Portland is a great place for many reasons, but one of them is how seamlessly the city gives way to nature. I think about driving down Burnside towards the west hills. One minute you are in a thriving city, then you go through a stop light and are in the middle of a forest. It’s easy to forget you are a 10 minute drive from downtown Portland when visiting the Japanese Garden. It is peaceful and meticulously cared for. Whatever the season, whatever the weather, the Japanese Garden is always absolutely stunning. Every time I visit, I get amazing photos. It is a must visit for anyone and is on my list of places to bring guests.
About the Garden
Born out of a hope that the experience of peace can contribute to a long-lasting peace. Born out of a belief in the power of cultural exchange. Born out of a belief in the excellence of craft. The Portland Japanese Garden is a place to discard worldly thoughts and see oneself as a small but integral part of the universe.
The garden officially opened to the public in 1967 with a mission “to bring the ideals of the Portland Japanese Garden to the world: art of craft, connection to nature, experience of peace.” Last year, the completion of the cultural village expansion saw the addition of three new structures. This cultural village now contains a café, learning center, library, gallery, garden center, and a gift shop. Several events happen at the garden, extended hours, cultural demonstrations, lectures, art exhibitions, and more.
Originally showcasing 5 garden styles, after the expansion of the cultural village, there are now 8 different Japanese garden styles on display across 12 acres. In addition, the Japanese Garden is a “living classroom” with opportunities to learn about Japanese culture.
The Japanese Garden is a very popular place, and not just for photographers. As with everything, crowds are less during the week and in the morning. If you are going during normal hours, be prepared for people in your shots which may not be a bad thing. If you are patient, you can find breaks in the crowd but it’s a little like fishing; there is a lot of waiting.
On one visit, I was in a line of about 4 photographers waiting for the moon bridge to clear. You stand around waiting, get a couple of frames, and then wait some more. While waiting for those brief moments, set up the shot then take the time to appreciate the serene and peaceful surroundings.
Take your time as you walk through the gardens. The light is always changing and it’s remarkable how much that affects the shots you get. I often walk through the gardens several times, visiting each of the 8 different garden styles several times during one visit as the light changes.
Everyone takes photos standing up with the camera at eye level; try other angles.
I can find a reason to use any of my lenses, but my personal favorite is my 50mm. Shooting with a prime lens is a great experience. There is no zoom so you have to zoom with your feet. Walk around, look at different angles. Everyone takes photos standing up with the camera at eye level; try other angles. Don’t be afraid to have people in your photos, they can make them more interesting as with the photo below.
Don’t walk around with your camera to your face, you’ll miss the beauty of this place. You will probably also miss an interesting shot. I like to just walk around and observe, studying the light. I don’t rush, I take my time. Remember, it’s not just about taking photos, it’s about experiences. When I see a subject, I’ll move around and look at different angle, different light. Don’t think too much, see something, press the shutter, move around, click. I mostly shoot in aperture priority but in some situations I will switch to full manual to dial it in exactly the way I want. Do what’s comfortable for you but I would recommend staying out of full auto.
Don’t let the weather scare you
Rainy and overcast days can be some of the best days to visit. Aside from fewer people, the clouds act as a giant soft box. The rain also adds a different mood to the photos you get. Even taking photos of the same scene will look different. If you are visiting during the winter, you should just plan on rain, it is the pacific northwest after all.
I like getting closeup photos with water droplets, it adds another dimension to the subject. Think of all the photos of flowers you have seen, now think of how many are taken in the rain. It’s something that is different from the pack. It also can get really misty in the hills which I love. With everything wet, the light is different, the ground gains a new character with reflections of color and light.
I recommend reading 4 Distinct Ways The Weather Impacts Your Photography from LightStalking.com.
Rules of the Garden
There are a few things to be aware of before taking photos in the garden. In an effort to maintain the tranquility of the garden and due to some of the narrow paths, there is a $10 tripod fee, that is unless you are a member. The Japanese Garden has a specific Photographer’s Membership which gets you some nice perks.
With the Photographer’s Membership, you get invited to photographer’s hours which happen once a month and the tripod fee is waived anytime you visit. If you plan on selling your photos from the garden, then you must have a photographer’s membership. Members are also invited to submit photos to the annual calendar contest.
