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Now and Zen

We pay homage to the newly expanded Japanese Friendship Garden.

The koi pond

Shadows dance on curated lawns, thrown by flickers of sunlight passing through the quietly swaying bamboo that reaches toward the sky. Just underneath the quiet murmur of a trickling waterfall, koi splash as they break the water to nibble at food. The serenity is universal, an ambience that feels as if it were pulled out of a relaxation CD. The natural monoliths of stone jutting from manicured gravel suggest we could be at a Buddhist temple. Kyoto, perhaps. Then the next airplane passes overhead, on its way to Lindbergh Field. This piece of peace is closer than you think.

With an original footprint of more than 2 acres, the Japanese Friendship Garden already ranked second only to the San Diego Zoo in terms of claimed space within Balboa Park. And that was before the recent opening of 4.5 additional acres, phase one of an ambitious expansion project that aims to transform the verdant space in time for the park’s 2015 centennial. The recently undertaken enlargement, headed by an international team of architectural experts, will eventually see the garden blossom through the canyons to more than five times its original size. When it reaches its full 11 acres, the Japanese Friendship Garden will rank among the five largest Japanese gardens in the United States, making this locals’ favorite for meditation and personal renewal a nationally renowned hub for community, education and growth.

While parking lots, bridge closures and other logistical nightmares have dominated the headlines surrounding Balboa Park’s centennial preparations, the coming anniversary served as a motivation to expand the garden, part of a master plan created when it moved to its current location in 1991.

“2015 is an important milestone,” said Luanne Kanzawa, executive director of the Japanese Friendship Garden. “Though the expansion has always been a part of our master plan, it became our objective to truly make a momentous contribution to the celebration and have greater prominence for the garden.”

The garden’s roots date back to the 1915 Pan-California Expo and the Japanese teahouse that was the garden’s origin. Though the original teahouse was dismantled in 1941, when the garden reopened 50 years later—a symbol of ties between S.D. and its Japanese sister city, Yokohama—the inclusion of a koi pond, lanterns and rock arrangements (similar to the layout of the original teahouse) continued that legacy.

The growing garden, which will include a children’s space and new apiary exhibits, continues its joint traditions of natural solace and international relationships. Experts and master gardeners behind such works as Kyoto’s Kinkaku-ji Temple, Los Angeles’ renowned Japanese American Cultural Center and the Huntington Japanese Garden have all been involved. From water installations, to rock gardens to wood design, each member is an international all-star with, Kanzawa says, a personal dedication to the project.

“Our bridge designer did woodworking in his studio in Atlanta, but then drove them out to San Diego himself to oversee their installation,” she says.

Still in the works is a 300-seat pavilion designed by Kotaro Nakamura of San Diego’s Roesling Nakamura Terada Architects, which Kanzawa says will be “one of the centerpieces of the expansion.” Designed to be multipurpose as well as beautiful by the architect behind such modern designs as the La Jolla Shores Lifeguard Station, San Diego Community College and the SDSU Arts Building, it will also expand the garden’s presence as a community hub for art, culture and interaction.

A Taste of Japan food festival, held in October, and plans for a Manga Art exhibition tied to the centennial celebration are examples of the intent, Kanzawa says, to bring large traditional celebrations like Obon, the Buddhist celebration of ancestors, to the garden. The garden’s recent reciprocal partnership with the Museum of Photographic Arts further reflects efforts to join with and unite the community and artists.

“The garden is about building friendships and connecting local and international resources,” said Kanzawa of the pavilion’s role in the garden’s future. “We want to highlight exceptional and talented artists and foster a cross-cultural exchange of ideas from around the world.”