This past weekend, some friends and I spent the afternoon at the 5.5 acre Portland Japanese Garden in Washington Park. It was a beautiful day, crisp and sunny, and Portland was at the height of spring color and vibrancy. The Japanese maples, leafed out and in their bright spring armor of red, lime green, and rust, had not taken on the more dulled hues of summer. The camellias, saucer magnolias, and a variety of species tulips were still putting out their last throes of urgency while the many rhododendrons were slowly unwinding their majestic theater of pinks and reds. As an unexpected bonus, we were lucky enough to arrive as the Bonsai Society of Portland (BSOP) was having its annual Bonsai Society exhibition, which featured several bonsai that had been carefully sculpted and pruned for the last 200 or so years (one, incredibly, has been miniaturized for almost 300 years, or since the early 1700s). Some were newer–in training–but were equally as distinctive and perhaps even more instructive, due to their youth and intricate metal wiring. In short, the Portland Japanese Garden was all that we had heard it was, with quiet, contemplative areas, impeccably neat grounds, and an array of interesting stonework, fencing, and accompanying buildings to complement the careful selection and arrangement of the gardens themselves.
In Fumiko Hayashi’s 1951 novel and film, Ukigumo (Floating Clouds), Ukiko struggles to find where she belongs in post-war Japan, and ends up floating endlessly until her death. It’s a work of art that explores the role of the wanderer: a Romantic, post-war affliction that is also at the heart of much of our great Western literature. While this sense of aimlessness could certainly happen to you at the Portland Japanese Garden, you will most likely visit all five areas on your first visit in just a few hours. In a subsequent visit, you might like to spend more time in one garden or another, much as you would when you revisit a large museum. Indeed, the Portand Japanese Garden grounds seem to even encourage this act of losing oneself or the companions you are with. I found myself circling, retracing my steps, from different entry points. For those who have never been, it is good to know that the Portland Japanese Garden was, in fact, built on the old Washington Park Zoo grounds and is composed of five separate gardens and their pathways: Strolling Pond Garden, Tea Garden, Natural Garden, Flat Garden, and Sand & Stone Garden. Perhaps the droppings of all those animals has something to do with the lushness of the scenery, who knows. There are ghosts here, indeed.
One of the fantastic things about any garden, of course, is seeing the garden change over time (you change, too, don’t forget) and witnessing how the seasons can alter, sometimes greatly, the look and mood of a garden. The Portland Japanese Garden is, without a doubt, no exception. It’s the kind of garden you want to revisit and reconnect with, as its carefully thought-out layout and designs are imbued with larger universal themes: time, change, and stillness, primarily. Like viewing the Grand Canyon, spending time in the Portland Japanese Garden will expand your notion of time, or shrink it. I had a beautiful and profound moment when, after viewing the intricate work of the bonsai exhibit, I walked out onto the veranda that overlooks the impressive Flat Garden just as it started to lightly rain. Slanted at a pleasing angle, the drifting sheets of water seemed to not so much land on but be absorbed into the plants and gravel, as if I was alone witnessing an ancient, cosmic drinking that didn’t concern humankind. I watched for two or three minutes, in silence, before it abruptly stopped. It was a wonderful moment, like something out of an Andrei Tarkovsky film, where you could nothing but simply watch and revel in strange wonderment.
The Tea Garden was probably where I spent the most time in the Portland Japanese Garden, as I am particularly fond of stone-constructed paths and the creative use of bamboo in fencing and trail markers. You can find these things throughout the gardens, but it was particularly prominent here. For some reason, I find Japanese pagodas a bit obvious and overstated in a Japanese garden, but the few I saw were impressive and tastefully placed. Several frogs, hiding under large boulders, were making themselves heard near the Strolling Pond Garden, though they were wise and did not come out to be poked at by the sharp, improvised sticks of stray children. This notion of appearance–seen and unseen–is perhaps another great feature of Japanese gardens that I greatly admire and often contemplate, when I have the extra time, especially in such composed places. Japanese-inspired views often hide important portions of the garden by the use of twisted, descending pathways and the use of sweeping arcs of water and, in the case of the Flat Garden, gravel and moss. You keep being aware there are things you cannot see, slightly beyond your vision, and the garden’s design is, thus, heavily instructive: to find acceptance, not to endlessly search for more. Of course, there are many tall pines and spruce living in the gardens themselves, pruned and trained to resemble the wind-shaped junipers that survive on seaside cliffs or the surreal, impressive array of imaginary floating clouds (Ukigumo). All in all, the Portland Japanese Garden is a place to visit again and again, inviting your friends and neighbors to come along with you, if only so you can lose one another, momentarily, and then find one other again.