Sometimes painful, always beautiful history of Japanese gardens in Western Canada explored in documentary

An Absolutely Canadian documentary from Calgary-based Kino Sum Productions tells the complex history of Japanese gardening in Western Canada through three unique and very different gardens, while tracing the life of the famed master gardener Roy Tomomichi Sumi.

Borrowed From Nature profiles 3 unique and very different gardens and their stories

The late master gardener Roy Tomomichi Sumi played a vital role in the creation of the University of British Columbia's Nitobe Garden in Vancouver and the Heiwa Teien Peace Garden in New Denver, B.C., where he was interned during the Second World War. (Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Center archives)

An Absolutely Canadian documentary from Calgary-based Kino Sum Productions tells the complex history of Japanese gardening in Western Canada through three unique and very different gardens, while tracing the life of the late master gardener Roy Tomomichi Sumi.

UBC's Nitobe Garden in Vancouver is a reflection of the earliest Japanese influences on the West Coast. The Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden in Lethbridge reflects the unique landscape of the Alberta prairies.

And the Heiwa Teien Peace Garden in New Denver, B.C., commemorates those who were interned there during the Second World War — including the famed Sumi, whose life story is woven through the 60-minute documentary.

The documentary, called Borrowed From Nature, available on CBC Gem, delves into the dark history of the Japanese internment camps of the Second World War through the life story of Sumi, who was interned in New Denver. He later returned to design the Heiwa Teien Peace Garden on the grounds of the internment camp. 

Watch Borrowed from Nature on CBC Gem:

Through first-person interviews, Borrowed From Nature explores the family histories of Japanese Canadian citizens who were forced into camps and forced to move east during and after the war. 

The stories of the three Japanese gardens, from three different points in time, tell the history and legacy of Japanese gardens in Western Canada.

One of the most unlikely and uplifting stories is that of the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden, which was created in 1967 as a symbol of international friendship in Lethbridge, Alta.

"The esthetic of a Japanese garden has been transplanted here, but you won't find a garden like this in Japan, because it reflects southern Alberta," says David Tanaka, a board member with the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden in Lethbridge. 

"So even the design reflects southern Alberta, so the rocks are Canadian rocks, the rocks are Alberta rocks."

Ryo Sugiyama is the caretaker of the Nitobe Memorial Garden in Vancouver. (Nicola Waugh)

Tosh Kanashiro, who was the construction supervisor for the garden, explains the importance of rocks to any Japanese garden.

"The rocks in a Japanese garden are almost like the bone structure of a human being. It is an essential part, different shapes, different forms, different connections," Kanashiro says.

"However, once you complete the garden, it somehow disappears into the symmetry of the entire scene, and as a result, a lot of people don't notice it. But if you are a true lover of gardens, that's probably the first thing you're going to look at."

Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden in Lethbridge was built in 1967 and has a uniquely Canadian esthetic. (Nicola Waugh)

Al White, former foreman at Nikka Yuko in Lethbridge, says being entrusted with the garden is like being gifted a piece of art, and comes with responsibility.

"You get to know everything on a very personal basis, and so the garden becomes personal," White says. "It's been my work. It's like being given a painting or a statue to look after, it goes right to the heart."

For many in Lethbridge, the garden represents something bigger.

"This should be a case study of what Canada wants to be," Kanashiro says.

"This is what they claim they are, multicultural, multi-ethnic, accept and enjoy everybody's culture. Trouble is, we talk it, and we don't always do it. This one was achieved, but nobody talks about it." 

One thing most people can agree on is that Japanese gardens bring about a feeling of peace.

Tosh Kanashiro, construction supervisor at the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden in Lethbridge. (Nicola Waugh)

"Right now, there seems to be a real tribalization going on, and not in a good way," says Tanaka. "I think the garden is kind of a symbol that tribalization doesn't have to occur, you can still enjoy another culture but still claim it as your own as a Canadian. And I think that's one of the things the garden does … it's here for the whole community."

In the same way the Lethbridge garden is a reflection of that place, the Heiwa Teien Peace Garden in New Denver is somehow a reflection of the experience of the people in the internment camps at the time.

And the great Nitobe Garden on the grounds of UBC in Vancouver has always been a representation of a Japanese gardening tradition — done in a Canadian landscape.

A recent redesign of the Nitobe Garden outraged many in the local community for excluding input from the Japanese-Canadian gardening community.

Some argue the new design, which reflects current Japanese trends, ignored the influence of the Japanese-Canadian traditions and the Canadian landscape.

Nitobe Garden, on the grounds of UBC in Vancouver, has had a controversial redesign, which some feel excluded Vancouver's Japanese-Canadian gardening community. (Nicola Waugh)

"It excluded the Vancouver Japanese gardeners, and it excluded my organization and the Japanese Canadian Citizens' Association's connection to community," says Judy Hanazawa, president of the association. 

"It's all part of how this community looks to ways of being established and belonging, in the greater picture. I think there are lessons to be learned from that. … There's a dual sense here of both positive feelings about the garden, almost a pride — because it is so beautiful — but also some pain."

Heiwa Teien Peace Garden in New Denver, B.C. (Nicola Waugh)

Borrowed From Nature is part of the CBC documentary series Absolutely Canadian, available on CBC Gem. The film is directed by Guillaume Carlier and produced in association with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with support from Rogers Documentary Fund, Canadian Media Fund and Alberta Media Fund.