Light festival makes Nikka Yuko a winter attraction

By Geoff Smith (@GeoffSmithLNN on Twitter)
November 30, 2017 - 11:00am

LETHBRIDGE – Michelle Day says it’s important to give people a “wow” factor when they come through the gates.

The executive director of the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden wants the community to be proud of the event that’s been put together. The 2nd annual Winter Light Festival begins Friday, Dec. 1 with a special opening night event.

WATCH: Michelle Day gives a preview of the Winter Light Festival



This year’s festival features 114,000 lights, an increase of 16,000 from the inaugural event in 2016. Day said with the help of its sponsors, last year’s festival turned a profit that has been put back into an even more spectacular event.

“We’re continuing on, enhancing the program, the education, of what the Japanese do traditionally, and (in) modern times, over the winter months,” Day said in an interview. “So I’m excited to be able to communicate that in such a unique way here in southern Alberta.”

For example, Nikka Yuko has scheduled special nights over the course of the festival, including the New Year’s Eve Joya No Kane, in partnership with the Buddhist Temple of Southern Alberta. Visitors can take part in the cleansing ritual of ringing the bell 108 times. Another such event is the Setsubun on Feb. 2.

“What the Japanese do is, they have a devil that they dress up, which they refer to as an oni,” Day explained. “They eat roasted soya beans and they throw it at the devil at the gate to chase out the bad luck, and keep in the good luck.”

The 2016 festival enjoyed a total attendance of 10,400 people over 21 nights. Two other scheduled nights were cancelled due to extreme cold. Day is thrilled at how the event draws not just local visitors, but people from Calgary and even as far away as Australia.

Nikka Yuko is one of only five publicly-accessible Japanese gardens in Canada. Day said the light festival may attract some visitors who will then return in the summer to learn more about the landscaping and other features of the garden.

Winter light festivals in Japan have varying origins, Day said.

“For example, in Kobe after an earthquake they had so many people pass away the Japanese hand-painted 200,000 lights in honour of those lives that they lost. And they hung them. And by popular demand, because they were so beautiful, they hang them every year just to remember.

“But then you also have Hokkaido, which is northern Japan. They do light festivals to bring out the fun in the dark months, and to celebrate and to keep their energy up. Then you have the tourism side, and the garden side, of No Sato Park, where they hang millions of lights and they attract millions of visitors every year, to, again, continue on bringing people outdoors and to enjoy their environment and to learn more about Japanese gardens.”

When asked if organizers had learned anything from the inaugural festival, Day said their goal is to increase the educational aspect, teaching more awareness of southern Alberta’s Japanese culture and ancestry.

The garden opened in 1967 in honour of Nekkei, the local population of Japanese ancestry, the third largest in the country in the postwar years. Nikka Yuko’s 50th anniversary was marked over the summer with a visit by Princess Ayako of Takamado.

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