Gresham’s Japanese garden: Tsuru Island is a striking tribute to Japanese culture, heritage

It’s taken many years and a lot of volunteer hours, but Tsuru Island in Gresham’s Main Street Park is now the peaceful oasis its planners envisioned.

Gresham’s Japanese garden on Tsuru Island is a testimony to what people can accomplish if they have the will.

Its restoration never would have happened if Tomiko Takeuchi wasn’t such a convincing cheerleader and James (Jim) Card didn’t have the talent to turn weeds into an exquisite cultural oasis.

Tucked away in Main City Park, this tiny island of serenity allows you to step away from your daily routine and hear the sounds of silence, even though it’s just steps away from busy SE Powell Boulevard.

Located on three-fourths of an acre and surrounded by creeks, Tsuru (sue-do) Island has become a community destination touted by the Gresham Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Center.

With Takeuchi’s cajoling and persistence, monies have been raised to make Tsuru Island a happening space, all with a Japanese theme — including festivals, drumming, tea ceremonies, tai chi, bonsai classes and many other cultural activities.

Volunteers gather every Saturday morning at Ebetsu Plaza, a paved 12-foot square sitting area, to maintain this legacy. It got its name from Gresham’s sister city — Ebetsu, Japan.

The park features a dozen Akebono cherry trees that are said to symbolize a new beginning. Engraved small brick units with names of donors are a new project to raise funds to maintain this legacy.

Like many garden spaces, Tsuru Gardens didn’t start out as the beautiful oasis it is now.

For more than 20 years, hardly anyone went across the little footbridge to get to the island, Takeuchi says, describing the garden as “a miracle,” and that no one visited the area “because it was scary. It was despoiled with makeshift shacks, trash and even junked cars littering the island. It looked like a shaggy dog and, all of a sudden, it was a poodle.”

Takeuchi was born during World War II, when her family was living in an internment camp. After the war, her family moved to New York, and she returned to Portland in 1980.

Her family distanced themselves from their Japanese roots, wanting to assimilate into the dominant culture.

But Takeuchi, who grew up with the name Linda Ann, yearned to connect with her ancestry. She changed her name to Tomiko and immersed herself in the Japanese language, hosted Japanese exchange students and spearheaded many events to educate the public about Japanese culture.

She worked as a school teacher and principal, and feels that her teaching background served her well in restoring the Gresham garden.

One day, while walking in the garden with Jim Card, he took three snips off a bush, and in her mind’s eye, she envisioned the result.

“I could see it in an entirely different shape and asked Jim if we could fix it,” she says.

Card, who had retired from his successful landscaping business, began to catch her vision. Although he and Takeuchi are totally different personalities, they had one thing in common — community spirit.

With their influence, the city of Gresham adopted the garden as a nonprofit venture.

The garden was first built and donated to the city in 1975 by the Japanese Citizens League of Gresham-Troutdale, led by Kaz Tamura of Tamura Farms.

At that time, the area was mostly farmland and many people recall picking berries every season. Tamura never saw his dream of having the garden restored.

Tomiko got support and help from the city, the Japan Foundation of Los Angeles, area businesses, high schools, the Department of Corrections, and a small core of hardworking volunteers. Even students from local high schools helped.

Takeuchi credits Card with the design of the garden, training volunteers and securing most of the plants and materials at no cost.

“I couldn’t have done it without him,” she says.

Almost all the things you see represent salvaged materials. The striking pathways are now covered in small gravel inlaid with hand-cut variegated bluestone from Pennsylvania. Benches are placed throughout the garden, each with its own view. Volunteers have built a teahouse.

“Everything has been accomplished from donations, volunteer help and whatever we can get from grants,” says Card, adding that Mayor Shane Bemis is a big supporter of the garden.

Bamboo is used for accent and is placed to keep away beavers that have built a dam next to the island in Johnson Creek.

The garden is ideal for sitting and meditating, Card says. While the park is a place to walk the dog, ride a bike, swing on a swing, play baseball or take a stroll, the little island is there for another reason.

“This is a place of serenity,” he says. “Once you are in the area of natural plants and bird sounds, you return to yourself. You bring down your blood pressure.”

The Japanese use lanterns and bamboo structural elements, uniquely presented and perfected, he says.

A new film titled “The Gift” shows Takeuchi and Card talking about the history of the garden so it (and they) will never be forgotten.

The future of the garden will include the plaza’s expansion and more educational programs.

As Takeuchi says, it’s all about the culture.

“I want them to know that Japan is not just sushi and Toyota,” she says.

Cutlines-photo credits

Courtesy photos

It’s taken many years and a lot of volunteer hours, but Tsuru Island in Gresham’s Main Street Park is now the peaceful oasis its planners envisioned.

(also a picture of bench in garden)

Tomiko Takeuchi has been instrumental in helping Tsuru Island become what it is today.

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