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Nikka Yuko Blossoms with New Visitor Experiences

Lethbridge’s Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden is growing into its own with new visitor experiences, sky-high attendance and exciting plans for future expansion. All in time for its 50th anniversary.

Now fully mature, the 16,000-square metre (four acre) garden is designed with classic Japanese aesthetics but features landscapes, plants, trees and rocks native to southwestern Alberta.

In the last few years, it has almost tripled its visitor experiences, resulting in a 64 per cent increase in attendance since 2014.

“It is a piece of art that is always changing with the seasons,” says Charles McCleary, President of the Lethbridge and District Japanese Garden Society.

An Idea That Took Root

Established in 1967 to commemorate Canada’s Centennial, Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden was built to recognize contributions made by citizens of Japanese ancestry to Lethbridge, home to Canada’s third largest population of Nisei, second-generation Japanese-Canadians.

Japanese in design but Albertan in plant choice, it features exquisitely crafted prairie gardens and walkways, streams, ponds and waterfalls, as well as a tea house, bell tower and gazebo built by master craftsmen from Kyoto, Japan.

Designed by students of Tadashi Kubo, a highly respected landscape architect from Osaka Prefecture University, the garden’s construction was overseen by Kubo’s young colleague Masami Sugimoto, who, now in his 70s, still visits from Japan. It took 21 months to build and cost $186,000.

“This is one of the most unique Japanese gardens in the world,” says McCleary. “Most are found in much more moderate climates.”

Nikka Yuko is owned by the City of Lethbridge with programming run by the Lethbridge and District Japanese Garden Society.

Growing Visitor Experiences

Although Nikka Yuko has always offered cultural activities, the number of visitor experiences has dramatically increased in recent years, part of a strategy to increase attendance.

“Visitors are looking for more than a scenic place,” says Executive Director Michelle Day. “At the end of the day, they are looking for a meaningful experience whether it’s historical, cultural or horticultural.”

New attractions include Sensu (folding fans decorating), Yukata Dressing (traditional Japanese daily wear), Kendo (bamboo sword play demonstrations), the Koinobori (kite festival), yoga in the garden and Mochi (Japanese rice) pounding.

“The team at Nikka Yuko is full of passion, energy and innovation,” says Anastasia Martin-Stilwell, Travel Alberta Industry Development Manager. “They are a great example of how industry can move forward to help effectively build the visitor economy in this region.”

Reflecting the Changing Face of Japan

In December 2016, Nikka Yuko opened for the first time in winter for the Winter Lights Festival. Illuminated with more than 96,000 LED lights, the garden offers visitors an authentic Japanese light festival experience.

“The Japanese take Winter Light Festivals to a whole other level,” says Day. “Millions of people visit these festivals, held across Japan. One of the largest, at Nabana no Sato park, features 8.5 million LED lights.”

Other modern cultural experiences like anime have been added, and at the height of the Pokéman GO craze, the garden offered moonlight tours to capture lures placed throughout the grounds. More than 500 people attended in a three-hour period.

“We recognize Japan is a changing culture,” says Day. “That’s why an important focus for us is to make lasting connections with the younger generation.”

On July 14, 2017, Nikka Yuko will hold its 50th anniversary celebrations, with tea ceremonies and events, a Bon Odori dance performance by the Nikkei Society and a banquet.

The anniversary is a collaborative affair with the City of Lethbridge, Lions International (celebrating its 100th year), the city’s cultural exchange program with the Quebec community of Saint Laurent (50 years), the University of Lethbridge (50 years) and the Sport Council of Lethbridge, recognized for bringing Asian-influenced sports to Alberta.

Commitment to Collaboration

Nikka Yuko’s success, says Day, is all about embracing change while listening to people. “Omentashi in Japanese means ‘the spirit of selfless hospitality.’ To know what your guests need, you need to listen and provide that unique experience.”

Having a supportive community and a commitment to collaboration has also been important.

Nikka Yuko partners with Lethbridge attractions such as Fort Whoop Up, the Galt Museum & Archives, and the Southern Alberta Art Gallery with joint admission offers. They collaborate on promotions with the Chinook Country Tourist Association and participate in Explore Southwest Alberta circle tours.

“At Travel Alberta, we recognize our ability to promote the province as a preferred travel destination is deeply rooted in our ability to create strong partnerships,” says Martin-Stilwell. “Nikka Yuko understands the power of collaboration and I look forward to seeing their success continue as they move forward.”

Building for the Future

Looking to the future, Nikka Yuko has begun plans to build a cultural centre to allow for expanded year-round programming and visitor amenities.

Preliminary designs are completed and the organization is now working to secure funding.

Day is also working on strategies to grow international tourism with export-ready products.

That includes attending Travel Alberta’s Canada’s West Marketplace Scholarship Program, SHiFT, Building Your Business through the Travel Trade workshops, town hall marketing sessions, as well as participating in the Cooperative Marketing Investment Program.

“Working with Travel Alberta to learn about visitor trends, products and social marketing skills has benefited Nikka Yuko,” says Day. “We believe our product is known worldwide and we want to build on that.”


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