The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park is the oldest in the United States, created for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition as part of the fair’s Japanese Village exhibit. The garden’s lush, harmonious landscaping pays homage to the traditional Japanese art of the garden. Paths wind through its five acres of carefully chosen and manicured plants, including Japanese maples, towering stands of bamboo, an ancient wisteria, and cherry trees that put on a spectacular flowering display in March and April. Among the garden’s other trees and shrubs are pines, cedars, azaleas, magnolias, camellias, and a superb collection of bonsai and other intricately shaped plants.
The grounds also feature a series of koi ponds, elaborate carved wood gates, many stone lanterns, a five-story pagoda (dating from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915), a Zen Garden constructed of stones and gravel, a high-arching Drum Bridge (a relic of the original Japanese Village), and a teahouse and gift shop. A large bronze Buddha near the teahouse, cast in Japan in 1790, was presented to the garden by the Gump Company in 1949. The 9,000-pound bronze Peace Lantern situated behind the pagoda was bought with the contributions of Japanese schoolchildren and presented to the garden in 1953 in commemoration of the U.S.-Japan peace treaty signed in San Francisco in 1951.
Several people were responsible for creating the tea garden — including businessman George Turner Marsh and Golden Gate Park Superintendant John McLaren — but the driving force was Japanese immigrant Makoto Hagiwara, a wealthy landscape designer. After the exposition closed in 1894, the city decided to maintain the garden and purchased some of its features. Hagiwara became the official caretaker in 1895 and lived in the garden with his family until his death in 1925.
His descendants continued to manage the garden until 1942, when they were sent to an internment camp in Utah as part of the World War II relocation of all West Coast citizens of Japanese descent. Much of the Hagiwara family’s personal collection was removed from the garden at this time; during the war the family’s residence was demolished and the garden renamed the Oriental Tea Garden. The name was restored to Japanese Tea Garden in 1952. The collection of dwarf trees on Waterfall Hill, part of the Hagiwaras’ collection, was returned to the garden in 1965. A bronze plaque honoring the Hagiwara family, by artist Ruth Asawa, was installed just inside the garden’s main gate in 1974, and in 1986 the park’s Tea Garden Drive was renamed Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive.
The Japanese Tea Garden is at 7 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, at the northwestern edge of the Music Concourse, near Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.