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About the Garden

Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden Lethbridge Tokitsu Family and Mas Sugimoto

Tokitsu Family and Mas Sugimoto in 1960’s Lethbridge Japanese Gardens.

Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden's Historical Timeline

Established during Canada’s Centennial in 1967, Nikka Yuko was built to recognize contributions made by citizens of Japanese ancestry to the multicultural community of Lethbridge, Alberta, and as a symbol of international friendship. Its name was created from the Japanese words Ni (from Nihon meaning Japan), ka from Kanada or Canada, and Yuko, which translates as “friendship” to mean “Japan-Canada friendship.”

The idea for Nikka Yuko began with a small group of people: Reverend Yutetsu Kawamura, a Canadian Buddhist priest, his wife Yoneko, and Cleo Mowers, publisher of the Lethbridge Herald. Their vision was to create a Japanese-style garden that reflected southern Alberta’s magnificent mountain and prairie scenery. In Japanese garden design philosophy, nature is interpreted through abstract and artistic symbolism, which results in a very intriguing landscape. When Kurt Steiner, the manager of the city tourism organization, heard the idea, he immediately promoted it, and the surrounding community came together to champion a unique event in a small Canadian city.

A Japanese garden reflects not only the local natural landscape but also the culture. From the beginning, it was agreed that the Garden must be authentic and of the highest quality; therefore, respected Japanese garden designer and landscape architect Tadashi Kubo of Osaka Prefecture University was commissioned to design it. Kubo conducted an intensive study of the land, its people and their way of life, determining how the Garden would be used before submitting the master plan. His colleague, Masami Sugimoto, also of Osaka Prefecture University, oversaw the construction, evaluating and adjusting each detail on site until every aspect of the Garden was harmoniously balanced.

As a result, Nikka Yuko expresses the merging of Japanese and Canadian cultures in a garden rich in symbolism. It captures the signature of the southern Alberta landscape while simultaneously integrating traditional Japanese philosophy and symbols. Each element of the Garden has been carefully chosen and maintained to bind the entire Garden together in perfect harmony. Water is essential, refreshing the spirit with a tumbling waterfall, gurgling stream, and reflective pond. Plantings of forest and meadow layer the Garden in soothing hues of green. Meticulously pruned trees and shrubs shape the serene setting and become focal points and seasonal symbols. A brief appearance of spring flowers or autumn colours signifies the fleeting experience of life.

Rocks are among the outstanding features of Nikka Yuko. Originating from a nearby mountain pass, the stones are millions of years old, weathered with time and embedded with beautiful lichens. Their solidity evokes southern Alberta’s magnificent mountains, tumbling rivers, and placid lakeshores. Each rock, often weighing several tons, was lifted into the Garden with a crane, deliberately positioned, considered from all angles, and repositioned until it was deemed proper. Traditional Japanese symbols, such as an island in the shape of a turtle, representative of long life, were also created with ancient rocks. Smaller rocks, arranged in patterns intended to inspire contemplation, make up the karesansui dry garden adjacent to the teahouse.

The structural components of Nikka Yuko were handcrafted in Kyoto. The teahouse, bell tower, azumaya shelter, gates and bridges were built of aromatic wood from yellow cypress, dismantled, and shipped across the ocean to Canada. Five master tradesmen from Kyoto reassembled the garden site structures with Canadian tradespeople’s assistance. The bronze Friendship Bell, which hangs in the bell tower, was commissioned for Nikka Yuko and cast in Kyoto. The bell’s deep tones ring a friendship call to all visitors.

Stone lanterns, carved by artisans in Kyoto, were placed next to the bell tower, overlooking the pond, near the azumaya shelter and beside the stream. Each type of lantern was positioned in a significant place according to Japanese tradition. Historically, stone lanterns were used to light pathways but are now purely aesthetic and symbolic of lighting the way. A stone pagoda was also incorporated, composed of five tiers, denoting earth, water, fire, wind and sky.

Beyond the Garden, a city park with its tree-lined lakeshore crowned by the endless prairie sky surrounds Nikka Yuko, forming shakkei or the ‘borrowed view’ valued in Japanese garden philosophy. The view expands the 1.6-hectare (4-acre) leafy retreat, conveying the feeling of openness, which captures the personality of the Western landscape. However, the winding path only allows the visitor to see part of the scene but sets the pace for unfolding one view at a time.

