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The recent $33.5 million renovation of the Portland Japanese Garden is about much more than the landscape.

The 3.4-acre expansion brings three new gardens, including a Bonsai Terrace and several new buildings, designed by renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who is working on a soon-to-come national stadium at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. One of the most popular additions has been the Umami café, and visitors will want to stop in for another new—and very rare—experience: some of the world’s finest teas, now available to drink overlooking the gardens and trees.

Japanese tea company Jugetsudo has a long history. Its parent company, Maruyama Nori, dates back to 1854, when it began as a nori (seaweed) business. More than a century later, in 1980, they added tea to their product line and opened tea houses first in Tokyo, and later in Paris. These tea houses allowed patrons to experience the highest-quality tea in the spirit of cha-zen. Created by a Zen Buddhist in the 12th century, cha-zen describes a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in which the zen philosophy is present: the pursuit of simple and serene pleasure. The teas themselves are grown in the highlands of Shizuoka, close to Mount Fuji, where the pure water and dramatic swings in temperature from day to night impart the tea leaves with their excellent and unique flavors and aromas. And now those teas are served right here in the Garden’s Umami Café.

With tea houses in big international cities like Tokyo and Paris, Portland might, at first, seem like an unusual choice over places like New York or San Francisco for its first foray into the US market. But sixth-generation owner and CEO Keita Maruyama says it was a natural fit and that the choice came down to sustainability.

“Jugetsudo has a history and would like to continue on with the spirit of shinise,” says Maruyama. Shinise is a Japanese word for a long-established business that is run by the same family for generationsWhen we first decided to go abroad to introduce Japanese food and tea culture to the world, we picked France where people take food and its culture very seriously and appreciate things with high quality. Architect Kengo Kuma, who himself believes that countries, societies, and cities should be sustainable, agreed with Jugetsudo’s idea. He designed Jugetsudo’s tea shops in Paris and in Tokyo, using natural materials such as bamboo. And the Portland Japanese Garden also promotes the idea of sustainability.”

However, he adds that, since then, they have come to love Portland’s warm, people-first, artisanal culture, and believes it suits their company, which has catered to customers with its high-quality products for a long time.

Umami cafe. photo by bruce forster om0b50

Umami Cafe at Portland Japanese Garden

Image: Bruce Forster

The Umami Café is indeed a perfect setting for tea lovers, as well as those seeking out a Japanese tea experience for the first time. It is modern, serene, and quiet, elevated to allow a sense of floating over the hillside, with views of the natural beauty of the area. “The design,” Kuma says, “is inspired by its specific place at the crest of the hill,” which is meant to evoke Japanese pilgrimages to renowned mountainside temples. “For those arriving, it is a shelter to catch one’s breath and anticipate the gardens ahead. For those finishing their journey, it is an opportunity to reflect with all senses.” It combines the cha-zen atmosphere with the rustic Pacific Northwest landscape, with nothing to distract you from the experience—or the tea.

The café serves four of Jugetsudo’s green teas, including matcha, organic sencha, organic genmaicha, and organic hojicha—with flavors ranging from light and verdant to smoky and roasty. Teas come in traditional earthenware bowls and can be served in sets with exquisite Japanese sweets such as mochi and honey sponge cakes—all designed and sourced locally—to unlock umami, the rich, deep flavor (and the fifth taste) present in the tea. If ever there was a place—and a tea—to discover it, this would be the one. 

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Besides the Portland Japanese Garden, Jugetsudo teas are available at jugetsudousa.com. Or call 503-292-1466 for more information.

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