Cultural Crossing By Way Of Portland

Steve head shot IIPortland Japanese Garden CEO and past NAJGA Board President Steve Bloom fills us in on some notable facts  about the garden’s Cultural Crossing expansion project.

NAJGA: When and what was the turning point when the garden management first became serious about pursuing the Cultural Crossing project? How did the garden management first make the case for launching it to the garden’s various constituencies?

SB: Since 1963, the Portland Japanese Garden’s audience has grown 11-fold—from 30,000 visitors per year to almost 300,000 in 2015. In 2007, the Board of Trustees began to plan in earnest for the long-needed expansion, and launched an international design competition in 2010. One submission clearly exceeded the others in comprehensively addressing the site’s challenges, while keeping focus on our original garden spaces and understanding the unique aesthetics of a Japanese garden in a native Northwest forest. The proposal combined beauty, native materials, Japanese craftsmanship and design, and environmental sustainability with the highest level of functionality and comfort for the people who would use the spaces. The architect who submitted the proposal was Kengo Kuma, one of Japan’s premier designers.

KKAA - Village House Living

 NAJGA:  In terms of the architecture, how is Kengo Kuma adapting the monzenmachi concept to the Portland Japanese Garden’s particular context? How would you describe his design thesis for this project and the highlights of the project, in terms of design innovation and craftsmanship?  And what will happen to the existing visitor facilities in the garden?  

SB: In the past, Kengo Kuma has been entrusted with many culturally sensitive designs around the world, including beautiful iconic buildings valued especially for their appropriateness to site and function. Kuma and his team created a design for the Portland Japanese Garden that maximizes every inch of space on our hilltop, answers the Garden’s operational needs, and is beautiful in a particularly Japanese, understated way. The design blends seamlessly into the landscape. The new buildings will be designed according to the objectives of traditional Japanese architecture, using temples’ monzenmachi as inspiration.

KKAA - Cultural Village Entry, Rain

Traditionally, monzenmachi was the place for activity, for pilgrims and visitors of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples to rest after the journey, to eat, and even to socialize. Monzenmachi literally means “town in front of the gate,” and our design for Portland Japanese Garden is a contemporary example of this.

The monzenmachi concept will preserve the essential experience for each individual visitor, spreading out needs such as admissions, information, education, events, orientation, restrooms, shopping, eating, sitting, and sharing their experiences—outside of the 5.5-acre Garden. Temples in Japan traditionally use this approach to preserve the sanctity of the shrine beyond its gates.  In our case, the spiritual destination is more nature-oriented rather than overtly religious. This idea of the village—a series of smaller buildings arranged around a casual but important shared or public space—allows programmed activities to be separated appropriately from the tranquility of the existing gardens, something not possible for Portland Japanese Garden until now.

The Garden’s new buildings will be designed according to the objectives of traditional Japanese architecture, in which the design blends seamlessly into the landscape.


The original garden space will remain untouched and unaltered. After the new buildings are completed, our existing Pavilion can be used more efficiently for extended exhibitions and events, such as the monthly Moonviewing. Our current Gift Store space will be repurposed for volunteer needs, with lockers, break room, tool storage, and an office for the Assistant Volunteer Coordinator. As our volunteer corps grows, this kind of space and access for volunteers is key to ensuring the Garden’s long-term success.

 NAJGA: What do you think will be the highlights of the new garden spaces for lovers of Japanese gardens? 

SB: The original five gardens blend into each other effortlessly, linked by the water that runs through them—including the dry “waves” raked into patterns in the Sand & Stone Garden. In the new gardens, which will surround and protect the original Garden, the flow of water will provide a connection throughout the entire 12-acre hillside. These breathtaking new spaces will offer a taste of diverse aesthetic design.

Cascading ponds and water terrace

For fifty years, the Garden’s front entrance in Washington Park has remained relatively invisible – a challenge for visitors to find their way to the Garden at the top of the hill. Cascading ponds will welcome visitors with a strong first impression.  The journey to the Garden will begin here, at the water’s edge, as if the visitor were setting foot on land from a voyage across the Pacific from Japan or disembarking from the Willamette or Columbia River, the original highways of this region.

From the water’s edge, visitors will meander along a zigzag path rising through a series of terraces with low native trees and shrubs, moving towards the forested hillside. This space will emulate the experience of moving up towards a Northwest forest from the lowlands of an Oregon riverbank, while the terraces are reminiscent of the tanada (rice paddy terraces) of rural Japan. This part of the journey begins the transition from the City to the tranquility of the Garden.

Moss hillside

Towering firs and cedars grow naturally along the hillside. The tall trees growing out of moss-covered slopes will create a space to quiet the mind and refresh the spirit. Water running down the hill will collect in a symbolic creek bed, full in winter and drying out during summer.  Just before the final leg of the ascent, a transparent bridge will span a portion of the hillside, creating an elevated view of the forest.

Tsubo-niwa At the top of the hill, visitors will arrive at the courtyard in the center of our new Cultural Village. The focal point will be an example of the modern Japanese garden style known as tsubo-niwa (tiny urban garden). Even though it occupies very little space, our tiny urban garden will incorporate each essential element of a Japanese garden – stone, water, and plants – and unobtrusively make nature the central focus of the Cultural Village.

KKAA - Tateuchi Courtyard from Village House

Ellie Hill bonsai terrace They say that the art of bonsai is the creation of a miniaturized landscape that fulfills the human yearning for a connection to nature in the smallest of spaces. This terrace will showcase seasonally resplendent specimens of these tiny trees, throughout the year.

Bill de Weese Chabana Garden Here, our gardeners will cultivate Japanese wildflowers, to be used in our regular tea ceremony demonstrations.  Chadō (tea ceremony) is a social ritual intended to restore harmony between individuals and between humanity and nature. This will be the only place in North America devoted to cultivating traditional Japanese tea flowers.

Oregon basalt terrace This will mark the highest point of the hillside. Traditionally, this spot is considered a symbolic space, where heaven and earth might meet.  Stone columns of Columbia River basalt will suggest the summits rising above the steep slopes of the Columbia Gorge and Takachiho Gorge in southern Japan.

NAJGA: What is the timeline/schedule for opening the expansion areas to the public? Is it happening all at once or in stages?  

SB: The Garden is closed for the first phase of construction, which is primarily excavation. We will reopen the main Garden on March 1, 2016. Construction will continue outside the gates until Spring 2017, when we expect the project to be fully complete.

 NAJGA: Can you run us through how a typical visitor experience to the garden will play out, with the addition of the Cultural Village and the new garden spaces? 

SB: The visitor experience of the primary Garden will remain unchanged. It will be the same serene space so many people connect with. The difference after Cultural Crossing will be how visitors approach the Garden, and how they’re guided into that space.

KKAA - Entry Along Ticketing Pavilion

We provide frequent updates on our progress on the Cultural Crossing blog at We encourage potential visitors to join us when we reopen in next March, just in time for viewing the cherry blossoms.

The Garden is a magical place any time of year, and we know that adding the frame of Japanese culture, art, and education will help even more people enjoy this special place in a fresh, new way.

Cultural Crossing By Way Of Portland