Japanese Friendship Garden, Balboa Park, San Diego

By staff writer Cathie Nichols. Photos Copyright © Cathie Nichols.

One of the great benefits of living in a tourist destination is that there are days when I get to be the tourist.  Believe it or not, even after nearly 25 years, there’s a lot of San Diego I have not yet seen.

On the first really beautiful day in March, my daughter and her friend wanted to go to the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park. They are best friends and I thought it would be a wonderful way to celebrate friendship.  Little did I know what celebrating their friendship really meant to them.

The ride south to Balboa Park was uneventful, a good thing in San Diego.  Traffic can be somewhat of a marvel.  In fact, I frequently ask myself, “Don’t these people have jobs?”  And then I remember I am out on the freeway with them, and yes, I have a job.  In fact, I have two!

Amazingly enough, I found a parking space right away (I’m not especially good at parallel parking), and we all got out to walk to the Friendship Garden.  Balboa Park is a very large urban park near downtown San Diego so it’s a good idea to wear your most comfortable walking shoes while exploring its 1200 acres.  Kitten heels are cute on the dance floor but not at the park.

First, we made a quick stop at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion because nothing is more tempting to a kid than an empty stage with a thousand empty seats.  In fact, the opportunity to be on stage was so tempting that the girls had to wait for some adults to get off!

Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Spring

Left: Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Spring | Right: A newly minted Mr. & Mrs

The Organ Pavilion has fantastic architecture and is frequently the backdrop in many newly wedded couples’ photos.  Its semi-circle shape and fine details along with all the blooming azaleas add to its beauty.

After finally getting a turn to belt out a Lady Gaga tune, we made our way to the garden.

The girls begged for a stop at The Tea Pavilion which is to the left of the entrance of the Japanese Friendship Garden.  I need to be clear here.  I think the whole goal of driving 20 miles during lunch time traffic to Balboa Park was simply a ruse to get soda and candy.  I think friendship really does come in a bottle!

My daughter and her friend walked over to the refrigerator and plucked out two Ramune (pron. Ra-moon-ay) and grabbed two Botan Rice Candy packets.  Ramune has two chambers in the bottle and a marble in the upper chamber.  Through some major ministrations, one can open the bottle and activate the fizz.  Botana rice candy is nearly eco-friendly because the wrapper that holds the candy melts in your mouth.  The wrapper is clear and doesn’t taste too bad.  I managed to grab one to “test” before they disappeared.

Japanese Friendship Garden - entrance stone

The entrance stone

Although there are a good number of shaded tables on the patio, there weren’t enough chairs so we had to take our treats to the wall.  With the warm sun beating down on our backs, we each took the opportunity to look around while my daughter explained what the Entrance Stone meant in Japanese.  The stone has the kanji symbols of the garden’s name.  She pronounced the words but I definitely cannot possibly repeat them here.

Peacefulness and serenity begins just after paying at the entrance to the Japanese Friendship Garden at the gift shop window.  Following the meandering path as it weaves first this way, then that, we were treated to many of the trees showing off their new blooms.  A few of the flowers were cooperating with Spring, too.

One of the first stops we made was to look at the bamboo pipes that flow water through them to the rock pool below.  The sound the water makes as it hits the rock is soothing, and I remained transfixed as the girls went on ahead. 

Japanese Friendship Garden - bamboo pipe

Hard rocks and soft water

Japanese Friendship Garden - flowering tree

Trees full of showy flowers

The garden is not Disney-sized so kids can take the opportunity to see and experience nature on their own without a parent breathing down their necks.

“Let’s go see the fish, let’s go see the fish!” shouted a kid from farther up the path.

I pretend it’s not mine who is breaking the tranquility of the garden.  Must’ve been all that soda and candy she had before entering.

The meandering path takes you right to a shady arbor where wisteria has its way with the structure.  You can either sit down for a spell under the beautiful purple blooms, or you can look at the huge koi in the pond.  The pond also has a small waterfall and a still water area.

Japanese Friendship Garden - wisteria

Blooming wisteria canopy

Japanese Friendship Garden - waterfall

A serene waterfall in the Friendship Garden

Japanese Friendship Garden - koi

Large koi in the sparkling pond

The koi come up to people like a pack of dogs but since no one is allowed to feed them, the visitors just look.  They are amazingly beautiful.  One is gold-colored and it glistens in the sun.  Some are like spotted cows, and it is difficult for me to get up and let the other people have a turn because of their beauty.

Meanwhile, the girls have moved on the path and spot a pair of ducks enjoying the tranquil setting (see feature photo).  They swim around in utter bliss since it’s a beautiful, SoCal kind of day.

Japanese Friendship Garden - bonsai


The shady path becomes sunny and the girls and I marvel at the bonsai.  The pictures don’t do the plantings justice.  At this point in the Japanese Friendship Garden, the path turns back and leads the visitors toward the front gate.  Each step is a new vision.

Ending up at the gift shop is just what we do.  Our family always has to buy something to remember our day – I have buffalo magnets, windmill limoges, and Las Vegas shot glasses – the gaudier the better, but unfortunately, like the garden, the gift shop has items that delight the senses and beautify its surroundings.

After paying for the writing paper with the coordinating pencils, we head out of the gate.

“Mom, Jillian and I are thirsty.”

Ramune for the road is the perfect way for best friends to end the day at the Japanese Friendship Garden.


Balboa Park

Japanese Friendship Garden

Spreckels Organ Pavilion

Cathie Nichols

Cathie Nichols


Cathie Nichols (aka @Bloggoneit) is an author-in-training and is in the process of writing a book. Sometimes overwhelmed with three kids, a husband, a dog, a cat, and an overactive imagination, she finds her sanity by escaping life through a super sappy movie or tweeting about twending topics.

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  1. Cathie,
    Its so nice to discover something new in your own home town isn’t it?
    Your pictures are wonderful. I would love to spend an afternoon in the Japanese Friendship Garden. I’ll make sure I go there whenever I get a chance to get back to the west coast. I’ll have to go sometime soon because I am finding a lot of great places to see on the other side of the states.
    Thanks for the fun read!

    • Thanks, Betsy. Yes, come on out to California but ask me first if it’s a good time — the weather has gotten weird out here and less predictable. For example, we used to have only “June Gloom” but now May Gray has been added to the mix. And two years ago, the gray weather lasted into July and that was tough because nothing rhymes with July!

  2. Oh, this is just stunning! I lived in San Diego off-and-on for years and never got to the park. Thank you for sharing it! I love that you are a staff writer with Millivers Travels – there is so much in San Diego to see and do….we’re in for a treat!

    • Thank you for the kind words. There is so much I have not done here but thanks to my daughter, I’m finally going to do it. She’s been to Old Town multiple times and all I have ever done is pass the exit on my way to the airport. Looks like discovering Old Town is next on my list. Oh, after I get back from Palm Springs!

      I’m very happy to be a staff writer here and hope to meet all the staff one day 🙂

  3. Gorgeous place you’ve found there Cathie. Beautiful photos.

    Sounds like me and my sisters when we were kids, making the parents drive ages just for something from the canteen 🙂

    • I think that going somewhere inspirational and educational always goes best with something from the canteen — and the stickier and sweeter, the better!

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