This piece of Golden Gate Park has a culturally bizarre history. Japan! Australia! China! Chicago! California! Mush all of those things together and somehow we get… the Japanese Tea Garden?
Quick History Lesson
The Japanese Tea Garden was originally built for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, which was basically a world’s fair. San Francisco was in kind of a weird place at the time. The gold rush was over and the city had become half beautiful fancy houses full of rich people, and half poor people living in mud and fighting in gangs. Chronicle Publisher MH DeYoung decided to throw this fair in order to bring money and reputability to this new city. Chicago had recently thrown a fair like this and De Young was basically trying to say- see, we can throw a fair just as amazing and beautiful as this- and our weather is way better!! Come live here, people!
Golden Gate Park was full of exhibits. Gold Gulch was a re-creation of a 49er camp, there was a haunted swing that made people think they were being turned upside down when they weren’t, there was a ferris wheel, a train, some horticultural exhibits, there were bears, and lots of other cultural exhibits that gave a mightily simplistic and racist portrayal of cultures around the world. One of these exhibits was, you got it, the Japanese Tea Garden.
The Japanese Tea Garden was one of the most popular exhibits. Oddly, it was put together by an Australian man. Also, people were dressed up in Japanese costumes and hauled (mostly) white people around on rickshaws. The Garden was one of the only things to remain after the Exposition was over (along with the Music Concourse). At this point Makoto Hagiwara (an actual Japanese person) ran the garden for 30 years. He and his family lived and worked in the garden and are responsible for a great deal of the beauty that we see in the garden today. Then, he and his family were put into Japanese internment camps, and he was never allowed to return to the garden. Like most Japanese Americans who were interned, he was never able to reclaim his home or wealth. Way to be horrible humans, California.
Chinese fortune cookies were actually invented in the Japanese tea gardens. Culturally odd, no?
Visit the Japanese Tea Garden
If you decide to visit, it might look a little something like this:
Yes, we make videos now. This is our first one.
5 Tips for Your Visit:
If you enter the gardens between 9 and 10 AM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday then you can get in for free! As tickets are normally $8, this is a great deal.
SF City Guides Tours
If you come to the Tea Garden during the free hours, you might as well also take advantage of the free (and amazing) tour that SF City Guides provides. I’ve been on several of their tours (including this one) and I have never been disappointed.
There is a tiny buddha statue hidden in the Garden. It was placed there for a regular visitor who loved the garden. It is placed near this person’s favorite bench- and that bench has a stunning view. Can you find it?
A Garden for All Seasons
This place is worth a visit year round. Unlike the rose gardens, which are beautiful in the summer and nubby branches during the rest of the year) the Japanese Tea Garden has something beautiful to offer in each season. When in doubt, go in March or April when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
Make time for tea, especially if you arrive early in the morning. Enjoy a cup while gazing out across the beautiful pond. See if you can spot some koi while you sip.
How to Get There
There is plenty of free street parking in Golden Gate Park. However, the park does get quite full on weekends and holidays. Come first thing in the morning or on weekdays for best parking options.
Bus or Street Car
The 44, 5, and 21 buses stop very close to the Tea Gardens. The N Judah Street Car is also nearby.
There are lots of things to do in this area of Golden Gate Park. The De Young Museum is structurally gorgeous, full of amazing art, and has a stunning view of the city. The California Academy of Sciences is also awesome (especially the coral reef and the planetarium) but I suggest you wait until Night Life to check it out. You can also row or foot paddle around Stowe Lake or hike up Strawberry Hill. If you are feeling up for a walk, you can trek all the way to the end of the park to say hi to the Bison. At the very least, have a little picnic lunch in front of the Conservatory of Flowers or in one of the many other beautiful picnic areas in Golden Gate Park.