Our mild climate makes the Pacific Northwest the perfect spot for a Japanese garden in the classical style.
"Everything grows here," notes Head Gardener and Portland Native Michael Kondo. And he should know — Kondo has tended the garden for more than 40 years.
Initially, there were five "gardens-within-a-garden;" one for strolling through a series of waterways and vistas; a flat garden characterized by formal shapes juxtaposed with open spaces; a teahouse, which provides literal window frames through which to view garden "tableaux;" a place for meditation in the Sand and Stone Garden; and a "Natural Garden" that requires a surprising amount of meticulously care.
"It's hard to make something look 'natural,'" explains Kondo. "Down there we use scissors rather than clippers."
Throughout it all, walkways meander, climb and dip, and reveal new and intimate vistas at each turn. The winding paths also require that you become aware of where you're walking and serve to slow you down. The resulting mindfulness is both the hallmark and goal of Japanese garden design.
"I think what truly is the essence of a Japanese garden, it's just that inner peace. It's definitely an oasis from the stress of Portland or a busy life; if you're able to just come up here, you go away feeling different about things," observes Kondo.
That sentiment has been at the heart of the Portland Japanese Garden since the idea was born with the 1959 sister city relationship with Sapporo, Japan.
“It was really in the interest of peace and mutual understanding,” explains Garden President and CEO Steven Bloom. “You have to remember, at that time it was only 20 years after the war had ended and so the community was looking for a way to heal wounds.”
That desire for reconciliation and partnership, including economically, gave Portland’s city planners the means and momentum to build the garden on the site of the old city zoo in the West Hills.
Renowned Japanese landscape architect Takuma Tono was recruited for the project, and along with him came the garden’s first young director, Kinya Hira. Under Tono’s direction between 1964 – 69, Hira built the meandering paths and installed the trees and shrubs that guide the visitor’s experience. But the times were less than peaceful.
Hira recalled the era in a 2017 letter to the Garden, which he called “
During the initial phase of the construction, hate groups gathered at the site, and chanted racial slurs at me. I was even hospitalized one time when I attempted to stop a group vandalizing the garden. When I confronted them, I quickly understood that this anger came from the war. I remember one man yelling, “you killed my father.” That’s when I realized that this Garden, to some, may have reminded them of their loved ones who were lost in the war.
While Hira could understand the protestors’ sentiments, the bitterness of the experience was harder to shake.
“He felt very unwelcome. When Hira-san left Portland three years later, he vowed he’d never return,” recounts Bloom, using the familiar honorific suffix to show his respect for Hira.
An estimated 30,000 people visited the Portland Japanese Garden when it opened in 1969. Today, the garden has close to half a million visitors each year, 11,000 members and is known as the best example of a traditional Japanese garden outside Japan. In April 2017, a new expansion opened. The Cultural Crossing Village created space for more visitors, as well as for performance, education, dining, shopping and curated display.
It took some convincing, but the once-young gardener Kinya Hira returned to the garden he had helped create to inaugurate the $33-million expansion.
“He realized how this garden was embraced by the community – a garden they didn’t want in the first place,” recalls Bloom. “So really he saw what this garden did in healing the hearts of the community and in that his own heart was healed as well.”
Nearly 50 years after leaving Portland, Hira wrote:
Now that I look back on those times, I can’t help but be amazed at how Americans were able to overcome their past and reach out to their once enemy and accept their culture. This is what makes this country so great: willingness to accept other cultures. And not too many countries can do that. This is what makes this nation so unique.
But Hira wasn’t finished.
“— Kinya Hira
However, the world is strange today. We are starting to isolate ourselves once again and looking for enemies. I can't help but feel that we are starting to forget our mistakes in the past; the lessons our ancestors taught us with their lives. How much we endured just to learn how to live with each other on this earth. So let this Garden be a reminder to us all. A reminder how the people of Portland had the courage to forgive and accept the culture of the once-enemy.”