Mitate: Old is New Again in Portland’s Tanner Springs Park

In Japanese aesthetics, the term mitate is one of those ideas that have evolved several layers of meaning with the passing of the centuries and the flowering of several forms of Japanese artistry.

The most concise definition for this term is perhaps “seeing anew,” according to Japanese garden design writer Marc Keane.  In Japanese gardening, this commonly translates to putting into a different use picturesque, old materials like fallen roof tiles and fragments from artifacts like stone pagodas and bridges.

Clay roof tiles at the Portland Japanese Garden pavilion.

That sounds a lot like the Western idea of recycling except that the main intent is not so much utilitarian as it is artistic. The old material is reborn not just into a new function but into a new kind of beauty.

Sometimes, it’s the new aesthetic expression that matters above all else. So a fallen roof tile can be repurposed to serve as pavement material in a garden pathway — possibly as an edging that will serve as an erosion control feature  —-   or for nothing more useful than symbolizing moving water at the edge of a dry rock garden.

There is also a broader meaning of mitate which goes above and beyond the realm of transforming physical objects. Japanese culture writer Haruo Shirane calls it “visual transposition.” Here, it is only the imagination of the poet and artist which changes the aesthetic identity of the object perceived, usually within the context of a cultural glossary shared with the reader or viewer.

In spring, white azalea shrubs in full bloom along a slope can either just be appreciated at face value or re-imagined as snow drifting down a hillside in late spring. The re-imagination is more potent of course if there is the clear intent to transpose snow for azalea.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Shirane also sees the mitate concept at play in the common garden design practice of representing famous literary scenes and miniaturizing famous landscapes in the arrangement of rocks, water, artifacts and plants.

A hedge representing Mt. Fuji at the San Francisco Tea Garden. Photo courtesy of

A hedge representing Mt. Fuji at the San Francisco Tea Garden. Photo courtesy of

At the Tanner Springs Park in Portland’s Pearl District, one finds both these levels of mitate flowing through the design, seamlessly merging in spirit with the modern, practical ethos of sustainability in landscape design.

Perhaps the most striking example of mitate in the park is the art wall of undulating rusted metal and fused glass that borders its east side. The metal are old railroad tracks, 368 of them to be exact, set side by side on their ends to simulate a gracefully crumbling wooden fence.

 Or this wall of industrial sculpture could be the billowing trunks of trees in the lost Pearl District wetland. Tanner Springs is a blast from the Pearl District’s not-so-distant past, when it served as wetland catch basin of the southwest hills. The march of industrial activities drained and obliterated all traces of this old natural habitat although perhaps, some aquatic wildlife, in the recesses of their collective specie memory, never quite forgot about the old Couch Lake in the Pearl.

A “resident” blue heron in the park. Photo courtesy of Tom Good,

The second mitate-mono (mitate object) in the park is something that it has in common with a lot of downtown streets and with the Portland Japanese Garden (where it is actually held up as the textbook example of mitate). The cobblestone pavement that winds across the park started out life in Portland as ballast from ships coming into the city’s rivers.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

In busy city streets  where pedestrians and cars have to dance the precarious ballet of the crosswalks, these ballast-turned cobblestones slow the motor traffic down.  The line between utility and beauty blurs with their use in a garden setting at the Japanese Garden and in Tanner Springs. They still serve to slow us down but only so that we may be able to smell the wisteria, awaken our sense of touch or reflect on a lost wetland utopia.

The cobblestones provide a textural and visual cue to stop and ponder this water feature at Tanner Springs.

The cobblestones provide a textural and visual cue to stop and ponder this water feature at Tanner Springs. Photo courtesy of

The “Festival of Souls” at the Portland Japanese Garden


This gallery contains 16 photos.

O-bon, the spirit festival of the Japanese, has been a tradition for more than a thousand years. Families gather over a three-day period in mid-August to pray for the spirits of their ancestors. It is a joyous event that celebrates … Continue reading

Wisdom in Fountains

Basalt rock fountain

Photo courtesy of

 basalt bowl fountain

These rock fountains of rough-hewn, free-standing basalt or granite columns and basins  have become such a hit in contemporary landscape design that even fast food joints have them now in parking lots.

