Back in the early 60s there was a trend across the US to forge a cultural peace with Japan. Though the two countries had long since moved beyond a political truce, many Americans were still at war in their hearts. The City of Portland too wanted to bridge that gap, and encourage an understanding of Japanese humanity, traditions, and ideals, while creating an urban oasis here in the city. That bridge would be built through nature, something that needed no translation.
The Japanese Garden didn’t have an auspicious start. Hate groups formed in protest, vandalizing the initial phases of construction, and harassing the Japanese designers (some who vowed never to return after the work was done). For some it was too soon after WWII, the wounds were too deep, or they weren’t ready for reconciliation or forgiveness. We also have a brutally racist history here, and Oregon’s Japanese American people had been shipped off to “internment camps” during the war.
Eventually time smoothed scars, or perhaps the haters found axes to grind elsewhere. Now a visit to the Garden fulfills its original purpose. It sits perched above the city far from the protests and unrest and hate crimes of today.
“This is a place to discard worldly thoughts and concerns and see oneself as a small but integral part of the universe.”Japanese Garden website
Bringing guests for their first or second time allows me to see through their eyes. We arrive during members’ hours in the early morning, and it’s still quiet; by the time we enter the first gate we’re already delighted. Moving into peace and reconciliation is an easy transition, and a reprieve from… well, out there. Even the rain held off a bit for us.
We meander through the various sections of the Garden with few encounters with other people, but know exactly when it’s 10am because the public arrives in loud chattering knots of people who line the narrow paths in a snaking train. Some seemed oblivious to their surroundings, perhaps checking off some tourist checklist. Others walked while loudly discussing their favorite bands, as yes, two
bros young men are doing. I wanted to suggest that they act a bit more reverential, contemplative. Or at least quiet. (Did I mention they were loud?)
But I can only take care of me, so I keep moving, immersed in colors, textures, the trickling sounds of water, the crunch of gravel beneath our feet, the delicate mandala of petals of the Japanese camellia, the towering Western Red Cedars, the view of Portland splayed out below, while admiring the slow moving gardeners who work their way through the planted areas branch by branch, leaf by leaf.
For an extra 15 seconds of Zen, check out the video I took of The Deer Chaser, or shishi-odoshi.
“The Garden speaks to all the senses, not just to the mind alone.”– Professor Takuma Tono, Garden designer
In the restrooms I’m wowed by yet another new-to-me emblem of modern cultural advancements and grace. Heated toilet seats. How did I miss this? I hesitate a moment before going back out in the cold, but beauty calls and I head back out with a warm bum. (I did take a photo but it doesn’t convey the pleasure…)
Alan goes to the Garden more frequently than I (check out his gorgeous photos). Again? I think. I just went! But the passage of time always brings something new to delight the senses. Alan rounded out our experience with tidbits of information from a tour he’d once taken. The uneven patio beneath a trellis is designed to slow visitors on our way from one area into the next, and encourage us to pause to look up or through or around, before continuing. Stone paths and stairways built are works of art that demand attention to navigate safely, so I take my time, and look more closely. There’s something to gaze upon at every new bend. There’s no direct path; the joy is in the wandering and discovery.
Given today’s political atmosphere it’s easy to imagine the challenges the Garden designers met at its inception. We are an intolerant people. But the garden is a monument to reconciliation. It stands as an urban haven as well as a reminder of the possibilities of moving on from hate and pain toward healing. Maybe we can get better.