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Portland Japanese Garden: New additions to an old treasure

A deep visit with the expanded garden and with the Japan Institute's first artist in residence, Japanese glass artist Rui Sasaki.

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STORY and photographs by FRIDERIKE HEUER


Memories of Hiroshima are what drives me to take action to restore peace.
 In order to achieve peace, the international community must make it clear that aggression as such brings consequences.”

– Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in a speech at the Guildhall in London, U.K., on May 5, 2022.

SCIENCE. ART. GARDEN(S). A perfect trifecta, all told. Superseded by thoughts of peace. Recent visits to Portland Japanese Garden, one of our city’s treasures, stretched both mind and senses along those lines.

I had not been to the garden in a while. First it was closed for a serious $37 million remodel, with new buildings added, and the approach path restructured. Then the pandemic ensued. I was excited, therefore, when my visiting kids suggested the outing – delighted by novelty and grateful for the familiar.

You now pay at the bottom of the hill, then climb up a beautifully landscaped path (a shuttle bus is also available), eventually entering through the old gate, which still greets you with familiar detail.

Bamboo grids support aquatic planting and platforms amplify the sound of dripping water or rainfall while installed as visual screens on the ground, covering mechanical features and drains.
Bell at the old entrance gate.

Portland Japanese Garden was an idea conceived in the late 1950s in the context of the United States’ attempt to improve relations with Japan after the horrors of World War II. It was founded in 1963, declared the Year of Peace. The project was based on the assumption that the experience of a peaceful environment could be transferred to healing on a larger scale, leaving the hostilities between the nations behind us, promoting reconciliation. I had to look it up, of course, since I don’t speak Japanese, but there are multiple words in Japanese linked to these aspects: 和平 (wahei) means peace, 和解 (wakai) means reconciliation or rapprochement, and 和む (nagono) means to be softened or calming down. All three concepts can be found in the garden: peace as a mission, rapprochement in acts of cultural exchange (more below), and calming, if you immerse yourself in the nature on offer.

Sign at the entrance, maple plantings and water feature.

It is only fitting that the Japan Institute, an extension of Portland Japanese Garden founded last year and devoted to connecting people internationally and exchanging ideas about peace through cultural diplomacy, has created a Peace Program Series.

The first symposium,“Peacemaking at the Intersection of Culture, Art, and Nature,” will be staged in Tokyo, Japan on the United Nation’s International Day of Peace, September 21, 2022. Before that, replicas of the garden’s own peace lantern will be given as  Peace Lantern as symbolic gifts to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Tokyo. 

The “Peace Lantern” (neko ashi yukimi), on the East bank of the Upper Strolling Pond. 

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IT TOOK ALMOST seven years from site dedication to opening in 1967, revealing a riveting acreage of 5-in-1 gardens, each reflecting different historical development styles in Japanese horticulture, designed by Paul Takuma Tono (1891 – 1987.) Educated both in Japan and the U.S., Tono was the head of the landscape architecture department at Tokyo Agricultural University, led a design firm that produced renowned public and private landscapes, and designed a Japanese garden for the Memphis, Tennessee, Botanic Garden as well as the one here in Portland.

Tono’s vision of the flat garden (hira-niwa). The gravel was imported from Japan, deemed too white in its original marble and color-adjusted with more off-white gravel. That kind of attention to detail, getting it “right,” is a hallmark of this garden.

Across the decades, the space began to be open year-round, and several structures were added. Most recently, three LEED-certified buildings compose a Cultural Village, skillfully nestled in the surrounding nature, realized by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, for whom this was the first American project. (You can find a recent book about his approach to this particular design and his vision in general here.) Three steel-and-glass pavilions linked by a large courtyard provide space for arts, horticulture, education, a library, and a giftshop (quadrupled in size from the old one) and a café. Real growth for a cultural institution, grounds for celebration. Not everyone was happy, though.

Some members of the adjacent Arlington Heights Neighborhood Association worried that the commercial additions to the garden were double the approved size from the city’s land use decision, and would result in increased noise and congestion, and a loss of open space. They claimed that the garden didn’t honor promises to mitigate lighting to maintain a dark sky in the park and limit spillover to the neighborhood, or use bird-safe construction practices. (Ref.) This was during the construction phase some years back – I could find no further information, so hopefully all is resolved.

