tree peonies. In fall Japanese maples, now brilliant orange and red, illuminate the main compositions of greens and grays.

At a reflecting pond a weeping willow dips its leaves into the water, while two bronze cranes survey a black pebble beach. The pebbles were collected from Ecola State Park near Cannon Beach, Oregon. A stone near the pond’s far shore represents a pleasure boat, for many gardens in Japan traditionally were viewed from boats.

Originally a moss garden was created along the south-facing slope of the garden. Native mosses were brought from the nearby Cascade Mountains, and a misting system was installed to dampen the mosses in summer. Unfortunately, the mosses were plundered by exuberant robins, who delighted in the cool hillside. The area is now given over to boulders, water, azaleas, and beeches. It is the most tranquil part of the garden, a place to sit and read or rest.

The tea house, dedicated as the Heart of the Flower, is used by local societies for formal tea ceremonies. Participants in a ceremony move slowly through the tea garden on a stone path constructed to encourage contemplation rather than to simplify passage. They pass an unusual Japanese lantern of Christian origin and are shaded by a large specimen of the yellow-flowered dogwood (Cornus mas).

Japanese Garden Styles

All styles of Japanese gardens require intensive and detailed planning. The choice and placement of each element — the gravel for the paths, the moss beneath the trees, the plants, the stones — are deliberately controlled. In this sense Japanese gardens are living sculptures, artistically contrived and difficult to do well.

The earliest Japanese gardens were associated with shrines and temples. The Ise shrine, consecrated to the sun goddess, is an example. Early gardens often had many flowers, but the Zen influence removed much of the earlier color in favor of a simpler and more contemplative form. The few flowers now found in Japanese gardens have come, perhaps, to represent the essence of all others.

Zen garden of stones and sand, Kare sansui, at Portland’s Japanese garden. Author’s photograph

Zen garden of stones and sand, Kare sansui, at Portland’s Japanese garden. Author’s photograph

Zen temple gardens are often symbolic, containing only stones set in an expanse of white gravel. These abstract gardens are called kare sansui. The stone settings represent Buddha, but are also solely themselves: stones. They evoke a contemplative state suggesting that Buddha and the universe are one and that this universe is as simple and beautiful as a group of stones. The Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, the most famous example of kare sansui, consists of thirteen stones set in white gravel surrounded on three sides by walls.

The kare sansui in the Portland Japanese Garden may be viewed from above or at its own level after descending a long set of steps. Many kare sansui have fables connected with them to explain their meaning. The fable of the Portland garden’s kare sansui is that seven tiger cubs have been thrown into the sea by a tigress as a test of courage. Buddha stands with arms outstretched offering himself as food to the starving cubs, who consume him and are saved. Some feel that such fables obscure the deep sources of power and mystery evoked by the gardens. Perhaps most people cannot resist the urge to explain existence rather than simply to accept it.

At Heavenly Falls, where black bears once played in the former zoo, the water falls into a lagoon. On its shore the Big Dipper is set into the path with small stones. Ferns and yews lean out over the water. Here is a mountain lake with sky and stars overhead and rock underfoot. Crane and tortoise face each other in the water, promising that the sun and stars will dance again and again across the heavens.

There are other fine Japanese gardens on the West Coast, but none that I have visited match the beauty, tranquility, or vitality of the Portland Japanese Garden. The garden is open to the public daily from 10am to 6pm from April 1 through September 30, and from 10am to 4pm the remainder of the year. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

[The Portland Japanese Garden was damaged and defaced in November 1989 by intruders who toppled stone lanterns, broke bridges, and sprayed graffiti. The garden is raising money to repair the damage and to install a sophisticated security system. Donations may be sent to Restoration and Security Fund, Japanese Garden Society, P.O. Box 3847, Portland, OR 97208.]