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Photo by Bruce Forster.

A Wall Connecting Cultures

It was done in a rhythm, like a dance.

And for several months, a team of gifted stone masons worked rhythmically together to construct the magnificent Castle Wall which now greets visitors as they enter the Portland Japanese Garden. Nearly 20 feet tall and 185 feet long, the Wall is a monument to what many hands can accomplish, when working together. In early 2016, visitors had a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to see this historical project in progress. The Castle Wall is the first of its kind to be built outside of Japan.

Fifteenth-generation Japanese stone mason Suminori Awata used the ano-zumi, or “dry stone” building style, which originated in 17th century Japan. As a result of his ancestor’s superior craftsmanship, prior to this project, Awata-san had only repaired or maintained existing Castle Walls. Some of these date back to the 9th century and survived earthquakes that flattened more modern, high-tech buildings. The Castle Wall at the Portland Japanese Garden represented Awata’s first opportunity to practice his trade on a grand scale.

Unlike a Western-style retaining wall, this type of wall starts with a large cornerstone inserted into the ground at a 90- to 110-degree angle. The wall curves as it rises, with the stones and ballast acting as a hinge instead of a flat plane.

Before the first stones were ever placed, they were hand-selected from a quarry in Eastern Oregon. Awata-san and his team traveled to the quarry near Baker City to choose several hundred-ton boulders of fine-grained, azure flecked granite. The boulders were then transported to a storage facility in Portland using specialized heavy-equipment. There, workers began using tools such as saws, hammers, and drills to cut the boulders into smaller pieces that could be shaped and split by hand.

It wasn’t long before the Garden’s Castle Wall took shape. The team used ropes, poles, and hands to guide each stone as it was gently lowered into place. Then they checked alignment. Authenticity and craftsmanship have been the priority since day one. Garden Curator Sadafumi Uchiyama said the site has had one rule all along: “Each stone should be moved only once.”

The Castle Wall required nearly 800 tons of granite all together and now rises up to meet visitors to the Garden, transporting their imaginations to another place and time. For more on this once-in-a-lifetime project, download our special edition newsletter, A Wall Connecting Cultures.