Water not absorbed by the green roofs drips into graveled dry-wells. Class- and meeting rooms are airy, with glass sliding doors that allow the outside in, and are sheltered by wooden slats.

The buildings flank a new wall, Zagunis Castle wall, the first of its kind outside of Japan. Built by a 15th-generation (!) master stonemason, Suminori Awata, who usually repairs old ones at home and was delighted in the opportunity to build a new one, it is supposed to invoke medieval Japan.

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Zagunis Castle Wall.

The garden attracts between 1,500 and 3,000 visitors on its most crowded days, much dependent on season, but also receives other communal support. Lots of organizations, for example, have donated trees like this red pine.

Individuals volunteered to build bridges. I was told that Robert C. Burbank, a 98-year-old supporter, recently visited to look at the Moon Bridge he helped fashion from an old redwood effluent container no longer in use at the factory where he worked many years ago.

The garden, in turn, gives back. There is, I learned after wondering about the high cost of admission, making visits seemingly out of reach for economically disadvantaged folks, a membership category named in honor of this Moon Bridge. For $20, Oregon and Southwest Washington families receiving public income-related assistance can become annual members. The garden also participates in the Multnomah Library Discovery Pass program, donating free tickets that library patrons in need can reserve. And if you have an Oregon Trail Card, the garden’s Arts for All Program lets you buy up to two adult tickets per card for $5 each, with free admission for up to four children 17 or younger per card.

The basic structure of the garden is unchanged, with its many inviting and/or hidden vistas,

its Koi ponds,

tea house garden (cha-niwa,)

its maple trees that attract practically every single Portland photographer in the fall,

and its strolling (kaiyū-shiki-teien) or sand and stone gardens (karesansui).

Buddha and the Tiger cubs. Karesansui, or dry landscape garden, focuses on the beauty of blank space, often found as parts of Zen monasteries.

Eight full-time gardeners and many volunteers tend to the place, with daily (!) raking of moss one of the many repetitive chores. I appreciated that they interrupted their work for me, answering my questions and letting me take photographs. Thank you, caretaker Masaki! Of course, I always return to photographing the same subjects, my beloved conifers and the occasional maples. He, on the other hand, returns to taking care of the Bonsai.

A 500 year-old Rocky Mountain Juniper at the Bonsai Display at the Bonsai Terrace.

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THE VISUAL BEAUTY of the garden is renowned, and the obvious magnet for scores of visitors each year. There is another feature, though, that we should think about as well. A growing movement in contemporary landscape architecture suggests to integrate soundscapes and thinking about sound in gardens, a sensory experience that has scientifically acknowledged positive effects on our health. There has been a recent flurry of research focusing on the impact of sound, with some concentrating on untouched natural environments to prevent more sound pollution, and others looking at designed natural spaces. The upshot of much of the medical literature: Too much noise is bad for your health, but exposure to nature and garden visits can lead to reduced heart rate and improve our circulatory systems as well as our mood; and they certainly engage our senses. Perhaps not news to traditional gardeners. Sound has been integral to Japanese landscape design for centuries, after all. For the rest of us, new to the idea and curious, I am summarizing an in-depth exploration of 88 Japanese gardens, found here, and apply examples found in our very own garden.

Water features add wanted natural sound and also provide auditory masking for unwanted sounds.

Sound is a variable that can be looked at from different perspectives. You can embrace wanted sounds, you can avoid unwanted sounds, and sometimes you can invite unwanted sounds (as a contrast effect). Wanted sounds can be introduced in gardens by the sounds of water, vegetation, the materials you walk on, certain biotopes and resonance and reflection. Unwanted sounds can be reduced by noise screens (walls, buildings or hedges, etc.) by topography (don’t build next to the highway…) and absorbing (moss as a ground cover) or deflecting materials (tree-stands next to garden walls that stop the city noise carried over by wind), to mention a few. None of these are exhaustive lists.

Absorbant moss carpets.
Wooden screens at the tea house, protecting against extraneous noise, but also producing natural noise when the fall winds hit at the right angle.

Wanted sounds can be enhanced if you place the garden close to other natural landscapes that provide nature sounds – as is the case in town where Forest Park is a natural backdrop with its wooded hills, bird and squirrel sounds wafting over. Water features like loud streams or waterfalls are both providing wanted natural sounds but are also good for auditory masking of traffic or other unwanted noises.

