A Brief History of the
Japanese Tea Garden
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco, CA USA
An account by
Erik Sumiharu Hagiwara-Nagata
© 1999 Erik S. Nagata
The Japanese Tea Garden was created by my great, great grandfather
Baron Makoto Hagiwara. It owes its humble beginnings as an 1894
World's Fair Exhibit called the Japanese Village. When the exposition
closed, the superintendent of the park, John McLaren, was approached
by my great, great grandfather with the idea of giving the City
of San Francisco a gift in the form of a Japanese style garden
and to display the Japanese lifestyle. This offer was most kindly
accepted over a handshake (as that was the manner in which business
was conducted in those days) and the construction of the Garden
This was to be no ordinary garden, nor was it a garden done
in one of the period styles so well known in Japan. As all Japanese
gardens address the site and its surroundings, the Tea Garden
was done in a rustic style, to blend in with the rugged countryside
of the area and quite unknown in the United States at that time.
And it was also a Tea Garden, which allowed for a larger public
area with a correspondingly smaller and more private area for
The original extent of the grounds was just about an acre (the
site of the Japanese Village exhibit), but the Garden was greatly
expanded to about five acres. Immediate attention to the layout
of the garden was undertaken to get the garden looking everything
that it should be. Great expense was applied to acquire the necessary
items required to make an authentic Japanese garden come into
being. As he was a man of means and due to the station in life
of my great, great grandfather, nothing of second nature would
suit the well being of this garden. Only the best would be acceptable
here. Also due to the station in life, many of the restrictions
of obtaining materials from Japan were made easier for import
and exceptional items could be gotten.
It is interesting to note that all the items were received via
ship on the high seas. Huge costs often accompanied either the
importation of goods or the use of bringing artisans from Japan
to work in the Garden. One example was the importation of goldfish
for the shrine moat. A man had to accompany the barrels of fish
across the ocean in order to insure their survival, and his passage
paid. Another was the aviary, which housed rare birds and the
Japanese long tailed rooster. Statuary of fine caliber was also
here in the Garden. There were many bronzes, among them perched
and spread winged eagles, descending Kwannon (Goddess of Mercy),
a shrine which stood above the moat and at that time (the gold
standard) cost $10,000.00, a porcelain lantern, as well as many
many other ornaments. A standing Deva with trident, a pot bellied
statue, a wooden buddha, and a wooden carved figure so well done
with a glass eye that it looked like a real kneeling figure.
Curious that today many of these things were stolen. Also important
to know is the fact that none of the costs were ever reimbursed
to the family. The family fortune went into the ground.
I am reminded of a story told to me by my late grand aunt. A
seal had somehow gotten out of its pool from the Academy of Sciences
and wandered into the Garden where it zealously began eating
up all the goldfish until it could be caught and returned to
its tank. This happened because the aquarium had not yet been
added on to close the front area. Of course this meant that new
fish had to be gotten once again!
many years the Garden was a very young Japanese garden. The trees
needed time and the patina of age to give the garden the exquisite
look of everything being "just so," achieving the correct
proportions, shapes and size. This took about forty years for
the garden to nicely mature. Other plants had to reach maturity
before they could make a grand show in their season. At one point
in time there were extant in the Garden, one thousand cherry
blossom trees. In bloom, it need hardly be mentioned that they
presented a sight of superlative beauty. The west had known nothing
the equal of this site, save Washington, D.C. There were several
rare types, among them one of the "golden flowered" cherries.
The vast majority of the others were of the Equinox or Rosebud
Cherry (the higan zakura). The Yoshino cherry was desired but
did not produce viable seed from which to proliferate the species.
This all came to an abrupt end with the advent of World War
II. A notice to evict was levied upon my family as well as all
citizens of Japanese ancestry and the population was taken to
concentration camps in the interior. My family was not spared
this tragedy. The Garden fell into disrepair as the necessary
needed care was not there to give and the Garden became the "Oriental
Tea Garden". Many plants died. Superintendent McLaren earnestly
entreated my family to return to the Garden once again, and eventually
they did so. The original agreement was to have lasted ninety-nine
years and the Hagiwaras were to be the caretakers of the Garden
over the generations. This of course did not happen and I have
watched as the Garden has slowly gone down over the years.
On a brighter note, it is amazing to see just how this Garden
has touched so many peoples' lives. The locals and tourists have
enjoyed the Garden for many years now. Those treasured memories
are only all too familiar to native San Franciscans. Also of
note is the fact that the fortune cookie was introduced by my
family. As a matter of fact it is not Chinese in origin at all.
The local Chinese usurped it as a business venture after the
second world war. It has long been known in Japan. It was introduced
to the US by my family to enjoy while taking tea in the Garden.
As my family were aristocrats, they did not have any inclination
to partake of this as a business venture. Had they been so inclined,
a patent could have been applied to this unique invention and
put into effect. It is always amazing to hear over and over again,
the many couples that have met after reading the fortunes of
a fortune cookie.
In 1994, the Tea Garden celebrated its centennial anniversary.
To commemorate the event, I donated over one thousand flowering
cherry trees to Arlington National Cemetery, VA and a smaller
donation to the National Cemetery in San Bruno, CA. This was
done to commemorate the event and beautify the country at these
two National Cemeteries to posterity and the following generations
to enjoy. These collections represent some of the largest assimilations
of varieties of cherries in any one spot in the country and it
remains my sincerest wish for all to go and see them.
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