The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park is the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States. Many a San Franciscan has visited the garden, but not everyone knows its history and significance. Read on to discover one of San Francisco’s most extraordinary destinations.
History of the garden
The Japanese Tea Garden was originally created in 1894 as a 1-acre “Japanese Village” exhibit for the California Midwinter International Exposition. Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara and Golden Gate Park superintendent John McLaren arranged for the garden to remain permanently, and Hagiwara maintained the space until 1942. He expanded the garden to 5 acres, using personal funds to create a flourishing environment with stepping stone paths, native Japanese plants, placid koi ponds, a zen garden, and more.
In 1942, Hagiwara, his family, and about 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly evacuated to internment camps during World War II. The Hagiwara family was not allowed to return after the war ended. Many of their treasures were removed and new additions were made to the garden in subsequent years. It is now managed by San Francisco Recreation & Parks, but Hagawara’s legacy continues to be a fundamental part of the garden.
Every year we eagerly await the return of the beautiful cherry blossoms. Be sure to visit and catch these beautiful flowers during March and April in the Japanese Tea Garden! Cherry blossoms are a symbolic flower in Japan, representing the fleeting nature of life and the arrival of spring.
San Francisco hosts the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, a free event celebrating Japanese culture with traditional performances, art, live music, and more. It’s gone virtual lately due to Covid, but stay tuned as we wait on information about the next one.
The garden’s tea house, or ochaya, dates back to 1894, making it the oldest ochaya in the United States. You’ll find the beautiful structure in the center of the garden overlooking the south-facing pond.
Visitors can enjoy a relaxing cup of tea and Japanese refreshments in the tea house, including fortune cookies. Family members say that Mr. Hagiwara was responsible for introducing fortune cookies to San Francisco in the late 1890s or early 1900s, enlisting Benkyodo Company to produce them when demand grew. Benkyodo introduced the sweet vanilla flavor, which is now popular across the United States.
One of its most eye-catching features is the five-tiered wooden pagoda, which is in the midst of a $2 million renovation. Although there remains some surrounding work to complete, the structure itself been unveiled to the public following extensive upgrades.
“It would have been easier to tear down the pagoda and build a new one,” Steven Pitsenbarger, chief gardener at the Japanese Tea Garden, told the Chronicle. The pagoda has received new roof shingles, new wood to replace the parts that were rotted through, new copper and brass hinges, a new coat of water-based latex paint, and 20 brass bells that chime when the wind the blows. Another $1 million of additional work is scheduled for completion in 2023, which will include reconstruction of the garden’s long wooden bridge and new landscaping.
The pagoda was originally built as a temporary decorative piece for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Like the Palace of Fine Arts, it’s one of the structures that was saved from demolition and thus added to the city’s legacy. Golden Gate Park Superintendent John McLaren salvaged the pagoda and had it hauled to the tea garden where it’s remained ever since the fair, but it wasn’t actually built to last… until now.
Visiting the garden
Admission to the garden is free for SF residents with proof of residency. It’s also free to the general public on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays if entered before 10am. Outside of those hours, admission for non-residents is $13 for adults, $7 for seniors and youth, $3 for children ages 5-11, and free for children under 5.
The Japanese Tea Garden is open from 9-5pm 7 days a week, with a free hour on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings from 9-10am. Visit the garden at 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.