Professor Takuma Tono, Portland Japanese Garden's original designer, looks at the Heavenly Falls from the Zig-Zag Bridge in his final visit to the Garden. Photo by William 'Robbie' Robinson.

In 2023, Portland Japanese Garden is celebrating its 60th birthday! In 1963, our organization was founded when Portland civic leaders banded together to build a Japanese garden on the site of an abandoned old zoo in Washington Park. These individuals wanted to provide the citizens of Portland with a garden of great beauty and serenity and forge a healing connection to Japan on the heels of World War II. Now, Portland Japanese Garden is known globally as the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan and the preeminent Japanese cultural organization in North America.

In Japanese culture, year 60 (kanreki) is seen as the beginning of a new chapter, or a rebirth, and is filled with hope and possibilities.

As fate would have it, this milestone also coincides with a particularly meaningful year in the Chinese zodiac. 2023 is the year of the rabbit, but this particular year is not the regular rabbit that comes around every 12 years, or “juunishi” (十二支). The rabbit of 2023 is specifically called “mizu no tou,”(癸卯), where “mizunoto” means the energy of water nurturing the land that indicates growth, and “u” means rabbit. “Mizu no tou” only comes every 60 years. 2023 symbolizes a year where the efforts of the last 60 years are fulfilled and has a highly anticipated future.

The last time this rabbit visited us was in 1963, when Portland Japanese Garden opened. It feels as if unknowingly, but serendipitously, we’ve been on a clear path this whole time.

Below are some of our favorite stories that explain and explore our history and role in this shared community

From Asphalt Grounds to Urban Oasis: Portland Japanese Garden was Once a Zoo

The bear pit at the old Portland Zoo. Photo: City of Portland (OR) Archives, AP/4896

Because of the careful and diligent maintenance of its grounds by generations of gardeners, facilities technicians, volunteers, and more, Portland Japanese Garden appears as though it has been perched atop the West Hills for as long as Washington Park has existed. It may be surprising to know that the site it sits on today was once the old location of the Portland Zoo, now known as the Oregon Zoo.

Here is Oregon covers Portland Japanese Garden’s transformation from abandoned zoo to “tranquil scene”

An early Japanese maple that was planted at the beginning of the Garden’s construction. Photo by William ‘Robbie’ Robinson.

Here is Oregon, a news site created by The Oregonian to “lift and celebrate Oregon” recently published a story that provides insight into the amazing transformation that took place at Portland Japanese Garden over sixty years ago. In a lovely and heavily researched article, journalist Janet Eastman writes, “A half a million visitors see the Portland Japanese Garden every year, but few know the tranquil scene’s wild history when zoo animals lived on the rugged hilltop in Southwest Portland’s Washington Park.”

Building Bridges: Robert C. Burbank, the WWII Veteran Who Built Portland Japanese Garden’s Moon Bridge

Robert “Bob” C. Burbank, builder of the Moon Bridge behind him. Photo by Quincy Woo.

Like most bridges in Japanese gardens, the Moon Bridge in the Strolling Pond Garden is not a mere conveyance. It is a carefully considered piece of architectural art that introduces new perspectives of the landscape. People who cross it tend to stop and start, double back, and rotate around more than they ever just proceed in a straight line. This bridge was built in the late 1980s by Robert C. Burbank, a World War II veteran and craftsman. It replaced an older version that no longer could support the foot traffic.

Peace and Reconciliation: Portland Japanese Garden’s First Garden Director Kinya Hira Recounts Early Days

Kinya Hira (l) standing in front of the Tea Garden’s kashintei (tea house) during its installation in the late 1960s. Photo by William ‘Robbie’ Robinson.

In addition to the Garden’s original designer, Professor Takuma Tono, ten Garden Directors from Japan have overseen the development and maintenance of the original five gardens in turn, making our Garden unique among Japanese style gardens in North America. We are grateful to share this beautiful letter from Kinya Hira, who was the first Garden Director for the Garden from 1964-69.

Kasagi: Gates of Hope

Photo by Jonathan Ley.

In 2013, two nearly identical beams of a sacred Shinto gate landed on the Oregon coast after having been tragically washed away in the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. After traveling 5,000 miles across the Pacific, incredibly, these two crossbeams, know as kasagi landed within 120 miles of each other less than one month apart. This inspired a quest by Portland Japanese Garden to return the two battered pieces of wood as a message of support for the people of Japan.

Calling Upon the Past to Build the Future: The Zagunis Castle Wall

When visitors come to the Portland Japanese Garden, one of the first features they will notice is a massive stone structure at the west end of the entrance. Measuring 18.5 feet tall and 185 feet long, it rises up to both greet visitors and transport them to another place and time. Walking past it, the visitor catches his reflection in an oversized stone and pauses. Staring up at the dry stacked rocks looming above, this structure prompts more questions than answers: just what is this giant wall?

Japan Institute: A New Path for Portland Japanese Garden

In 2021, Portland Japanese Garden shared its vision for a new path forward for the organization with Japan Institute, which would later be established in 2022. The Institute was created in order to share and expand programs of the Garden more broadly around the world, expand international partnerships, and continue to engage diverse people in shared experiences and conversations about peace, beauty, and connection of nature.

Maggie Drake: The First Female Board Member of Portland Japanese Garden and One of its First Supporters

Margueritte “Maggie” Drake, Board Member Emerita of Portland Japanese Garden, is seen here attending a reception for members of the Golden Crane Society in 2021. Photo by Jonathan Ley

Inspired in the late 1950s by growing cultural ties between Oregon and Japan, Mayor Terry Schrunk and members of the Portland community conceived the idea of building a Japanese garden on the site of the old zoo in Washington Park. This initiative sparked the interest of Margueritte (Maggie) Drake, who showed up at the first Japanese Garden committee meeting held by the city of Portland in 1963.

An Historic Moment: Portland Japanese Garden’s 2017 Cultural Crossing Expansion

Photo by Tyler Quinn.

In 2017, a decades-old vision conceptualized by the dreamers and doers at the Portland Japanese Garden became reality. Nearly three thousand people came to witness the conclusion of construction and celebrate our beautiful new beginning: the Cultural Crossing expansion.

Do you have a story to tell about Portland Japanese Garden’s past? Email [email protected]!