The Japanese Friendship Garden may seem displaced among the historic Spanish architecture of Balboa Park, but both grew out of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition that celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and introduced the world to San Diego. The garden, similar to a garden in San Diego’s sister city of Yokahama, Japan, is designed with simplicity and balance. Here, visitors will experience the harmony that exists between man and nature. During or after your tour of the garden, take time to enjoy a few restorative moments for yourself in this beautiful and tranquil setting.
Japanese Friendship Garden Tours
A unique feature of the garden is that audio tours that can be accessed right from visitors’ smartphones. Visitors can choose between two audio tours of the Japanese Friendship Garden; both tours are of the upper garden. The first is the strolling tour where the audio leads visitors through the garden explaining the design and cultural significance of its various features. The second is the self-guided tour where visitors choose from a menu of sites in the garden and select the audio that corresponds to what they are looking at as they wander where their intuition leads them. Both tours may be accessed online; if you don’t have a smartphone or choose not to use it, iPods and headphones are available as free rentals at the Entrance Gate. If you prefer a more interactive experience, docents also provide tours of the garden; all tours are included with the price of admission.
Japanese Bonsai Balance and Symmetry
The Bonsai tree collection offers visitors an opportunity to see a variety of trayed Bonsai in one exhibit. “Bonsai” means tray planting, a tradition believed to have been started by twelfth-century Buddhist monks. Training a Bonsai takes years of commitment; trimming and sculpting it to create the perfect balance and symmetry. Some of the Bonsai in the Japanese Friendship Garden have been trained for over thirty-five years. Bonsai are trained in a triangular shape where the top of these ancient and revered miniature trees represents heaven, the middle represents earth, and the bottom represents man.
Japanese Friendship Garden Koi Pond
The koi pond is one of the most popular features of the Japanese Friendship Garden. The koi are bred specifically to display the vibrant colors and patterns you will see, and visitors are asked not to feed them due to their sensitive immune systems that result from specialized breeding. The young koi that you see on your visit will most likely be the same koi you will see when you bring your grandchildren back in thirty years, because well cared for koi commonly live fifty to sixty years, some even longer. This is why koi are the Japanese symbol of longevity. The cultural belief is that spending quiet time with the koi increases a visitor’s own longevity.
Japanese Friendship Garde Mitoko’s Cherry Trees
The captivating story of the cherry trees in the Japanese Friendship Garden is a tale of redemption and restoration. It is an account of enduring friendship that began between a little Japanese girl, orphaned by the U.S. bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 and her chance meeting with the crew of the USS Walke in 1951. The cherry trees are a living tribute to the lifelong friendship between Mitoko, the orphaned girl, and Captain Marshall Thompson and his crew. Ask a docent at the gardens to tell the story of Mitoko’s Cherry Trees that have evolved into a symbol of friendship between Japan and the United States. If you’re lucky enough to visit San Diego in March, be sure to take part in the rich cultural experience of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.
Japanese Tea House, Old and New
The original Japanese Tea House from the 1915 Exposition was dismantled in 1954. It was rebuilt in 1990 through the dedication of those who loved and missed it. Today, Tea Pavillion is a restaurant just outside the entrance to the Japanese Friendship Garden. For a contemplative experience, enjoy one of 45 loose-leaf teas from a tranquil spot in the garden. After touring the garden, it’s also an excellent place to rest and enjoy a reasonably priced noodle bowl or a refreshing blood orange iced tea as you transition back into the other attractions at Balboa Park.
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