Now mature, many visitors enjoy the peace Nikka Yuko offers. The Garden also serves as a gathering place to celebrate Japanese and Canadian art and culture. It provides a full calendar of events throughout the season, with cultural activities each weekend. Take part in a traditional tea ceremony, stroll the path during moonlight viewings, or view exhibits by local artists. The Canadian climate makes it necessary to close Nikka Yuko’s garden paths in winter. The Visitor Centre/Gift Shop is now open.

Plans for the development of Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden initially began in the early 1960s when Buddhist priest Reverend Yutetsu Kawamura, his wife Yoneko, and Cleo Mowers, editor of the Lethbridge Herald, dreamt of the possibility of creating an authentic Japanese style garden in Lethbridge that would commemorate the Japanese Canadian contribution to southern Alberta.

This common dream began to transform into reality when Kurt Steiner, manager of the City of Lethbridge Tourism organization, enthusiastically supported the idea and promoted it throughout the community. After the necessary support for the project was achieved, plans to develop and construct the Garden as part of the Centennial project were set into motion.

Dr. Tadashi Kubo, head of the Department of Landscape Design at Osaka Prefecture University, was commissioned to provide his expertise in order to create an authentic, high quality garden. Dr. Kubo travelled to southern Alberta in order to study the landscape in which the garden would reflect and took this information back to Japan. One of his students, Ayako Hitomi, created a design for the garden with a concept drawing that included lakes, mountains, and prairies.

The design was approved by both the Garden Committee and the City of Lethbridge and the construction of the garden officially commenced. Masami Sugimoto, a 27-year-old student of Dr. Kubo, traveled to Canada to oversee the Garden development as the on-site architect. Skilled carpenters from Japan also travelled to southern Alberta with Sugimoto in order to reassemble the structures that were originally built in Kyoto. The buildings were constructed using a Japanese architecture style known as Sukiya, which does not utilize any screws or nails. After a few years of construction, Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden was finally completed. An opening ceremony was held on July 14,1967 and was attended by Japanese imperial guests, Prince and Princess Takamatsu.

Today, the four acre garden has matured to become one of the most unique Japanese gardens in the world. The Garden serves its purpose by providing visitors with a feeling of serenity and tranquility. It expresses the merging of Japanese and Canadian culture, capturing the signature of the southern Alberta landscape while simultaneously integrating traditional Japanese philosophy and symbols.

In the early 1960s, Dr. Tadashi Kubo was commissioned to design Nikka Yuko. He was a very prestigious designer, having developed over two dozen Japanese Gardens in various countries such as Canada, the United States, and Singapore. After getting a PhD in Forestry from Hokkaido University, Dr. Kubo served as a professor of Urban Landscape and Design at the Osaka Prefecture University and has authored countless works on landscape design and planning.

Masami Sugimoto, a student of Dr. Kubo, came to Lethbridge as the on-site architect for Nikka Yuko. At 27 years old, Sugimoto oversaw the construction of the Japanese carpenters and ensured that every aspect of the garden was harmoniously balanced. Sugimoto was humbled to be asked to escort Prince and Princess Takamatsu during the opening celebrations in 1967. He has returned to the garden on many occasions, freely giving his expertise to maintain his vision for the garden and was awarded an honourary life membership to Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden in 2007.

Mel Murakami, co-founder of Wesbridge Construction Ltd., was one of the visionaries of the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden. He played a very important role as the Superintendent of Garden construction. Working closely with Mas Sugimoto, Mr. Murakami was responsible for bringing to life Professor Kubo’s design concept for the Garden.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, Japanese immigrants began moving to southern Alberta to start a new life in the Canadian prairies. Employment on the railway, in mines, and in agriculture drew individuals to the area who were looking for new economic opportunities.

A significant portion of these settlers were from Okinawa, a prefecture of Japan. With Alberta becoming a province in 1905, there was a lot of work to be done in terms of developing the area, and Japanese settlers provided the desperately needed labour required for the province to prosper. Due to the hard work of the Japanese in these industries, especially on sugar beet farms, they played a significant role in the economic development of southern Alberta.

The Japanese worked hard in these industries and began to establish permanent settlements in the area, most notably in Raymond, where a large majority of the Japanese settlers chose to live. By 1914, the Japanese residing in Raymond created the beginnings of a Japanese community and established various organizations such as the Raymond Nihonjin Kyokai (the Raymond Japanese Society), which aimed to facilitate their permanent residence through objectives such as improving social and economic well-being.

