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In an era where travel isn’t quite possible but you’d like to experience another culture, I encourage you to visit the Japanese Friendship Garden San Diego in popular Balboa Park.

The garden was established as an expression of friendship with our first sister city, Yokohama, Japan. Design elements stem from ancient principles of Japanese garden design and express an appreciation for our two cultures through nature. Some of these principles date back to the 12th century but have been modified to suit our San Diego weather.

Also, it’s a place where you can learn quite a bit about Japanese culture if you know what to look for. Nearly everything in the garden, which is divided into the Upper Garden and Lower Garden, has meaning or was deliberately placed in its location. Here, I’ve listed some of the many things to do when you visit next. And, when I visit next, I’ll fill this article with more photos so that you have a better idea of what I’m talking about.

1. Pause Before You Walk In

There are a couple of important things to note about the entrance to the Japanese Friendship Garden (JFG).

The first is that its gate opens toward Yokohama. Also, the gate serves as a place where you leave stress and evil behind to enter a place of peace and tranquility.

If facing the gate, to the right you’ll see the Entrance Stone with kanji characters that say San-Kei-En, which means Three Scene Garden (pastoral, mountain, and water). JFG was named San-Kei-En by its designer, Landscape Architect Takeshi Ken Nakajima, in 1985. This stone was donated by the San Diego Yokohama Sister City Society.

To the left of the gate, you’ll see a black Japanese pine tree. Pines trees are auspicious in Japanese culture and symbolic of longevity. There are others growing throughout the garden.

Speaking of gates, the Charles C. Dail Memorial Gate entrance to the Lower Garden is named after the man who established San Diego’s Sister City Association with Yokohama. It’s built in Meiji style and more traditional looking than the main entrance. People often take photos in front of it.

2. Take a Peaceful Stroll

My daughter skips toward the Earth Bridge.
The Earth Bridge.

Curved pathways weave throughout the Japanese Friendship Garden’s 12 acres. Along the way, you’ll stumble upon stepping stone pathways and bridges to keep you focused along the way.

Curved paths in Japanese gardens guide visitors to important features. Also, they keep evil spirits from entering. Evil spirits travel in straight lines so can’t see what awaits beyond the curves.

Right now, some paths are one-way to help visitors keep their distance. And, as tempting as it might be to veer off the paths and into the gardens, please stay on them.

3. Check What’s In Bloom

You can visit the Japanese Friendship Garden at any time and be delighted by its beauty. There are 40 different types of Azaleas and 27 different types of Camellias many of which are in bloom year-round.

Other shrubs and trees typically bloom only during certain months. Here’s a rough guideline of what flowers to expect in bloom by month.

  • Bradford Pear: March, April
  • Chinese Fringe: March, April
  • Crape Myrtle: July
  • Flowering Peach Tree: February, March, April
  • Gardenia: May, June
  • Iris: April, May
  • Japanese Wisteria: March, April
  • Magnolia: June, July
  • Pink Trumpet: April
  • Pomegranate: April, May, June
  • Star Jasmine: May, June
  • Yellow Day Lily: May, June
  • Azalea and Camellia: Year-round
  • Candelabra Tree: December – June
  • Hydrangea: June, July
  • Japanese Cherry: February, March, April

4. Watch the Koi

Koi swim in a pond near the Exhibit Hall.
My daughter and her friends admire koi in the pond near Oribe-doro.

The Koi Club of San Diego hand-selects and helps maintain the koi — which are show quality — at the Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego.

You can take a closer look at them in the koi pond closest to the main entrance near the Oribe-doro lantern. Or, the terrace of the Inamori Pavilion offers another excellent koi viewing spot. From here, you can see these brilliantly-colored carp swim in a much larger pond, usually accompanied by some ducks.

Twenty different koi varieties live in the ponds. A fun activity for kids might be to see which ones they can spot.

5. Pay Attention to the Stones

My daughter stands on a rock in the stream at JFG.
Contemplate what the stones represent.

Japanese gardens feature deliberately-placed stones that usually represent mountains or islands. Raked curves in gravel that you commonly see in zen rock gardens represent the movement of water. (Always leave the garden stones as they are.)

6. Take Photos from and of the Bridges

Guests walk across the Maple Bridge at the Japanese Friendship Garden San Diego.
The Maple Bridge offers the best spot for photographs.

Look out for bridges scattered throughout the garden. The Maple Bridge, pictured above, offers one of the best views of the Lower Garden especially when it’s in bloom. The bridge is also very pretty to take pictures of because koi usually swim below the waterfall.

Stand on the Viewing Bridge for another spectacular view of the cherry tree grove and azalea garden. And, the Dragon Bridge near the dry stream represents good luck. Plus, there are small rock bridges that allow guests to hop across the streams.

7. Appreciate the Japanese Friendship Garden Bonsai Collection

A bonsai with pink flowers on display.
Pretty bonsai trees on display.

The Bonsai Society of San Diego maintains the collection on display. To appreciate bonsai, you must understand that it is an art. The plants are pruned and guided to live in perfect symmetry with their containers as an expression of nature.

8. Find Zen at the Karesansui

The Karesansui dry rock garden is inside the temporarily-closed Exhibit House. This zen garden is off-limits to the public, but can be appreciated through a large window here. Benches here welcome visitors to sit and meditate.

I didn’t know until recently that the garden’s designer imported its seven prominent stones from Japan. He couldn’t find any locally that felt quite right. They represent islands in a sea of raked gravel, whose ripples, as mentioned above, represent the movement of water.

The Exhibit House is one of my favorite places to visit in the garden. It’s built in the style of a sukiya, which is a Japanese mountain house.

An Ikebana arrangement with kangaroo paw and a Gerbera daisy inside the Exhibit Hall at Japanese Friendship Garden San Diego.
Kangaroo paw with a Gerbera daisy Ikebana arrangement.

Look around and you’ll see some traditional Japanese architectural features like a tokonama, or little treasure room (this is where the ikebana arrangements and historical items worth viewing typically are located).

9. Visit the Bosatsu Statue

The Bosatsu Statue inside the Japanese Friendship Garden arrived in a roundabout way. A famous Japanese ironsmith named Takumi Obata created the statue in 1735. An American businessman purchased and donated the statue to the Middlegate Japanese Garden located in Mississippi.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the garden and damaged the statue. It was purchased and donated to the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park in 2017. Funding from several local organizations helped to restore the statue and prepare a final home for it in the Lower Garden.

10. Look for the Deer Chasers

Kids may enjoy this nifty contraption called a shishi-odoshi, which translates to “scare the deer.” When water fills a pivoted bamboo tube, the shift in its center of gravity causes the tube to whack a rock. The sound scares critters from eating crops, sort of like a Japanese scarecrow. After the noise, the water empties from the tube causing the bamboo to return to its former position. The water fills it again and the sound repeats.

These days, you’ll see shishi-odoshi as decorative water features.

11. Sip Tea and Eat at the Tea Pavilion

A selection of dishes from Tea Pavilion in Balboa Park on a wooden table.
A selection of Japanese dishes at Tea Pavilion (photo courtesy of Cohn Restaurant Group)

The Tea Pavilion is one of my favorite Balboa Park restaurants. It’s counter-order and I think the soba noodle salad with tofu is excellent. Other menu items include sushi, curry rice bowls, or udon noodle soup. Opt for Asian-inspired sandwiches like a California crab sandwich with wasabi mayo. For dessert, try Daifuku mochi a gooey rice cake filled with sweet red beans which I love though I am half-Japanese.

Pair this with Japanese draft beers, a boutique selection of sake, or Boochcraft hard kombucha on tap. Or, opt for a very large selection of green, black, or herbal teas. Outdoor seating offers views of the garden and Balboa Park.

The original Tea Pavilion was built in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition and stood in Balboa Park for 40 years as a symbol of the strong connection between the United States and Japan. It was dismantled in 1941.

12. Go for Annual Events Like Cherry Blossom Week

The most famous of the Japanese Friendship Garden San Diego events is the annual Cherry Blossom Festival which was sadly canceled in 2020. The Cherry Tree Grove is home to 160 ornamental cherry trees which were double-grafted to help them thrive in our climate. It’s difficult to predict exactly when the cherry trees will bloom. In San Diego, the event typically occurs in early March. The cherry trees are a stunning sight to see (and photograph).

Other events to consider include Tanabata (which you can catch on July 7 and 11, 2020). It’s a celebration of when stars Orihime and Hikoboshi (normally divided by the Milky Way) are united on the seventh day of the seventh month. Guests participate in the garden by creating kazari (decorations that can be origami) or by participating in a virtual origami class on July 7.