 And I’ve been to at least one dental clinic greeting its patients in the reception area with a toothsome (pun intended) display of stone molars and incisors (actually a cluster of light-colored granite columns) bubbling over in full aqueous vitality. (Let’s forget for a while that these columns have to be drilled and perhaps root canal-ed to become the landscape design equivalent of a healthy, toothy smile).

Asian Garden Influence  These fountains have come a long way, culture-wise, from the serene landscapes of medieval Asian gardens which inspired their design to the corner flower bed of your neighborhood Taco Bell.

One senses a world of hidden meanings in them. They seem to follow a basic design vocabulary that is not just intended to mimic nature. An example of this is the fountain kit convention of using three stone columns, which doesn’t make sense if you just want to represent a natural waterfall.

Japanese and Chinese gardens are impregnated with sacred history (Buddhist, Taoist, Shinto) references and have their own universe of aesthetic principles. Here are a few of these references and principles that are passed on — unwittingly most of the time — to the modern-day builders of our basalt and granite rock fountains:

  •  Asymmetry and the Buddhist Triad The Sakutei-ki, a classic Japanese gardening manual from the Heian period (794-1185 AD) proposes that the basic stone arrangement in a garden should feature one upright stone flanked by two smaller stones.  
A zen garden in Japan with Buddhist triad

A Buddhist triad in an old Japanese Zen temple.

This triad formation enables visual stability in asymmetry, a fundamental precept of Japanese garden design, since it addresses the lack of central focus in an asymmetrical layout.

A corollary to this purely design consideration is the reference of the three-stone arrangement to the Buddhist trinity featuring the Buddha as the tallest stone, supported by two bodhisattvas (enlightened beings).

  • Shumisen, the Sacred Buddhist Mountain The idea of stones, especially upright ones, as representation of mountains has been assimilated by Buddhist Japan from the native Shinto religion, with its emphasis on sacred natural places. A grouping of nine stones with one upright, prominent stone in the center surrounded by smaller ones of varying sizes can represent Shumisen, the legendary central mountain in Buddhist cosmology, and the eight mountains and seas around it.    

Ryogen-in, Daitoku-ji in Kyoto. The most famous example of a rock arrangement featuring Mt. Shumisen and the eight mountain.Photo courtesy of

  •  The Dragon’s Gate Waterfall This traditional rock arrangement, inspired by a Zen Buddhism legend, probably comes the closest as the mythical source for our modern basalt and granite rock fountains. The rocks are arranged as in a three-tier waterfall, though often without running water. It is based on a legend about a river in China that can make a dragon out of any fish that is able to climb its way to the top of its powerful three-tier waterfall.
  • A waterfall of rocks.

A waterfall of rocks. Photo courtesy of

  •  The Tsukubai (Japanese water basin and rock arrangement)   Some fountains which feature a water basin / basins instead of stone columns are probably inspired by the tsukubai, traditional water basin and rock arrangements that are usually found in the entrance of Japanese ceremonial tea houses and shrine temples and are used for purification rituals.  
  • A tsukubai at the entrance of the Portland Japanese Garden. Photo courtesy of

 A famous work by the mid-century modern designer and sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who is of both of Japanese and American lineage, might be considered as the prototype for the water basin version.

Photo courtesy of

With this sculpture entitled Water Stone, created for the Japan Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum, Noguchi takes his cue from the traditional Japanese water basin then modifies it to suit his vision. Instead of  having the water fall into the basin, he lets it swell from the ground at the bottom of the basin to gently cascade down its sides to the pebbles underneath, to be recycled again to the top.

Sources: Japanese Garden Design, Marc Peter Keane;

Majestic Redwoods: A Garden (Under)story


This gallery contains 10 photos.

We sought a shady garden story in the understory of the legendary trees at the Redwoods National Park and found many a serendipitous arrangement of flora combinations and other garden elements to inspire a woodland gardener. American garden writer Rick … Continue reading