San Diego’s Cherry Blossom Festival: 5 things you need to know

Timing was perfect for the 11th annual Cherry Blossom Festival held at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park as the trees were in full bloom.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Japanese Friendship Garden will be pretty and pink as it celebrates hanami — the Japanese tradition where people relax and enjoy the country’s abundant cherry blossom trees — at the 13th annual Cherry Blossom Festival Friday through Sunday in Balboa Park.

“In Japan, hanami is practiced as cherry blossoms represent the fragility of life as well as the coming of the spring season,” said Jon Osio, the Friendship Garden’s event and marketing coordinator. “The festival is the perfect opportunity for visitors to see San Diego’s only location for cherry blossoms and see how two different cultures are able to create a unique and immersive experience.”

Last year, after the festival was extended a day from its original two days, the cherry blossoms attracted more than 12,000 visitors during its three-day run. Organizers expect to surpass that number again this year.

“We hope festival attendees will see that (the Japanese Friendship Garden) is a space for everyone to come together as a community to enjoy the serene details of a Japanese garden while experiencing pieces of Japanese culture,” Osio said. “We’d love visitors to come and see us again for our future programmed events or to take a relaxing stroll at (the Japanese Friendship Garden) outside of the festival weekend.”

Here’s what you need to know about the festival:

The history behind the cherry trees

The Japanese Friendship Garden’s cherry trees were planted 17 years ago, but the story goes deeper, dating back to 1951.

The USS Walke struck a mine off the coast of Korea. Its commander, Marshall Thompson, managed to sail to Sasebo, Japan, for repairs. While docked, the sailors occupied their time by visiting the local school field and teaching in the classrooms.

One of the students the sailors befriended was an orphaned 14-year-old girl called Mitoko. The crew contributed money and opened a bank account for Mitoko. When she was old enough, she used the money to put herself through nursing school.

Fast-forward 42 years to San Diego, where Capt. Thompson was living. On a visit to the Japanese Friendship Garden in 1993, he shared his story with a woman who held tea ceremonies. She tracked down Mitoko, who was working for the Red Cross in Japan. Later that year, Mitoko and her husband flew to San Diego for a reunion with Capt. Thompson.

Many more trips ensued and after Thompson’s death, his widow and Mitoko donated money for the cherry trees in Thompson’s memory. The San Diego-Yokohama Sister City Society also donated funds toward the purchase of the trees.

The cherry blossom grove

The Japanese Friendship Garden occupies 12 acres, with about 1 acre dedicated to the cherry trees. About 200 cherry trees of the Pink Cloud variety are planted in the lower garden. This variety does well Southern California because of the milder climate. The tree is stronger, more rugged and less graceful than other varieties, and bears a deeper pink blossom, and can grow to between 15 and 25 feet tall.

Length of the season

The prime blooming season for the cherry blossoms is typically the beginning of March. Sakura — the fleeting flowers that burst from cherry blossom trees — lasts for up to two weeks. The Japanese Friendship Garden anticipates the cherry grove will be in bloom with huge fluffy clusters of flowers just in time for the festival.

“We are lucky in a sense,” said Frederic Hewitt, the Friendship Garden’s program coordinator. “We’re in good shape. With the cold weather, the blossoms are late-comers. They should be in full bloom within another week or two. It will be dazzling.”

What the festival offers

Each day, visitors can sample traditional food, watch Japanese dance and music performances, and taste sake, beer and a variety of teas. Vendors throughout the gardens will offer everything from Japanese pottery and prints to silk scarves and jewelry. Children can learn how to make paper drums and engage in other family-friendly activities at the Kid’s Corner.

Getting there

The Japanese Friendship Garden is next to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Parking will be more limited than usual on Saturday and Sunday. Organizers recommend carpooling or using Uber. The Balboa Park tram drops visitors off at strategic points throughout the park, including a stop right across the street from the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. For more information, visit

Cherry Blossom Festival

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

Where: The Japanese Friendship Garden of San Diego, 2215 Pan American Road E., Balboa Park.

Cost: $10 general admission; $8 seniors 65 and older, students and active military with ID; children 6 and under are free.

Phone: (619) 232-2721