The Nitobe Memorial Garden in Vancouver: Beauty and Symbolism
A Beautiful and Tranquil Garden
The Nitobe Memorial Garden is a beautiful oasis of tranquillity on the campus of the University of British Columbia. It's a Japanese garden that is filled with symbolism and is an ideal place for contemplation or relaxation. The garden is named after Dr. Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933), who was an agriculturalist and a philosopher. He wanted to act as a bridge across the Pacific between Japan and British Columbia.
The Nitobe garden is considered to be a highly authentic Tea and Stroll Garden. It's very attractive but is quite small in size. Tourists may want to combine a visit to the garden with a trip to the university or the nearby Museum of Anthropology or UBC Botanical Garden.
The photos in this article were taken by me during my visits to the Nitobe garden. I carry a lightweight camera on my walks. While stopping to take photographs may interfere with a meditative walk, the camera can always be used after the meditation is finished.
Nitobe Garden is considered to be one of the most authentic Japanese gardens in North America and among the top five Japanese gardens outside of Japan.— UBC Botanical Garden website
A Contemplative Atmosphere
The Nitobe garden is run by the UBC Botanical Garden, which is in turn run by the University of British Columbia. The goals of the botanical garden are education and research; the goal of Nitobe (as it's sometimes called) is to provide a space for contemplation.
At the entrance to Nitobe there is a sign asking visitors to respect the peaceful atmosphere inside the garden. During my visits, I've seen that they often do. People generally walk slowly around the garden or sit on a bench. Here they read a book, draw or paint, talk quietly to a companion or simply sit in silence.
The Nitobe garden was designed by Professor Mori from Chiba University in Japan. It's about one hectare (two and a half acres) in size. The centrepiece is a large, irregularly-shaped pond. The pond contains koi and is traversed by six bridges of different types. A waterfall and a stream are present at one end of the pond.
A small island is located in the pond and is connected to the rest of the garden by a bridge. The island resembles a turtle in shape. Stones have been added to represent the head, flippers and tail of the turtle. The animal is significant because it's a symbol of immortality. The island is appropriately known as the Island of Eternity.
Grass, moss, shrubs, trees and a walking trail surround the pond. The overall impression that is produced is one of green tranquillity. Even the water is sometimes green due to the growth of algae. Other colours are visible at certain times of the year as flowers bloom or as leaves change colour. The reflections in the water and the patterns of light and dark on a sunny day are always beautiful, as are the koi.
Stone lanterns are located at specific places beside the water. Like the bridges, the lanterns have different designs. The garden also contains a family pavilion and a ceremonial tea house.
The snow-viewing lantern is popular in Japan. It was probably named from the collection of snow that appears on its wide top. The version on the Island of Eternity is thought to represent the mother figure. A smaller version elsewhere in the garden is known as the maiden lantern.
A Self-Guided Tour
Despite its relatively small size, the garden contains a wealth of symbolism. This is described in the self-guided tour handout given to visitors. The handout is important, at least for first-time visitors, because there are no signs in the garden. Nitobe is a Zen garden in which signs would be a distraction. The only writing is engraved on sculptures related to Dr. Nitobe.
The journey through the garden is meant to symbolize a journey through time. The time period could be as short as a day or as long as a lifetime, depending on the traveller's interpretation. A forty-five minute walk is recommended in order to fully appreciate the symbolism. The traveller doesn't have to stay on the path that travels around the perimeter of the pond. There are other paths that cross from one point on the main path to another. These alternate pathways could symbolize a different route in life.
A Short Tour of the Nitobe Memorial Garden
The stone path leading up to the entrance gate of the Nitobe garden has an irregular surface. This is deliberate and is designed to awaken the senses to what is about to appear. The stones are known as sensory stones.
Symbolism in the Garden
There are many symbols in the garden. As the tour handout says, Nitobe is designed in "meticulous" detail. Even the rocks have meaning.
In the section below, I describe the meaning of certain symbols in relation to a traveller's lifespan. The symbols are designed to represent any passage of time that makes sense to the walker, however. Some of them refer to Dr. Nitobe instead of the walker.
