The most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan occupies a 5 1/2-acre site directly above the International Rose Test Garden. Designed by Professor Takuma Tono, a Japanese landscape master from Tokyo, the garden took 4 years to complete and was opened to the public in 1967 on the site of the old Portland Zoo. The immaculately tended grounds contain superb examples of ancient Japanese gardening styles influenced by Shinto, Buddhist, and Taoist philosophies. Plants, stones, and water are used to create areas of serene and contemplative beauty.
Portland has been buzzing about the fabulous new additions to the garden created by famed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma in 2017. They include a new entrance area with water features and a new introductory pathway up to the lovely Antique Gate that served as the garden entrance for 50 years. You can take an open-sided bus from the parking lot up to the garden entrance plaza above, but I recommend that you walk up the graveled footpath from the gate. The path wends its way up through a forest of Douglas fir and now includes new rock-and-water gardens below a glass-walled teahouse perched over the hillside. At the very top you enter the dazzling new entrance plaza dominated by Kuma’s striking buildings with their living green roofs and glass walls ornamented with vertical bamboo slats. The largest building is a gallery and bookstore with an outdoor bonsai collection and waterfall feature on the second floor. The new teahouse is entered from the plaza level and provides a floatingly serene forested setting for authentic Japanese tea and refreshments. The third pavilion is used by the gardeners and has an outdoor bonsai gallery to one side. The open plaza between the buildings is used for all kinds of events, from Kabuki performances to concerts.
From the plaza, you pass through another gate to enter the five different gardens that comprise the Portland Japanese Garden. The Strolling Pond Garden is the largest garden on the site, with a picturesque Moon Bridge crossing the Upper Pond. Within the Tea Garden you'll find a ceremonial teahouse constructed in Japan (using pegs instead of nails), reassembled here in 1968. Farther south, the aptly named Zig-Zag Bridge leads through a waterside area planted with May-blossoming Japanese irises to the Lower Pond, where giant koi slowly navigate below a waterfall. The ponds are filled with enormous, brilliantly colored koi.
The Natural Garden covers the south hillside, where stone steps wind down past shallow, meandering waterscapes. The abstract, Zen-inspired Sand and Stone Garden is at the end, with weathered stones rising from a bed of gravel that’s been raked to suggest the sea. Plantings in the Flat Garden, to the north, are meant to resemble a sake cup and gourd bottle, symbols of pleasure and happiness. The large wooden pavilion behind the Flat Garden is used for special events and provides a majestic view of Portland and Mount Hood from its eastern terrace.
- Donald Olson