"Hide and reveal. Hide and reveal." Mr. Hironaka points to a path that curves off, into the shade of trees. It draws you in, but only as you walk it do you see the destination, otherwise tucked out of view: a small Japanese well made from unvarnished wood.
You might be in Kyoto or Nara, but the sky above is pure prairie blue, the air is dry, not misted, and the trees - so carefully pruned along Japanese principles - are Canadian: crab-apples for spring flowers and maples for autumn, with spruce and pine, dogwood and juniper shrubs woven in.
These are the grounds of the Nikka Yuko Garden in Lethbridge, Alta., and the choice of locale is not as strange as one might think. Japanese farmers first settled in the Lethbridge area in the early 1900s. They had been established for several generations and were integrated into the community before the start of the Second World War, when a second wave arrived: those forced inland during the Japanese evacuation of the West Coast.
The story of British Columbia's dispossessed Japanese, stripped of their property and sent into exile, has often overshadowed more positive and successful stories. The deep and abiding roots of the Japanese-Canadian experience in southern Alberta is a case in point, and it is this heritage that is honoured at Nikka Yuko - the name itself being derived from the kanji for "Japan Canada Friendship."
The garden began with a fortunate convergence, with a local Buddhist minister, a progressive newspaper publisher and an energetic city tourism officer conspiring to bring about a Japanese oasis in the Western plains. Launched as a 1967 centennial project, the design for the garden was overseen by a respected Japanese landscape architect after an extensive tour of the Lethbridge area to study climate, plants and culture, with the final plans drawn up by one of his students. The garden's structures - from the tea house pavilion to the bell tower, from the wooden gates to the curved bridges, right down to the hidden water well - were built in Japan using handcrafted traditional methods, then disassembled, shipped to Lethbridge and reassembled by master tradesmen.
Canadian trees were planted and pruned to exact Japanese specifications, creating a blend of Canadian solidity with Japanese elegance, something reflected in Robert Hironaka as well. Born and raised on a farm in southern Alberta, he is a member of the original centennial committee that worked to bring about the garden.
A man of science - Mr. Hironaka has a PhD in animal nutrition, has worked as an agricultural adviser in Ottawa and has served as chancellor of the University of Lethbridge - he is also deeply attuned to the aesthetics of Japanese gardens, and to spirituality. He is co-author of the book Garden of Serenity and author of a meditation on modern Buddhism titled Now is the Moment.
When the director of the Lethbridge Community Foundation, George Hall, heard I was coming to Lethbridge with my Japanese wife and dual-citizen sons in tow, he arranged a tour of the garden with Mr. Hironaka. Now in his 70s, Mr. Hironaka's enthusiasm for Nikka Yuko has hardly dimmed. "I come two or three times a week," he says, pointing out favourite spots and hidden views that he feels best capture the serenity.
The garden includes elements of three classic Japanese forms: the dry rock garden, popularly known as Zen gardens; the teahouse garden, which evokes the quiet elegance of the tea ceremony (held by trained hosts every summer Sunday); and the wider stroll garden with its curving paths and flowing streams. "Sometimes people refer to the gardens - plural. But that's not correct," Mr. Hironaka explains. "There is only one garden, combining all three in harmony. Take away one element and it doesn't hold together."
The stones in the Zen garden were chosen and placed with excruciating care. Looking for rocks that contained the proper lichen-stained sense of age, the designers eventually went to the Crowsnest Pass in the Rockies to find the perfect pieces. Stark white gravel was then raked into circles around them, like waves emanating from islands or prairie winds through summer grass, inviting reflection, meditation, perhaps even the flash of insight known as satori.
In the teahouse pavilion, with its view of pond and waterfall, Mr. Hironaka points out the many nuances at play. "You see the stone pagoda, just visible behind that tree? It was hidden intentionally, so that it wouldn't compete with the waterfall."
He points out the smooth stones along the water as well, gathered from the Oldman River. "We held a rock gathering day," he says. "A few bottles of beer were involved. Maybe more than a few. We collected all the river stones in a single afternoon. It was like a community picnic."
The Nikka Yuko Garden also employs the Japanese technique of shakkei, borrowed landscape, framing the gardens on the edge of Henderson Lake, which helps to extend Nikka Yuko beyond its original boundaries, and which forms a continuation of the view, bringing the garden into a wider prairie context.
Having passed through the central pavilion, with its tatami-mat tea room and ikebana flower arrangements and kimonos on display, having caught the scent of pine and prairie sky, having seen the stone pagoda slip in and out of view as we walk along the path, having heard the low toll of the bronze bell, my Japanese wife is almost in tears. "It's so authentic, and it fits Alberta, too."
The path at Nikka Yuko forms a circle that doesn't quite close, and that, too, is intentional. And even here, there is a distinctly Japanese touch: the path ends in a series of stepping stones leading down to the lake, placed irregularly so that one has to watch where one steps and, in doing so, become aware of the carefully chosen textures and shape of each rock. Secondary stones along the way allow visitors to step aside so that others can pass.
From water's edge, one must turn back, retracing the entire path, seeing everything again but from a different view. What seemed like flat land on the way down is now revealed to be a rolling undulation. And under a bridge we crossed earlier, we now spot a second waterfall, hidden from view on the walk down.
When we notice this, Hironaka-san smiles. "Hide and reveal."
Will Ferguson is the winner of the 2010 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour for his travel memoir Beyond Belfast: A 560-Mile Walk Across Northern Ireland on Sore Feet.