By Priscilla Lister
Few places in the city offer such serenity as the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park.
Escape from the everyday world is its very intention. It is carefully designed around the Zen principle of niwa, meaning “pure place,” according to Lennox Tierney on the garden’s website.
“The garden path, or roji, is not merely a functional entry into the garden,” Tierney writes. “It is a philosophical path separating the viewer step-by-step from the work-a-day world which he leaves behind.”
Though the garden is fairly small – so far – and with the advent of summer will surely be fairly crowded (try visiting on a weekday lunch hour), it is a place for contemplation, a soothing natural experience enhanced by manmade artifice, a quick journey to a state of tranquility.
“A Japanese garden is a representation of the universe and its elements – fire in the form of a stone or iron lantern, earth in the form of stone, and water, air, plant and animal life in their true forms,” Tierney says.
The garden’s roji, or path, winds and bends around stones placed among the plantings, or becomes composed of stones itself that lead you to its secret spots.
Stones should look as though they have always been there. Jagged stones are meant to suggest mountain areas, while smooth pebbles represent streams or shorelines.
“These landscape effects are often more symbolic than realistic,” he says. “For example, there is generally an island in either a stream or pond which suggests the island of everlasting life, or Nirvana – a place without time or space.”
Balboa Park’s Japanese Friendship Garden is named “San-Kei-En,” meaning “Three-Scene Garden,” for its water, pastoral and mountain elements.
It is also an expression of the friendship between the people of San Diego and Yokohama, one of our first sister cities when Charles Dail, mayor from 1955-1963, established the link with Japan in 1957. The Charles C. Dail Memorial Gate in the garden commemorates that connection.
That history is even more interesting considering the earlier story of the original Japanese tea house in Balboa Park that was built for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915. While the city couldn’t maintain the operation after the exposition, a Japanese couple, Hachisaku and Osamu Asakawa, managed it until 1941. When the U.S. entered World War II that year, the Asakawas along with other Japanese-Americans were interned during the war, according to the San Diego Historical Society. Left to deteriorate, the teahouse was finally razed in 1955 to make way for the Children’s Zoo.
The new two-acre version of the teahouse and garden opened in August 1990, along with a second phase in 1999. Future plans call for an expansion to 11 acres, including a traditional teahouse, a pavilion for 300 people, outdoor amphitheater and more meandering paths.
Today, the first stop on the winding path is the Exhibit House, designed in traditional sukiya style featuring shoji screen doors and large windows with half-round transom windows above. Benches inside invite viewing the Zen rock garden outside.
The “Sekitei,” or rock garden, often called a Zen garden, encourages meditation in traditional Japanese culture. The seven large rocks placed among the raked gravel were imported from Japan. Beyond this Zen garden you can see a vast green canyon of Balboa Park.
“This ‘borrowed view,’ called ‘shakkei,’ is very common in Japan where open space is often limited,” says the garden’s brochure.
Currently on view in the Exhibit House are several fine examples of Japanese ceramics and paintings, scrolls and other art.
Just beyond the Exhibit House are the Koi Pond and waterfall, which are alone worth the price of the modest admission. I could watch the large, colorful koi fish for a very long time indeed, finding meditation in the moment.
The Koi Pond is characteristic of a typical San-Sui (mountain and water) style garden.
“The waterfall reflects the mountain, river and oceanscapes of the San Diego area,” the garden brochure says. “Koi represents longevity and virility in Japan. The island in the pond, in the shape of a turtle, symbolizes the longevity of the garden and a wish for the people of San Diego.”
The garden also offers traditional tea ceremonies – typically twice a month on a Saturday from 1 to 2 p.m. and a Tuesday from 11:30 to 12:30 p.m. – where you can enjoy Japanese matcha tea and sweets for $3.
Yoga classes began June 2 and will continue through summer on Wednesdays, 5:30-6:30 p.m. and Thursdays, 8-9 a.m., for $10 per class. Space is limited; for information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ikebana, origami and bonsai classes are also offered at the garden.
Check the garden’s website calendar at niwa.org for more information.
The Japanese Friendship Garden is open now through Labor Day, Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (last admission 4:30) and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (last admission 3:30). Entrance fees are $4 for adults, $2.50 for seniors 65+ and free for children 6 and under.