Now and Zen: The Portland Japanese Garden

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Now and Zen: The Portland Japanese Garden

February 1, 2010
11:39am
Photo by: Chelsea Stickel

Some seek out the Portland Japanese Garden as an oasis, it’s true. For sure, Portland residents slip into the garden’s deep-green embrace to escape earthly cares. And absolutely, the layering of deftly sculpted form and texture — of noble stone juxtaposed against curvaceously sculpted branches — is meant to draw you away from the mundane and material onto a higher plane. But retreat isn’t all this place is about.

The Portland Japanese Garden doesn’t take the passive approach. Instead, active and present is how the garden hopes to interact with its public. Most notably, its newly appointed garden curator, Sadafumi Uchiyama, adopts an invigoratingly engaged stance. The creation of the garden curator position and Uchiyama’s appointment in October 2008 was part of the process by the Portland Japanese Garden to fulfill a cohesive vision for the garden. “Another name for my position,” Uchiyama likes to say, “is ‘the vision keeper.’”

Part of what Uchiyama does is to define the garden and make certain that its integrity remains intact. But it goes deeper than that. Uchiyama, who has interacted with the garden since he moved to Portland in 1995, strives to hone how the garden speaks to its public. And he’s hoping that the garden can communicate on a very down-to-earth level.

So, rather than the typical intangibles connected with a Zen sort of space, Uchiyama talks in truisms. Though spirituality drips from every bough in this 5.5-acre venue, discovering it is best done without too much prompting. Thus Uchiyama doesn’t dive deeply into the garden’s spiritual message when he speaks to visitors, and he skips suggestions of how you should react to the five meticulously manicured spaces that compose this landscape not far from Portland’s more-concrete persona. Instead, he shares informed and insightful observations of how nature and plants interplay, and chronicles the duties of those who maintain the garden, challenging visitors to be attentive to the surroundings. Then he weaves that into the greater confluence of Japanese tradition before letting you loose to explore the landscape personally. And before you know it, you’ve found your own way to seeing the waves of the ocean carved in a black pine and the promise of eternal life in the trip of water over stone.

When he discusses the garden, Sada Uchiyama often begins with the bears that were once a part of the zoo originally housed there, and explains how their former den is now a part of the waterfall in the Strolling Pond Garden. Which seems like a valid starting point to chronicle the land’s transformation through stewardship and craftsmanship to its current plateau of perfection. Originally, the garden was inspired by the Sister City program (Portland became the sister city of Sapporo, Japan, in 1959) and was the vision of the Japanese Garden Society of Oregon and professor Takuma Tono, who graduated from Cornell and then taught in Tokyo before returning to the United States, and was commissioned in 1963 to design and landscape the garden. The plan for the garden started taking shape in the early 1960s before construction began in 1965 and continued without pause until its full completion in 1990. What set the Portland Japanese Garden apart was its methodical installation. Other gardens were built fast and furious in a year, maybe two. But it took nearly 30 years to construct Portland’s garden. During that time, a series of craftsmen journeyed from Japan and accomplished the gradual, systematic design. “The garden was so well integrated with a sense of the place and its natural environment,” Uchiyama points out, “that no major grading was necessary.”

Continuity was critical, which is why the gardener craftsmen came for spans of two to four years and labored with head gardeners who remained for 30 years to oversee the overall vision. Throughout its lifespan, the garden has gradually knit together, always changing, but always answering to its founding principles. As Uchiyama likes to say, “a garden evolves, but its concept and design stay.”

As for the design, the Portland garden is composed of the traditional elements typical of Japanese style and features five areas: a strolling garden with its characteristic zigzag bridge to deflect evil, a humility-reinforcing tea garden with a tea house in which the ritual tea ceremony is performed, a flat garden of meditative raked sand, as well as a sand and stone garden mirroring those found in Zen monasteries, and a natural garden which — unlike the other compositions — is meant to be experienced and perceived physically rather than beheld from a distance. Each transports you, but the broader lesson throughout is the interrelatedness of all forms in life. “It’s a feeling of connection that we’re trying to convey, and the garden is the means,” Uchiyama explains.

If the Portland Japanese Garden’s newest curator seems so comfortable with his craft that he expounds truths about existence, gardening and where those two concepts intercept while nonchalantly cradling pruners, that’s because he was raised among gardeners. In Japan, Uchiyama’s family has served the land as professional gardeners since 1909, and his own intensive field training began at age 10. As a result, he doesn’t know the meaning of a summer break. But he also has an inherent knowledge of the meaning and associations behind the rhythms and customs of Eastern gardening. For a time, he rebelled, joining the Peace Corps just to get away. “I escaped the family tradition,” he admits, but eventually returned to the fold, with a redefined approach. He likes to say that he’s redrawn his understanding. In 1988, after studying Eastern landscape architecture in Japan, he attended school in this country — earning a bachelor’s and master’s in landscape architecture from the University of Illinois — to learn the tenets of Western landscape architecture. From there, he was instrumental in the restoration of the 3-acre Japanese garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens in 2002. As a result of a lifelong closeness with landscapes, Uchiyama is infinitely copasetic with the Portland garden and its maintenance, but never casual.

Horticultural skill is paramount in this canvas of intricately juxtaposed lines and curves, the ambiance the result of rhododendrons pruned into sleek mounds that seem to be one continuous surface and pines painstakingly plucked of excess needles one by one at precisely a certain time. In Japanese gardens, the goal is “to distill the essence of each element into its natural form,” and even stones and bamboo edging are treated as individuals. “Instead of standing like soldiers, wood pegs used to retain the edge of the pond are uneven, of different sizes and given different orientations.” Uchiyama insists that a Japanese garden isn’t only about techniques: “It’s the unified vision.”

By heightening awareness of all the Portland Japanese Gardens’ inner workings and by explaining its processes and roots, Uchiyama hopes to reach out to all who maneuver the steppingstones in its pathways and brush against the venerable sheared conifers. And time is a critical element here, as “the garden is enriched by the passage of time,” according to Uchiyama. Although the Portland garden is mature by Japanese-American standards, it’s merely in its adolescence in the greater scheme of Japanese gardens. “One hundred years is the Japanese standard for maturity,” Uchiyama explains. “We’re still giving the garden its flavor.” As for Sada Uchiyama, he’s in it for the long haul. “I know that things would and should change,” says Uchiyama. “We’re just beginning a long journey.”

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