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Wisdom from Japanese gardeners

Garden Muse

Even though the Portland Japanese Garden feels eternal, it's actually only 50 years old.

On Oct. 13, the garden hosted a grand reunion of the eight Japanese gardeners who formed the garden over time. The Portland Art Museum's Fields Ballroom was filled with hundreds of us, eager to hear their shared memories. They spoke about what it was like to come to this country as young men to participate in such a project. Here are some of the highlights.

Appreciating the garden

The first gardener, Kinya Hira, worked directly with the original designer, Professor Takuma Tono (1891-1985). Hira remembered Tono's perfectionism.

'He would talk about the plants as if they were children. He would say, 'Can't you see that plant is thirsty?' He would wake me at 2 a.m. to discuss stone work.' Hira emphasized that the structure of stones is central to Japanese gardens.

Even though I've been to the garden dozens of times, the evening of talks added a new layer of appreciation to my next experience. When I visited the garden in early November, I paid more attention to the rock work on the paths, the steps, the stepping stones, the walls, the waterfalls, even the lanterns. I noticed the variety of materials, the diversity of texture, color and shape. Stones are truly at the heart of the garden.

Hira also suggested some ways to enjoy the garden more fully.

'Close your eyes and experience tranquility of your senses - the sound of water, the birds, the faint scents - they're all very soothing,' he added.

On that visit, I stood quietly listening to the swoosh of water rushing down the hillside, to the more delicate trickle as the stream passed through narrower places. I took time to breathe in the pine-scented air.

Hira stressed the importance of ongoing tending.

'The key to eternal beauty is maintenance - the key is people's love for the garden,' he said. And sure enough, on the day we visited, a gardener was pruning an overgrown andromeda shrub (Pieris japonica), removing a good third of the growth to expose the branches. As he skillfully trimmed it, the formerly blobby bush became an artful piece of sculpture.

Hira reminded us that the garden was begun not long after the end of World War II, when many Americans felt animosity toward the Japanese. Developing the garden - a cooperative project between Portland and its sister city Sapporo - helped ameliorate those resentments.

'The garden conquered and overcame ignorance - it stands for international peace,' Hira said.

Gardening in the rain

In 1977, Masayuki Mizuno was invited by then 80-year-old Professor Tono to go to Portland and help with the Japanese garden. Mizuno spoke no English, and had barely received basic training in Japan.

'Everything was experimental,' he remembered. 'But still I felt supported, encouraged, and trusted.'

Rain or shine or snow, the gardeners had to show up. Portland is further north than Sapporo, with a colder and damper climate.

'How can we work in the rain?' Mizuno asked a fellow gardener.

'You get used to it,' he was told. Soon though, four pairs of rain suits arrived for the gardeners to wear.

Finding materials and helpers

Kichiro Sano remembered the difficulty of finding building materials for the garden. In Japan they could buy anything, but in Portland they had to get permits to collect native materials.

'We went to the mountain to get rock, to the beach to gather rocks in buckets,' he recalled.

He hired two immigrants from Laos to weed.

'They were happy to work here. No sound of the cannon, no gunshots, no war here,' Sano said.

Appreciation of a legacy

Sadafumi Uchiyama just celebrated his second anniversary as the garden's current curator. After the eight former directors were finished speaking, Uchiyama had only a few minutes remaining. His talk was very likely abbreviated, but his words were memorable.

'I hear their stories from the rocks, moss, trees, in the quiet mornings. Their imprints exist. You, the community here in Portland, are the owners. Eight men built it for you,' he concluded.

Each man added something unique to the garden, whether a path, a water feature, a tea house or an entry gate. Although the garden flows together, it took many hands to make it, and more yet to keep it looking pristine.

Now, when I step into the garden, I'm aware of how much I enjoy the fruits of all their energy. I feel the presence of so much loving attention over time.