The stone lanterns are an important component of the garden. Lanterns in Japanese gardens represent light repelling darkness. They are sometimes found at junctions, where they represent the fact that a choice must be made.
The lantern shown in the picture on the upper right of the above collage was not part of the original garden design. It was a gift from the city of Morioka, where Dr. Nitobe was born. Nitobe died in Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia. Morioka and Victoria are sister cities.
A Selection of Symbols
The first part of the walk around the pond could be used to represent life to early adulthood. The symbols below are described in order of view as one travels around the garden in the recommended counterclockwise direction. Not all of the symbols that are present are described.
- Soon after the walk begins, an upright, slightly pointed rock is seen beside the trail. This is known as an alarm rock and indicates that something important lies just ahead. The "something" is a large, sculptured lantern dedicated to Dr. Nitobe. The lantern could be viewed as a father figure.
- Two paths travel away from the Nitobe lantern, which represent two possible routes through childhood. The path on the left is flat and easy; the one on the right is steeper and represents the dangers of infancy.
- The memorial stone before the curved, 77-log bridge that travels over the pond symbolizes Dr. Nitobe's desire to be a bridge across the ocean. The bridge is partially made of logs, as its name suggests.
- The traveller may choose to ignore the 77-log bridge and cross the pond via the flat 11-plank bridge, which is accessed further along the path. This bridge is quick to traverse and leads to the marriage lantern. The route symbolizes a marriage in early life.
- If both bridges are ignored and the traveller continues on their way without branching away from the main route, they reach a disorderly dead end. This represents the way of teenage rebellion. The route must be retraced to carry on with the journey.
At the right-hand side of the “mountain path,” just past the Nitobe lantern, is a rock with a cleft. At 4:00 pm on October 15, the day of Nitobe’s death, the sun shines through the Nitobe lantern and strikes the rock cleft.— UBC Botanical Garden website
Spring Flowers in the Nitobe Garden
Plants in the Garden
The numerous plants in the Nitobe garden are interesting for someone who enjoys observing the natural world. They create a very attractive landscape. At some times of the year, nature offers additional highlights to a visit. In April, there is cherry blossom in the garden. July brings iris flowers and October reveals the beauty of colourful maple leaves.
Most of the irises and azaleas and some of the cherry and maple trees in the garden were imported from Japan. The garden also includes shrubs and trees that are native to Canada but are trimmed in the Japanese fashion. The native plants include western red cedars and western hemlocks.
Like the plants, the beautiful koi add colour to the garden. Orange, black, grey and multicoloured fish can be seen. Koi are a variety of the common carp and are bred as ornamental animals.
The Ceremonial Tea House
The Ceremonial Tea House is capable of offering a complete tea ceremony that lasts for hours and is filled with ritual and meaning. In Japanese culture, chado, or the Way of Tea, is an important concept. A ceremonial tea house is not simply a place where people drink a beverage.
In summer, the Urasenke Foundation of Vancouver holds tea house sessions for the public. Reservations are recommended for these sessions since the number of visitors that can be accommodated is limited. The fee is $10. I've never attended one of the sessions myself, but they sound like an introduction to a tea ceremony. According to the garden website, visitors "can witness the formal preparation of tea and participate as guests".
Admission Cost and Hours
Admission to the Nitobe Memorial Garden currently costs $7 for an adult. Lower rates are available for people in certain categories, such as those aged sixty-five or older. Combining a visit to the botanical garden and the Nitobe garden is less expensive than buying a separate ticket for each facility. Admission to each of the gardens in winter is by donation.
The Nitobe garden is open all year. From March 15th to October 31st it's open every day from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. From November 1st to March 14th it's open only on week days and only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The garden is well worth visiting, even if the visitor isn't interesting in symbolism or metaphorical meanings. It's a beautiful place to relax, especially for someone who enjoys being surrounded by plants and nature. It's also very conducive to contemplation as long as other visitors are reasonably quiet. I always enjoy my trips there.
© 2016 Linda Crampton