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Passing the Torch from Hand to Hand

Announcing Portland Japanese Garden’s New Garden Curator and Chief Curator 

This January, Portland Japanese Garden is announcing the promotion of two key leaders at the organization. Sadafumi Uchiyama has been promoted from Garden Curator to the position of Chief Curator and Director of the International Japanese Garden Training Center. Hugo Torii has been promoted from Director of Grounds Maintenance to Garden Curator. This transition marks a critical step in securing the future of Portland Japanese Garden. 

Since 1963, millions of people from around the world have found an intimate connection to nature by stepping into Portland Japanese Garden. While this experience with nature can feel ethereal, the landscape design, aesthetic principles, and desired effect of the garden spaces are deeply intentional.

Unlike any other Japanese garden in North America, Portland Japanese Garden has been continually overseen by a succession of Japan-trained garden craftsmen. This has ensured that the gardens remain authentically Japanese in their design and maintenance. Here, we hear from both Uchiyama and Torii about this momentous “passing of the torch”.

Sadafumi Uchiyama, Chief Curator and Director of the International Japanese Garden Training Center

Uchiyama is a third-generation Japanese gardener from southern Japan and is a registered landscape architect with a BLA and MLA from the University of Illinois. He has been with Portland Japanese Garden for 12 years as Garden Curator, during which time he helped to create and integrate the Cultural Crossing Expansion Project. Prior to his role as the Garden Curator, Uchiyama served as a member on the Garden’s Board of Trustees for 2003-2007.

Hugo Torii, Garden Curator

Torii has been with Portland Japanese Garden for more than 2 years as the Director of Grounds Maintenance, overseeing the physical aspects of the Garden, its maintenance, and development. With a master’s degree in Landscape Design from Kyoto University of Art and Design, Torii also worked for Gartenlandschaft Berg in Germany. Pervious to this role, he built a strong foundation as a Japanese gardener working 12 years at the prominent Ueyakato Landscape Co.

How do you plan to tackle the responsibility of your roles, respectfully?  

Torii: “I have learned it can take 200 years to become a master of a craft, but with the right people, the sum of the combined experiences can become greater than its parts. I love what I do and I am blessed to be surrounded by a great team. I also know that the work we put in each day matters. So, I hope to take it one day at a time, while keeping my gaze towards the future.”      

Uchiyama: “Growing up in a family of Japanese gardeners, I learned from a young age that a garden is a simple place and thing. Yes, we talk about Portland Japanese Garden in a philosophical way when speaking to the importance and impact of a garden, but when you think about it quite simply, a garden is a service. This notion keeps us grounded and connected to our community when carrying out both the day-to-day tasks and the long-term vision.” 

How does it feel to evolve from a role you have held close for over a decade?  

Uchiyama: “It’s important to remember that the Garden will outlive all of us, and as curators, we each just get a small portion of its long life. Maybe this is very traditional and Japanese of me, but I am not interested in leaving a legacy or counting the accolades. I just feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to be one part of the whole picture.” 

What is the role of a Garden Curator? And what is the joint role of a Chief Curator + Director of the International Japanese Garden Training Center? 

Torii: “A Garden Curator’s responsibility is to continue the world-class quality, maintenance, and aesthetic appearance of Portland Japanese Garden. Speaking abstractly, my role will also be to carry out the artistic vision of the Garden, of course, working with Sada as the Chief Curator.”  

Uchiyama: “As Chief Curator, my responsibility is to oversee the overall design of Portland Japanese Garden, as well as to lead and facilitate the formulation of a shared artistic vision for the physical garden spaces. As the Director of the International Japanese Garden Training Center, I will be overseeing the planning, establishment, and implementation of program plans and strategies for the Training Center. At the end of the day, I am here to be a representative of and an advocate for Portland Japanese Garden locally, regionally, and internationally.”  

What does this transition mean for the future of Portland Japanese Garden?  

Torii: “I moved to Portland to take on the Director of Grounds Maintenance job, and even with my new role as Garden Curator, my intentions for coming to Portland Japanese Garden haven’t changed. I am here to continue the legacy set by those before me by respecting the past and seeking what could be made better for the future.”  

Uchiyama: “Each curator has their own vision and approach. Walking through the Garden, you really sense the passage of time and feel the impact of the work done by those who came before you. Hugo is stepping into a different landscape as a Garden Curator than what I stepped into 12 years ago. So, it will be exciting to see how he takes on the role and makes it his own. He is up for the task.”  

Torii: “The experience that people seek from the Garden changes from generation to generation. I strive to be mindful of this and try to reflect what people are looking for. This doesn’t mean to change things drastically, but rather, a gradual evolution that meets people at the cross-section of humanity and nature.” 

Uchiyama: “Whether you’re a painter or a stonemason or a gardener, having the ability to know when to stop your work is a valuable discipline. For example, if something might be at 80% completion, being able to envision how it will reach 100% through nature, the next generation, or even imagination. The remaining 20% may be unknown but having the trust and instinct to know that it will become complete is an essential skill that is attributed to years of experience. I am not afraid of the unknown and throughout my life, have embraced moments of uncertainty. So I feel confident in this next chapter and continued growth of Portland Japanese Garden.”