By Alexa Chipman Apr. 15, 2017
Rippling koi ponds filled with colorful fish, dramatic arched bridges, carefully tended shrubbery, pristine gravel gardens and bright blossoms come to mind with Japanese gardens. There is a sense of peace when strolling through the green paradise, mingling formal planning with the wild beauty of a natural forest.
I’ve spent hours sitting on a small bench nestled in a quiet corner, reading or gazing out at what comes close to perfection. Even when crowded and filled with screaming, exhausted children, somehow these gardens manage to overcome the cacophony to maintain their serenity and bestow it on visitors.
Photo by Michel Hersen
Spreading across hills overlooking the bustling metropolis, the Portland Japanese Garden is designed in different styles through winding pathways. What I am drawn to are the Strolling Pond Garden (chisen kaiyu shiki teien) and Natural Garden (zoki no niwa) that meander between ponds, through a zig-zag walkway of iris, past an impressive waterfall cascading down a cliff, and into the tranquil Lower Pond. On a tour, I heard that it reflects a person’s life—starting quietly, becoming a small, energetic stream, widening to a rushing torrent, then slowing in old age to become a peaceful surface of water.
Other garden areas include a Flat Garden with clipped trees and bushes, the Sand and Stone Garden of raked gravel, reflective Tea Garden with sweeping bridge and building for the ceremony, Entry Garden through a mix of native plants and Japanese maples, and Courtyard Garden.
In addition to enjoying the natural beauty, they host a variety of lectures, demonstrations, and activities surrounding Japanese culture. The gardens have been active since 1963, and currently serve 356,000 visitors per year, cultivated by a staff of 83 employees. I would highly recommend taking the time for a visit if you are in the Portland area.
Summer Hours (3/13-9/30): Monday 12:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Winter Hours (10/1-3/12): Monday 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Location: 611 SW Kingston Ave, Portland, OR
Completely different from the clustered, delicately designed Portland garden is the Japanese garden St. Louis, Missouri. When I first saw it, I was unimpressed by its sprawling, wide layout, but over time I came to appreciate the airy, open feeling. It is like a breath of fresh air without crowding the plants on top of each other, and quite a walk to go all the way around the lake it surrounds.
Watching it change over the course of seasons is delightful—from cheerful spring colors to a wash of autumnal glory, and twinkling snow during winter. I was intrigued by the domed ice structures caused when water froze in the stone basins, creating chilled sculptural patterns. A heater is turned on when temperatures freeze, to keep the koi comfortable, and there is a station on one side of the lake where you can purchase a handful of fish food that is quite popular with the younger visitors.
Although there is no formal tea room, you can purchase food while inside the garden. Because there are multiple cultural and botanical wonders, explore the Chinese garden that is nearby, along with a variety of other features, including a Victorian mansion, glass enclosed climate controlled jungle, and other beautiful landscapes. October is one of the best times of year to visit the Japanese garden area, due to the vibrant colors.
Originally created as an exhibit in 1894 for the California Midwinter International Exposition, this treasure of a tiny garden was maintained by Makoto Hagiwara until he was forcibly removed during the internment of Japanese Californians into concentration camps during WWII. Fortunately, anti-Japanese sentiment on the West Coast did not permanently close this monument, and it currently thrives as a destination in Golden Gate Park, surrounded by blossoming cherry trees and throngs of visitors waiting for a glimpse inside.
Although there is an active tea house, it is nearly impossible to get a seat—be prepared to wait, and try arriving at an unusual time for a meal. They serve light dishes such as miso soup, tea sandwiches, kuzumochi (sweet rice cakes in refreshing flavors), and dorayaki (red bean filled savory cake).
This is the Portland Japanese Garden in miniature, with a popular arched drum bridge to clamber over for those unafraid of heights, and red pagodas towering over an array of flowers, graceful trees, and ponds. If you visit, even during the winter, it will be packed with tourists; this is not a garden to meditate in, unless you don’t mind being surrounded by toddlers, giggling selfie groups, and a constant lineup of family photos. There is a discount entry fee if you live in San Francisco. Parking can be difficult—follow signs for the Music Concourse / California Academy of Sciences parking garage if the street is full.
Summer Hours (3/1-10/31): Daily 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Winter Hours (11/1-2/28): Daily 9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.
Location: 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA