By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
SAN FRANCISCO — The Japanese Tea Garden, one of the major attractions in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, has undergone a low-key transformation over the last three years.
Upon entering the garden, located next to the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and across the road from Strybing Arboretum, the changes aren’t readily apparent. The koi ponds, pagodas, stone lanterns, cherry blossom trees and bronze Buddha are still there. It’s the concessions — the gift shop and the teahouse — that have been revamped.
First, a little bit of history. The Japanese Tea Garden dates back to 1894 and is said to be the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States. It was created as a temporary exhibition for the California Midwinter International Exposition.
After the exhibition closed, landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara expanded the garden to its present size, about 5 acres, and lived there with his family until the 1942 internment of Japanese Americans. During World War II, the site was renamed the Oriental Tea Garden and fell into disrepair, with many items destroyed or removed. The original name was restored after the war, but the Hagiwaras were not allowed to return to their home in the garden when they were released from camp.
Today, a plaque near the main gate honors the Hagiwaras, “who nurtured and shared this garden from 1895–1942,” and the street where the entrance is located is called Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive.
Hollywood transformed the garden into prewar Japan for the 2005 movie “Memoirs of a Geisha.” (Portions of the film were shot at another Bay Area location, Hakone Gardens in Saratoga.)
While the garden is a few miles from Japantown, it has ties with that community. For many years, the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival held its annual press preview there, featuring musicians, dancers and the Cherry Blossom Queen candidates. Many Japantown organizations took part in the garden’s centennial celebration in 1994.
The garden was also at the center of conflict and debate. For more than 15 years, Japanese American community leaders complained that the concessions, run by Fred and Vincent Lo, lacked cultural authenticity. Many of the souvenirs sold at the gift shop, with cable-car and Alcatraz motifs, were available at any San Francisco tourist spot, and the menu and the waitresses’ outfits at the tea house were more Chinese than Japanese, critics said.
When the city’s Recreation and Park Commission held public hearings on bids for the garden’s concessions, the Chinese American concessionaires said they had made improvements but were being discriminated against because they are not Japanese. Nikkei community leaders said they were concerned about cultural sensitivity, regardless of the bidder’s ethnicity.
Jack Hirose, who ran the tea house and gift shop from the 1960s until 1992, stated that he would not have left if he had known how much the concessions would change under the new management.
In 2009, the contract was awarded to Carol Murata, whose ties to Japantown go back decades. A member of the Japantown Merchants Association, she is the daughter of May Murata, former owner of May’s Coffee Shop, and the operator of Café Hana, which, until recently, was a floral business as well as a coffee shop. Hirose pledged to donate $500,000 through the San Francisco Japantown Foundation to upgrade the garden’s structures.
Hirose passed away on Dec. 25, 2009 at the age of 86. On Oct. 20, 2011, a ceremony was held in the garden to name the tea house after him. A plaque cites “Mr. Hirose’s 30 years of excellent service as the tea house concessionaire and his kind and generous support of this and other Japanese cultural organizations in San Francisco.”
With the help of another noted Japantown figure, Benh Nakajo, and many others, Murata redid the interior of the gift shop to give it a less cluttered and more serene atmosphere. The touristy trinkets have been replaced by such items as kokeshi and Daruma dolls, maneki-neko (lucky cat) figurines, tea and sake sets, wind chimes, glazed ceramic bowls and vases, and stones with the kanji for “love,” “hope” and “accomplish.”
The garden now offers Omotesenke tea ceremonies conducted by Keiko Matsuba, who also works at her husband Tak’s popular Japantown restaurant, Bushi-Tei. She demonstrates the proper way to receive and drink tea. Wagashi, the confections eaten during tea ceremonies, are included. The setting is a custom-built irori (farmhouse-style family table) with a sunken hearth used for heating tea.
Tea ceremonies cost $25 per person, are for guests 13 and older, and are available by appointment only on Wednesdays and Fridays at 10:30 a.m., 11:15 a.m. and 12 p.m. Maximum seating capacity is six people per ceremony. Each participant will receive a 15 percent discount on tea ceremony-related items in the gift shop, including teas, teacups, teapots, tea containers, whisks, tea scoops and water ladles. For reservations, call (415) 752-1171.
On the tea house menu are such Japanese teas as sencha, genmaicha, hojicha and matcha; and snacks and sweets such as edamame, tea sandwiches, arare, manju, mochi ice cream and kuzumochi.
Murata and company hope that in addition to enjoying the tranquility of the garden, visitors — who come from across the country and around the world — will gain a better understanding and appreciation of Japanese culture.
Other garden highlights include:
• A pagoda from the Japanese exhibit of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair held in San Francisco in 1915 to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal.
• A bronze Buddha cast in Tajima, Japan in 1790 for Taionji Temple and presented to the garden in 1949 by the S&G Gump Co. of San Francisco.
• Taiko-Bashi (Drum Bridge) created by master builder Shinshichi Nakatani (1846-1922) of Jigozen-mura, Hiroshima-ken. Commissioned by the Japanese government, Nakatani designed and built the bridge in Japan and brought it to San Francisco for the 1894 exposition. He sold his family’s rice fields to complete the bridge and create the Bell Gate (Shoro no Mon), through which visitors enter the garden. He asked his son to work in San Francisco for nearly half a century to earn enough money to repurchase the family fields. A plaque was dedicated to Nakatani by Mayor Willie Brown in 2000. (For more on this aspect of the garden’s history, visit www.nakatanifamily.com.)
The garden is open every day, including holidays. Summer hours (March 1 to Oct. 31) are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Winter hours (Nov. 1 to Feb. 28) are 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.
Admission is free on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for those who enter by 10 a.m. Entrance fees for adults are $5 (San Francisco residents) and $7 (non-residents); for seniors (65 and over) and youth (12 to 17), $3 (residents) and $5 (non-residents); for children (5-11), $1.50 (residents) and $2 (non-residents); for children 4 and under, free.
Photos by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo