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Portland Japanese Garden is the Perfect Place to Bring Your Kids While School’s Out for Summer

A mother and daughter in Portland Japanese Garden. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

Summer break for the kids has arrived! Click the button below to buy tickets to Portland Japanese Garden.

With school districts in the greater Portland area beginning their summer break, parents and guardians are on the search for outings that will be engaging for their children. Portland Japanese Garden is the perfect place for families. With a series of rotating cultural demonstrations and performances, art exhibitions, a Gift Shop filled with unique and fun wares, wagashi (Japanese sweets) and teas at the Umami Café, and the everlasting beauty of our landscape, the Garden has something for everyone.

The appeal of Portland Japanese Garden for kids isn’t just something that we have witnessed, it’s something many of our staff know firsthand! We chatted with some of the moms and dads on our team to learn why they enjoy bringing their kids to the Garden, be it over spring break or any time of year.

A Place to Rejoice (And See Koi!)

Parents and kids gather to look at koi on the Zig-Zag Bridge. Photo by Julie Gursha.

Sadafumi Uchiyama, Curator Emeritus of Portland Japanese Garden, once described our grounds as a “depository of all kinds of emotions.” While many seek its comfort in moments of distress, it is equally a fitting place to rejoice life’s happy moments. So, while some may seek a quiet corner in the Natural Garden for self-reflection, there are plenty of elements that match the vibrancy and joy children bring with them.

“My child loves doing the treasure hunt!” Kathy Parmenter, Executive Assistant to the CEO, shares, referring to a free map that guides guests on a scavenger-style search throughout the Garden, available at the Mayho and Calvin Tanabe Welcome Center or Concierge office in the Cultural Village. “It keeps them engaged throughout the Garden. We also like to have a sweet treat in the Umami Café.”

A mom and daughter take part in Portland Japanese Garden’s treasure hunt. Photo by Julie Gursha.

“Kids love participating in the Garden treasure hunt activity,” Visitor Relations Assistant Manager Justin Leverett agrees. “I enjoy it when they claim prizes in the Concierge office after finding everything. They get very excited just to be outside and run around. It’s so much fun to have children around!”

“My four-year-old son Toby is a bit of an ‘architecture’ enthusiast, so he gets a little bit obsessive over doors and stairs,” Leverett noted when asked about his own kids. “When we first visited the Garden as a family, Toby got preoccupied with the stairs in the Natural Garden and the stairs going up and down from the Pavilion. He went up and down the Pavilion stairs near the overlook at least 20 times. He also liked the Zig-Zag Bridge and enjoyed checking out the koi.”

“My 6-year-old son likes the koi and the deer chaser,” Mayuko Sasanuma, Director of Cultural Programming adds. “He also likes to come for the traditional Japanese music performances.”

Introducing a Different Culture

A young guest holds up some origami. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

As some of the earliest correspondence between its founding Board of Directors and our original designer, Professor Takuma Tono of Tokyo Agricultural University, demonstrates, Portland Japanese Garden was built with the mindset of cultural diplomacy, a term that has many definitions but generally be taken as a means of establishing peace and friendship through the mutual exchange of the arts, values, beliefs, customs, and more. Furthermore, it is done so in a way that it can engage with multiple audiences at once, regardless of age or personal knowledge of Japan.

“It is a great place for a multi-generational outing with kids, parents, and grandparents,” Kelsey Cleveland, Cultural Programs Manager shares. “It’s also a great place to expose kids to another culture without having to travel a long distance to do so. My teenage son has been visiting the Garden since he first learned to walk. In elementary school, he came with a pencil and sketchbook and enjoyed drawing both the koi and the Sand and Stone Garden.”

A young participant in the Garden’s Bon-Odori celebration. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

“My child and I love the free cultural performances and demonstrations,” Parmenter adds. “We make a point to see all the various exhibitions within the Pavilion. It’s the perfect way to introduce various art forms in a low stress way.”

“Kids bring so much curiosity and joy!” Leverett contributes. “To them, everything is new and exciting, and they ask lots of really great questions. Kids who visit the Garden likely have not visited Japan, so the might ask about the lanterns or the rock garden, and they have no pre-conceived notions about what it is or what it represents.”

Reconnecting with Heritage

A young Garden guest takes in a musical performance during Hina Matsuri. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

For some, the Garden’s authentic presentation of Japanese culture is especially meaningful because of their personal background. “I am Japanese and my kids grew up in Japan till they were five, 10 and 13,” Special Programs Manager Yuki Wallen shares. “It is important for me that they do not forget where they come from. Portland Japanese Garden being an immersive experience is essential because they feel the sense of Japan while strolling the gardens—they do not have to be ‘told’ or ‘taught.’”

