A Portland Japanese Garden calls to mind the art of Andy Goldsworthy

Our Zen gardener gets a nudge to visit the Portland Japanese Garden and finds five gardens in one.
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Worthy of Andy.

Our Zen gardener gets a nudge to visit the Portland Japanese Garden and finds five gardens in one.

A new friend told me I should visit Portland's Japanese Garden. "Why?" I asked. She said the garden is absolutely beautiful everywhere you look, from the ground up ... and peaceful, so peaceful. But it's small — only 5.5 acres. How can it begin to compare to Seattle's Kubota Garden? Twenty acres of Japanese garden, that. Hills and valleys, waterfalls, ponds, native plants. Designed by a master landscaper, Fujitaro Kubota, the garden greets you with haiku at the front gate. Have I mentioned the native plants?

So, I stalled.

Then, last weekend I went to Portland and found myself in a long Sunday afternoon line, willing to pay the $8 entrance fee to see what she was so effusive about. (This is not an effusive woman.)

Walking through the entrance gate felt like walking into Andy Goldsworthy's world. Goldsworthy is a British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist known for his use of natural and found objects in sculptures that reflect their surrounding environment. Picture a huge heart of bright red leaves twigged together and floating down a river. That is a tiny taste of what his art is like. He uses flowers, leaves, wood, stones, and even ice to create art that is impossibly beautiful. Ice sculptures that melt. Leaf and flower forms that get carried away by moving water. Stone fences that weave in circular and sinewy ways through a forest. He is fearless and creative and inspiring.

Right now, in this fall of 2008, Portland's Japanese Garden is Andy. Vistas of green enveloping a lone day-glow purple-red-orange-yellow-leafed maple whose limbs wind and twirl and, yes, circle until they end in explosions of multiple colors. Impossible and true. And that is just the first thing you see. Circles of pine needles finding their way to the bottom of a small waterfall, ending in patterns eerily complicated and symmetrical. Eight, sometimes nine, concentric circles raked in sand surrounding stones reflecting the whites and pale grays of the sand itself. The garden is filled to the brim with such beauty broken up by benches to sit on, a tea house to stare at, tile walkway patterns to study, and bamboo fences to imitate.

The Garden clearly promises four seasons of beauty. Its designer, Professor Takumo Tuno, had as his vision a garden that would not only be a place for "cultivation of trees and flowering shrubs, but one that provides secluded leisure, rest, repose, meditation and sentimental pleasures." The garden does all these things.

If you don't have a couple of hours to visit, the place is actually five gardens in one ... so you could pick one or two and spend time in them.

The Five Gardens

The tea garden (1) and (2) is really two little gardens that surround a ceremonial tea house. The "outer garden" has an old-fashioned well and a covered waiting gate. The "inner garden" is a quiet, almost ordinary little spot — purposefully. One of the teachings of tea ceremonies is that nothing outside of a tea house should distract participants from the ceremony itself.

A strolling pond garden (3) is the largest garden and acts as a gateway to the place's centerpiece, an antique, five-tiered pagoda lantern given to Portland by its sister city, Sapporo. There, a bridge crosses the upper pond and two stones representing longevity. A lower pond is home to at least the three koi I saw and a waterfall that ends at seven paving stones representing the big dipper. These examples of symbolism are just the tip of the symbolic iceberg that pervades the garden.

The flat garden (4) feels expansive and is the most formal of the five choices. White sand has been raked into careful patterns that both look and feel (!) suspiciously like water. Two of the islands of planting in the flat garden symbolize pleasure. One is a sake gourd, representing happiness and hospitality. The circle next to it represents enlightenment.

The most abstract garden (5) is a sand and stone garden that looks like every sand and stone garden photograph ever taken in a Zen monastic garden. Abstract. Lovely.

The Portland Japanese Garden is open all year except for major holidays. In the colder months, October through the end of March, hours are truncated to 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and if you go on a Monday, the doors don't open until noon.


Take a camera. Even if you do not, in any way, think of yourself as a photographer, take a camera.


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