The Japanese Garden in Portland

 In Bamboos, Evergreens, Gardens Visited, Ornamental trees, Pruning, Trees and Shrubs, Urban Gardening

The Japanese Garden in Portland


The Japanese Garden in Portland is an exceptional garden by any standards!

Over the New Year break I made my second visit to this exquisite garden. My first visit was about 6 years ago and at the height of summer and so the contrast could not have been greater.

This garden is proclaimed to be the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan. It was founded in 1963 and set among towering native Pacific Northwest conifers.

There are eight different garden styles to see.

Prepare yourself for a visit to The Japanese Garden of Portland by visiting their website here.



The Japanese Garden in Portland is conveniently situated close to downtown Portland in a wooded area called Washington Park.

It’s served by both bus and light rail connections. There is also a regular and free shuttle bus service that operates within Washington Park to ferry passengers between the other attractions nearby.

If you arrive by car there is plenty of parking in the neighbourhood and much of it is shaded too.

For instance you could visit the zoo, the World Forestry Center, the Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Memorial and Oregon Holocaust Memorial which are all nearby.

But if your interest is of a horticultural bent then you must also visit the Hoyt Arboretum and the International Rose Test Garden.

It would be easy to spend several days in this area!


On Arrival


The relatively new Tanabe Welcome Center is where you buy your entrance tickets.

If you don’t fancy the steady climb to the garden situated up the hillside there is a shuttle service available.

A simple visitor guide is essential to collect for your best experience in the garden.

Alternatively you could just go with the flow and absorb the whole garden as you find it. This is definitely a garden to sit, take time and relax in!



The winter “bones” revealed


Garden design, Japanese garden, garden pond

Japanese Garden in winter

A good garden has good “bones” that reveal themselves in winter.

This is a term used by gardeners and by designers to describe the plant structure that is revealed in winter when there are few flowers and less leaves.

The Japanese Garden in Portland has great bones!

And so a visit in mid-winter is far from disappointing and allows you to focus on the shape and form without the distraction of bright colours.







Cultural Village


Arriving at the garden proper you will find yourself among buildings. Under cover you’ll find the Ron and Jenny Herman Garden House, Jordan Schnitzer Japanese Arts Learning Center and the Umami Café.

Features to look out for are:

  1. Fukuta Concierge Desk (in the Garden House)
  2. Zagunis Castle Wall (behind the Garden House)
  3. Garden Gift Shop (in the Japanese Arts Learning Center)
  4. Ellie M. Hill Bonsai Terrace (next to the Garden House)
  5. Jubitz Oregon Terrace (next to the Japanese Arts Learning Center)
  6. Vollum Library (inside the Japanese Arts Learning Center)


Also on this level there is a bonsai terrace. The bonsai trees were not on display and were under protective cover for the winter.


Nexu Gate and Flat Garden


Leaving the Cultural Village area you pass through the Nezu Gate into the main gardens.

Japanese Garden, Portland, Flat Garden, raked gravel, garden design

The Flat Garden

Immediately you are confronted by exquisitely trained specimens of evergreen trees and shrubs. Walking through these you find yourself in the Flat Garden.

This area is best revealed from the Pavilion Gallery. There is a large area of raked gravel with a few low islands in the foreground. Behind are low clipped bushes (typically azaleas) and behind this larger trees (pines, maples, camellias, etc.) These depict the foothills, the larger hills behind and then the native and much larger trees depict the mountains.

The Japanese Garden in Portland

The Flat Garden

The Pavilion had an interesting exhibition of ceramics at the time of my visit. The exhibition on the day of my visit is entitled ‘Garden of Resonance: The Art of Jun Kaneko’. This is work from the artist Jun Kaneko.



On the other side of this building on a clear day there is a fine view of snow capped Mt Hood.

I could have spent most of my day in this area and it’s a great place to just relax and clear your mind of the daily stresses.




Strolling Pond Garden


Passing through the Wisteria Arbor, which must look and smell fantastic in spring, you are confronted by the Sapporo Pagoda.

Below this is found the Strolling Pond Garden.

The Strolling Garden, Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon, garden design

The Strolling Garden

Carefully shaped trees sit on moss covered banks as you head down to the koi carp filled ponds.

