Saturday, February 27, 2010


An interesting place: Portland Oregon. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen as many body piercings as I saw on the 40 minute train ride from the airport to downtown, and wide swaths of downtown have something of a grubby feel. I know, I know, I’m prejudiced: a first-time visitor jumping to conclusions, but—fortunately—my Portland experience didn’t end there.

After a two-day conference, I was able to spend a half a day running around town. First, I took the train and then a public bus into the hills just West of downtown: lush, green hills dotted with tall pines and stately mansions, many dating, I would guess, from the late 1800s. Some of the most lovely old neighborhoods I have ever seen. Tucked away near the top of the hill I found a lovely Japanese garden, as beautiful as many a garden I’d visited in Japan, and I spent a contemplative hour wandering among the stones and water and clipped hedges—the mix of the natural and the engineered that characterize most Japanese gardens.

With time to spare I found a genuine sushi place for lunch ("genuine" as in actually run by a Japanese family), and still had time to catch the train to the Chinese Garden, a more recent addition to the city built by Suzhou, Portland’s sister city in China, a small town cut with canals some 50 km from Shanghai. Just as lovely as the Japanese Garden and filled with delicious aromatics even in mid-February, most of the structures were patterned after actual buildings and gardens in that town, built by hand in large pieces, and then shipped to Portland and then painstakingly assembled and reassembled, down to the impossibly complicated stone patterns that make up the “floor” of each garden room. (The patterns change as one moves from room to room and view to view.)

The only lame thing about the garden? They had cordoned off the waterfall area for “safety reasons,” depriving visitors of one of the interesting and intimate “surprises” the garden was designed to reveal. (That’s how both Japanese and Chinese gardens work, by the way: slowly revealing one surprise, one view, one meditative space after another.)

Oh yeah: and the Dungeness Crab bisque at Jake’s Famous Crawfish? To die for. The soup alone warrants a return trip.

(Photo of the Portland Chinese Garden courtesy of the Garden Conservancy; original available at: