Finding History And Tranquility At The Japanese Tea Garden

As we recover from hectic end-of-year schedules, many in the city may be looking for a respite. For a dose of garden beauty and quiet reflection, one needn’t look further than Golden Gate Park’s own Japanese Tea Garden.

“It’s just relaxing,” Brandon H. of North Carolina told us. He had visited the garden on an earlier trip to San Francisco, but had returned with his wife Erin, so she could also appreciate the beauty.

A quiet moment in the tea garden. 

It is distinguished as being the oldest Japanese garden in the United States and within its nearly five acres it displays many of the traditional elements for which Japanese gardens are noted. Winding paths offer views of manicured dwarf trees, stone lanterns, ponds, koi fish, a rock and sand Zen garden, a traditional drum bridge, and a functioning tea house.

Midwinter Fair 1894- Japanese Tea Garden with Birds | Photo: OpenSFHistory

Fashioned as an exhibit for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, or World’s Fair, the garden originally took up one acre in the park and was created by George Turner Marsh.

Marsh was an Australian who had stopped (and stayed for four years) in Japan during his move from Australia to San Francisco. Enamored with Japanese culture, he became a dealer in Japanese art and antiquities. He settled in the Richmond District and the name of his home there, incidentally, inspired the naming of the entire neighborhood.

Marsh conceived and funded the Japanese Village and Tea Garden for the fair, choosing Makoto Hagiwara, a landscape architect from Japan, to design and maintain the garden.

Reaching a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Superintendent John McLaren, Hagiwara was able to ensure the survival of the garden once the fair ended. He spent the next 30 years of his life expanding, embellishing and maintaining it.

A stone path over water.

During his years as caretaker, Hagiwara increased the overall size of the garden to the current approximately five acres, and imported plants, birds, fish and sculpture from his native Japan. He lived in a home in the garden with his family until his death in 1925, when his daughter and family continued with the caretaking duties.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. descended into World War II and virulent anti-Japanese sentiment grew at home. Following an executive order in 1942, all Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were involuntarily relocated to internment camps.

The Hagiwara family was no exception, and they were required to leave the garden and their home in it.

Like most who were forced into camps, the Hagiwaras were unable to take much with them.  The family did, however, manage to take the beautiful dwarf trees from Japan they had planted. These trees were entrusted to Samuel Newsom, who then sold them to Hugh and Audrey Fraser.

Per Mrs. Fraser’s will, the trees were returned to the tea garden upon her death. Today they are planted on Waterfall Hill in the garden.

Dwarf trees on Waterfall Hill.

During the war, the garden was renamed “The Oriental Tea Garden” and fell into disrepair. When the war ended, the Hagiwara family was not permitted to return to the tea garden — their home and almost everything else that represented Japanese culture had been destroyed.

In 1952, the garden reclaimed its original name of the Japanese Tea Garden. In 1974, a plaque was installed honoring Makoto Hagiwara and his family’s commitment to the tea garden.

Below are some of the garden’s highlights, not to be missed:

The Tea House

Looking out over the pond as you enter the garden, the tea house has been rebuilt several times since 1894. It continues to serve traditional teas, udon and other snacks.

Water basin

This boat-shaped water basin, called a Tsukubai, is located near the tea house. Water basins were traditionally used by guests before joining a tea ceremony.

The Pagoda

This pagoda is from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco.

Zen Garden

Designed in 1953, the garden plaque notes that it uses “stones to symbolize mountains, hills, islands or waterfalls and gravel or sand to symbolize the sea, lakes, rivers or streams”.

Peace Lantern

This 9,000-pound bronze lantern was presented to the garden in 1953. It was funded by the donations of Japanese schoolchildren as a symbol of friendship toward the people of the United States.

Bronze Buddha

Cast in 1790 in Japan, this bronze Buddha was gifted to the garden by the S. & G. Gump Company in 1949.

Drum Bridge

Created by Japanese Master Builder Shinshichi Nakatani in 1894 for the Midwinter Fair, the bridge reflects on the water as a circle or drum shape. Nakatani designed the bridge and had it built in Japan and brought to the U.S.

He was so committed to the construction of the bridge and Bell Gate, through which visitors enter the garden, that he sold the family rice fields in Japan to fund their completion.

The Japanese Tea Garden is open daily starting at 9am, closing at 4:45pm November through February, and at 6pm from March through October.

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Finding history and tranquility at the japanese tea garden