Visiting the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park: San Francisco History Bits
History of the Tea Garden
San Francisco's Japanese Tea Garden, located within world-famous Golden Gate Park, is the oldest formal Japanese garden (open to the public) in the entire United States!
It was originally a part of the Japanese Village exhibit built in 1894 for the World's Fair (California Midwinter Exhibition). The designer was one Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese immigrant. He lived on the grounds with his family after the fair was over, according to an agreement with John McLaren, the overall developer of the park.
The garden was expanded, and when Mr. Hagiwara passed away, the management was taken over by his daughter and her family. Unfortunately, with the anti-Japanese sentiment that exploded with WWII, the family was evicted and sent to an internment camp. The name was changed to "Oriental Garden," but it became much neglected.
After the war, it wasn't until 1953 that the original name was restored. It was also in this era that a huge (9,000-pound) stone peace lantern was donated from the many collected pennies of schoolchildren of Japan.
A peace garden was added as well, but despite the efforts at friendship and new beginnings, it wasn't until 2009 that the management of the garden was finally restored to the hands of a Japanese family.
Exploring the Tea Garden
The first rule in getting the most from your visit? Don't be in a hurry! The grounds cover 5 acres, and there are amazing vistas and intriguing nooks and crannies around every corner.
Ponds full of colorful Koi are virtually everywhere, and if you are traveling with children, they will be absolutely enthralled with all the various kinds of bridges and stepping stones to cross the narrowed portions of these ponds. The stone bridges are in two sections, with a slight offset between the halves; this is said to confuse evil spirits and prevent them from crossing.
One major favorite for kids is the stunning Moon Bridge (sometimes also called the drum bridge). It is near the front entry and commands the scenery at that point. I used to love scrambling over it as a child. I'm not sure I still could, but you'd better believe I'd give it a try! See the photo detail of the 'stairs' that lead over this bridge, and you can see why many adults give it a pass and cross the stone bridge right next door.
Central Pagoda and Buddha
Dominating the center of the garden on a high point, and visible from many areas within the garden, stands a tall, ornate, and colorful pagoda.
Very near the pagoda is a large cast bronze Buddha statue, with his hand raised in a peace gesture. This was a donation in the post-war era from a San Francisco family.
And thereby hangs a funny tale. When I was a young child of about 8 years old, my family was out visiting the garden with Ann, a family friend. We often took her along on our outings around town, as she didn't drive, and didn't get out much.
My father was a great photographer and always had his camera along. On this day, a typical chilly, foggy day in San Francisco, we—all bundled up in our coats and headscarves—were instructed to pose in front of the Buddha.
Unbeknownst to Ann, my father was already hitting the shutter button at the exact moment the chill caused her to reach for a hanky and blow her nose! We laughed over that for years, teasing my dad, saying, "Didn't you see? Buddha has his hand up telling you to 'hold on for a moment!'" I wish I still had that funny picture!
The Tea House Is a Relaxing Stop
Believe it or not, it is here that is the actual origin of the ubiquitous "Chinese" fortune cookie. Mr. Hagiwara introduced them at the teahouse in about 1900. This was, in fact, the first place in the world to serve them! Chinese restaurants around town were quick to pick up on the novel idea.
There was some dispute about whether they originated here, or with a Los Angeles company, but the SF Court of Historical Review ruled that it was indeed, here in San Francisco at the Japanese Tea Garden teahouse that was the beginning of these wisdom-bearing treats.
After a period of being run by an outside concession, the teahouse is once again under authentic Japanese management, complete with a small menu of Japanese teas and treats.
If You're Going . . .
The garden, in my youth, was free. Sadly, that is no longer the case, unless you arrive between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m. on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday.
The admission schedule (current as of October 2018) is as follows:
- Adults: $8.00 ($6.00 for SF residents, with proof)
- Ages 12-17 and 65+, $6.00 ($3.00 for SF residents, with proof)
- Ages 5-11 $2.00
- Under 5, free
The Tea Garden is located right in the very center of Golden Gate Park, across from the music concourse and the California Academy of Sciences; it is next door to the DeYoung Museum.
Parking Near the Tea Garden
This is a very busy and popular area within the park, and parking can be a nightmare.
There is no parking allowed on the narrow street in front of the Tea Garden (now named Hagiwara Drive), and there is fairly limited parking on the far side of the bandshell concourse, between there and the Academy. There used to be a few spaces on the short connector road behind the bandshell, but I cannot be sure if that is still the case.
You may find you need to park outside the immediate area, say, near Stow Lake, or out on John F. Kennedy Drive (it used to be called "Main Drive") and be prepared for about a 10-minute walk. JFK Drive, however, is closed to traffic on weekends, taken over by pedestrians, cyclists, and skaters.
If it is a weekend, I'd suggest arriving by public transit or taking a ride-for-hire service. Otherwise, you're liable to spend a lot of gas circling to find a parking place! There is a new parking garage, under the DeYoung Museum, but it is very pricey; on the order of $2.25 per hour! (Precious little parking in SF can be considered inexpensive.)
Nearby, but outside the park, garages include Millberry Union Garage (on Parnassus) and the Kezar Stadium lot (near the Stanyan St. entry). But be prepared for a fairly lengthy hike back to get to the Tea Garden.
Relatively new is a shuttle service from parking areas out on the Great Highway, about a mile or so distant from the center of the park. It is available weekends and major holidays.
Sadly, the Tea Garden is not terribly wheelchair friendly. While many of the pathways are paved, they are narrow, and some of the pond crossings would be truly sketchy for a wheelchair or mobility scooter (see photos).
Many of the sights within, alas, are reached by a good many stairs. Though the main entry has installed a ramp to bypass those stairs, once inside, your experience may be somewhat limited.
© 2018 Liz Elias