Friday, November 1, 2019

The Portland Japanese Garden

Acer palmatum 'Geisha Gone Wild'

The North American branch of the Maple Society held their annual meeting in Portland, Oregon this past weekend. Attendees arrived at Buchholz Nursery on Friday morning and were treated to a beautiful sunny day with vibrant colors in the garden. The next day I gave the keynote speech about Buchholz plant introductions, then I was presented with the Peter Gregory life-time achievement award due to my career with maples, and when everybody stood to cheer my normally stoic (bored) 16-year-old daughter welled up a little (as my wife reported). All of the attention was somewhat embarrassing, then to top it off the landslide winner in the Maple of the Year vote was our introduction of Acer palmatum 'Geisha Gone Wild'.

I was honored, of course, but I'm glad the whole affair is behind me, so I can now go back to wearing shirts with frayed cuffs. Besides visiting nurseries the Society also included a trip to the Portland Japanese Garden. I am a member of the Garden so I can attend at any time, but it was fun to share the experience with first-timers from Texas, Tennessee, and even one from Hangzou, China.

The Japanese Garden was packed with tourists on this clear Sunday afternoon – poor scheduling on our part, really – and the low PM sun meant that most portions of the garden were cold and dark. In a way that was nice because where the sun did hit the trees, that is where everyone congregated to photograph the brilliance.

The Garden's publication advises us to “stroll around, slow down, and let your senses guide you into another world.” The special “world” is a “living classroom that offers tremendous opportunities for experimental learning to all who enter its gates. The lessons of Portland Japanese Garden are many and varied; not only does it speak about the way trees grow and how moss forms on stone, but also about the lives and culture of the people who designed and nurtured this enduring art form.”

Promoting cultural ties is important in my opinion, and I've done my part by marrying Haruko. She plays the koto in her kimono, then serves me warm sake in the evening. In Japan there is the saying that “the husband is the boss of the house...if the wife allows.” In America the wife is the boss of the house, no matter what! Anyway, our two daughters are proof that hybrids are often better than the individual parts, and I would gladly produce more if Wife allowed. So, that's why we tied the knot.

The Japanese Garden site was dedicated in 1961, and Professor Takuma Tono of Tokyo Agricultural University – from which Haruko graduated – was retained to design the garden. He lived for a year in a 20' trailer working tirelessly, and even had to endure Go Home Jap and other slurs spray-painted onto the trailer's side. We're all happy he persisted and developed the garden into the peaceful sanctuary that it is today.

The Garden formally opened to the public in 1967, with admission at $0.50 for adults and $0.25 for students, and 28,000 came before it was closed for the winter. In the winter of 1981-1982 it was kept open year round, and now about 350,000 visit each year. Today it is acclaimed by a number of visiting Japanese dignitaries* as one of the most beautiful and authentic Japanese gardens in the world outside of the island nation, as well as one of the foremost Japanese cultural organizations in North America. I was once asked to serve on its Board of Directors but I declined because I was too busy, and besides I recognize that I am too crude and blunt to blend into most committees. But they didn't need me anyway; and since they are now loaded with money they recently opened a new Cultural Village, thus doubling the Garden's area. The new addition is absolutely wonderful, especially since the new Cultural Village's rooftops are planted with green herbage, so that the long views (shakkei) are not compromised with any nearby conflicting structures.

*The former Japanese ambassador to the US, Nobuo Matsunaga, said in 1988 that the garden was “the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden in the world outside Japan.”

Still in the sun was the Garden Pavilion, which blends perfectly into the garden with its tiled roof, wooden verandas and Shoji sliding doors. The west veranda faces the Flat Garden where one encounters stone (the “bones” of the landscape), water (in the form of raked white sand) and plants, in particular a large red laceleaf maple. The goal is for visitors to feel part of the environment, not overpowered by it. It is typical of a daimyo's (feudal lord) villa garden, and its pavilion represents the Kamakura period's (1185-1333) architectural style. A courtyard to the east of the pavilion offers a fantastic view of Portland's city skyscrapers with Mt. Hood – substituting for Mt. Fuji – in the distance.

It was too cold to sit and contemplate at the Sand and Stone Garden, but I have done so on warmer days. This style of landscape with raked sand and stone is referred to as karesansui which translates as “dry landscape.” Some may consider this as an example of a “Zen garden” as this style is/was often part of a Zen monastery where the monks did the upkeep. Not to get too detailed, but one visits here not to meditate, but rather to contemplate. However the throng of visitors today did neither as crying babies and rambunctious children prevented any spirituality. Again, it was Professor Tono who designed this garden.

The Garden's current curator, since October 2008, is Sadafumi Uchiyama, and he says: “Another name for my position is the vision keeper.” He spoke to our Maple Society group and suggested that the main purpose was to bring two cultures together. I would love to tour the garden with him one day as he is full of stories and explanations, and what a treasure it would be if I could experience the place through his eyes. For example, he points out that the site was once the location of the old Portland Zoo where the bear's den is now part of the waterfall in the Strolling Pond Garden.

The Garden continues to evolve, of course, but Mr. Uchiyama assures us that “its concept and design stay.” One hundred years is the Japanese standard for “maturity,” and Mr. U. says “We're still giving the garden its flavor,” and that “We're just beginning on a long journey.” I'm just pleased to know that it will outlive me.

The following are additional views of the garden throughout the seasons:

Iyo stone

Iyo stone

Pinus thunbergii

Pinus densiflora

Picea glehnii

Acer circinatum

Acer macrophyllum

Acer palmatum

Komo rebi (leaking light)

Everyone knows the Japanese word for "goodbye" is sayonara. But that's a rather long-lasting formal goodbye. Ja-ne is more of a casual, "see-ya" kind of goodbye, like friends would say to each other. So ja ne, Portland Japanese Garden – I'll be back soon.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing your garden. The more we see, the more we learn. Jane in Washington DC.

  2. Thank you for taking beautyful pictures of this Japanese garden!!

  3. Talon, I ALWAYS look forward to your post.YOU are the very best of all the nurserymen that I have ever known. I picked up on you and your nursery booth at the Farwest show in 1980 and all my times over the years to see your newest items. I just LOVE your pictures and your stories!! Do you remember old Jim Caperci? He got me started on Dwarf Conifers in the early 70's. I have a few good stories to tell about him as I'm sure that you do too!!