A morning visit to San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden

Pines, an important element of Japanese gardens, frame the Drum Bridge that was built in Japan for the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Pines, an important element of Japanese gardens, frame the Drum Bridge that was built in Japan for the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

In contrast to what we normally think of San Francisco, there is a quiet little garden that continually draws tourists and locals to enjoy its surprises. The Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park is only minutes from the crowded sidewalks and clanging trolleys of downtown, yet it offers a moment of solitude and reflection once you enter its gates.

When we arrived early one morning, we noticed a sign for a free walking tour of the garden offered by San Francisco City Guides, knowledgeable locals who volunteer to share their city. Our guide, Linda Cahill, an expert on the Japanese garden, enthusiastically educated us on the history and meaning of the garden and the tea ceremony.

The five-acre tea garden was inspired by Mikoto Hagiwara in 1894 for the California International Exposition. A successful landscape designer, Hagiwara constructed the garden and teahouse, and remained manager of the garden for 30 years, living on the property and personally financing much of the development.

Sadly, in 1942, the Hagiwara family lost possession of the garden because of the Japanese internment, and entrusted a friend with its valuable dwarf tree collection. In 1966 the trees were returned, and now adorn a hillside at the center of the garden. A plaque honoring Hagiwara sits nears the entrance.

The definitive gates into the garden symbolize a separation of worlds, from the busy outside world to a place of quiet, reflective peace. Stone steps and stairs lead through various gardens, each with a scene created from rocks, water, pruned shrubs and trees.

The word gardener in Japanese actually means “stone setter,” as the position of the stones carries great meaning. Paths and bridges through the garden are in curved lines because the Shinto religion believes that bad spirits travel along straight lines. A bronze Buddha cast in Japan in 1790 was added to the garden in 1949.

At the back of the property, a quiet Zen garden creates a miniature mountain and waterfall scenario, with a gravel river and island. A nearby bench allows the visitor to sit under tall cypress trees as those on a mountain in Japan and experience the scene. Cahill explained that the original idea for a tea garden came from the era of the samurai, who meditated for several hours in a carefully designed garden, using tea to keep them warm and invigorated.

The first teahouse was built in Japan in 1584, designed as a place to experience the tea ceremony “canoyu,” which means beauty, quietude and politeness toward others. The perfectly manicured garden surrounding the teahouse provided the peaceful and serene setting for the guests.

Today, the tea garden at Golden Gate Park offers an authentic tea ceremony experience every Wednesday by appointment. Kimonoclad women who have been trained by their elders in this beautiful art form present the intricate steps of making and serving the tea. In the ceremony, water represents yin, and fire represents yang. The stoneware jar with fresh water represents purity.

Visitors can also order cups of tea, light traditional Japanese specialties and, of course, fortune cookies throughout the day. An interesting side note is that Hagiwara was the founder of the fortune cookie in the early 1900s. He had a local baker add vanilla to a bland, flat Japanese biscuit and fold it to hold a thankyou note.

Even though the strollstyle garden and ponds of koi around the tea house cover only five acres, the surprise is their visual and thoughtful richness as they give the visitor a glimpse of another culture’s use of natural elements — rocks, plants, trees, water and “the way of tea.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune