Japanese Friendship Garden, Kelley Park, San José, California, USA Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Japanese Friendship Garden, Kelley Park, San José, California, USA

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I've changed my dwelling
to bathe in summer coolness
so tranquil, so calm

- Haiku by Paul Iwashita, carved into one of the stones at the Japanese Friendship Garden


There's a hot nagging afternoon wind for most of the summer in San José, California. The water in the three large ponds in the Japanese Friendship Garden cools the passing wind, making it an oasis in the summer heat. The Silicon Valley boasts several public gardens in the Japanese style. This particularly lovely one, located just southeast of downtown San José, is a gift from San José's sister city, Okayama.

Both sister cities nestle on the edge of an inland sea: the Seto Inland Sea and the San Francisco Bay. Both cities are known for a low number of rainy days, and warm balmy skies. Both cities are near much more important port cities, Osaka and Oakland.

The Japanese Friendship Garden is a small and humble but fairly faithful version of the very famous formal garden, Korakuen. Korakuen is just outside of Okayama Castle, and is one of Japan's Three Great Gardens. It was the garden of a 17th Century daimyo, built on a large sandbar and designed to exploit the river's current to power its water features. Korakuen is done in the shakkei style, which creates the illusion that external features are part of the garden.

The Japanese Friendship Garden might once have been able to demonstrate this shakkei effect by showing off the eastern foothills of the coast range when the park was new, but trees in Kelley Park have now grown and have unfortunately walled in the garden and blocked this. Although it is near the Coyote River, its water features are driven by powerful pumps instead of the natural riparian flow as is the case in Korakuen. The water is treated with the most modern ozonation and purification, because of the large and interesting population of animals in the water.

You can learn more about the prefecture in which Okayama City is situated. There are a number of other interesting sites to look at, written mostly in Japanese, about the Okayama Korakuen and the nearby Okayama Castle.

How to get there

The Japanese Friendship Garden is in Kelley Park, located at Keyes Street and Senter Road, and bound on the east by the Coyote River. Even most San Joséans don't know how to get to Kelley Park - or if they do, it is because they know how to get to Happy Hollow and don't realise this attraction is part of Kelley Park.

You can get to Kelley Park by freeway by taking the 10th and 11th Street exit from Interstate 280. Since 10th and 11th are one-way streets, which the off ramp traverses at an odd, slight angle, follow the signs leading to the park carefully.

You can also take city streets to the garden's entrance near the intersection of Senter and Keyes. Both streets can be confusing. 'Keyes' is one small stretch of a longer road crossing the valley east and west. Senter winds east from Monterey Highway, but by the time it ends at Keyes, it runs nearly north. Heading east on Senter, you can easily miss a turn and find yourself continuing east on Hellyer instead. If you see signs for a velodrome, you've taken a wrong turn onto Hellyer and have reached Hellyer Park.

If you find yourself going west on Senter you will end up on the Monterey Highway, which you can take NNE until you encounter Keyes again (really! turn right). If you find yourself on Story Road, you will need to make a U-turn around and go back west to Keyes, and if you find yourself on the spur street Goodyear, Willow Street, or Forest Avenue (in which case you are very lost indeed!), you will need to turn around and go back east. You may need to make a small jog to your right on First Street when you return from this in order to get to Keyes again.

Look for Spartan Stadium, a large landmark nearby, and a cattycorner railroad crossing at the intersection of Keyes and Senter. Coyote River is another nearby landmark that locals will recognise. It is generously called a river because of the desert-like Mediterranean climate of California; it does have a certain size and runs all year; but if you are used to real rivers from Europe or the Eastern United States, you may easily cross over it and not realise you have done so.

There are bicycle lanes painted on Senter, but there are no longer any bicycle racks nearby, and the cyclone fence all around the park is heavily vined, so you will have to improvise. Leaving your bicycle unlocked is not advised; it will go missing. You cannot bring, carry or walk with your bike, scooter, skateboard or roller-skates inside the garden and doing so will result in rapid expulsion.

The Valley Transit Authority has bus line times and fare information about public transportation. Route planning from wherever you are is also available by calling. The pdf map of all bus routes is a huge file that takes a long time to download and needs a lot of free computer memory to properly display, so calling may be your best option for route-planning.

If you come by car, be prepared to pay a few dollars towards a parking fee on weekends, holidays, and any time from Memorial Day (last Monday in May) to Labour Day (first Monday in September). Parking is free any other time, and admission to the garden itself is always free.

Once you have found Kelley Park, you will need to do a little exploring to actually find the Japanese Friendship Garden, because its walls and fences are opaque, almost entirely unremarkable from the outside, and the Garden only has two entrances. Many people you will meet in the park outside will be completely unaware of the garden inside, and if asked for directions will think you mean one of the famous Japanese gardens elsewhere in the valley.

If you come by car, turn right after the fare booth, and park as soon as you can. Walk to the southeast corner of the lot and follow the trails through the tall trees of Kelley Park. Stay in the shade, and if you find yourself in the sun, aim for the trees again. You may go either way around the Redwood Amphitheatre, and you will eventually approach an area with spally, semigloss, rectangular cobblestones opening into a wide torii gate that looks as if it were made of oak. From this approach, you can often hear the Garden's waterfalls and their pumps over the loud music and screaming children of nearby weekend picnickers. This torii is in the northeast corner of the garden, and opens onto the teahouse and a shallow pond. This entrance corresponds to the area in Korakuen that is closest to the largest pond there, and which is closest to shore.

If you are on foot, follow the east side of Senter until you get to the main torii. It is made of cypress and has heavy grey traditional earthenware tiling on top. From midwinter to earliest spring, the sweet smell of flowering cherries, pears, and plums will guide you along. As you near the entrance any time of the year, large sparkly diabase rocks and intermittent quacks of mallard ducks (not cricket ducks) will alert you that you are homing in. This torii is on the southwest corner of the garden, and opens onto some copses of palm trees and a Chinese bridge. It corresponds to the area near the pond in the narrowest part of Korakuen.

If you find yourself at the San José History Museum, you have missed the garden entirely and have wandered too far south. Walk out to the SJHM parking lot, and follow that boring fence west to Senter and walk north towards Keyes until you see the clay and cypress torii.

What to do when you get there, and some caveats

The garden is open from 10am to sunset. This means if you want to hear or see the koi jump for insects, you will not be able to catch them at it at dawn when it is most likely and will have to wait for late afternoon. In late spring/early summer, jumping is a much rarer event, as there will be a positive infestation of eager, hungry, and growing ducklings who have already scoured the area for unwary bugs, frogs or fry.

Like many gardens in the Japanese style, it is designed for strolling, contemplation and beauty more than as a place to run about or throw flying discs for your dog. It's against the rules to bring any animals. You may only book the Tea House by calling this number, which may have changed from time of writing, but which is otherwise very hard to find the right agency without visiting the park in advance: Ring (408) 277-5561 for details. If this is absolutely critical, you should visit the park and ask a ranger before beginning your event planning. The Tea House does have a kitchen, but food should not leave the premises.

There are many 'Keep off the Grass' signs, but these are primarily there to discourage picnickers who tend to be careless of painstakingly-pruned bonsai, heedless of slow-growing and exotic ornamentals, and who leave lots of litter behind. If there is something you wish to examine more closely or you believe that there is a set view to be gained by travelling across some of the larger lawns, most of the time the rangers will overlook this. Some of them will allow you to sunbathe, and some will not. It helps your case if you have a yoga mat or appear to be meditating either by moving through tai chi or sitting quietly in lotus position, because the garden is an excellent place for that and you will make everyone around feel they are being culturally sensitive and enlightened. If instead you are sporting your skimpiest bikini, lounging on a beach blanket and blasting the latest J-Pop, you will be ejected to the larger park outside where you are welcome to do this and where there is still plenty of sun to be found.

The mallards are interlopers from the nearby Coyote River, or possibly escapees from the nearby children's zoo. The ponds are already chock full of huge aged koi and therefore at near maximum bioload, so feeding the ducks is strongly discouraged and may result in hostile official action. There are two official coin-operated dispensers which have a set amount of food to feed the koi with. They will be set to accept specific coins, so bring along a good quantity and a mixed bag of change. You may also wish to have a small bag to catch your portion of food pellets in if you don't wish your pockets to smell of koi food for the rest of the day. While the dispensers look much like a coin-operated sweet dispenser, they definitely dispense more food per coin than can be comfortably held in a child's two open hands.

If you walk about with the pellets in your hand, invariably some will drop and you will acquire a trail of squabbling mallards. There is only a set amount of food allowed per week, and if water quality is in danger, sometimes none will be available. (If water quality is a concern, there will be signs posted to this effect.) Feeding the koi small quantities of 'unofficial' koi food (that is, high-quality commercial pet food formulated especially for koi, but which you bring yourself) is often overlooked because many less observant garden visitors traditionally and negligently feed the koi and ducks portions of human food which is bad for both fish and fowl, and on a busy summer's day preventing this is enough work for the rangers already.

The garden is perhaps best enjoyed by making an observant promenade around the paved paths, and by stopping for a few quiet minutes at the unobtrusive benches. The paths and benches are all designed so that you can get a markedly different view or vista as you use them, even if you are looking at the same things you have seen before. Sometimes the interesting difference between two similar paths is sonic or tactile (usually the wind, but sometimes a brush by nearby plants or splashes of water) and not visual at all. Some benches are designed so that there are different views/sounds/feels both in front and behind, and (more rarely) sometimes at either end. Since the garden is so small, and surrounded by a much larger park, you may already be accustomed to directing your attention away from the outside world. Continuing to practise and hone this skill while visiting the garden will reward you with many small delights as you visit.

You are permitted to photograph the many picturesque views for your own personal use. You may wish to bring appropriate lens filters for catching partially-obscured koi underwater. The City of San José requires commercial photographers to apply for a permit before they take any photographs, so if you are having your wedding in the Tea House, remember to tell your photographer this.

Two suggested promenades through the garden

Korakuen is famous for being delightfully and differently aesthetic in each of the four seasons. Here are two suggested paths you can take through the Japanese Friendship Garden, keeping the seasonal theme.

A midwinter promenade

Unfortunately it doesn't snow in San José so there is no exact correlation between the Japanese Friendship Garden and Korakuen in the winter. In San José, midwinter is the time to see fresh new growth, and this might be what Korakuen would look like in the spring. The cherries, plums, and pears all start flowering in January, and if the weather stays cool, some blooms will remain as late as March, so this is the time to come see these.

Enter the Garden from the torii on the Senter side, not too long after the Garden opens. Approach the food dispenser at the pond and let a handful of food spill into your bag. Curve around the pond towards the red-painted, highly-arched bridge done in the Chinese style. Climb to the top of its arch, and look back from whence you came. From this vantage your eyes sweep from the earliest-blooming trees on your left to later-blooming trees on your right, giving view to every tree that might be in bloom along the west side of this pond until a trio of redwoods blocks further inspection. This is the path you will now follow.

As you approach the redwoods, you will first pass by a cobbled shallows, and then may notice a pair of yews growing long flat, and close over the pond. Here is a time for a light pause. If you have some koi food, toss a few kibbles in the water so they can smell it; a few may swim out. The water will still be cold and their digestive systems are still slow, so any particular fish's attention will not be held by food for very long. When it appears they have lost interest, note the heron to your far right. It seems as if it will just move, especially if you have had the privilege of catching sight the local egrets in the ponds before, but perhaps it is just a statue. Turn around towards the stones under the redwoods behind you. Could they be suggestive of monks huddling against the cold wind?

If you listen carefully, you can hear a louder buzzing amongst that of the enterprising bees among the blossoms. Although they are rare, if you have an agile eye you can spot hummingbirds zooming along for a quick snack, and sometimes getting into arguments with the bees over prime nectar-sucking spots. Any individual bee is likely to lose, but there are a lot more of them, so it's an even fight.

Continue along the path, crossing the rill at every opportunity. Cross back towards the fence as you approach the second, more placid pond on the upper level and follow its west side. These last trees are the very late bloomers.

If you are here in December, you will only see flower buds, but you will be able to see some bright colour as the Japanese maples leaf out if you loop back along the path, and cross the lawn downwards along the sluice towards the Tea House.

All is not lost if you are here in late March or early April, as you will be able to see tiny winged fruit in the maples as their leaves turn back to green. Instead of crossing the lawn, follow the path to the rock formation in the upper centre of the garden. You may pause here; many of the placed rocks are meant to represent buildings in Korakuen for which there is no room here. Might these be representative of a shrine?

Follow the path downwards towards the very wide cobbled bridge and the lower fountain. Turn right before you get to it and follow the sound of the waterfall and you will see azaleas in bright bloom. Loop back up the very steep artificial hill to your left, and sit on the bench. Turn towards the falls for a hidden view of the azaleas through the blue spruce. Look north for another hidden view, this time of the Tea House artfully framed by a large willow. Head back north toward the lower pond, and stop at the step-stone bridge and look in the same direction. If you look carefully, you will see a group of koi at the foot of the stream, breathing the oxygenated water and opportunistically hoping for the haplessly current-tossed insect snack.

An early summer promenade

In the late afternoon, enter the Garden from the torii on the Kelley Park side, and travel left to the koi-food dispenser. Watch the eager ducks leave the nearby island and swarm toward you as you put your bag under it and get some food, but do not feed them. The drakes should now be in full metallic green colour, and the sun will show them off. Retrace your way back to the entrance, and slowly cross the wooden bridge with its many small zigzags. The zigzags will force you to look down, which is a good thing, as there will be water lilies, iris, and other small blooming plants in the shallows. Evil spirits are said to have a difficult time following a zigzag path, so once you have crossed, you will have successfully shaken off any that were following you.

If you are sharp-eyed, you may spot some younger koi hiding amongst their stems. Pause two-thirds of the way across and look up at the Tea House, and then across toward the low, wide conglomerate-concrete zigzag bridge that was just near the food-dispenser. You will see just to your middle right a bench. If you are lucky, this is a bench which often has charming long-married couples on it, as in years past there was a strong tradition of many people choosing to get married just here. The view from the bench itself is not very interesting, but the people-watching towards it from where you are is superb. Just remember to politely pretend you have spotted the koi beneath you, or that you are now looking for more koi either being fed at the food dispenser or hiding under the large bridge.

Continue across the bridge, and follow the path past the rill around the aforementioned bench (be sure to give a small embarrassed smile at the couple there if you’ve been caught) and then follow the path going directly up. This rill to your right (now) is entirely artificial and doesn't bear close observation. It does gurgle charmingly; perhaps this is a place to stop and listen for a bit. Since you have paused, you now may choose to admire the large rock grouping ahead, and then curve north around the placid pool. This is the same pool that ends the cherry blossom walk above. The two other pools will be rippled or blown to some degree by the persistent afternoon wind. Curve right around the now-blooming canna. When you get to the first cherry tree, you will see a rock shaded by a large overhanging tree at the very corner of the garden.

This rock is just off the path and is just large enough for two adults to sit comfortably. Since it is shaded and alee, it a great place to pause for a rest, and quick snog if you are fortunate enough to have come with a favoured companion. If you are alone, or your current companion is someone you would rather keep at arm's length, it is still worth pausing here to watch the dragonflies zoom among the water lilies.

When you are done here, follow the path around the rest of this pond, looking left and up into the magnolias. Continue on the east side of the stream until you get to the large deep pond with the Chinese Bridge and the heron statue. Anywhere along the edge of this pond is the place to entice some koi to come out and eat, because it is halfway along the fish-cruising line from the deep water under the bridge (where some will like to hang about) to the beginning of the stream (where jumpers and lunkers are wont to hide). By this time of year they will act as if they are starving, and you may attract quite a busy roil.

Climb the artificial hill with red and pink foliaged plants all over it. There are two benches here. One is for the illusion looking through the pink 'clouds' down the ivy-covered slope. The other is the one you can use to look down on this pond during late afternoons, hoping to spot an egret or a leaping koi.

Other views

There are other things to see, hear, and smell in the garden during other times and seasons, and there are a number of garden features to discover that are not mentioned here at all. Create your own promenade, search for the haiku that starts this entry, or go and explore!

How to spot those elusive koi

One of the most decorative features of the garden is the highly-coloured Japanese carp, Cyprinus Carpio, whose common name is koi. They were originally bred for food in Japan, but during the Heian period, from 794 to 1184, they became the colourful and gaudy boys they are today. They come in all the white, orange, yellow, red, grey and black shades. These colours come in patterns typical of goldfish, and there are also some fancily-scaled patterns called 'doitsu.' Koi are both quite powerful and placid swimmers, and so they add much to the quiet contemplative nature of the Garden. The koi were a further gift to San José from Okayama. They are a long-lived fish, so some may have been at the garden since 1966, one year after the opening. Some of the oldest koi are several feet long, but since koi are bred by the city, you might find sprats and youngsters of any size.

As the garden is a miniature of the much larger Korakuen, and the ponds are designed to show off the fish, they are rather shallow. In these conditions, the koi are susceptible to sunburn, and to capture and greedy consumption by adventurous egrets and hunting raccoons invading from the nearby Coyote River. Koi are also coldwater fish and like lots of oxygen, and the hotter the water, the less dissolved oxygen is available and the less 'breathing-room' there is. San José is rather warmer than where koi are traditionally from, and so in general the ponds are already 'too hot.' Due to all of these factors those sneaky and clever koi will attempt to stay out of the sun and away from the shallows.

Look under bridges, the ends of waterfalls, through the gaps in water lily pads and iris stalks, the areas before and after any stream or waterfall, under floating tatami mats, and beneath cooler shaded areas with overhanging (sometimes very closely overhanging) vegetation. Listen for sudden sucking and splashing noises where you last saw unwary bluebottles, gnats or other meal-sized insectile no-see-ums, and you may catch a successful hunter fin herself away from a rapidly expanding ring of small surface ripples in self-satisfaction.

The larger and more venerable koi are too big to come anywhere near shore, so keep your eyes peeled at a glancing angle to the water, and you can sometimes see them cruising along low, like colourful and powerful submarines. On especially hot days, you will find some hiding near the overhang of the tea house. Also near the tea house, there is a small section of water which is separated by closely set rocks from the rest of the pond. The larger koi cannot swim through them, and you may find the smallest koi hiding here from their cannibalistic brethren.

The ducks also harass the koi, as they are aiming to grab any food you may have, and behave in a generally territorial and aggressive fashion. If someone else at the park is attracting the ducks with some illicit feeding, go to where the ducks aren't. A few of the smaller-and-canny, braver, or hungrier koi may poke their snouts out. Sometimes, when there is koi food in the stands, and the koi are gathered around looking for eats, you can find a critical mass of koi. They become brave and the tables are turned; the ducks are then harassed, chased away, and bitten by the fish.

So, now what do you do?

Now that you've found the most hidden gem of the park, you might explore the park's more easily-found attractions. Happy Hollow combines a children's zoo and learning centre. If you have taken young people with you, this place is a nice reward for their polite and conscribed behaviour in the Japanese Friendship Garden. In addition to the petting zoo with the typical domestic critters, it has a few endangered beasts, a notably large (by national standards) selection of lemurs, and some programmed events and participation workshops. Leininger Center is a community centre that offers meeting space, classes, and wedding facilities to the neighbourhood. The San José History Museum tells stories from the founding of the city and from the 1800s, and has a replica of one of the very first street-lighting towers in California.

If you found you enjoyed the Japanese Friendship Garden, and are looking for more places of this kind, there are the Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, and the Overfelt Gardens in north San José. You can find some info about Overfelt through San José’s Convention Center.

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