One of the many water features that dot the landscape of the Japanese gardens. Photo by Justin Howerton

Japanese garden offers cultural sanctuary

On Nov. 10, I was fortunate enough to visit the Portland Japanese Garden and attend a cultural tea demonstration in the process. When you walk through the gates of the garden, you are immediately transported to a place seemingly outside of Portland. Leaves of various colors greet you as your attention drifts upwards from the entrance. You slowly trek up a small path that leads to a bridge, which overlooks much of Washington Park. The former Japanese ambassador to the United States Nobuo Matsunaga said in 1988 that this garden was “the most beautiful and authentic (garden) in the world outside of Japan.” The garden has been through multiple iterations throughout its lifespan, and its constant evolution improves upon each successive version. Experiencing significant renovations throughout the past decade, the space seems to have finally calmed down enough to fulfill its purpose: to offer a unique space for contemplation, reflection and introspection while honoring the meditative and restorative aspects of Japanese culture. 

The city of Portland was commissioned to build this garden after it became the sister city of Sapporo, Japan in 1959. The land that the garden currently occupies once housed the remnants of the Oregon Zoo before its relocation. Many of the structures, objects and vegetation located within the garden have been donated by Japanese families or organizations over the course of its existence. In 2017, the Cultural Village project was finally completed. Designed by a native Japanese architect, this quaint group of buildings makes an effective use of space greets visitors as they make their way to the top of the hill. Including a cafe, gallery and space reserved for public and cultural demonstrations, this addition serves as an enduring testament to the longevity and significance of the garden as a cultural site. 

Beginning in 2008, the Portland Japanese Garden began to host rotating art exhibitions, which have often featured pieces created by artists of Japanese heritage. The sculptural and three-dimensional work of Noritaka Tatehana is currently on display. Tatehana’s work seeks to bridge the divide between tradition and contemporary practice by adapting veteran styles to modern artistic conventions. One of the more striking features of this exhibit was the series of platform shoes designed by Tatehana that have even captured the attention of certain celebrities. During the Edo period, which is often cited as one of the most prolific periods of Japanese craftsmanship, wealthy female aristocrats often wore elaborate shoes that are similar to the ones created by Tatehana. To signify their wealth and superiority over the general public, these shoes often featured extremely high heels. One cannot help but think of Tatehana’s works as unbearably practical when viewing them in the gallery, but, perhaps if the courtesans of Edo were able to suffer wearing similar shoes, we may at least value them for their aesthetic appeal. 

The key event on Nov. 10 was a cultural tea demonstration. Essentially, two women walked through the process of traditional Japanese tea-making, and one of them held a question and answer section after their demonstration. The three components that would have comprised a traditional ceremony are preparation, the actual drinking of the tea and the ceremonial cleaning of the tools used in the ceremony. Each section has specific instructions. Above all, a traditional tea ceremony was intended to serve a restorative purpose among the guests and the host. Every minute detail that came with the ceremony required a certain mindfulness that made it easier to glide into a meditative, tranquil state. A small white scroll with four Japanese characters stood beside the woman throughout the duration of the demonstration. At the end, one of them mentioned that these characters represented the four principles that tea ceremonies were intended to cultivate and inspire: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. 

The knowledge gained from the demonstration made my subsequent stroll around the garden that much more uplifting and resplendent. I stopped at my leisure to examine waterfalls, gifted pagodas and a diverse collection of bonsai trees. I could not have been sure of my emotions before entering the garden. I may have been annoyed about the difficulty that accompanies parking in Washington Park, troubled by the amount of work I was avoiding by choosing to actually enjoy myself on a Sunday or depressed in part of the coming winter season. But during those moments inside the garden all extraneous sensations vanished, and I was left admiring things for exactly what they were: a falling orange leaf, a hazy view of Mount Hood and bubbles on an otherwise placid surface from a lurking koi fish. Healing cannot manifest itself over the course of a couple hours, but that intimation of peace has been with me since I left. I encourage anyone interested in recalibration to visit the garden before autumn has fully passed. 

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