Visit San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden for flowers and a history lesson

Welcome to the Bay Area Bucket List, where readers suggest things to do around the bay, and we go out and do them. Got an idea for something to do or a question you want answered? Send it to us! Today, Joe C. invites us to visit the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

Inch for inch, there’s no more beautiful place in San Francisco than the Japanese Tea Garden, especially in the spring. Around every corner, something new amazes: historic gates towering over stone walkways, hummingbirds sipping from waterfalls, cherry trees exploding into blossom like frozen fireworks.

The wonder continues in the beautiful teahouse itself, which overlooks carefully tended vegetation and offers a variety of Japanese snacks and green tea, as well as the gift shop with its ceramics, colorful kokeshi dolls and cookies of Fortune. Yes, fortune cookies – no offense to what others have claimed, but it’s likely that the garden was the birthplace of this crispy treat in America.

“Evidence indicates that (keeper) Makoto Hagiwara introduced the fortune cookie” between 1906 and 1914, says garden supervisor Steven Pitsenbarger. “It’s a modification of a Japanese senbei, or cookie, which was more flavorful like a rice cracker with soy sauce in it. Makoto took that pattern and then adapted it to American tastes – he made it made sweeter.

The Japanese Tea Garden, the oldest of its kind in the United States, owes its existence to Australian emigrant George Turner Marsh. “Marsh was a guy who sold Japanese art. He had a store on Market Street starting in 1876, then expanded to have stores in Monterey, Santa Barbara, Pasadena, and Coronado,” says Pitsenbarger, who writes a book on the history of the garden. “Often in association with his shops he had Japanese gardens.”

Marsh knew the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition (aka the Midwinter Fair) was approaching and thought it would be a great opportunity to debut a depiction of Japanese life – or at least as Westerners imagined it.

The appeal of the Japanese Tea Garden’s arched “drum bridge” transcends generations. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

“What the Tea Garden started out as was the ‘Japanese Village’ exhibit. It’s a world’s fair, so represent the world, right? says Judi Leff, humorist and historian from San Francisco. “For example, they had ‘La rue du Caire’, where you could supposedly see how things were done in Egypt, although I think they took some license with that. I don’t know s they were talking to experts on Egypt at the time.

“The whole Midwinter Fair was really a place where white people came to see brown people from all over the world,” says Pitsenbarger.

The original exhibit had a theater, a demonstration house, a bazaar that sold Marsh art products, two teahouses and a restaurant, and a studio where one of Marsh’s Japanese workers entertained visitors with stories and images. “He would sketch for you,” Pitsenbarger continues, “much like when you go down to Fisherman’s Wharf and someone can sketch you on the spot.”

Although a lot of things seem terribly stereotypical, it could have been worse… in a different way?

“For ‘authenticity’, Marsh decided to add rickshaws pulled by real Japanese men. Of course, that was considered racist as hell. Even in the 1890s they were like, No! – Japanese Americans demanded that he drop the idea,” says Leff.

“So instead he asked dark-faced Germans dressed in ‘oriental’ clothes to pretend to be Japanese people pulling rickshaws. There’s a great photo on OpenSFHistory of this pulled rickshaw by, you know, Fritz instead of Yoko.

When the fair ended, the city acquired the exhibit and retained Makoto Hagiwara as its custodian. He settled his family in a house in the garden and enriched the land with specimens from Japan. When he died, the family members continued to tend the garden and, for their hard work, were sent to an internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Azaleas and cherry blossoms dazzle visitors entering San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

The city changed the name of the site to Oriental Tea Garden, because you couldn’t call anything Japanese at that time. “They destroyed everything that looked Japanese (including the family home). It was really stupid,” says Leff. “When the Hagiwara family returned from the camps, they were not allowed to return to the garden. Then in 1952, I guess enough time had passed for us to love the Japanese again, so they renamed it Japanese Tea Garden.

Today, the garden bears witness to its more than a hundred years of surgical culture. The name “tea garden” is a misnomer, as in Japanese culture they are functional paths to a tea house.

“When Japan first opened its doors and we started to see Japanese immigrants, arts and culture here in the West, for some reason people clung to the phrase ‘garden of Japanese tea,” says Pitsenbarger. “I think it conjured up an image for them. Everything was called a tea garden, whether it was a restaurant or even sometimes society ladies would have a party in their garden, put up a few lanterns and say that they were having a “Japanese tea garden”.

This is technically a “walking garden,” which in Japanese terms is a larger garden where different sights and views unfold as you turn around the bends in the path. Seasonal sights at this time include cherry blossoms and azaleas, and as the weather warms the garden will become fragrant with purple wisteria.

“Spring is always a pleasant time in a Japanese garden, because everything seems alive,” says Pitsenbarger.

Year round there is a dry garden with rocks and gravel reminiscent of mountains and water and real wet water populated by 50 year old koi. There are clumps of swaying bamboo, historic dwarf trees, weathered wildlife sculptures, and a moss-lined cryptomeria (Japanese cedar) grove so small you could park a few cars there, but it looks like a forest. old redwoods.

Visitors wander the manicured paths of San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Careful attention is required navigating stream paths made up of disconnected chunks of rock and an almost Willy Wonkaesque “Drum Bridge” people climb like a ladder.

“The exaggerated curve of the Drum Bridge was a popular introduction to World’s Fairs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” says Pitsenbarger. “Ours dates back to the origin of the garden in 1894. It was built by Shinsichi Nakatani, a carpenter who worked for George Turner Marsh. Some temples in Japan with curved bridges claim that you leave your sins behind by crossing these bridges.

If these features seem deliberately designed to slow you down, they kind of are. “The winding paths, stepping stones and changing vantage points are all meant to help you focus on your surroundings and be in the moment. This can be seen as a slowdown, but it can also be seen as a plus. great focus,” he says.

“I think it’s the best surprise in the garden – you can forget your emails and texts, Instagram and Facebook, and just enjoy what’s right in front of you.”

If you are going to

The Japanese Tea Garden is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. at 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Admission is $3 to $7 for San Francisco residents and $3 to $10 for everyone else. Find details and purchase tickets at

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