“I want to give my daughter an opportunity to feel, understand and educate herself through the five senses,” Japan Liaison Manager Natsuko Takahashi shares. “She is now a young adult, so her view of the Garden has shifted from loving the koi, the Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day) activities, and shopping at the Gift Shop to sitting at my desk pretending to work on the Bring Your Child to work day, volunteering for the Garden, and discovering and learning about her Japanese heritage and culture. She became more aware of the greatness of being multi-cultural and cross cultural through looking at herself through the Garden as a Japanese American.”

“As a Japanese American mother in Portland, I feel fortunate, inspired, and reassured knowing that a place like Portland Japanese Garden exists, where I can bring my children to connect to our heritage in a setting they love – nature!” notes Megumi Kato, Director of Marketing.

Time in Nature

Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

With eight different garden styles ensconced in the towering Douglas firs and cedars of Washington Park, Portland Japanese Garden is a terrific outing for parents eager to get their little ones out in nature. Regardless of the season or the weather of the day, the Garden always provides a place to stroll outdoors and away from glowing screens. Furthermore, on its perch overlooking the city, it is a way to get away from the quickened pace of the urban environment.

“It is beautiful,” Wallen says. “The care provided by the gardeners is superb. And the location being a little bit away from the city’s bustle makes it special. Do not rush and take time to immerse yourself and your kiddos in the Garden. Immersion is the key to understanding Japanese gardens.”

“This is an environment that is uncommonly peaceful and serene, and great for them to burn some energy but also not be overstimulated like they might be at other locations,” Leverett contributes.

Reinforcing Life’s Lessons

A mother guides her child during an ikebana workshop. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

No garden is ever just a garden—they’re reminders of what is achievable through care for the land, gifts created for unmet future generations, and avenues through which we confirm our place within the natural world. Portland Japanese Garden, the former site of a brownfield, fostered by successive groups of caring individuals, and intentionally designed to bring nature to a more humanlike scale, exemplifies these traits. As such, some parents enjoy how the Garden reinforces life lessons they wish to impart on their children.

“The Garden teaches my six-year-old son the sense of seasons as we visit often, as well as both the resilience and vulnerability of nature,” Sasanuma shares. “He now knows that if you step on the moss, it can take years for it to grow back.”

“The architecture is beautiful—the buildings and the gardens complement each other very well,” adds Wallen. “The harmony between nature and the human hand is very well done here. That’s how I want to live and how I want my kids to live.”

Stephan Ferreira, Director of Guest Experience and a father himself, notes that this kind of learning can be reciprocal. “Visiting with kids is an amazing opportunity to experience the Garden from a fresh point of view,” he says. “In many ways the Garden is a ‘living museum,’ and it reveals itself to us when we slow down and engage in the present moment. Children of course are naturally in the moment, and they make great guides. Ask questions. What engages their attention? How are they feeling here? Why? And how do you feel after that? Especially today with everything going on around us, these unique moments of dialogue about understanding something together feel restorative.”

Tips For Parents Bringing Their Children to Portland Japanese Garden

A family outing at Portland Japanese Garden. Photo by Julie Gursha.

We asked parents on our staff what tips they might be able to share about other moms, dads, and guardians might benefit from knowing ahead of their visit.

“Since food is not allowed here, I recommend that you plan your outing around their meal and snack times,” Sasanuma shares. “Pro tip: Your kiddos might enjoy a small picnic at the [adjacent] International Rose Test Garden before or after the trip to Portland Japanese Garden.”

You could also make a reservation at the Umami Café to end your visit there,” Wallen adds. “You will have something you look forward to while strolling. You can also tell your hungry kids that something yummy is waiting for them, which seems to help calm them down. It is a great way to finish your experience at the Garden.”

“I highly recommend families book a reservation in advance to the Umami Café,” Ferreira seconds. “Kids can enjoy a flight of mochi ice cream, while parents can taste-test one of our Tokyo-style tea sets.”

A young member chews over the details at the Annual Member Meeting in 2023. Photo by Nina Johnson.

“If your kids are big enough to walk around on their own, I’d advise against bringing a stroller,” Leverett suggests. “If your kid is very small and you do need a stroller for them, maybe bring a small foldable stroller, like an umbrella stroller which is easier to carry. I’d also suggest leaving behind any toys or electronics so they can try to focus on the nature and the peaceful experience of the Garden.”

“I’d suggest taking our free shuttle up unless your kids are used to hiking,” Cleveland adds, noting the winding switchback trail through our Entry Garden that takes guests into the Cultural Village. She also offered a way to keep the kids engaged throughout the experience.  “If your child is old enough, let them serve as the photographer of your visit to capture the visit from their perspective.”

Finally, there are several events held at Portland Japanese Garden that are specifically tailored for younger audiences. “Sign up for our weekly newsletter and check out about our festivals,” Sasanuma concludes. “Most of our festivals are kid and family-friendly and for some, we offer child-centered activities, like ikebana and origami workshops.”

Portland Japanese Garden looks forward to welcoming you here! We suggest buying a household membership, which includes unlimited free admission for two adults and eight accompanying children, under 18 years of age. Household-level memberships are also customizable and include the option to add up to three additional members or guests.