By all reports, Tono stood with his back to the waterfall during installation and directed the placement of rocks and boulders according to the sound that was achieved by different interrelations.

The subtle noise of water trickling engages our senses; it can vary in rhythm and tone, speed and amplitude.

Vegetation can provide pleasant noise: the rustling of leaves, the creaking of branches, the swooshing when the wind moves bamboo, the noise rain makes on broad-leaved plants.

Gravel paths make sounds (as would have the traditional stone paths when frequented by people who historically wore geta, wooden shoes, that clomped along). Large pebbles provide sound surfaces for dripping water.

Biotopes, conscious planting of species that attract birds and their song, for example, also bring about sound, as do shallow ponds for frogs. The fish, of course, splash, occasionally and unexpectedly, with those huge carp making quite the noise.

Add to that the joyous noises of kids squealing with delight when the Koi jump, and the politely mumbled but insistent exhortations by staff/volunteers to refrain from bending too closely over the water to get that perfect shot….

Hard surfaces like concrete walls or large sculptures can amplify desirable sounds.

In sum, next time you visit, extend your awareness to the auditory components delivered by Portland Japanese Garden. They might reliably, if subtly, increase your pleasure. Announced with a gong seen at the Pavilion Gallery some times back! Maybe too loud….

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“Intimacy: noun

1: the state of being intimate FAMILIARITY

2: something of a personal or private nature – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

SOMETIMES IT PAYS OFF TO BE BRAVE AND CHEERFUL. I cold-called the folks at the garden to see if I could meet their very first artist-in-residence invited by the Japan Institute, who arrived last week. The Institute is in the process of remodeling a new campus that will eventually hold artist studios and housing as well as lecture halls and administrative offices, an extended cultural space. For now, artists are privately accommodated, recruited through leadership connections and networks keen on showcasing international art related and/or relevant to Japan.

The response to my query could not have been friendlier. Sarah Kate Nomura, the Assistant Director of Exhibitions, filled me in on the mission and future plans of the Japan Institute. Will Lerner, the media relations specialist, fount of knowledge about the garden and all-round interesting conversationalist, made the arrangements and gave me a terrific tour, adding new bits of knowledge when here I thought I knew the place pretty well. And finally I met the artist, who was gracious in giving me time during her whirlwind arrival for a month-long stay now, and repeat visits planned for December and March, when her exhibit will open in the Pavilion Gallery.

Rui Sasaki, conceptual glass artist.

Rui Sasaki is an internationally exhibited, conceptual glass artist who strikes an unusual balance of sensitivity and edginess. Born in Japan, she has lived in multiple places on the archipelago as well as long stretches abroad. The thread that connects much of her work relates to her desire to experience herself within place, craving understanding of and familiarity with her environment, a desire shared by many of us who have changed countries and cultures, in some cases frequently.

What distinguishes her from the rest of us migratory folks is her ability to create intelligent beauty from the intimacy she develops with her surrounds, extending her descriptive powers to everything from the flora of a particular place to its weather, from observations of present detail of a familiar building, to encapsulation of historic specifics of a particular region.

Sasaki received her BA in industrial, interior and craft design at Musashino Art University in Tokyo, before attending Rhode Island School of Design, where she received her MFA in glass in 2010. I was first alerted to her conceptual gift when I saw images of her craft

and heard the interview about the work that scored her the prestigious Corning Museum of Glass Rakow Commission in 2018. The work is gorgeous. The weather theme was subsequently expanded upon with a series on Wearing rain, in which the artist reimagines traditional Japanese rainwear fashioned from rice straw in glass and silver wire, one of my favorites.

Wearing Rain,” glass, silver wire, 2016. Photo: Pal Hoff

Capturing images of a particular site, or representing it in some ways is not new to glass work, of course. One of Sasaki’s favorite artists, Roni Horn (new to me and now I can’t get her out of my head), for example, collected samples of water from numerous Icelandic glaciers and stored them in transparent glass columns. The Library of Water (2007) is an installation of 24 such containers, refracting and reflecting the light onto a floor covered with a field of words in Icelandic and English that relate to the environmental conditions. Some of the water stored is the last evidence of glaciers that have since melted, a document to the mutability of environments, our unstable place within them, and the need for a sensitive approach to preservation. Here is an interview from Horn’s current show in Paris, laying out some of the principles behind her art anchored in identity and change.