Behind these ponds is a waterfall tumbling down into the main pond and, whilst it looks natural, it is entirely man made. Apparently the garden designer stood with his back to the construction team and directed the positioning of stones in the waterfall so that not only did it look good but that it sounded good too!

From the koi carp filled pond you walk across a zig-zag bridge only centimeters above the water level. In summer I’m sure that you would be surrounded by exuberant herbaceous flowers and foliage but in mid-winter these plants lay dormant.






Tea Garden


Leaving the ponds temporarily behind you approach the Tea Garden and the Kashintei Tea House.

Tea House, Kashintei Tea House. The Japanese Garden in Portland

Kashintei Tea House

This would be the approach that guests would take when invited to take tea in the garden.

The path and planting is initially formal but passing through the garden it becomes increasingly wild looking until you reach the tea house.

However guests would wait to be greeted at a lodge on the edge of the garden and it is there that they would leave their swords and any other weapons before proceeding!




Moon Bridge and Peace Lantern


Connected to the pond holding koi carp is another lake with steep banks heavily planted with trimmed and stylized azaleas. This must look spectacular in spring when they are in flower!

You can cross this pond on the Moon Bridge and it’s a popular place to take photographs.

Peace lantern, Japanese lantern, garden lantern, Japanese garden

The Peace Lantern

Throughout the garden there are several old stone lanterns but it is here that you will find the Peace Lantern.

This area of the garden is still a part of the beautiful Strolling Garden.







From here I headed to the next main area of the garden.




Natural Garden


I arrived at the Sand and Stone Garden.

sand and stone garden, Japanese garden, Portland, Oregon,

The Sand and Stone Garden

It is surrounded by a high wall, has no plants and consists of merely raked gravel and strategically placed rocks.


This is certainly the simplest garden to see. It is a place to just sit, chill and forget the woes of the world. You are encouraged to appreciate the beauty of the blank space.

Another approach to this area leads you through a Moon Gate. This whole area has narrow paths which are uneven and bring you close to the plants, rocks and water.

Visitors are encouraged to reflect on the essence of life and be in the present moment. This is definitely not a place to be checking your phone!






I picked up various interesting snippets from the volunteer guide that we met.

There are 7 full time gardeners that maintain the garden, headed by the Garden Curator, Hugo Torii, and a senior gardener and garden department administrative manager.

So in total there are 10 people in the Gardening Department. There are many garden volunteers.


The Japanese Garden in Portland is sited on the site of the former zoo! The excellent Oregon Zoo is now not far away and is well worth a visit. Around Christmas time it is a popular place for families to visit to see the spectacular light show that they put on.

I’m told that some of the oldest ornamental specimen plants – as opposed to native plants – were sourced from local gardens. This might explain why some look so spectacularly old and beautiful.


If you enjoy eastern garden styles then you should definitely visit the Lan Su Chinese Garden in the Pearl District in downtown Portland. I’ve written a blog about my visit there here.





Bamboo water feature, Japanese water feature, deer scarer water feature, garden

Water feature to scare away deer.

The small tilting bamboo water feature that you often see in Japanese gardens is used to scare deer from the garden. The centre of a hollow bamboo slowly fills with water until it tilts, empties and makes a loud click when it hits a stone. This noise is apparently effective at keeping deer away.


Bamboo is a remarkable material and I’ve written about several of the attractive and useful purposes that it’s put to in gardens in this blog here.

I also visited a garden in southern France in 2022. It is entirely devoted to bamboos. Read about my visit here.





Keeping in trim


Needling, tree pruning, pruning, niwaki,

Removing old needles and pruning

I noticed a team of four gardeners busy on ladders and climbing older specimens to carry out some maintenance work. They were busy “needling”. That is removing old dead black pine (Pinus nigra) and red pine (Pinus resinosa) needles. They were also trimming out crowded twigs to maintain the cloud pruned effect in these old trees.


If you’re not familiar with cloud pruning I’ve written a blog on it here.







If you find yourself in the beautiful Pacific Northwest of USA I hope that you’ll make time to spend a few hours at the beautiful Japanese Garden in Portland. I strongly recommend it!


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