The major problem that Kubo, Sugimoto and the Canadian volunteers faced was finding plants suited to Lethbridge's Zone 3b conditions. Common Japanese garden plants (such as Japanese maple and Japanese black pine) were not hardy enough, so substitutes had to be found. Among the stand-ins chosen are amur maple (Acer tataricum ssp. ginnala), and mugo and Scotch pines; Prairie-hardy crabapples replace the traditional Japanese cherry trees. These substitutes are carefully shaped to resemble their Asian counterparts. The effect is so successful that even gardeners from Japan have been fooled.
But don't look for abundants flowers here: their brilliance and stimulation are not considered appropriate in a garden where one is supposed to meditate and contemplate nature. Instead, everything is designed with restraint and simplicity; Nikka Yuko is a place of subtle contrasts in form and foliage colour where trees and shrubs such as white spruce, lilacs, dogwoods, bearberries and junipers dominate.
At a pavilion (built from rare Japanese cypress) located at the garden's entrance, visitors can learn more about Nikka Yuko's history and, on Sundays and during special events, attend a traditional tea ceremony (as long as they're prepared to remove their shoes in the Japanese custom). The garden also offers courses on flower arranging, pruning and other Japanese gardening techniques.
Beyond the pavilion lies a curving path which leads through an azumaya (meaning “resting place”), a shelter within earshot of a bubbling waterfall. Over another bridge is the Prairie Garden, which provides the best view of Henderson Lake.
Visitors are always well received at the Garden. There's a Ceremonial Friendship Bell, which guests are invited to “gong” (its sound can be heard several kilometres away). You may even catch a glimpse of royalty: since Nikka Yuko's official opening in 1967-with Prince and Princess Takamatsu in attendance-members of Japan's royal family have visited occasionally. Sugimoto also visits the site every two years to ensure it remains true to its Japanese heritage.
The garden is open from spring through fall. There is a small admission charge and donations are always welcome.
Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden, Box 751, Lethbridge, AB T1J 3Z6; 403/328-3511.