Finding Zen (literally) in Vancouver: Inside Nitobe Garden

Nature lovers know Vancouver has more than its share of exceptional parks and gardens, from 1,000-acre Stanley Park to the tiny .3-acre Dr. Sun Yat-SenClassical Chinese Garden.  But there’s one garden that even the most dedicated of outdoor buffs tend to overlook: the Nitobe Memorial Garden on the University of British Columbia campus.

The 2.5-acre garden, tucked away near a set of campus dormitories, happens to be regarded as the best traditional Japanese garden in North America, and one of the finest in the world.

Inside the gates, the garden – a circular pathway around a small lake, all set in the B.C. coastal forest – doesn’t look like much, at least at first glance.  But on closer inspection (and with a little help from the handy brochure), it becomes clear that the traditional Zen garden has been meticulously designed, right down to every leaf and stone.  A stroll through the garden, which takes around 20 minutes, is meant to be a highly symbolic journey.  You’re not just admiring nature; in fine Shinto tradition, you’re gaining instruction and insight on the world and your place in it.  While the garden can be interpreted in many different ways, one popular interpretation is that it represents the journey of life itself.

A rushing mini-waterfall and set of slippery stepping stones embody the early perils of infancy.  Bridges over the lake reflect important junctures on life’s journey, like marriage and spiritual growth.  Stone lanterns placed strategically along paths represent light dispelling darkness, helping the seeker gain perspective on the challenges ahead.

Of course, you don’t need to get so deep to enjoy the garden.  It’s a quiet, peaceful space (apart from the occasional car passing by on Marine Drive, just beyond the garden walls) shaded by towering western red cedars and hemlocks.  The ground is covered almost entirely by soft, green moss.  And throughout April, the cherry trees are in bloom, sending blossoms cascading into the lake and along the paths.

The garden is also extremely popular on weekends (especially with families with small children and camera-toting travellers).  So be sure to visit during the quieter weekdays for a true Zen experience.

Nitobe Memorial Garden is located at 1895 Lower Mall on the UBC campus, just a short walk from the UBC Museum of Anthropology. It’s open daily 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., from April-October. Adult admission is $7.  

Photo credit: Phillip Jeffrey | Flickr


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