Many travelers make it a point to visit the botanical gardens in cities which they are visiting. The botanical gardens in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park are a popular attraction for residents and tourists alike. Among the variety of gardens, which have over 8,500 species of plants, is the Japanese tea garden.

Tea Garden’s History

The history of the SF Japanese Tea Garden goes back to the 1894 World’s Fair. While the vision of European-style botanical gardens was beginning to take shape in Golden Gate Park, the tea garden arose from the Japanese village that had been built in the park for the fair.

Among the remnants from the exhibit for the World’s Fair, also called the California Midwinter International Exhibition, is the Half Moon bridge, which is also known as the Drum bridge. It is a high arching structure that crosses a small pond. The design of the bridge isn’t just beautiful, but it is practical as well.

Its design has three purposes:

  1. Its reflection in the pond’s water makes the bridge appear to be a full circle or moon.
  2. People must slow down to climb the bridge, which helps them prepare for a tea ceremony.
  3. It allows boats to pass beneath it.

Park Caretaker

Japanese Tea Garden

Image via San Francisco City Guides

The first caretaker of the park was an immigrant from Japan, Makoto Hagiwara. He was responsible for the garden’s creation and contributed several sculptures, plants, and buildings to it. He and his family lived on the property and took care of the gardens until 1942.

During World War II, the Hagiwara family was interned due to the anti-Japanese sentiment in the country due to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The name of the gardens was also changed to the Oriental Tea Gardens during that time.

Unfortunately, the garden was neglected, and many of its artifacts were stolen. However, once the war was over, the gardens were restored under their original name. The street on which they are on was also renamed after Mr. Hagiwara.

Modern Tea Garden

The five-acre garden, which is the oldest of its kind in the United States, has many plants, flowers, and structures imported from Japan. The Drum Bridge was made in Japan and was put in the garden for the 1894 fair.

To enter the garden, visitors pass under a Japanese temple gate that was put in place in 1915 for the Pan-Pacific Exhibition. After you pass through the gate, there is a pagoda, that was put in place for the same exhibition, and a bronze Buddha sits nearby.

The Buddha was cast in Japan in 1790 before it made its way to SF as a peace offering from a local family for the gardens. In 1953, after the city signed a peace treaty with Japan, another offering was made by children in Japan, who donated the Lantern of Peace to the tea garden.

During the same time the 9,000-pound bronze lantern was installed, a “Peace Garden” and a rock garden, called a karesansui, was also added to the garden. The rock garden is known as a Zen garden because the maintenance of the garden can be a meditative practice for the gardener.

While Zen gardens are dry, the arrangement of the gravel and rocks usually resembles some form of water. In the SF garden, it looks like a waterfall feeding into a river made from small rocks. The gardens require regular maintenance to depict the movement of water and to keep its rock border in place.

Garden Flora

Garden Flora

Image via VacationIdea

There are a wide variety of plants in the garden that are found in Japan. Among these include azaleas and bonsai trees surrounding the koi pond by the tea house. Japanese azaleas are short shrubs that are often used as ground cover. They have beautiful flowers that bloom in pink, red, or purple blossoms.

Bonsai trees are shrubs or trees that are made to grow smaller in size than their species. There are also wisteria, cherry, dwarf and Japanese maple trees grown in the gardens. Some of the hedges in the Japanese Tea Garden are trimmed into different shapes.

One hedge is cut as Mount Fuji and another in the shape of a dragon. There are several walking paths on the five-acre complex, which also provides places to meditate.  

Japanese Tea House

When visitors get hungry or thirsty while viewing the San Francisco Japanese Tea Garden, they can stop at the open-air Tea House near the main gate and the gift shop. After a controversy involving Chinese ownership of the concession area, visitors will find mainly Japanese food and drinks for sale.

The menu features a variety of teas that are usually served in Japan, such as Sencha, Genmaicha, and Hojicha teas. You can either enjoy a cup at the stand or take it with you to sip in the gardens.

They also offer foods like tea sandwiches, miso soup, mini nut tarts, and Kuzumochi, which are rice cakes. If you’re not into drinking tea, you will also find soft drinks, hot chocolate, or coffee for sale as well.

Gift Shop

The Japanese merchants who were concerned about the Chinese ownership of the concession area were also concerned about the merchandise in the gift shop. Much of it was a reflection of Chinese culture or were Chinese made trinkets.

Once the ownership of the concession and gift shop reverted to Japan, then the items in the gift shop changed to those reflecting Japanese culture and are made in Japan. They now sell traditional items like sake sets, Daruma dolls, Maneki Neko figures, and Japanese green teas.

Fortune Cookie Origination

A surprising fact about the Tea House is that fortune cookies were introduced to the US there by Mr. Hagiwara. They were made by hand at first, probably for the World’s Fair, but when demand grew, he hired a local confectioner, Benkyodo, to take over their production.

While fortune cookies are usually savory in Japan, it is believed that Benkyodo changed the recipe, so they were sweet to appeal to Americans. Fortune cookies are served with meals at the Tea House, or they can be bought in the gift shop.

San Antonio Japanese Garden

The Japanese Tea Garden San Francisco may be the oldest tea garden in America, but it isn’t the only one. There are now Japanese gardens in:

  • Portland
  • Philadelphia
  • St. Louis
  • Seattle
  • Chicago
  • Brooklyn

There is also a San Antonio Japanese Tea Garden that reopened in March of 2008. The garden was built on land where a limestone quarry once operated. The land was donated to the parks department, and they decided to design an Asian garden on the spot around 1917.

The original caretakers of the garden were a Japanese- American artist, Kimi Eizo-Jingu, and his family. They were invited to live on the property to maintain the gardens, and they did so until 1941. After Pearl Harbor was attacked, they were evicted from the property.

The name of the gardens was also changed to prevent them from being vandalized due to anti-Japanese attitudes during the war. The name was changed to the Chinese Tea Garden, and the sign is still on display to this day.

Due to disrepair, the garden was closed for renovation, which ended in 2008, and the park was reopened. The cost of reviving the park cost about $1.6 million and included improvements to the infrastructure, including the walkways, piping, sealing the ponds, and their filtration.

The park now includes koi ponds, a garden that is open year-round, a 60-foot waterfall, and stone bridges. There is also the Jingu House Café that features a mix of Japanese and American foods like Bento boxes, sushi, seaweed salad, turkey sandwiches, and a sushi burrito.

The garden is available as an event venue for weddings, social, and community events, with the café providing catering for the events. While the Japanese Tea Garden Golden Gate Park doesn’t have an event venue, the city’s park and recreations department do have a venue in Japantown’s Peace Plaza.

Visiting SF Tea Garden

tips when visiting the San Francisco Tea Gardens

Image via SF Tourism Tips

The garden in Golden Gate Park is open 365 days a year, and while there is an admissions fee, early bird visitors can tour the tea garden for free if they get there before 10 a.m. The garden opens at 7:30, so you can get there early to take a leisurely stroll or meditate in the Zen garden.

San Francisco is a great city to immerse yourself in Asian culture. They have one of the largest Chinese populations outside of China, and about 60,000 Japanese-Americans live in the city of 4.6 million. They also have a large Filipino population as well.

Even though the Japanese population is small compared to Chinese population, the culture has a major influence on the city with the presence of Japantown and the Japanese Tea Garden.

Both residents and visitors visit the beautiful, tranquil sites in the Japanese garden to spend time with family, take a date, or to stroll amongst the beautiful plants and sites of this garden and the others within the park.

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