This Japanese garden made its home in southern Alberta over 50 years ago

Minyo dancing, taiko drumming, Iaido demonstrations—it all happens at Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens

A beautiful pink sunset rests behind Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens.
Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens is a serene setting for a walk. — Photo courtesy Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens

There’s a little piece of Japan nestled within southern Alberta. Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens in Lethbridge, Alberta, is more than just a place to go for a stroll, it’s an experience of immersion in the beauty of Japanese culture. 

Nikka Yuko is a Canadian garden done in a Japanese style. The tea pavilion, azumaya (gazebo), bell tower and front gate were all built in Kyoto, Japan, in the 1960s before being dismantled and shipped across the ocean to be rebuilt in Lethbridge. The buildings are done in a traditional Japanese style using slotted wood planks rather than nails to hold the buildings together. The garden is designed to be toured in a meditative way, meaning each piece of the garden has significance to the viewer and creates varying moods and energies as you walk around. 

A man assists a woman with her formal Japanese attire.
Over the last few years, Nikka Yuko has introduced yukata dressing as a new activity, in which a staff member dresses visitors in authentic Japanese daily wear so they can tour the garden in style. — Photo courtesy Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens

“The energetic, rushing water at the azumaya begins to slow down and become more serene as you continue through the garden,” said Melanie Berdusco, marketing and events manager of Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens. “The main focal points throughout are placed in such a way that the viewer has to physically turn their head to view each of them so their view is never cluttered or obstructed. In some instances, you can only view parts of the garden from one spot. 

“For example, the pagoda can be seen from the south side of the garden near the giant Russian olive tree, but it’s hidden from view from the pavilion deck, whereas the waterfall can be viewed from the deck, but not throughout the rest of the garden. This allows guests to take in each aspect one at a time and never be overwhelmed.

“The garden also utilizes ‘shakkei’ meaning borrowed view, something that is valued in Japanese garden philosophy. This means guests not only enjoy the view of the garden, but they also take in the view of Henderson Lake, which surrounds the garden.”

A link between worlds

At first blush, the hardy conditions that comprise Alberta may seem like a strange marriage with the delicate nature of Japanese art and vegetation, but Nikka Yuko has fused the two entities seamlessly. The garden is a symbol of the friendship between Japan and Canada and recognizes the contributions made by those of Japanese ancestry to the community of Lethbridge. In the spirit of unity, staff at Nikka Yuko ring their three quarter-tonne friendship bell to send out a message of friendship to all who hear it. 

Walking tours

The 52-year-old garden has specialized horticultural tours that explain how and why the garden was designed the way it was and how the gardeners keep it looking pristine all year long. Historical tours are led by a local expert who provides a detailed understanding of why the garden became a tribute to the Japanese. Visitors can also learn about internment camps and pre-war Japanese settlements in southern Alberta. 

Cultural exposure

Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens has a plethora of cultural activities worth getting excited about, such as calligraphy demonstrations, chopsticks and origami lessons, lantern and fan decorating, and Japanese storytelling. Guests also come to the garden to meditate, photograph, paint and take an in-depth guided tour that occurs throughout the day. Over the last few years, Nikka Yuko has introduced yukata dressing as a new activity, in which a staff member dresses visitors in authentic Japanese daily wear so they can tour the garden in style.

Women hold yoga poses.
Nikka Yuko offers yoga and tai chi classes throughout the summer. — Photo courtesy Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens

Each weekend there are a variety of performances from Minyo dancing (a type of Japanese folk dance) to taiko drumming to Iaido (sword) demonstrations. Weekends also offer the opportunity to watch and take part in tea ceremony presentations, an hour-long enactment of the Japanese tea ceremony. Guests can sit and have a bowl of matcha with a host as they explain the intricate steps of the ceremony. 

Whether you want to stretch your legs, learn some history, admire a beautiful garden or experience a little piece of Japan in southern Alberta, Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens is an oasis unlike any other. 

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