Roni Horn, “The Library of Water,” 2007.

One of my own admired glass artists, Beth Lipman, has several projects related to place as well. Her series Alone and the Wilderness (2014) places gazing balls and other blown containers into the landscape, video-graphing the ongoing reflections of nature with changes in light, temperature and weather conditions, exemplified in the video of Windfalla continuously looped time lapse displayed at the Corning Museum of Glass.

Beth Lipman, “Windfall,” 2014.

Rui Sasaki will use her residency at Portland Japanese Garden to extend an ongoing search for connection to the environment she moves in. What started in Japan during a stay at the Houen Temple in Kanazawa will be continued with specifics from the current site. The artist collects local plants and fires them together with the glass, providing a repository for the ashes that maintain a semblance to their prior form, holding past and present in one. I could not help wondering about the significance of ashes for an artist whose country has quite literally risen from the ashes of nuclear incineration. The trans-generational trauma for offspring of survivors of Hiroshima is scientifically well-documented, as for many later generations of communities who experienced collective loss, the Holocaust, the families of war veterans, be it Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, or former Yugoslavia. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s unshakable anti-nuclear weapons position can be directly linked to his nation’s trauma. Perhaps Sasaki’s subtle beauty can be indirectly associated with the notion that we must not forget. Both urged me to contemplate peace.

She plans to create four walls composed of these glass components in an installation measuring around 8 feet long and more than 9 feet high, with two openings allowing visitors to move among all sides of the display. The combination of Japanese and newly site-acquired plants will link the two cultures. Sasaki also hopes to represent what she’s gleaned in planned conversations with gardeners and staff of the garden, adding historical bits that forge connection to people as well as botanical environment, opening our eyes to different perspectives on the garden. The work will be fired at Bulleseye Studio and displayed in March at the garden’s Pavilion Gallery.

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THE QUESTION OF (NOT) BELONGING can loom large for people who experience culture (and reverse culture!) shock when moving between countries. It is psychologically adaptive to focus on the next best thing – familiarity with and closeness to a place and its people – since rational as well as affective exploration can distract from the pain of uprootedness, probably made worse by the isolation throughout the pandemic.

Some months ago I reviewed an old, but seminal science fiction novel by Sakyo Komatsu, Japan Sinkswhich took nine years to write. The scenario imagines a scientist’s discovery of the likelihood that all of Japan, the entire archipelago, is going to go under due to earthquakes, ocean floor faults, and what not. One of the narrative lines concerns how the government is handling the crisis, from negligence to obstruction to panic. Another focuses on the distribution of millions of people around the world, with nationalist impulses against immigration vying with empathy for a drowning people. My thoughts:

“The philosophical question it raises, though, is one that we will have to think through in climate change migrations to come: what does it do to your identity, as member of a nation, or a tribe or a culture or a language group, when the place that defines you ceases to exist? Literally is no longer there to return to? Is it destructive to lose that connection to place which is a base for underlying sense of self, or is it empowering because you can shed the debt you incurred as a member of the nation (say of an imperialistic or fascistic past) and start from scratch? “

Untitled – Photomontage from my (2014On Transience series, this one inspired by Japanese porcelain work seen in the Pavilion Gallery in 2013. (Sueharu Fukami: A Distant View)

Sasaki’s work speaks to a version of this question, the subjective disconnection to origin as experienced by the migrant. She demonstrates resilience to loss by forging an intimate connection to whatever can still be embraced, finding succor in the perceived beauty of an environment, preserving it in glass for all of us to see. But ashes represent the very notion of loss as well. Art as a wakeup call as much as consolation.

Portland will be enriched by her presence.

Details found on the access path.
  • Here is a 2021 concert of Japanese music presented in the garden.

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Friderike Heuer is a photographer and photomontage artist. Trained as an experimental psychologist at the New School for Social Research, she taught at Lewis & Clark College until she retired to pursue art full time. Her cultural blog www.heuermontage.com explores art and politics on a daily basis through photography and commentary. She has exhibited most recently at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and Camerawork Gallery, on issues concerning migrants and refugees. She frequently volunteers as a photographer for small, local arts non-profits. For more information, visit www.friderikeheuer.online.

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