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The front gate of the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, CA


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 began.

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 family.

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!

The back gate of the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, CAFor 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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