Oregon Monogatari: One year living in Portland, Oregon (with notes on Japanese culture there)

By | July 27, 2017

It’s been a little over a year since I’ve moved with my family to Portland, Oregon. It’s no exaggeration to say that one of the main reasons we chose this area because of the relatively large proportion of Japanese people, at least compared to South Florida where we came from.

I’ve already written a few articles on Japanese stuff in Portland, but in this post I’d like to give a general overview on my thoughts and feelings about living in Oregon so far. I’ll expand the topics to more than just Japanese-related things in case you are considering moving here yourself. Much of what I’ll cover applies to Portland itself as well as the surrounding areas.

In terms of budget, we heard the house prices were roughly the same as South Florida, and our experience seems consistent with that, though of course there are wide variations depending on the area you are in. For those of you living in the more popular areas of California, it seems that the housing in Oregon is, on average, around 2-3 times cheaper than there. Oregon has no sales tax, which is great, but to balance that they have a income tax (most states do, though Florida doesn’t). I was a little worried about the impact of the income tax, but after tax time came around the hit was less than expected. It all depends on your financial situation though.

The weather was one of the biggest surprises, both colder and hotter than we expected. We had several snow storms in the last year; I heard the last time it was this bad was at least a decade ago. Making snowmen and playing in the snow was great fun, but driving on slick snow and ice can be extremely dangerous, especially if you are not accustomed to it. I was fortunate to not get into an accident, but I came close once or twice. On the other end of the spectrum, recently we had temperatures of around 100 degrees.

Visually, Oregon is very colorful, with many flowers and other plants blooming at different times of the year, unlike South Florida which really doesn’t have well established seasons. It’s not uncommon to see roses all over the place, and even flowers growing in the wild can be surprisingly beautiful. When we first moved here I just felt like all the colors were brighter, almost as if  somebody turned the saturation control up.

Another great thing about living farther north is there are so many fresh fruits to pick when the season comes around: raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, among others. Lavender fields in bloom are a stunning site that anyone should see (and smell) at least once in their life. The farmer’s markets here have a large diversity of fresh items.

Food, on the other hand, has been a bit of a disappointment. While you can find some good restaurants in downtown Portland, as soon as go out to more rural areas the quality drops dramatically. One example of a ‘classic’ Oregon restaurant that is horrible in multiple ways is Elmers (think Dennys to get some idea of the quality).

Fortunately, coffee options are pretty diverse around here, though I’ve only found a handful of places that make a consistently good ice latte. One of them is Five Points Coffee Roasters. Another option is Black Rock, which is a convenient chain of drive-through coffee bars. While I won’t say the latter’s coffee is great, it’s a step above many other places.

There are a few good Japanese restaurants around, two of my favorites being the Ramen shops Ryoma and Kukai/Kizuki. Sushi restaurants vary in quality pretty drastically. One of the best, in my opinion, is Maki Sushi in Tigard. There are several Japanese-style izakayas, and we found Shigezo to be quite delicious. Another good Japanese restaurant is Koji Osakaya. Ironically, the Benihana we visited twice had mediocre food and service, and their hibachi tables had several hour-long wait times. Good Italian food is much harder to find, and good Indian nearly impossible.  Maruti was the only really good Indian restaurant I can recall going to.

There is a good variety of grocery stores packed with healthy and local options, with New Seasons being one of the best. While we used to go to Whole Foods all the time, we visit it less frequently since moving here. (If you have any supermarket or restaurant recommendations, let me know, since I am always looking for new places to try).

There are some other interesting cultural differences in Portland/Oregon. For example, the massive number of marijuana stores which feel like they are on every block (look for the green cross). Without getting into any debates about marijuana’s influence on society, I’ll just say that I hope the fervor eventually calms down a little. But even if you are not into that kind of thing (I’m not), don’t let it dissuade you from considering moving here.

There are some differences in the traffic laws, like how you have to put your license plate on the front and back of your car, and how some highways have traffic lights at their entrances. Also, beware of traffic cameras at intersections. It’s interesting that in Oregon all the gasoline stations are full serve (where an attendant pumps your gas)–just like Japan.

I don’t think I’ve lived in Oregon long enough to have enough data on the common attitudes and personalities of people here, especially since I work from home. But if I had to say, people seem to be a bit more laid back here, and I think that can be seen on the roads where people will often be nice and let you into their lane.

In terms of crime, one source cites Portland has having less than half the number of violent crimes compared to big cities like New York and Miami, though statistics on each sub-class of crime differ. However, crime can vary greatly depending on the city/region you are in, so I don’t know how useful stats like this are. I have already personally heard several stories of break-ins, so its always better to be safe than sorry. (In fact, the same statistics page shows Portland’s number of burglaries are close to Miami’s).

Now, onto the main topic: Japanese culture in Oregon.

As we had hoped, there is a much larger Japanese community here compared to most other places we have lived at. It’s not uncommon to hear Japanese being spoken by people in stores or in restaurants, so switching to Japanese for privacy in a public space is more risky. The number of people studying Japanese seems pretty high, at least judging by the relative size of the Japanese language meetup. We’ve come across a good number of people who are learning Japanese as a hobby or taking classes.

Besides the Japanese restaurants I mentioned above, there are many Japanese stores, for example Kinokuniya and the surrounding Uwajimaya grocery store. Ramen Ryoma is actually in the same plaza, so there you have a mini mecca of Japanese stuff in one place! Many public libraries in Oregon have small to medium-sized sections of Japanese books, for example Beaverton’s library (Beaverton is one of the cities with the highest proportion of Japanese people in Oregon). There is even a magazine targeting the Japanese population in Oregon and Seattle, and several online websites which focus on providing information in Japanese about Portland (for example PDX Japan).

