Gates of Hope: How 2 sacred Japanese artifacts made their way to Portland and home again

Two beams from Japanese torii gates washed ashore in Oregon after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, but it wasn’t the last time they would cross the Pacific Ocean.

A long wooden beam with worn red paint rests on supports.

The kasagi crossed approx. 5,000 miles before washing up on the Oregon coast.

Photo by Jonathan Ley, courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the northeastern coast of Honshu (Japan’s main island) triggered a catastrophic tsunami that wiped out coastal communities and led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident.

Almost exactly two years later in Oceanside, Oregon, a resident walking along the beach spotted debris from the Great East Japan Earthquake: a large wooden beam painted red. Sadafumi “Sada” Uchiyama, the curator at the Portland Japanese Garden, identified the wooden beam as a kasagi from a torii gate.

A torii is a traditional gate that marks the entrance to the sacred grounds of a Shinto shrine. They characteristically feature two vertical posts topped by a sturdy crossbeam, or kasagi.

One month later on April 9, a second kasagi was found on a beach less than 120 miles away in Florence. Unlike the first, this kasagi bore a Japanese inscription: the name of the person who dedicated it in 1988, Toshimi Takahashi. Both were added to an online database for lost items, but no one claimed them — so the Portland Japanese Garden team made it their responsibility to find the beams’ original homes.

In a country with over 10,000 shrines, the mission was like finding two needles in a haystack. A trip to Japan to spread the word town-to-town narrowed the search to the remote fishing village of Okuki where two torii had once stood before the tsunami swept them away. The team found Takahashi, then 85 years old, who told local news he was “surprised” and “truly thankful” the kasagi had been recovered.

Fundraisers organized by the Portland Japanese Garden helped pay for the beams to cross the Pacific Ocean once more. The same Japanese carpenter — Suetako Takekomo — who crafted the original gates four decades earlier rebuilt the structures and, in the fall of 2015, they were reinstalled at the shrine entrance in Okuki as symbols of perseverance, recovery, and hope.

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