Our Campus: Ryo Sugiyama curates the Nitobe Garden: UBC’s cultural bridge

Beauty is subjective in its own right, but anyone would be hard-pressed to deny that the Nitobe Memorial Garden is one of the most beautiful places on the UBC campus.

The garden is named after Nitobe Inazō, a famous diplomat, writer, bureaucrat and educator in a time of great change for Japan. It was within Nitobe’s lifetime that Japan moved away from its period of international isolationism to form stronger international relations. Nitobe, appointed under-secretary general to the League of Nations after World War One, was dedicated to the promotion and fostering of greater peaceful understanding between the western world and Japan. It is from this vision of Nitobe’s that the Nitobe Memorial Garden’s design emerged.

Ryo Sugiyama, Nitobe Memorial Garden Curator has a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Landscape design from Chiba University’s School of Science and Technology. While completing his master’s degree, Sugiyama studied under Kannosuke Mori, the designer of the Nitobe Memorial Garden.

Sugiyama's job starts daily at 6:30 a.m. with significant amounts of of pruning, landscaping and clean up to do before the gate opens at 10.

Sugiyama explained some of the vision and context behind the design of the garden.

“The pond in the middle of the garden is symbolic of the Pacific ocean. The far side of lake (the furthest end from when you enter the gardens) is symbolic of Japan and the side closest to the entrance is Canada or North America.”

Further biological steps were taken to emphasize the symbolism of various parts of the garden throughout the design process.

“On the side representative of Japan, Japanese maple trees are planted and on the Canadian side, Canadian maple trees are planted,” said Sugiyama.

Sugiyama says that the bridge represents a key part of Nitobe’s vision, as it was his wish “that the bridge would close [the cultural gap created by the] ocean.”

Sugiyama attributed his method of pruning to the Nitobe Memorial Garden’s retention of the authentically Japanese garden feel.

“[The] Japanese style of pruning is not to cut in a round, square or hedge straight manner. We always try to think out, take out branches as a means of providing more depth, creating a see-through style," Sugiyama said. "We [Japanese landscapists] are from a small country; we are always trying to create more space."

Within a small, confined space, the beauty of a garden is used as a tool to maintain the curiosity of all those who come to look at the garden, ensuring that they are spurred on to go further.

“Authentic Japanese gardens are characterized by the art of maintaining curiosity. It is the Nitobe Memorial Garden’s art of maintaining curiosity that makes it one of the most authentic Japanese gardens in North America,” said Sugiyama.

A distinct feature of the garden's Japanese style is the efforts by both the designer, past curators and current to represent an idealized and symbolic understanding of nature. Each stone, tree, shrub and flower has been placed deliberately: a way of creating harmony and balance between the waterfall, land and sea. The uniqueness of the garden lays in its ability to, according to Sugiyama, “respect the local [vegetation].” Dispersed among the irises, cherry trees and azaleas brought over from Japan are the native Canadian trees and shrubbery, pruned in a Japanese manner -- a unique blend of Japanese-Canadian cross-cultural botany styles.

Ultimately, Sugiyama says that the garden was designed for “strolling around” and to allow people to “enjoy the view with the tea garden.” It's in the garden that “you can communicate with yourself, calm down and think of yourself within the relaxing environment.”