The first car pulls into the gravel lot on a warm Tuesday evening.
A couple gets out, shuts the doors and walks toward the two massive, wooden Tokugawa Gates. One stops and crouches down to read the plaque: “Official Kentucky Japanese Garden.”
They take each other’s hands and wander in.
The sound of gravel is heard again as a SUV pulls into the lot.
The doors are opened. A yellow labrador jumps out of the back seat. The owners follow behind, glancing at each other before they enter the gates and start their walk.
There’s a moment of serenity when nature is the only sound heard.
A minute later, laughter rushes by as two teenagers joke with each other under the redbud trees until the sound of a waterfall masks their voices. The waterfall flows and falls to a koi pond.
A red bridge stands in the distance, where another couple stops and takes a picture before continuing their stroll.
This is not just a park. This is not just a garden. This is Yuko-En on the Elkhorn.
Yuko-En on the Elkhorn lies 14 miles north of Lexington in Georgetown, Kentucky, and represents a lasting friendship between two cities on opposite sides of the world.
What started as a garden to celebrate the relationship between Georgetown and Tahara, Japan, has become a pillar in the community.
William Hamilton, the board director of Yuko-En, was one of the first people to push for this friendship and connection between the two cities dating back to 1988.
“That was the year that Toyota opened up the plant, and two things happened that year that led to this park,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton, former President of the Chamber of Yuko-En at the time, was invited to Japan alongside Georgetown’s former Mayor Tom Prather, where they met with the former Chairman of Toyota, Shoichiro Toyoda, and toured the country.
With that visit came the start of something bigger than the label of sister cities.
“I’ll never forget. We’re in this meeting with the mayor of Tahara, Mayor Shibata. Our mayor looked at him after about 30 minutes and said, ‘Look, we don’t want just a tourism exchange. We want to come up with something really dynamic,’” Hamilton said.
Shibata explained that Tahara needed English teachers, which is when Hamilton said he and Prather exchanged looks and happily agreed to be of assistance.
After returning home, Hamilton and Prather approached Georgetown College and established an exchange program for English teachers to go to Tahara.
Hamilton said in 1990, Georgetown College sent their first teachers, and over the years many stories have become well-known across Georgetown, including Daniel Harrison’s, or as locals know him, DH.
Harrison is a co-founder of Country Boy Brewing, a craft beer brewery with locations in Lexington, Louisville and Georgetown.
In 2005, Harrison said he got the opportunity to go to Tahara and ended up extending his trip from one to three years, changing his life trajectory forever.
Harrison described his experience overseas as “the Disney story.” Not only did he meet his wife in Tahara, but he also developed his passion for brewing.
Harrison said Mayor Prather and Mayor Shibata’s vision laid a foundation for Country Boy Brewing, a creation they would not have even fathomed at the start of the sister-city relationship.
“If you'd have told them in ’89 or ’88, ‘There's going to be a craft brewery that has ties that wouldn't exist here if it wasn't for the guy that got to go to Japan, learn about beer, come back here, build a brewery in the shadow of Toyota,’ they’d be like, ‘You're crazy. It's never going to happen,’” Harrison said.
Harrison gives credit to the people who took those first steps — including Hamilton — who “were forward thinking and progressive enough to invest in things that are going to celebrate the sister city relationship.”
One of the biggest investments came when Toyota gifted Georgetown $1 million.
The city could ultimately do whatever it desired with the money, but after multiple meetings, Hamilton said “the city took a leap of faith” and bought what is now Yuko-En on the Elkhorn.
The garden has a contrast of Kentucky wildlife and Japanese flares throughout with box turtles sunbathing over the koi pond and a Tahara snow lantern perched in front of the maple tree.
From the Japanese cherry blossoms sharing soil with the redbud trees to the traditional Maho-An Tea House surrounded by pine trees, every corner showcases a blend of the two cultures.
When visiting Yuko-En, one can see the box turtles sunbathing over the koi pond to the Tahara snow lantern perched in front of the maple tree
Opened in 2000, Yuko-En has hosted multiple mayors of Tahara, annual kite festivals — which is known as The Hamamatsu Festival in Japan — and more personal events including Mayor Prather’s retirement party.
At the ribbon cutting of Yuko-En, Kelly McEuen, the first teacher sent to Japan from Georgetown, said he was the designated “bilingual MC.”
McEuen smiled as he pointed to a picture of himself, local leaders, Japanese contingents and the beginnings of the foundation for the garden on the momentous day.
On one side of the framed picture is an explosion of color.
“These are the kite guys and their kite society, in their colorful happy coats that are festival wear, and these guys were flying kites in the middle of Main Street, between the buildings,” McEuen said.
Since those first pictures, Yuko-En has become a common backdrop for photos and memories, and McEuen said he remembers the first time he saw people taking pictures at the garden in 2001.
“There's a couple of women that now have kids in the school system, but I remember them, while we were building this, coming and taking the first prom pictures here. I saw one of them at the football game Friday and thought, ‘She was one of those girls that came out in her prom dresses,’” McEuen said.
McEuen’s family has also taken advantage of the picturesque landscape; he said his family spends every Father’s Day at Yuko-En and the garden has watched his family grow.
“A couple of times when my kids were younger, we had a picnic or a surprise photo session here in the garden. We've got lots of photos at the waterfall with my kids. Liam is barely big enough to sit on the bench. He was a toddler, and now he's 11 and [5 feet 5 inches tall],” McEuen said.
Yuko-En also holds a special place in Harrison’s family as well. He said he and his wife took their engagement photos at the garden, bringing his experience full circle.
Many Georgetown residents, including McEuen and Harrison, believe Yuko-En has given the community way more than just a beautiful landscape.
“We’ve had a window to the world that not every city or county in Kentucky have had,” McEuen said.