Fall colors and new village are draws at Portland’s dazzling Japanese Garden

Beyond dazzling hues, explore the new Cultural Village, Castle Wall and Umami Cafe.

PORTLAND — In a year when big changes have taken root at the highly acclaimed Portland Japanese Garden, I found myself standing stock still a few steps inside the garden’s Nezu Gate, looking and listening, silent and unmoving.

Everything here has a tranquility-inspiring meaning, nothing is accidental, instructed my kimono-jacket-wearing tour guide, Peter Shinbach, nodding to pines whose branches had been pruned to look like clouds floating by.

But there’s more than what meets the eye.

“Our (Western-style) gardens are mostly about what we can see and what we smell,” Shinbach instructed. “In Japanese gardens sound is an important element.”

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He cocked an ear at the soft tinkling of water spouting from a length of hollow bamboo onto a mossy rock in front of us. It soothed like a cool, wet cloth on the back of my neck.

If you’d been here decades earlier, the water’s music might have been overpowered by the shrieks of monkeys that once occupied a nearby grotto, part of the neighboring Oregon Zoo.

But the monkeys and the zoo moved farther uphill in Portland’s Washington Park, and the Portland Japanese Garden, which opened to the public 50 years ago, is today regarded as perhaps the most authentic such garden outside of Japan.

That status advanced with last spring’s opening of the garden’s new $33.5 million Cultural Village, designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma, who is also spearheading the National Stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Fall colors call out

Autumn, when the garden’s Japanese maples turn fiery shades, reflecting in ponds and contrasting with native evergreens, is perhaps the most jaw-dropping time to visit and see what’s new.

The “village” has added 3.4 acres of usable space to the 9.1-acre property. Included is a new Japanese Arts Learning Center with gallery space, a classroom, library and gift shop; a Garden House, for horticulture workshops, along with a bonsai terrace and the striking new Umami Café.

In the Portland Japanese Garden’s new Cultural Village, the Umami Cafe offers teas, snacks and light lunch. (Bruce Forster)

The cafe’s cantilevered deck is designed to “float” over the garden’s shady entry canyon where visitors wind their way on a peaceful trail upward from the outside world of parking lots…

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