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Japanese Garden gate-front town expansion half-way done.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The new construction at the Portland Japanese Garden runs across a fault line in the middle of this photo.

On April 1, 2017, the ticket booth to the Portland Japanese Garden will move to the bottom of the hill, near the Washington Park tennis courts. That’s because the old area where the shuttle buses turned around at the top of the service road has been flattened to make way for three new buildings which could transform the tourist attraction into a huge draw.

Between 600,000 and 650,000 visitors a year visit the free International Rose Test Garden, but they don’t all make it the extra fifty yards (and 10 bucks) to the Japanese Garden. (Washington Park itself attracts 3 million.)

It is widely considered a great traditional Japanese garden, probably the most authentic in the United States. It hopes to cement that after the $33.5 million Portland Japanese Garden Expansion project.

The architect of this new cultural village, Kengo Kuma, has said he thinks the 5.5 acre garden is perfect and does not want to touch it. Instead he is creating a mini monzenmachi or gate-front town. This is a site for activity usually found outside shrines and other attractions in Japan. In Portland’s case, the activities will be many and various, and they won’t include people hot off the tour bus buying tickets.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The $33.5 million Portland Japanese Garden Expansion project is currently underway near Washington Park.

Steelwork and serenity

On a recent Friday morning, the serenity of the garden was hardly affected, save for the beeping of a truck backing up and the crackle of an ironworker’s welding torch. The three buildings’ steel skeletons are almost complete, and topping out will be in early June.

As you face west up the mountain, the building on the left side will be for the gardeners to meet and to store their tools. It will also have space for hands-on or “wet” classes in gardening — the messy stuff that doesn’t belong in the main educational center. The Portland Japanese Garden has been overseen by gardeners from Japan for 50 years, so the organization is well positioned to teach others from around North America how to do it.

Next to it, there is a space about 20 yards where it would not make sense to build anything. The hill is an active landslide and one part is moving about an inch per year faster downhill than the rest.

On the other side of this fault, the other two buildings are rising up.

The biggest, the Japanese Arts Center, will contain educational space, a gallery and a gift shop on the first floor. Above that will be offices and a library, light and airy like many of Kuma’s spaces.

In 52 years, attendance has risen from 30,000 to a projected 350,000 people in 2016. The staff has grown — currently it is at 50 and will soon be 75. Currently their offices are scattered. Some are squeezed into the pavilion building (next to the terrace that overlooks the city, where full moon rising parties are held). The institution also has had offices for the last five years in an offsite house on Kingston Drive.

“As our mission has grown, a lot of activity has leaked into the garden and the pavilion gallery, which has made it harder for the garden to be as contemplative and meditative as it should be,” says Tyler Quinn, Marketing Manager at the Portland Japanese Garden. “When this is done it can go back to being quiet and serene.”

The large overhanging eaves of the new roofs will drip, the water falling through the air, into drains set in the courtyard stone. Add to that the extra runoff from the new paved surfaces, there are two solutions to preventing flooding.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN ; RENDERING COURTESY KENGO KUMA & ASSOCIATES - Construction continues at the Portland Japanese Garden though April 2017, while the attraction remains open. A rendering shows Kengo Kumas design for the tea house (left), Cultural Center (right) and Gardeners Building (center distance). Under the Port Orford cedar shingles and green roofs the buildings are steel framed.


First, many of the new roofs will be green roofs. Their steel surfaces will be bedded with soil and planted with local sedum. Way more Portland than Japan, this is part of Kuma’s preference for using local materials as finishes. (The shingles will be Port Orford cedar, which Kuma especially likes because of its smell.)

“Eventually, like everything around here, moss will take over,” says Quinn.

Second, the Garden Curator Sadafumi Uchiyama has created a flowing water feature. Working with landscape architects Walker Macy, he has landscaped the drainage where the water will be a visible creek during heavy rain, dashing past rocks until it disappears under the road at the bottom of the hill.


There an underground cistern holds the water and lets it out into the sewer system gradually.

The third building will be perched above this rushing stream. The teahouse design is small and sleek. It will be a step up from the minimal box where tea ceremonies are held in the garden, but it won’t be no Starbucks. It will be run by Japanese tea company Jugetsudo, which only has teahouses in Tokyo and Paris (also designed by Kuma). It’s the sort of place where tea comes with a timer for the steeping, set from 30 to 60 seconds. Any food will be provided by Ajinomoto prepared foods. This is not food cart country.

The biggest challenge for the general Contractor, Hoffman Construction, was access to the site. The garden is open now, but it was closed for six months because the access road was needed to bring equipment up and dirt down. “It was just too dangerous to have the public around,” says Quinn. “And we’re trying to be good neighbors,” referring to the occupants of the million dollar homes nearby.

COURTESY KENGO KUMA ASSOCIATES - The $33.5 million Portland Japanese Garden Expansion project is currently underway near Washington Park. A rendering of the library.

Rock and roll

A traditional castle wall was built in front of a modern retaining wall to keep the hillside back 21 feet high and 140 feet long. Large blocks of Baker blue granite were cut from a specially reopened quarry outside Baker City. Some weigh up to 10 tons.

Japanese Garden Curator Sadafumi Uchiyama worked on the wall with master stonemason Suminori Awata. Awata is the fifteenth generation of his family to specialize in this type of dry stone medieval castle wall, and yet up to now he had only maintained them. This is the first one he has built from scratch.

A time lapse of the work is being compiled from two cameras, mounted in trees, which shoot an image every 15 seconds.

Quinn says the construction will be completed well before the April 1, 2017 opening, although the landscaping around the new courtyard is complex and will probably be worked on up to the last minute.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Let it pour: Portland Japanese Garden marketing manager Tyler Quinn talks about the new construction of a tea house. Also designed by Kuma, this rare branch of the Jugetsudo tea houses will be somewhere between the ceremonial and the quick hit tea experience.

The Portland Japanese Garden

611 SW Kingston Avenue

Portland, Oregon 97205

(503) 223-1321


The garden is open now. The new buildings open April 2017.

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