To be honest, we weren’t that excited about visiting Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden, but it came up on our Google search for things to do in the city and several locals recommended it, so we went. We had been to China. Could Lan Su really give us a comparable experience to being in a Chinese garden in China? Thankfully this did not discourage us from visiting Lan Su Chinese Garden because it turned out to be our favorite day of our Portland vacation.
Tai Chi Class
I had wanted to try Tai Chi for quite some time and for reason after reason, I never managed to tick it off my bucket list. So, I jumped at the chance when I noticed a free, drop-in Tai Chi lesson on Lan Su’s schedule of events.
Volunteer Marjorie was our teacher for an hour on the terrace in front of the Hall of Brocade Clouds, overlooking the water. It felt like this location was designed for Tai Chi. Marjorie took us through some of the basic moves of yang-style Tai Chi. By the end of the session, my thigh muscles had had a workout and we had accomplished the first third of the long form 108.
Stepping into the Lan Su Chinese Garden grounds reminded us of entering numerous gardens and temples in China: everything was beautiful and pristine. The main difference, though, was that in China, we knew we were missing the significance and deeper meaning of what we saw. This time around, having a guided tour in English helped us appreciate the garden on a whole new level.
Volunteer Dan transformed things of beauty into things of beauty with historical, philosophical and symbolic significance. We began to look at the garden in a whole new way and suddenly it didn’t seem as small as it did when we first arrived.
Dan explained the five elements that must be present in every Chinese garden: wood, stone, water, plants and poetry. We began to look for the presence of these elements in every section of the garden.
He explained the meanings of the stone floors of each courtyard we walked into, my favorite being the last one in the Listening to the Fragrance courtyard, where we were invited to take off our shoes to experience the acupressure designed floor.
Dan told us a philosophical story about how fish symbolized two differing ways to view the world. Confucians felt society would function the best if everyone followed a set of rules and Taoists felt society would benefit more from living as one with, and understanding, their environment.
We were told that every tour of the gardens is different depending on the knowledge base of each volunteer, meaning you could go several times and learn something new. One thing is for certain though: do not go to Lan Su Chinese Garden without taking a tour!
This was a fun activity to do at the conclusion of our tour. We were given chopsticks and an empty bowl and were challenged to grab five different items from a series of bowls in front of us. We both thought this challenge was way too easy…that is, until we got to the ping-pong balls.
One of Mindy’s favorite activities of Lan Su’s schedule was attending a cooking demonstration. We felt very fortunate that the dish being demonstrated happened to be vegan: silken tofu in a ginger orange syrup. We made sure to sit in the very front row in the Scholar’s Study.
The best part of the demonstration for me was getting to taste the dessert afterward. Very delicious indeed!
We stepped into the teahouse not expecting to stay but wanted to see the design and listen to the musician. We were pleasantly surprised, however, by the number of vegan options, so we headed upstairs and found a table with a beautiful view of the trees, just beyond the windows. They looked like a painting.
We ordered an appetizer of pickled bamboo shoots, followed by the Taoist delight (sesame noodles with tofu) and turnip cakes.
We washed it down with two different kinds of sake, after a discussion with our Chinese-American waiter who confirmed that rice wine indeed originated in China.
We also enjoyed many more aspects to the garden, such as practicing our Chinese calligraphy in the Scholar’s Study and discovering our fortunes using traditional Chinese sticks in the Painted Boat in Misty Rain. It turned out that Mindy and I got the very same fortune – how fortunate for us 🙂 I also read a very nice Chinese-American children’s book celebrating Chinese culture through colors.
Lan Su Chinese Garden felt like an onion for us, in that what at first seemed like nothing more than a beautiful garden, slowly revealed its secrets to us. We would gladly go back as their schedule changes daily.