Years ago, while babysitting my then 3-year-old nephew, I took him on an outing to the Portland Japanese Garden, the serene space at the top of Washington Park that’s billed as the most authentic Japanese garden outside of the country itself.
Leo and I wandered happily around the trails before winding up at the Stone and Sand Garden, which features a single sculpture set amidst carefully raked patterns of sand and stone; the openness is intended to highlight the Japanese principle of yohaku-no-bi, or “the beauty of blank space.”
Any parent can probably predict what happened next: Leo joyfully marched into the garden and started heedlessly building a sandcastle, followed almost immediately by a fleet of hand-wringing curators. We were politely, but firmly (and with good reason), escorted out.
After that, when I had my own kids, the garden wasn’t on our regular rotation. (It didn’t help that there was no place to eat there, and no food allowed into the garden.)
Enter the garden’s brand-new Cultural Village, which opened in early April after years of planning and construction. There’s now an on-site cafe that serves delicate teas and Japanese-inspired snacks, sweets and small plates, a cool castle wall built by hand with giant boulders from Baker County in eastern Oregon, a beautiful new learning center with rotating exhibits and my green-thumb daughter’s favorite: a bonsai garden with exquisitely pruned miniature versions of trees that kids will recognize from around town.
Because the new space is set off a bit from the main garden areas, you’re more likely to find kid-appropriate interactive activities there now, that won’t interfere with the peacefulness of the garden. My son was disappointed that scaling the castle wall wasn’t allowed, but he liked the demonstrations of traditional Japanese musical instruments and the chance to observe a ritual tea ceremony.
The main gardens are especially lovely in spring, when the trees are laden with blooms. And even though kids can’t build sandcastles in the courtyards (ahem), there is a fun scavenger hunt to search for landmarks, from the lion dogs that guard the entrance to the koi fish in the Strolling Pond Gardens.
Even with the new buildings, which are architecturally spare, clean and elegant, the garden is still a place for soaking up natural beauty. But if your kids need to let loose afterwards, not to worry — all those years ago, Leo and I took refuge at the iconic Washington Park play structure, just down the street, and you can too.
If You Go: Parking is limited, so consider taking Tri-Met; in the summer months, there’s a free shuttle to the gardens from the Washington Park MAX stop at the Oregon Zoo. Summer hours are Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 am-7 pm, and Mondays, noon-7 pm. Adults are $14.95, kids ages 6-17 are $10.45 and ages 5 and under are free.
Other Gardens to Explore
Lan Su Garden: An oasis in Old Town, the garden celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May, with performances celebrating the cultures of India, Indonesia, Thailand, Hawaii and more. Lansugarden.org.
Leach Botanical Garden: A hidden wonder in outer SE Portland; your kids will love exploring the fairytale-worthy stone cottage and playing hide and seek in the meadow. leachgarden.org.
The Oregon Garden: Day trip to Silverton and spend the day wandering amongst the blooms; don’t miss the animal-shaped topiary and real-life hobbit house in the Children’s Garden. oregongarden.org.