Portland Japanese Garden celebrates 60 years with music, origami, and more

An iconic Portland garden turned 60 on Sunday, and a celebration took place for visitors far and wide to enjoy.
Published: Sep. 18, 2023 at 7:04 AM PDT
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PORTLAND Ore. (KPTV) - An iconic Portland garden turned 60 on Sunday, and a celebration took place for visitors far and wide to enjoy.

The Portland Japanese Garden was born during a time of tension between the US and Japan, and those in charge tell us that it’s still the goal to use the space to educate others about a culture that’s different from their own.

“In the late 1950s, civic leaders banded together to establish a garden that would help foster ties between Portland and Oregon and Japan,” said Will Lerner, the Communications Specialist at the garden. “At that time there was still quite a lot of hostility lingering after World War II, and the community banded together to transform the site of the old abandoned Portland Zoo into this garden.”

Over the years, five gardens grew to eight, and 5.5 acres grew to 12, with Japanese gardeners who aim to keep it as authentic as possible.

“In 1988, Ambassador Nobuo Matsunaga proclaimed us as the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan, which is of course an incredible honor,” Lerner said.

Attendance had neared half a million a year by the time the pandemic hit, and the garden closed for a few months in 2020. However, Lerner said attendance has nearly hit pre-pandemic levels at this point.

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On Sunday, guests could enjoy live music, an origami demonstration, a tea ceremony, and exploring their favorite sites to celebrate the milestone.

Ute Peterson, who lives in Portland and visited Japan last year, said it was striking to see how similar the garden is to those in the actual country.

“My favorite part is the koi pond,” she said. “We’re getting ideas, and every time we’re like, ‘We should incorporate this feature in our garden!’”

Many guests who spoke to FOX 12 described the experience as ‘peaceful’, ‘relaxing’, and ‘serene’.

“It’s not that big of a space, but they’ve used it so well to create different subsections of the gardens to make it a really interesting experience the whole time you’re walking around,” said Peter DeJong from Portland.

Special features include a variety of antique gates, an ecological stone creek bed, sand gardens, and a cultural center.

Finding peace in the big city isn’t always easy, but guests agreed that green spaces like this are crucial to stay grounded and connected.

“You go downtown and then you come here and it’s just such a big difference,” said Gabriel Scott, who was visiting from Seattle. “I feel like you’re able to breathe more, and we need these spaces for humans to connect to nature.”

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Whatever the reason for the visit, the garden staff hopes it will be a source of education, togetherness, and of course, peace for another 60 years.

“You can have people that maybe don’t know each other very well, start to learn about each other and develop an appreciation and I think that’s what Portland Japanese Garden has done,” Lerner said.

Last year, garden organizers launched the Japan Institute, which expands their local cultural programs throughout Portland and the world.

On Sept. 23, the garden will host a showcase for one of their artists-in-residence, Takahiro Iwasaki. For more information, click here.

For information on tickets and other future events, you can visit the Portland Japanese Garden main page.