Pacific Northwest | September 28, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineSeptember 28, home
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Walking Through Time
In West coast Asian gardens, centuries of culture to explore
Through the "moon gate" in Vancouver, B.C.'s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, visitors can see the tile roof of the Chinese Cultural Centre. The first full-size garden of its kind built outside China, the Sun Yat-Sen is a study in symbolism.
THE WEST COAST'S affinity for things Asian extends beyond the realms of food and architecture into public gardens. A string of exceptional Japanese and, more recently, Chinese gardens dots the coastline like gemstones, each highly reflective of its site and the culture of its country. I dream of hopping on a train and traveling from Vancouver, B.C., to San Francisco, stopping off to soak up Asian aesthetics. Not only do the plants in these gardens flourish in our climate, but the grace of the design, the simplicity and quality of the materials, as well as the unique and intimate atmosphere of each one hold centuries-old lessons for gardeners.

These gardens are profound celebrations of nature, planted to emphasize seasonal change and designed to remain as richly satisfying in winter as in springtime.
Five tiny bats decorate each tile lining a roof in Portland's Chinese Classical Garden. Each bat stands for one of the five traditional Chinese blessings. Carvings of bats, which are considered a symbol of good fortune, are hidden throughout the garden.
The Nitobe Memorial Garden in Vancouver, B.C., is a case in point — stunning during May bloom, dramatic in the midst of a snowstorm. Designer Kannosuke Mori, with private Tokyo gardens as an inspiration, created a naturalistic garden of local materials and Northwest native plants. Benches and bridges are fashioned out of wooden planks, and Mori himself selected rocks from nearby beaches to build the waterfall, stream and pond. One traditional section of the garden illustrates the journey through life, beginning at the island of creation, which is shaped like a turtle, the mythological carrier of the spirit. (University of British Columbia, Northwest Marine Drive in Point Grey, Vancouver, 604-822-6038)
Portland's Japanese Garden in Washington Park combines an emphasis on stone, water and plants. Designed by Professor Takuma Tono, an internationally known authority on Japanese garden landscaping, the garden is considered one of the most authentic outside Japan.
Far more austere is the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, modeled after private gardens of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It is the first full-sized garden of its kind built outside China, and built it is, to an extent that challenges all our assumptions about what a garden is, with steep stone steps, craggy limestone peaks, and patterned hardscaping. Every rock, plant and pond is symbolic, and you'll never appreciate a guidebook more as you absorb the curious (to the Western eye) aesthetics of this profoundly atmospheric and authentic walled garden in Vancouver's Chinatown. (578 Carrall St., open daily, 604-662-3207)

Seattle is the next stop on the tour, well-represented with an amazing quintet of Asian gardens; the Japanese Garden in Washington Park Arboretum; the 20-acre Kubota Garden, which was the former home of renowned landscaper Fujitaro Kubota and is now a city park; the small jewel of a Japanese Garden at Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island; the Yao Japanese Garden at Bellevue Botanic Garden, and, on the campus of South Seattle Community College, the rambling, Sichuan-style Seattle Chinese Garden inspired by the gardens of our sister city Chongqing.

A few hundred miles south, the Japanese Garden at Washington Park in Portland provides one of the most glorious garden experiences ever. In mid-June, you can wind your way along the Zig Zag Bridge through thousands of purple, white and blue flowering iris. This steep 5.5-acre garden takes full advantage of similarities between the climate and topography of Japan and the Northwest, skillfully "borrowing" views of the Portland skyline and Mount Hood. The five distinct gardens include a Flat Garden, where an island-dotted sea is evoked by stone, sand and thyme, the Strolling Pond Garden featuring a moon bridge, and a teahouse with its own tiny garden to welcome those in search of rest and contemplation. (611 S.W. Kingston Ave., Portland, 503-223-1321)

Only a couple of miles but a culture apart is the very urban Portland Classical Chinese Garden. A square block in Portland's Old Town has been transformed from a parking lot into the Garden of Awakening Orchids, with every visible component mined or made in China. Enter through the moon gate to find plantings, rocks and water arranged in the manner that has inspired Chinese painters and poets for centuries. Pattern upon pattern leads into and through the garden, with sky and pines reflected in smooth ponds, rooms opening to bridges, and windows leaking views through the garden and out to the surrounding city. (Northwest Third and Everett, Portland, 503-228-8131)

The dazzling finale to the trip is the colorful Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Created in 1894 for the California Mid-Winter Exposition, the main gate, teahouse, pond and drum bridge still remain from the original 19th-century construction, making it the oldest Japanese-style garden in the United States. There's nothing subtle about the five-story pagoda painted white, gold and bright orange, nor the pink-flowering plums, heavenly bamboo and fiery maples. There are quieter delights as well, such as a small Zen garden, a broken-stepping-stone bridge, and a "sprinkled hailstone" pavement, a traditional way of freezing the transitory nature of weather underfoot to contemplate at your leisure. (enter at Fulton Street and Eighth, 415-752-1171)

Such an expedition not only weaves through centuries of Asian culture, but provides an unusual experience of the views, topography and neighborhoods of four fascinating cities. What other travel experience encompasses history, art, a hefty dose of symbolism and plenty of plants, as well as fresh air, exercise and the best tearooms on the West Coast?

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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