Portland Japanese Garden’s landscape architect, Sadafumi Uchiyama.

Although the Portland Japanese Garden turns 45 this year, as a garden it’s barely an adolescent, says its new landscape architect, Sadafumi Uchiyama.

“In the past, the greatest concern was the health of the plants, and making them grow bigger and better,” Uchiyama said. “Now we’re making a sort of shift from the construction mode to the maintenance mode.”

As this winter’s surprise snow storms proved, mere maintenance can be a dramatic and costly task: two feet of snow damaged tiles on the main pavilion roof, and a pump shutdown for nearly 3 days caused the ponds to ice over, and the garden lost 26 of its 50 koi to suffocation.

Designed by Professor Takuma Tono of Tokyo Agricultural University and built in stages from the early 1960s to 1990, the garden was a project of the Sister City Program with Sapporo.

Uchiyama is the first full-time landscape architect on staff since 1990. Hired in October, he will oversee the garden’s shift into maturity, and the implementation of its master plan.

Not that the Japanese native is new either to the garden or the U.S. A third-generation member of a Fukuoka family that has been in the gardening business since 1909, Uchiyama came to the states in 1988 for graduate study at Chapel Hill and the University of Illinois, Champaign. He hasn’t lived in Japan since.

He was first hired by Kurisu International to help out at the Portland Japanese Garden in 1995. Since then he has served as a consultant, volunteer, and a member of the board, so he’s familiar with the garden’s issues and needs.

The Japanese Garden in Portland. Photo credit: David Cobb. www.dmcobbphoto.com.

“The first question we’re asking is, what’s the optimum stage of this garden? That’s the ongoing debate. Maybe some trees have to keep pretty much at the same height. That takes a different technique as opposed to growing them larger. We’re right at that stage.”

Maintenance of 60 to 70 pine trees alone can be more labor intensive than it sounds. Every year, gardeners strip dead and dying needles from each branch by hand so that light can get to the inner and lower reaches of the trees. It’s a six- to eight-week task that can take as much as 12 hours for each 10-foot pine.

It’s not just the trees’ growth that’s a concern. Attendance has been climbing steadily the past five years. In 2008, for the first time, the garden exceeded 200,000 visits.

“Definitely we have to generate the revenues to keep up with the maintenance. The question then is, how much do we need to accommodate the need of the visitors, and how much we need to ask them not to ask. We cannot make the path twice as wide, or take the nice stepping stones out and put in concrete.”

Uchiyama believes it is not just an aesthetic imperative to question whether bigger is always better, but almost a moral one.

“The Japanese Garden is a wonderful place to learn this notion that there’s a place and time you have to adjust your behavior to the environment, instead of the other way around. No other part of the society actually teaches that; it’s always more like, if we need a bigger building, let’s build; if we need more space, let’s wipe out some trees.

“So I think there’s great value in having this garden where, if a passage is narrow—if someone’s coming from the other end—let’s wait. I thought it was a great learning tool for especially the kids, younger generation.”

Two years ago, the garden began to collaborate with the program of half-day Japanese and half-day English instruction at Richmond Elementary School. The garden provides tangible examples of Japanese values beyond the level of a textbook.

“So we do the Japanese notion of, for instance, how Japanese see the non-living objects as almost like a living object. One of the principles is called mitate. The literary meaning is “seeing things anew”; so recycle, basically.

“For instance, roof tiles in Japanese gardens are used for repairs of the aging pavement. And the famous stone lantern was originally an ornament at Shinto shrines and temples. And that came into the garden. So that’s the same notion of the mitate: just seeing things anew and in a different environment.”

Since the design of the three-acre garden itself is all but complete, the master plan focuses on the future development of the roughly two and a half acres outside its walls.

Twelve staff members currently occupy temporary buildings facing the front entrance, but the Garden Society would ultimately like to move everything—classes, workshops, gift shop—outside the wall so there is “just garden” beyond that gate.

Asked what he would like visitors to take away from the garden, Uchiyama speaks of a sense of respect and care of all non-human living things.

“I hope they find this quality of space—you know, tranquility—because each individual element is being taken care of. When I design or maintain the garden, I really focus on that.”

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