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 tulips were still putting out their last throes while the rhododendrons, azaleas, and various trees were beginning their majestic show. In addition, we were lucky enough to be there as the Bonsai Society of Portland (BSOP) was having its Bonsai Society exhibition, which featured several bonsai that had been carefully sculpted and pruned for the last 200 years (one was 300 years old). Some were newer (in training) but were equally as distinctive and instructive due to their youth and 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. While this 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. For those who have never been, it is good to know that the Portland Japanese Garden was built on the old Washington Park Zoo grounds and is composed, actually, of five separate gardens and their pathways: Strolling Pond Garden, Tea Garden, Natural Garden, Flat Garden, and Sand and Stone Garden. Perhaps the droppings of all those animals has something to do with the lushness of the scenery, who knows.
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. I watched for two or three minutes, and before it abruptly stopped.
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 sticks. 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, 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 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, it’s a place to visit again and again, inviting your friends and neighbors to come along with you.