Designer Spotlight: Sadafumi Uchiyama

written by Melissa Dalton


“My family in Japan has been in this gardening business since 1890, so I am bound to do the garden, I guess,” said Sadafumi Uchiyama with a laugh. Despite opting out of the family business as a teenager, Uchiyama returned years later via a graduate program in landscape architecture. “It dawned on me that there is much more to learn and study,” Uchiyama said. Today he works as the garden curator for the Portland Japanese Garden and talked with us about his work there.

What do you do as garden curator?
My job is to keep the overall vision of the garden. It’s a living entity. The growing of the garden is very slow and ongoing. I want to make sure it evolves without deviating from the original design intent. As we receive more people, there is a need for space, [such as] paths being widened. Those changes can incrementally erode what is otherwise a beautiful garden. It’s my job to think of this garden, not just in terms of a ten-year timeline, but a hundred years, because ultimately the garden outlives our life.

Can you describe the Portland Japanese Garden?
We have five different gardens within five and-a-half acres. Each garden gives you a distinct experience and feeling. In my view, you can enjoy the whole spectrum of nature in a pretty small area. One aspect of Japanese gardening is that we pay attention to the detail. Stone is much more than just a stone. We deal with stone as if it is a living thing.

How so?
Each stone has a history of how it’s created in order to become what it is. We are honest to that aspect. For instance, one type comes from a mountain outcrop. It has broken off and rolled down. So we use this in a very dynamic way, as if it’s still moving. That creates an excitement for the visitor. Other rocks originate in lower elevations, in the ground. Water exposes the rock over time. They are much more gentle looking. So we use the rocks from the mountain to create a dynamic mountain waterfall. You cannot bring the gently rounded boulder there. It doesn’t fit.

What’s your favorite spot in the garden?
It changes within the day and season, but I like the Natural Garden. In the more formal gardens, you see the garden, but at the Natural Garden you are in the garden. Rocks are peeking out between the plants, low to the ground and covered in moss. That gives you a different feeling. You feel safe and comfortable. It is different, but we need all of these experiences.

Why does the garden matter?
No matter what language we speak or where we live, we fundamentally have a specific way of connecting with nature. That’s universal. And the garden is one important venue to remind us of the true us, of who we are and where we belong.

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