Portland Japanese Garden — Portland, OR

A hidden treasure within the West Hills of Portland, Oregon, the Portland Japanese Gardens offer visitors a tranquil retreat where one can immerse themself in the unobtrusive and elegant Shibui nature of the authentic Zen garden experience. The aesthetic principles of Fukinsei (asymmetry), Kanso (simplicity), Koko (venerablity), Yugen (mystery), Datsoku (otherworldliness), and Seijaku (stillness) incorporated into the design and arrangement of the garden’s stones, waters, plants, bridges, and ornaments are meant to persuade the visitor in achieving a wabi-sabi state of mind, in which beauty is not something that is merely observed, nor is it flawless or everlasting, but rather experienced, accepted and revered in the ‘imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete’.

The twisting slope ascending from the base of the hill to the entrance conjures
a sense of mystery before one even sets foot inside the garden gate. The unknown of what lies beyond the winding path intensifies the visitors’ awareness, seemingly preparing them for the introspective adventure they are about to undertake. Stepping through the entryway into the gardens, the view remains limited as the twists and turns ahead create an anticipation of the ethereal encounter that awaits. Preconception, however, is interrupted when the water basin positioned just within the entrance beckons the visitor to take a moment to purify and cleanse themself of the existential sorrow attached to the secular mind-set.

Around the bend, a flowing stream unites the two ponds of the Strolling Pond Garden, while the Heavenly Falls serves as the backdrop for the lower pond’s fabled tortoise and hare boulders, barely escaping the spray of the cascading waters as they emerge from the pool. Through the lush foliage of the neighboring Tea Garden, one can catch a glimpse of the authentic tea house where the centuries-old ritual of preparing tea is honored through artistic expression, a ceremonious embrace of the wabi-sabi way of life. Just beyond, the narrow, zig-zag bridge leading to the falls is a reminder to be reluctant to rush, as the wise koi below contently glide through the waters, unconcerned with neither time nor destination. Upstream, the Moon Bridge’s simplistic symbolism transitions visitors over the sparkling waters, further from their worldly existence and deeper into Nature’s celestial realm, as seemingly aimless paths and stairways lead the way to the Natural Garden.

© 2019 Diane Irby

The authentic, asymmetrical expression of Nature surrounds visitors of the Natural Garden. The ubiquity of the fully flourished flora and matured mosses serves as an expression worthy of veneration, while the stillness of the ponds, in contrast with the multitude of interjacent streams and falls, offers an occasion of composed contemplation as one connects with the perfect impermanence of the moment. Traditional stone lanterns sprinkled throughout the landscape will illuminate the pathways once evening emerges, mimicking the glow of the setting sun. As the hollow bamboo of the deerscare infinitely collects water only to return it back into the stream, its rhythmic reverberations are a reminder of the inconsequence of the passage of time, as well as the irrelevance of all that has transpired, and all that is to come. Through this Zen practice of detaching from conceived realities, revealing and embracing one’s own mirrored expression of Nature’s consistent inconsistencies, satori, or sudden enlightenment, can be achieved.

© 2019 Diane Irby

Further ahead visitors will discover the Sand and Stone Garden. Faithful to its name, the Sand and Stone Garden does not rely on botanical or aquatic elements. Instead, the irregular arrangement of stones that stand like unyielding mountains capture the infinite possibilities that exist within the negative space between them, while allowing themselves to fully express their own unique form and beauty. Representing a tigress and her seven cubs, the stones’ composition, in contrast with the meticulously maintained sand below, reflects the paradox of the peaceful contentment that can be gleaned from Nature’s untamed forces.

The remainder of the meandering pathway leads to the Flat Garden. From the framed view of the Pavilion Gallery, visitors witness a spectacle of seasonal symbolism. The youthful, cascading branches of the Weeping Cherry direct the eye to the flowing water-like pattern of raked gravel, representing the cultivated capability one achieves only through maturity. The vigor of the Lace Leaf Japanese Maple reflects the resurgence of passion often encountered in mid-life, while the contorted form of the Black Pine portrays the requisite intrepid spirit one must acquire as they approach the obscurity that lies beyond the end-of-Life.

© 2019 Diane Irby

The secluded serenity of the Portland Japanese Gardens provides visitors the opportunity for introspective illumination as they experience, interact, and become one with the Zen principles of Fukinsei, Kanso, Koko, Yugen, Datsoku, and Seijaku that have been fused into the composition of the garden’s stones, waters, plants, bridges, and ornamental elements. A manifestation of itself, the nearly inexplicable nature of Zen contained within the garden walls permits the visitor to witness the imperceptible, mystical threads that hold together the tapestry of our worldly existence, resulting in a sincere satisfaction of one’s place within the sacredness of Life and Nature.

art historian. writer.

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