On the campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, is the Nitobe Memorial Garden, considered by some to be one of the most authentic Japanese gardens outside Japan. The garden is named in honor of Nitobe Inazo, a Japanese educator and diplomat (author of “Bushido: The Soul of Japan”) who worked to create bridges of international understanding and cooperation.
A quote attributed to Nitobe Inazo (from Wikipedia): “If there is anything to do, there is certainly a best way to do it, and the best way is both the most economical and the most graceful.”
The garden, gracefully set on an economical 2.5 acres, was designed over 50 years ago by Professor Kannosuke Mori of Japan, who also oversaw construction. The mix of northwest and east Asian native plants easily harmonizes throughout the landscape; Pacific north west native sword ferns, Oregon grape and mosses intermingle with Japanese maples, cherries and iris. A traditional Tea House was constructed in Japan, taken apart, and rebuilt by Japanese craftsman on site. Careful attention was paid to symbolism and the placement of rocks at strategic points around the garden – a turtle-shaped island represents longevity and a particular lantern is lit by the sun each year on the day Nitobe died. Goldfish and carp were brought in from Japan, too, but birds dined on the goldfish. The carp survived though, and I caught only a brief a glimpse of them – big, lumbering shapes swimming in a pack near the lake’s edge.
I arrived between rain showers on an overcast day that lent softness to a landscape where the traditional features of a Japanese garden are set under a towering canopy of fir and cedar, native trees retained from the forest already on the site.
The character below is actually from a Chinese calligraphic scroll inside the university’s Asian Centre, just across from the Nitobe Memorial Garden. The scroll is a poem, “Gazing at Taishen”, by Chinese poet Tu Fu.
The stunning calligraphy, which caught me up short, is by Fan Zeng, a brilliant painter, calligrapher and poet. The poem’s first lines read:
“How is one to describe this king of mountains?
Throughout the whole of Chi and Lu, one never loses sight of its greenness.
In it, the creator has concentrated all that is numinous and beautiful…”
It was a fitting prelude to a stroll through the garden – as if I’d been transported far west, beyond Japan, into the heart of the oriental soul, to soak in its essence. From there I would make the small hop across the waters from China to Japan, immersing myself in a living, breathing landscape – an embodiment of Japanese culture.
No riot of colorful flowers, but instead, a harmonious composition of elements that gently works its magic on your consciousness, drawing your attention to shape, form, texture, and all the lovely details you might miss in a more riotous garden design.
Traditional stone lanterns, some very old, were brought from Japan, as well as an old Chinese stone pagoda sculpture, above. The tall Nitobe lantern, below, includes oriental zodiac symbols – you can see the horse, sheep, monkey and rooster here. This is the lantern that reportedly lights up when the sun hits it at 4 PM on the day Nitobe died, but I wonder about clouds and trees getting in the way. You can see the size of this latern in the 4th image above – it’s behind two trees to the left of the path.
The garden is meant to be appreciated slowly;
vistas open up and disappear as you trace winding paths, round corners, ascend gentle bridges and pause to reflect, as this man did.
Bamboo poles and with graceful hoop stays serve as gentle reminders to keep to the paths.
The Tea House was closed but a seat outside the building afforded a resting place.
More bamboo, artfully tied together with weathered rope, enclosed the seating area. All very wabi-sabi!
The Asian Centre next door includes elements of Japanese architecture that complement the Nitobe Memorial Garden.
“I am in Japan,” the Crown Prince (now Emperor) of Japan is said to have remarked as he toured the garden.
No doubt the Nitobe is an authentic Japanese tea and stroll garden. For me, a more fitting description of this graceful landscape might be that it nestles one Pacific Ocean coastal culture into the landscape of another, with nary a leaf or symbol – or soul, out of place.
Above, delicate branches of Japanese maple waft across a sturdy old northwestern Douglas fir.