If you have kids and are considering teaching them Japanese (or want to help maintain their existing Japanese abilities as they grow older), Oregon is a great place because of the many schools which teach Japanese. These range from schools with full Japanese immersion programs, like Richmond, to smaller programs which are just a few hours a week. Many of these are staffed by native Japanese speakers. In general, the ratings of public schools in Oregon seem pretty good.

It’s been pretty easy to meet a handful of American/Japanese couples like us who are raising kid(s) to speak Japanese at home, which is a nice plus of living here. However, it’s still difficult to find someone like myself who is into Japanese literature and translation (pretty small niche, I guess).

There are several religious establishments which cater to Japanese people, such as the Japanese Fellowship Church, and the Japanese International Baptist Church. If you are into Buddhism, you can visit the Nichiren Buddhist Temple of Portland. I made a podcast on an experience I had there some time ago.

What is Portland’s Chinatown was actually once a Japantown, but nowadays there is only a few Japanese related things left there, including the Japanese American Historical Plaza and the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center. I haven’t had a chance to visit the latter but am hoping to sometime this year.

We recently were delighted to find out about the Oregon Ki Society that has several Aikido dojos around Oregon. I’ve seen some other martial arts around, including Karate and Taekwondo, but haven’t tried any of these other places myself. There are many typical gyms around (isn’t there everywhere?), but there are also some bouldering gyms which have a variety of artificial climbing walls, and these are a really fun way to exercise your whole body. It seems like there are a lot of places where you can do boating activities, but I haven’t tried any yet myself.

For those of you into exploring Eastern-styled landscaping, Portland Japanese Garden is one of the best I’ve been to. They’ve recently completed a major renovation and have added some beautifully-designed facilities. The Lan Su Chinese Garden is pretty cool too, albeit much smaller.

There are some festivals in Portland focusing on traditional Japanese events and traditions. One of the larger, more interesting ones we attended was Mochitsuki, which I reported on here.

Portland’s sister city in Japan is Sapporo, and the Portland-Sapporo Sister City Association has been around for over 50 years, one of the oldest sister city relationships in the US. Their website doesn’t seem have been updated since late 2012, though their Facebook page is more active.

If you ever run out of things to do in Oregon, you can always travel to Seattle (only about a 3 hour drive) to get a second helping of Japanese culture–or anything else you can imagine. Or you can “stop by” Japan itself via a direct flight which can take (only) around 10 hours.

If you are interested in learning Japanese, don’t expect that living in Oregon will magically make you fluent. For that, Japan (plus a lot of effort) is still your best bet, or you can try Hawaii as a backup. But in Oregon you’ll have a host of resources to help your Japanese studies, as well as many ways to experience Japan’s culture in some form or another.

Now if we could just get Japanese-style onsen facilities (hot springs), things would be perfect!

(In case you missed the reference, the title “Oregon Monogatari” is an allusion to the comedic anime series “Ore Monogatari” The word ‘monogatari’ (物語) means ‘story’).

** Update: Someone pointed out that one of the best ways to learn Japanese outside of Japan is by working at a Japanese company and using the language frequently during work. I totally agree. This link quotes how there are over 120 Japanese companies in Oregon providing over 5000 local jobs, though I assume those numbers may have changed since that was posted (hopefully risen). I personally know several people who are living in Oregon temporarily on assignment from Japan.  If nothing else, being in a time zone closer to Japan (compared to the East coast) will make it easier working with Japanese companies, even if you are working remotely.

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3 thoughts on “Oregon Monogatari: One year living in Portland, Oregon (with notes on Japanese culture there)

  1. Kurt

    I once spent around 24 hours in Portland about 20 years ago, and based on that extremely short exposure I thought to myself that if there’s one place on the mainland I could live in other than San Francisco (where I was living) it would be Portland. Little did I know I would end up in Japan though.

    On the fatter than heck chance I ever did move to Oregon though, it would be mainly for two things you didn’t mention: Powell’s bookstore, and the easy access to all sorts of amazing craft beer!

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  2. Matthew

    I grew up in Portland and have been living off-and-on in the city for most of my life, and often spend my weekends there. Everyone gets their own slice of Portland, and for me there’s just something about walking around downtown while eating a food cart burrito and finding a whole band of buskers playing folk rock on the sidewalk. I feel like I can strike up a conversation with almost anyone while I’m out and about and that’s just not a feeling I’ve had in other cities. And I agree about food outside of downtown–Portland has a lot of good food but man you gotta know where to go. (And ad far as food and culture, rural west Oregon is another planet.) It’s interesting that you say you haven’t found much good Indian food though because there is an absolutely fantastic place in SE Portland–I believe it’s called Best Taste India but I could he wrong… I remember the chef’s mother was talking to us about cooking traditions in southern India and it was evident that a lot of care was put into how the dishes were prepared. Fantastic fresh housemade paneer and samosas. I’ll note the name of the place next time I go.

    Anyway, I’ve just started seriously studying Japanese so I’m glad to hear Portland has relatively so many resources! I wasn’t sure how well Portland stacked up outside of academia as far as having access to Japanese cultural resources. I went to Lewis and Clark College and we had a large number of Japanese exchange students (especially in my dorm) and I also studied east asian art and religion while I was there–since I’ve graduated I was worried that was the end of the cultural outreach opportunities I’d be getting in Portland.

    I’m also glad you’ve gotten to visit the Japanese Garden because it’s one of my favorite places to visit, especially as the seasons change.

    Well, I hope you and you family continue to enjoy Portland! I’m always happy to hear about folks discovering the area for themselves. Thanks for sharing your experience son far

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