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Kentucky’s Japanese-style strolling garden is a spa for the soul and the senses

As people look for scenic spaces to stroll outdoors and maintain safe social distancing in the midst of a global pandemic, Georgetown, Ky., invites fresh air seekers to visit a pocket of paradise designed specifically for this purpose: ­Yuko­-en on the Elkhorn ­(yukoen.com). The Japanese-­style strolling garden given a Kentucky flourish is the official Kentucky-­Japan Friendship Garden — and the only one of its kind.

A visit to this enchanting refuge, especially during these uncertain times, is like a spa visit for the senses and the soul.

Step through the garden’s Tokugawa gate and enter a world of color, fragrance, graceful sculptural elements and serenity, with waterfalls and chirping birds adding a soothing soundtrack and the creek, ponds and Japanese­-style stone garden inspiring quiet reflection.

“There is a sense of calm at Yuko-en that to me seems like an oasis,” said Georgetown Mayor Tom Prather, who has been heavily involved in the garden since it was created nearly 20 years ago. “It is a unique experience and a treasure.”

Sweet-smelling blooms, including Japanese irises, wisteria, day lilies and varieties of hydrangeas — oakleaf, wild and Annabelle — provide a healthy dose of aromatherapy. These same flowers, along with the waterlilies on the reflecting pool, add bursts of purple, cream, yellow, pink and snowy white, to a landscape layered in greenery. Twenty-six different types of trees provide shade and shadows, texture and tonality.

“The garden in May is coming out of its winter slumber,” said Yuko-en board member Arlene Wilson. “The redbuds, Japanese cherry trees and American yellowwoods are starting to bloom against a backdrop of a lovely pine grove and cedar trees.”

The garden design gently guides visitors along paths of native cane to bridges and a koi pond, where brilliantly colored, gape-mouthed fish jockey to swallow up any food tossed their way. Lanterns, including the Kotoji lantern, grace the landscape, lending authenticity and artistry to the pond. A Maho-An Tea House, designed to be used for a tea ceremony, provides a quiet resting place. Another house, the Raku, holds a kiln and signifies the blending of two cultures. It is the only working kiln within a Japanese-style garden, in or out of Japan.

As home of the largest Toyota manufacturing plant in the world, Georgetown is a natural setting for Yuko-­ en, which was officially proclaimed the Kentucky-Japan Friendship Garden by the Legislature of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

The four-season, five-plus acre garden was planted as an homage to the sister city relationship established in 1990 between this central Kentucky town and Tahara, Japan, located in Aichi Prefecture in central Honshu Island two years after Toyota broke ground here.

Virtual visitors can enjoy a gallery tour on its website.

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