Other events include Shichi-Go-San in November, a festival day in Japan for three- and seven-year-old girls and five-year-old boys (sometimes 3-year-old boys). May Children’s Day is another traditional Japanese holiday that celebrates kids. You can check the full schedule as there are more events throughout the year, usually including a summer camp.

13. Check the Calendar for Temporary Exhibits

Like many other San Diego museums, the Japanese Friendship Garden hosts temporary exhibits. To give you an idea, through September 7, 2020, see Kimono: A Living History which showcases a variety of kimono and accessories worn throughout the centuries. Be sure to check the calendar to see what’s on view during your visit.

14. Download Educational Material Before You Go

Visit the education section of niwa.org to download some fun worksheets for young kids that help identify koi, write haiku, and allow them to experience the garden on a deeper level.

More advanced lesson plans are available here for grades 3 through high school.

15. Participate in Virtual Programming

I already mentioned the origami virtual hangouts, but there are other ways to enjoy the garden from home. Join one of the Sunday – Friday virtual yoga classes that range from yin and yang yoga to tai chi. You do not need prior experience to join in. Check the full list of virtual programming.

General Information

You’ll need these helpful logistics now that you know what to do at the Japanese Friendship Garden.

Getting to the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park

Address: 2215 Pan American Road E, San Diego, CA 92101

Balboa Park location: You’ll find the Japanese Friendship Garden right next to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, roughly across from Mingei Museum. If you are in the main Plaza de Panama turn left (if coming from Fleet Science Center or San Diego Natural History Museum). Turn right if coming from the Museum of Man. You’ll see the Tea Pavilion and main entrance gate.

Parking: Several nearby parking lots provide easy access to the Japanese Friendship Garden San Diego. Park behind Alcazar Gardens or in the lot across from the House of Pacific Relations/International Cottages.

We tend to park in one of the two large parking lots behind the Fleet Science Center. The kids tend to always want to stop into the Fleet and theNAT anyway. Check the amenities tab on the Balboa Park map to find the parking lots.

Japanese Friendship Garden Admission

Purchase tickets online at the current prices:

  • Adults: $12
  • Students, seniors (over age 65), and active military with a valid I.D.: $10
  • Kids ages 6 and under: Free

The Balboa Park Explorer Pass includes admission to the Japanese Friendship Garden. You can buy this pass directly through Balboa Park and choose from several options. If you are a resident, the annual passes tend to pay for themselves after a day or two of exploring museums in Balboa Park.

Go San Diego, the most popular San Diego sightseeing pass, includes JFG admission. Choose between three pass types: All-Inclusive, Build-Your-Own, and the new Explorer Pass (choose the number of attractions). I may be compensated if you purchase using my link below.

LJM Exclusive: Click to apply an extra 10% discount on All-Inclusive Go San Diego passes.

Membership

Join with an annual membership to enjoy free admission throughout the year. Members receive special event discounts in addition to a 10% discount on merchandise and at the Tea Pavilion. Furthermore, members receive reciprocal memberships to over 300 other gardens. This includes both Butterfly Gardens and San Diego Botanic Gardens in Encinitas.

Japanese Friendship Garden Hours

Open hours are typically from 10 a.m.–6 p.m. The last admission is at 5 p.m. It’s best to check the calendar online before you go. Special events may change these hours.

On Residents Free Tuesday, the 3rd Tuesday of every month, Japanese Friendship Garden hours are typically from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. The last admission is at 4 p.m.

Increased Health and Safety Measures

Japanese Friendship Garden is open with a limited capacity of 200 guests at a time. Docent tours, water fountains, photoshoots, wheelchair loans, and the JFG cafe in the lower garden are a few of the activities temporarily on pause.

Visitors must wear face coverings and maintain a 6′ distance from other guests. In addition, the garden also installed more hand sanitizing stations. Change for cash purchases will not be returned and considered a donation to the garden, but they accept debit and credit cards.

How Long to Spend Inside

How long you should spend inside the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park depends on what you plan to do inside. It’s fantastic for a quick 30-minute stroll along the pathways to enjoy nature. You’ll need an hour or two to fully explore the exhibits and take a docent tour (when available). Also, don’t forget to plan time to eat or drink at the Tea Pavilion.

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