Photo tour of Japanese Friendship Garden upper level.

People on a tour of the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park experience the beauty and tranquility of this unique place.
People on a tour of the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park experience the beauty and tranquility of this unique place.

I recently went on a docent-led tour of the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park. I took photos and jotted down a few quick notes about the many things I learned. We first strolled through the upper level, then ventured down into the more recently opened canyon expansion.

In this blog post I’ll relate a little about what our group saw in the upper level. I’ll provide a very small taste of the beauty, history and meaning of the wonderful sights in this gem of a garden. But, of course, to truly absorb the quiet beauty, you must visit the Japanese Friendship Garden yourself. Even better, become a member!

Our friendly docent guide meets everyone in front of the Japanese Friendship Garden, near the Tea Pavilion.
Our friendly docent guide meets everyone in front of the Japanese Friendship Garden, near the Tea Pavilion.
The docent explains the kanji on a rock near the entrance. It translates Three Scene Garden. The three elements represented in every Japanese garden are mountains, water and the pastoral.
The docent explains the kanji on a rock near the entrance. It roughly translates Three Scene Garden. The three elements represented in every Japanese garden are mountains, water and the pastoral.

Before entering the garden, the docent explained some differences between traditional European and Japanese gardens.

Formal European gardens originated as demonstrations of a person’s wealth–think of the wide, lavish gardens beside the palaces and chateaus of Europe. They show man’s ability to master and order nature, with symmetrically arranged rows of flowers and grandiose columns and gravity-defying fountains.

Traditional Japanese gardens, however, are quite different. Inviting meditation and abstraction, they emphasize what is natural. They simulate a winding, personal walk through an idealized, beautiful wilderness. Rugged stones, dripping water, asymmetrical trees bent by the elements–one encounters scenes found in nature that might represent a growing human life and the experiences that shape who we become.

Walking slowly along the pathway through the upper level of the Japanese Friendship Garden. Scenes open as corners are turned; every visit is a personal journey of discovery.
Walking slowly along the pathway through the upper level of the Japanese Friendship Garden. Scenes open as corners are turned; every visit is a personal journey of discovery.
A black pine has been carefully pruned over many years to provide a sense of uplift to the passing viewer at eye level. The needles all point upward.
A black pine has been carefully pruned over many years to provide a sense of uplift to the passing viewer at eye level. The needles all point upward.
A shishi-odoshi made of hollow bamboo. When one end fills with water, the swiveling bamboo tips forward then falls back, producing a sharp clack. The sudden motion and noise scares deer and other herbivores from the garden.
A shishi-odoshi made of hollow bamboo. When one end fills with water, the swiveling bamboo tips forward then falls back, producing a sharp clack. The sudden motion and noise scares deer and other herbivores from the garden.
We continue down the winding path through the upper level of the Japanese Friendship Garden. This is a zen garden, with a focus on spiritual meditation and human appreciation of beauty.
We continue down the winding path through the upper level of the Japanese Friendship Garden. This is a zen garden, with a focus on spiritual meditation and human appreciation of beauty.
Rocks are a very important part of every Japanese garden. Representing rugged mountains, they are chosen with extreme care and the best ones are highly prized.
Rocks are a very important part of every Japanese garden. Representing rugged mountains, they are chosen with extreme care and the best ones are highly prized.
These plants have been pruned using the Japanese technique called o-karikomi to look like rounded boulders. The garden is primarily green--the most relaxing color.
These plants have been pruned using the Japanese technique called o-karikomi to look like rounded boulders. The garden is primarily green–the most relaxing color.
A tsukubai basin near the door of the Exhibit House. Kneeling, one washes hands before entering a temple. This represents spiritual cleansing.
A tsukubai basin near the door of the Exhibit House. Kneeling humbly, one washes hands before entering a temple. This represents spiritual cleansing.
Two long benches inside the Exhibit House look out at the carefully arranged Dry Stone Garden. This karesansui invites deep meditation; the stones appear like islands in Japan's Inland Sea.
Two long benches inside the Exhibit House look out at the carefully arranged Dry Stone Garden. This karesansui invites deep meditation; the stones appear like islands in Japan’s Inland Sea.

The Dry Stone Garden, in Japanese called karesansui, contains a numerologically auspicious odd number of stones. The stones all seem to bow to a vertical master stone, the first to be placed. The stones float like islands, and the raked ridges around them appear like choppy waves in Japan’s Inland Sea. Shrubs behind the rock garden simulate wooded hillsides. The extended roof and garden’s nearness draw the observer into the calm scene. Zen meditation and mental abstraction is sought.

A rain chain at one corner of the Exhibit House is used to collect water and provide a pleasing touch to the garden.
A rain chain at one corner of the Exhibit House is used to collect water and provide a pleasing touch to the garden.
Our group heads on a stone path past a lantern to a patio near the koi pond.
Our group heads on a stone path past a lantern to a patio near the koi pond.
Those lights dangling overhead are not typical in a Japanese garden. These were added for Christmas to please Balboa Park visitors who expect twinkling lights at night during the holiday season.
Those lights dangling overhead are not typical in a Japanese garden. They were added before Christmas to please Balboa Park visitors who love twinkling lights at night during the holiday season.
We approach the beautiful, very popular koi pond.
We approach the beautiful, very popular koi pond.
We learn about koi, their colors, value and symbolism. They originated in the desert ponds of Iran and are black when found in nature. Long-living fish, they are seen as symbols of longevity.
We learn about koi, their colors, value and symbolism. They originated in the desert ponds of Iran and are black when found in nature. Long-living fish, they are collected by the wealthy and viewed as symbols of longevity.
The koi pond and the island in its center are both shaped like turtles. Many subtle and hidden images can be found in a Japanese Garden.
The koi pond and the island in its center are both shaped like turtles. Many subtle and hidden images can be found in a typical Japanese garden.
Walking along, feeling peaceful and at one with nature. All worldly cares have been left behind.
Walking along, feeling peaceful and at one with nature. All worldly cares have been left behind.
Our docent tour guide shows us some black bamboo.
Our docent tour guide shows us some black bamboo.
Now we've arrived at the bonsai garden. Some of these weathered specimens were acquired on mountaintops and are over 300 years old.
Now we’ve arrived at the bonsai garden. Some of these weathered specimens were acquired on mountaintops and are over 300 years old.
A small juniper has been trained over time to appear like a gnarled tree in the wild.
A small juniper has been trained over time to appear like a gnarled tree in the wild.
Patience and an eye for beauty are requirements when practicing the Japanese art form of bonsai.
Patience and an eye for beauty are requirements when practicing the Japanese art form of bonsai.
Our tour of the upper level of the Japanese Friendship Garden is almost done. We pause for a moment by the Charles C. Dail Memorial Gate.
Our tour of the upper level of the Japanese Friendship Garden is almost done. We pause for a moment by the Charles C. Dail Memorial Gate.
In a coming blog post, we will pass through the gate and descend into the amazing large canyon below to see a river, waterfalls and more!
In a coming blog post, we will pass through the gate and descend into the amazing canyon below to see a river, waterfalls and more!

I live in downtown San Diego and love to walk! You can enjoy even more Cool San Diego Sights by following me on Facebook or Twitter!

Do you like to read original, thought-provoking fiction? To enjoy a few philosophical short stories that I’ve written, click Short Stories by Richard.

Do you love beautiful things? Visit my photography blog which I call A Small World Full of Beauty.

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Published by

Richard Schulte

Downtown San Diego has been my home for many years. My online activities reflect my love for writing, blogging, walking and photography.

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