The Japanese Garden is in Washington Park near the International Rose Test Garden. The garden itself is at the top of a hill but the ticket center is at the bottom. A new garden and water feature was added here as part of the renovations last year. You’ll find a small parking lot and other parking spaces along the road. It can get a little full and you may need to be willing to walk a little. There is a shuttle that can take you up the hill once you purchase your ticket but I recommend taking the short walk up the winding path to the top.
As you climb the path, you can almost feel the city fall away as you hear the sounds of birds and running water. Once you reach the top of the hill, you enter the cultural village. There is a feeling of space in the courtyard exemplifying the opposite of clutter which itself is calming. There are usually several people visiting but it has never feels crowded.
“The design for the café is inspired by its specific place at the crest of the hill. As with the pilgrimages to such renowned mountainside temples as Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, this structure hovers above and greets those on the approaching path. For those arriving, it is a shelter to catch one’s breath and anticipate the gardens ahead. For those finishing their journey, it is an opportunity to reflect with all senses.” – Kengo Kuma, Architect
In the cultural village is the Umami Cafe. The building hangs over the hillside, and with floor to ceiling windows, becomes part of the surrounding forest. Even on cloudy days, the light that comes in gives the place an airy quality. The café is small so be prepared to wait a little on busy days (there is an option for reservations on their website).
If you go, get a tea set. I generally get the sencha with fried rice but if you prefer something sweeter, there are sweet options as well. The tea comes from Jugetsudo, a Japanese tea shop, and is phenomenal. The tea, combined with the atmosphere of the café and the surrounding forest make for a relaxing experience.
Before leaving the Cultural Village, make sure to take a look at the Bonsai Terrace. I was amazed at these diminutive trees. The one pictured above is 150 years old and there were trees even older. The caring for bonsai take patience and dedication, not to mention generational participation. Bonsai are not unique species of trees but the actual tree species itself diligently pruned and sculpted to look like this. So often we get caught up in short-term gratification, these trees are a reminder that patience can result in great things.
This is the first garden after you enter after the cultural village and includes a pavilion from which to view the garden. Go behind the pavilion for some incredible views of downtown Portland similar to what you can see from the Pittock Mansion. Take your time walking across the veranda, there are several great photo opportunities here. Thanks to the low railing, you can get a good low angle on your photos that will be different from majority of photos taken here. The above photos was taken from the side using the small tree seen on the left for framing. The veranda adds some nice lines as well.
Strolling Pond Garden
The strolling pond garden is the largest garden and probably my favorite. This is where you will find the koi pond and moon bridge. You can spend a while in this garden, both for the many photographic opportunities and for the number of people who are here. The Moon bridge is a popular place in the garden and there are usually several people getting their picture taken on it. Be patient. Pay the tripod fee, set up the shot, and wait; it will clear eventually.
Just to the south of the Strolling Pond Garden is the Tea Garden. This garden includes the Kashintei Tea House, constructed in Japan and shipped in pieces to Portland where it was reassembled. Check out the events page to see when tea demonstrations are being held in the Kashintei Tea House.
The path to the Sand and Stone Garden takes you through the Natural Garden, who’s narrow and divergent paths seem secluded from the rest of the garden. Take advantage of the winding paths to create leading lines in your photography as with this photo of a stairway.
Sand and Stone Garden
A garden of raked sand and gravel, The Sand and Stone Garden is an example of a karesansui garden. Contained within the walls at the bottom of the Natural Garden, this sparse garden can seem hard to photograph. The light in this part of the Japanese Gardens can be harsh, even on cloudy days so plan accordingly.
There is a good vantage point looking down from the Flat Garden to check out. When I’m having trouble finding a shot, I focus on the people as that will always be different every time you go. Also focus on details. The above photos is a detail of the wall surrounding this garden; the wall creates some nice leading lines.
A Must See
Whatever time of year you are in Portland, you should definitely visit Japanese gardens. If you are at all into photography, bring your camera (or phone) and get some photos. Consider the Photographer’s Membership if you will be visiting on a regular basis and want to focus on photography (or sell your photography). The Japanese Garden is also conveniently located near the International Rose Test Garden so you can visit both at the same time.