Fifty years ago, Portland’s Japanese Garden was born. Less than 20 years had passed since the United States and Japan ended hostilities. The people of Portland had embarked on a Sister City relationship with Sapporo, and construction began, uniting plants, trees, water, wood and stone into the Garden that hundreds of thousands of visitors enjoy every year.
Garden Curator Sadafumi Uchiyama spends about a third of his time in the Garden. He’s a third-generation gardener, from Fukuoka, on the south end of Japan, and learned his trade at home.
“My training started at age 10. I was just with my dad, my grandfather or my brother,” he says. But for many years, beginning in high school, he resisted following his father’s and grandfather’s career path. Finally, a college advisor set him back on his path, suggesting the school would have little to teach him, given the wealth of knowledge Uchiyama had already absorbed from his family.
Uchiyama talks to visitors, directs the hundred-plus volunteers who do garden maintenance and answers questions about the garden’s structure and design.
“It’s a moving target,” Uchiyama says of curating living plants and trees. “Sometimes art is complete from the get-go. The Garden is one of those things that needs time.” Some changes or repairs are simple, such as replacing a cracked water basin. Others, like whether or how to restore a fallen maple tree, he might ponder for years before taking action.
“Everyone is asking, ‘What are you going to do with that?’” he laughs. “I’m still thinking. If you think of the life of the Garden as 200 or 500 years, I think waiting for five years is not bad.”