I like free. So, when I learned the Portland Japanese Garden was having a free admission day, I figured it was something I should check out. Located in Washington Park, I thought the only way to get there was by train and bus which weren’t free- and, in fact, just had a recent fare increase- so I wasn’t as keen on going after all. (I had actually walked to the southern outskirts of the park before and with Portland being such a hilly and foresty city, I thought I had reached a dead end.) Fortunately, I had just checked out “Portland Hill Walks” by Laura O. Foster- a travel book exploring different walkable and scenic routes in and around the city. The book showed me an alternate access through the northwestern edge of the park. I’m not an outdoorsy kind of guy but for the sake of doing something different, I decided to take a hike.
The walk I was undertaking was a 3.5 meandering trail through a small section of Washington Park’s 40-acre. Of course, that distance didn’t factor what I had to walk to get to the starting point which was on 24th and Burnside. I wanted to follow the book’s directions as closely as possible but that proved a bit difficult for me. I think a little knowledge of what trees were which would have helped me as they were sometimes used as guide posts. And some routes ended up being closed for construction or the sprinklers were on but I had no desire to walk in mud.
Even on the first stretch of the walk, under the shadows created by the overlapping branches of the giant trees and surrounded by the strange sounds of nature, I was already worried about getting lost and being bitten by wild animals or crazy homeless people. I was relieved then- in more ways than one- to see the first building mentioned in the book- a restroom in the style of Snow White’s cottage. After making use of the facilities, I checked out the Oregon Holocaust Memorial. The cobblestone path leading to the wall of names were littered with bronze statues of what the victims might have carried with them and dropped along the way as they were led to the concentration camps- a pair of shoes, a child’s doll, a suitcase, etc. That and reading the quotes by people who lived through the horrific ordeal made for a very somber experience.
Part of my trek took me to the Arlington Heights neighborhood which boasted an avenue of various architecturally styled houses. From a tract home next to a Colonial, then a Tudor and a Mediterranean villa, the one I liked most had a magnificent stone staircase with grottoes and benches that seem to invite anyone to come and sit awhile but really wasn’t allowed since it was on private property.
Back in Washington Park, the first major attraction I came across was the International Rose Test Garden, I didn’t think I would enjoy myself there but the beauty of the place with its roses and roses in every color imaginable- intense and vibrant- coupled with their sweet fragrant scents made it quite a highlight. There was even an amphitheater where it was easy to imagine concerts being held there during the summer nights. It would have been silly of me if I didn’t take the advantage of the creative and positive energy coming from the place so I sat down on the grassy steps and wrote in my notebook as children played across the lawn and stage.
I was lucky to have gotten there in time for a tour of the grounds- and for the garden’s final bloom of the season. A volunteer guide or Master Gardener from the Oregon State University showed a tiny group of us around the over five-acre land through the thousands of roses there. Each of the varieties were given such fanciful nicknames like “Sweet Inspiration” and “Lavender Dream” and some even after famous people like “Julia Child” and “Diana, Princess of Wales” for no discernable reason to me. I found it interesting that in “the city of roses”, it is illegal to pick them, a fineable offense of $500. With its free admission though, anyone can enjoy the International Rose Test Garden practically anytime they want. There were also great views of downtown Portland and Mt. Hood in certain spots.
After that, I went to my original destination- the Portland Japanese Gardens- which was just a short walk away. I took the complimentary shuttle to the main entrance where the staff was holding a membership drive trying to get the increased number of visitors to join or renew. With its prime location nestled in the hills of Washington Park far away from the noises of downtown traffic, it was like being in an authentic Japanese garden. An art show and sale was finishing up its run in the Pavilion. Overlooking the verandah was the Flat Garden, and like the Sand and Stone Garden, its sand was carefully raked with symbolic designs. There was also a traditional ceremonial Tea House but what I liked most were being near the waterfalls and crossing the Moon and Zig Zag bridges over the ponds with the koi swimming about minding their own business. I decided to take the meandering pathway I saw riding up the shuttle out of the Japanese Gardens, passing through the Antique Gates. Unfortunately, there weren't tour guides so I had to show myself around with the aide of a map. I’m sure I missed a lot of important and interesting details and for that I was disappointed with the experience.
It was then time to continue back on the trail so I made my way back towards the International Rose Test Garden, walked past it downhill, and true to what was written in the guidebook, heard the sounds of the children laughing and playing in the Rose Garden Children’s Park before actually seeing it. Further down was the converted Elephant House- now a picnic area and restroom. The rest of the walk was uneventful since it was on the same road as what the cars used to come and go. After passing two reservoirs, I came to the formal entrance of Washington Park. Up the brick staircase were the Lewis and Clark Memorial with its 34-foot rectangular granite column and the bronze statues of “Sacajawea” and “The Coming of the White Man” which were both unveiled during the early 1900’s. This was also where some of the paths mentioned in the book were closed off for construction so I had to use the best of my abilities to find my way back. Luckily, the walk was a loop and I saw the very familiar English Tudor restroom.
Now that I was semi-familiar with this portion of Washington Park and found a beautiful place I wouldn’t mind visiting again in the International Rose Test Garden, I think I’ll end up taking this hike again (and other hikes mentioned in the book) because there are still trails I have yet to explore.