A botanical gem in Portland

There’s a little piece of heaven tucked away high above the tennis courts in Portland’s Washington Park.

The 5.5-acre Japanese Garden is a stunning of example not only of authentic Japanese gardening but also of thoughtful and creative use of urban space. Over dinner, my niece, Corinne, and her husband Josh told us it’s a must-see, and they gave us a book on walking tours of Portland to help us find it as we prowled the city the next day.

Portland shines a very bright spotlight on its natural resources, and you need only to search the park system’s website to get a sense of how very much this city embraces its inhabitants’ love of the outdoors. Bike paths, hiking trails, walking tours, tennis courts, etc. etc. etc. are abundant and easily accessible in the city’s 200 parks.

But the Japanese garden offers a special brand of serenity that transforms a visitor to Kyoto while engulfing visitors in Portland’s cool mountain air. The five distinct gardens slope along the top of the park, using the three elements crucial to a Japanese garden: water, the source of life; rocks, the bones of the landscape; and plants, the tapestry of the four seasons.

There are gentle pools surrounded by budding irises; stone gardens raked, Zen-style, providing an ideal place to contemplate, meditate or simply sit. There are stones emblazoned with Haiku alongside stately natural cedars that tower over the winding trail below. And there are countless plantings, waterfalls and little surprises to be encountered as you walk along in silence.

Here cell phones are not allowed, and there seems to be unanimous respect for the park’s serenity. Would that that the requests for silence in movie theaters be as respectfully honored.

It’s easy to see the care given to the grounds, and as if to emphasize this point a gardener shows up with wheelbarrow full of mulch to fill in a low spot along a cedar footbridge across a pond. He shovels, rakes and meticulously pats the mulch into place, creating a perfectly smooth surface to complete his tiny piece of landscape architecture.

Volunteers scurry throughout the grounds, filling bucks with fallen leaves and generally making sure everything is in place.

Great care is taken to retail human scale in the park while displaying its impressive variety of styles and effects. The goal is to make visitors feel part of the park, not overwhelmed by it, and it’s a goal well accomplished.

Park literature says the idea is to create a place of harmony and tranquility, and from a courtyard adjacent to one of the park’s pagodas you can get a glimpse of the mountains in the distance to add an additional special element. The giants appeared as misty outlines the day we were there, but their looming presence was still a reminder of the Pacific Northwest’s majesty.

We left the park to see a bit of the city, and that meant spending a couple hours in the aisles of Powell’s Bookstore. This mega-store is said to offer just about any title, author or subject to anyone who has the time to find it, and it took us no time at all to put our hands on the Cambodian language guide we have been seeking.

It’s an overwhelmingly amazing place, the FAO Schwartz of bookstores.

Leaving to head north to Seattle, we remarked on the city’s youthful vibrancy (my daughters would both love it, as they would Seattle), the hilly design of streets alongside the river and mountains, and the unique vibe of a small city with a unique artistic, outdoorsy flair.

A livable, interesting place, and one with a little bit of Japan hidden well away from the bustling city center.