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The Nitobe Memorial Garden in Vancouver: Beauty and Symbolism

Linda Crampton is a writer who lives in Greater Vancouver. She enjoys walking and likes to take photographs of her discoveries.

A lantern in the garden

A lantern in the garden

A Beautiful and Tranquil Garden

The Nitobe Memorial Garden is a beautiful oasis of tranquility 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 and is certainly worth visiting, but it's quite small in size. Tourists may want to combine a visit to the garden with a trip to the nearby Museum of Anthropology or the UBC Botanical Garden. The three facilities are located on Marine Drive in Vancouver.

I took the photos in this article during my visits to the Nitobe garden. I nearly always carry a lightweight camera on my walks. Stopping to take photographs may interfere with a meditative walk. The camera can be used after the meditation is finished if a visitor prefers to do this.

Dr. Inazo Nitobe

Dr. Inazo Nitobe

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.

On the left, someone is reading a book outside the family pavilion. The 77-log bridge is located in the centre of the photo.

On the left, someone is reading a book outside the family pavilion. The 77-log bridge is located in the centre of the photo.

In support of the project the Government of Japan sent Kannosuke Mori, a renowned landscape architect from Chiba University, to design and build the garden and to ensure its authenticity.

— University of British Columbia

Nitobe Garden Design

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 tranquility. 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 on the Island of Eternity

The snow-viewing lantern on the Island of Eternity

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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

The garden contains many symbols. 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.

Garden Sculptures


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.

A colourful koi fish

A colourful koi fish

Like the plants, the beautiful koi add colour to the garden. Orange, black, grey, and multicoloured fish can be seen. Koi (Cyprinus rubrofuscus) are a type carp. There is some debate about their exact origin. They are bred as ornamental animals in Japan and other countries.

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. I've never attended one of the sessions myself, but they sound like a good introduction to a tea ceremony. According to the garden's website, visitors "can witness the formal preparation of tea and participate as guests". A ticket must be purchased in order to attend the ceremony.

The 7-storey pagoda and the 77-log bridge

The 7-storey pagoda and the 77-log bridge

Admission Cost and Open Hours

The Nitobe garden's website should be visited to find the latest entrance fees and the current cost for attending a tea ceremony (if the ceremony is being held). Like many institutions, the garden has had to adapt to the coronavirus situation. The third link in the "References" section below provides information related to a visit.

Lower admission rates are usually available for people in certain categories, such as youth, people aged sixty-five or older, and disabled people. Combining a visit to the UBC Botanical Garden and the Nitobe garden is generally less expensive than buying a separate ticket for each facility. Admission to each of the gardens in winter is usually by donation. Passes that provide admission to several UBC facilities are sometimes available.

An Important Notice

The information given above may change if the pandemic weakens or if it flares up again. It's important that the second UBC link below is checked to discover the latest news about admission costs, open hours, and any special requirements for a visit to the Nitobe garden.

Following a path in the garden and perhaps in life

Following a path in the garden and perhaps in life

Reaching the Garden

The Nitobe Memorial Garden is well worth visiting, even if the visitor isn't interesting in symbolism or metaphorical meanings. It can be reached by car or bus. It's a ten-minute walk away from the UBC transit loop, so someone visiting the university could also visit the garden. A community shuttle bus travels from the transit loop to the garden. The UBC Botanical Garden is located about 3 km away from the Nitobe one.

The Nitobe garden is 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.

References and Resources

  • The self-guided tour for the Nitobe Memorial Garden has been published in a PDF format. The document also lists the buses that go to the garden.
  • Nitobe Garden facts from the University of British Columbia (UBC)
  • UBC provides information about admission to its gardens and other attractions.
  • Information about bus routes and times can be obtained from the TransLink website.

© 2016 Linda Crampton

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