Japanese garden promotes self-reflection at Oregon State Penitentiary


All the money needed to build the garden was donated by the community

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — An effort years in the making is bringing beauty and healing to a place many associate with crime and pain.

In a few weeks, the Oregon State Penitentiary will be home to a Japanese garden, a very different kind of escape in the state’s only maximum-security prison.

“This place is concrete walls, iron bars and fences. It’s very little of nature,” Toshio Takanobu said. “We tend to become hard, just like our environment.”

Toshio Takanobu, an inmate serving a 26-year sentence helped create the Japanese garden at the Oregon State Penitentiary. (KOIN)

Takanobu has been incarcerated for 13 years — half of his 26-year sentence for his role in a deadly armed robbery.

The past 5 years have been full of planning, vision and drive toward a future of renewal as Takanobu and the prison’s Asian Pacific Family Club worked to make the idea for a Japanese garden on prison grounds a reality.

“When they came forward and started talking about how much funds they would have to raise to make it possible, and asked for final permission, we gave it to them,” prison Superintendent Brandon Kelly said. “And as an administration thought ‘there’s no way they’re ever going to be able to raise the amount of money or have the ability to actually get this to fruition’ and before we know it, they were there.”

Their efforts led them to world-renowned landscape designer Hoichi Kurisu, one of the designers of the Portland Japanese Garden.

“Nature is one of the most effective ways to recover or restore people’s mind,” Kurisu said.

Landscape designer Hoichi Kurisu, who designed the Portland Japanese Garden and donated his time and skills to help create the Japanese garden at the Oregon State Penitentiary. (KOIN)

“It was really a miracle for us to meet and have someone like Hoichi be a part of this,” Takanobu said. “Because he understands the benefit and the healing elements of nature, and we learned from him.”

Kurisu said he has learned just as much from these men.

“Their heart is not a prison, much more freedom. We don’t do anything — all heart, that’s how I feel,” he said. “We are not different — outside or inside — that’s the goal, this garden will do it.”

It took years of planning and fundraising to get here. Not a single taxpayer dollar was spent on the project. The club raised hundreds of thousands from the community and were able to get things like plants donated.

The Japanese garden at the Oregon State Penitentiary. (KOIN)

Kurisu donated his time and expertise.

“To see the different cultures, the different types of individuals interacting now, working together on something like this has definitely had a positive impact on our community here,” Kelly said.

The impact is already being felt.

The Japanese garden at the Oregon State Penitentiary. (KOIN)

“A lot of the guys that have been incarcerated 30 plus years have never touched a plant, have never touched a tree,” Takanobu said. “The first day we had the trees delivered, Johnny hugged a tree and tears came down.”

The garden helps fade the concrete walls, even for a moment — a testament to the power of nature, self-reflection and renewal.

“It teaches us about community, it teaches us about caring for others, it teaches us that there are possibilities when we dedicate ourselves in a positive way,” Takanobu said.

More than 90% of people incarcerated in Oregon will eventually be reintroduced in the general population. Kelly said things like this garden promote self-healing and reflection to hopefully make that process easier.

An earlier version of this story stated Hoichi Kurisu was the designer of Portland Japanese Garden. Kurisu served as the second Director of Landscape at the PJG, but the master designer was Takuma Tono.

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