As time went on, Japanese immigrants began establishing a place for themselves in southern Alberta and are recognized as pioneers of the sugar beet industry. The onset of the First World War brought prosperous times for some southern Albertan Japanese as the war greatly increased demand in agriculture. In addition to this increased demand, new jobs opened up in the area for Japanese immigrants that allowed them to economically establish themselves further. The years following the First World War mark a time of expansion of networks and connections as the settlers began creating cultural institutions in the southern prairies.

Of all these developments, the most influential in maintaining and spreading Japanese culture was the establishment of the Raymond Buddhist Church in 1929, which resulted in Raymond becoming the hub of Japanese culture and activities in southern Alberta. By the 1940s, the Japanese had established permanent residence in the area and had created various cultural institutions. This foundation created by these early settlers would be crucial in the experience of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.

The treatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War marks one of the most tragic and unjust series of events in Canadian history. With Canada’s declaration of war against Japan following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, racial tensions were at an all-time high. Racist attitudes eventually accumulated at the federal level, resulting in the approval of Order-in-Council P.C. 1486, which forcibly removed 22,000 Japanese from the Pacific coast. Additionally, this allowed for the confiscation of all property, including homes, fishing vessels, and other possessions. Many of these individuals were sent to internment camps in British Columbia’s interior where they faced extremely poor living conditions.

In addition to BC internment camps, approximately 2,250 Japanese persons were brought into southern Alberta, the majority of whom were concentrated in Raymond, Lethbridge, and Calgary. Due to a labour shortage during the late 1930s and early 1940s, sugar beet farm owners welcomed Japanese workers. While they were not placed in internment camps like those families who moved to British Columbia’s interior, these sugar beet work camps were not much better. Common concerns were inadequate housing, limited water supply, isolation, and lack of additional work to make a decent living wage. In order to fight these poor conditions, the southern Albertan Japanese Canadians sought the support of the British Columbia Security Commission in order to gain basic human rights, and through their negotiations with the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers Association, eventually gained a better quality of life. These negotiations went on to play an important role in the construction of a clear and definitive definition of human rights for all Canadians.

In 1949, the last of the Emergency War Measures Act was revoked and Japanese Canadians fully regained their rights. A few years prior to this, however, Mackenzie King ordered the Japanese community to either relocate East of the Rockies or repatriate to Japan.

While the Japanese community in Alberta initially expressed interest in repatriation with just over 200 people asserting their intentions to go to Japan, in the end, only nine people living in Alberta chose to leave. Thus, southern Alberta in the post war period continued to be home to many Japanese Canadians, where they worked hard and began to rebuild their lives. Not only did the community re-establish itself economically, but the development of various organizations in the postwar period, such as the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden in the 1960s, facilitated the maintenance and endurance of Japanese culture in southern Alberta.

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Our Mission

The Lethbridge & District Japanese Garden Society, celebrates the influences of people of Japanese ancestry, narrating the history of this region through garden architecture, the natural environment, and the culture in Southern Alberta.

Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden

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Always a delight to visit the gardens. This year we took part in a Sake Tasting (highly recommend) and enjoyed the festival of lights. There's a great gift shop on site.
TheFoodietravelers V&K
TheFoodietravelers V&K
The winter festival is a nice way to spend 30 minutes of your time. Beautiful lights. If you purchase your tickets at the door you get a cookie and hot chocolate included with your admission price. That is not the same as the online price. It would be nice though if they added a few more places with a little more fires and it would also be nice if you could a full poop. But otherwise a nice little place.
Brenda Impey
Brenda Impey
Japanese Gardens Lethbridge are a delight! The winter lights festival 2024 was enchanting!
Sharalyn Patching
Sharalyn Patching
Beautiful. Loved Loved the theme this year seasons. Seasons in Canada 🇨🇦
Rajesh RJZ
Rajesh RJZ
A good place to visit a light show with family and friends as a relaxed night out. Don't expect big and fancy things. They do provide complimentary drinks and cookies :)
Michael Bruining
Michael Bruining
Went for the light display and it was beautiful. It was an awesome date activity after dinner when it was nice and dark. All the staff were super friendly and helpful.
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