A Day in Portland

[Portland, OR, Jul 6, 2019]

On the last day of my trip, I finally had a chance to hang out in Portland proper.

First order of the day was a visit to an ex-coworker of mine who moved here in 2015. Her house is perched up on a hill next to Pittock mansion, so after catching up with her, I headed there.

The Pittock Mansion was built in 1914 by the Pittock family. Henry Pittock, an immigrant from England, was the publisher of The Oregonian newspaper. He and his future wife Georgiana both crossed the Oregon Trail, separately, in the 1850s. The 46-room French Renaissance-style chateau was their private residence until their deaths in 1918 and 1919, respectively. Together, Henry and Georgiana Pittock helped transform Portland from a small “stumptown” to the bustling modern city it is today.

The family, unable to keep up with the estate, unsuccessfully tried to sell it. In 1962, the mansion was badly damaged during an October storm. The owners considered demolishing the estate, but the citizens of Portland rallied to raise money to help the city purchase it. The City of Portland bought the estate in 1964 for $225,000. Following 15 months of restoration, the mansion opened to the public in 1965 as a historic house museum.

The house was outfitted with top-of-the-line technology for its time, including an intercom system, recessed lighting, an elevator and a walk-in refrigerator.

Top of the line kitchen for its time

The furnishings in the house are actually not the actual furnishings the Pittocks owned. Very little is known about what the house looked like while they lived there – there are just a few sketches and a list of furnishings they owned. For the most part, the museum curators picked up pieces that are either from the same time period or from prominent Oregon furniture companies. Still, touring the house was fun and informative signs throughout the house made it come alive with the stories of the Pittock family members who lived there.

A path along the side of the house lead to the Gate Lodge, where the steward of the estate lived with his family. This was a much smaller home but still seemed well-appointed. The path to the Gate Lodge was beautifully landscaped.

The Pittock Mansion made me think of the other historic house museums I’ve visited. From Hearst Castle in California to Vizcaya in Miami to Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, BC, they were all homes to magnates and industrialists. They give us a glimpse of the lives of people who greatly shaped the towns they lived in.

My next stop was very close by. The Portland Japanese Garden was built in the early 1960s, shortly after Portland became a sister city of Sapporo, Japan. It was built into a forested hillside in Washington Park on land that was previously the site of the Portland Zoo. I had just read at the Pittock Mansion that the Pittock kids could hear the lions from the Portland Zoo from their bedrooms. It made sense now, given the proximity.

The Portland Japanese Garden was deemed the finest Japanese garden in North America out of 300 gardens considered for this honor by the Journal of Japanese Gardening. The former Japanese ambassador to the US, Nobuo Matsunaga, said in 1988 that the garden was the most authentic one he’s seen outside of Japan. Having never been to a Japanese garden before, I didn’t know what to expect.

Japanese gardens aim for a sense of peace, harmony, and tranquility; of being a part of nature. Three of the essential elements are stone, the “bones” of the landscape; water, the life-giving force; and plants, the tapestry of the four seasons. Other elements include pagodas, stone lanterns, water basins, arbors, and bridges. Traditionally, human scale is maintained throughout so that one always feels part of the environment and not overpowered by it.

The 12-acre Portland Japanese garden is composed of 8 garden spaces and a cultural village. The first garden space I visited was the Flat Garden, which showcased the distinctive beauty of each season. My favorite was the Lace Leaf Japanese Maple, which represents autumn. I think that was my favorite plant in the entire garden!

Summer was represented by the cool “water” of the raked gravel. I got a great view of it from the deck of the Pavilion Gallery.

Inside the Pavilion Gallery was a special exhibit called Forest Dreams. It featured Ainu (indigenous people of Japan and Russia) and Pacific Northwest Native American wood carvings. The carvings were really intricate – I admired the skill it took to create them.

The artist of this work was very close to the Ainu woman that inspired it. She spent her life teaching the Ainu language and native arts and crafts. This work was carved from a single piece of wood, including the base she stands on.
This artwork is from a Chinook (a PNW tribe) artist. It is based on an ancient story about the Sun’s daughter who traveled to the earth and married a human. She eventually returned to the Sky World with her two daughters, who later became stars.
This artwork represents the struggle the Ainu felt to maintain their identity with growing Japanese presence. A traditional Ainu textile pattern is revealed from beneath a modern leather jacket. The artwork is aptly named “Identity.”

I then visited the Strolling Pond Garden. It consisted of an Upper and Lower Pond, which were connected by a flowing stream. The Upper Pond featured the Moon Bridge, which was a great place for photos!

The Lower Pond has a Zig-Zag Bridge, which weaves through beds of Japanese irises. Some very large Koi fish were frolicking in the water.

At the end of Lower Pond was the stunning Heavenly Falls.

Finally, I went through the Natural Garden, which was the most immersive of all the spaces. Narrow stairs and winding paths made this garden unsuitable for strollers, which kept families at bay. There were lots of hidden benches and quiet corners in this garden where one could rest and reflect.

At the end of the Natural Garden was the Sand and Stone Garden. It features an important Japanese aesthetic principle known as yohaku-no-bi, which means “the beauty of blank space.” This openness is intended to invite contemplation.

I loved the Portland Japanese Garden. Despite the fact that it was fairly busy, it still provided the intended sense of peace and tranquility. I especially loved that the sound of running water followed me wherever I went in the garden. I would love to come visit right as it opens in the morning with fewer people around.

To cap off my day, I decided to go for an early dinner at Kachka. I first read about this Russian restaurant in my AAA magazine a few months ago. Then, someone at July 4th BBQ we went to recommended it. I also liked that the restaurant is on the east side of Portland, on the other side of the Willamette River, which I had yet to visit.

I got there well before dinner, around 4:30 pm, so I had no problem getting a table without a reservation. Vladimir Vysotsky, the famous Russian singer, was indeed playing in the background like that AAA magazine article said it would. A poster of the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was hanging on the wall beside me.

I tried the Siberian pelmeni – Russian dumplings filled with beef in a sour cream sauce – and the lamb shashlik, to which I added the lepyoshka bread and the tomato salad. Everything was delicious!

I wanted to order every dessert on the menu, but in the end I settled on two. The Kama Plombir was Estonian toasted cereal milk turned into Russian ice cream with Kefir caramel, hazelnut meringue and berries . The chocolate kolbasa is basically chocolate and pieces of tea biscuits shaped like salami. They were both outstanding! And the glass of Slovenian white wine was the perfect thing to wash it all down with. What a great way to end my Oregon trip!

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