The Japanese Tea Garden’s tea house (left) and gift shop (right) have been revamped.
The gift shop offers such items as stones inscribed with kanji.

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.

Benh Nakajo works in the gift shop and Keiko Matsuba does Omotesenke tea ceremony demonstrations.

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.

Maneki-neko wind chimes in the gift shop.

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.

The steep Taiko Bashi (Drum Bridge) was built in Japan and brought to San Francisco for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition.

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

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.

For more information, email or visit

Photos by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo

View of the garden from the tea house.
Left: A bronze Buddha dating back to 1790 and presented to the garden in 1949. Right: One of the inhabitants of the koi ponds. (Visitors are asked not to feed the koi or throw coins in the water.)
A pagoda from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, held in San Francisco to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal.

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  1. Hello JK Yamamoto,

    I see you have removed my third comment, why? Was I wrong? If not, then, why didn’t you leave your original untrure story the way it was? Not visible………………….?
    Makoto Hagiwara was not responsible for erecting the Tea House, the garden, and the pavilion. They were already there during the Exposition.
    If you aquired these false information from SF Parks and Recreation Department, I would highly advise you to contact General Manager: Ginsburg or Karen Kidwell and tell them your problem with their inaccurate history of the Japanese Village and Tea Garden. Don’t forget, some of this stuff has been going on for over one hundred years!
    For demanding for some of my documents please, set me up an future appointment date and I shall do my best to be there on a timely manner to prove to you that I don’t talk from corner of my mouth. I have documents……….just give me some time to dig it out for I am not a computer guy………….far from it. Note: other wise, retract your story on Sea of Tranquility.
    . Gwen Muranaka has my address.


  2. Thanks for your come back.

    How can Hagiwara created the garden in 1894 when he wasn’t even there? Please, tell me JK.
    Sadly, you still don’t seem to realize there is one year difference…………. Hagiwara plaque in the Tea Garden says he came in 1895!!!!!!!! This non sense has been going on for over 100 years! You need to realize an old guy like me challenging the City of SF needed solid documents to help me solidify my claim. After Wendy Nelder interviewed me and checked my documents, she said “Mr. Nakatani, you have all four corners covered haven’t you”. I had other documents but I chose not to present those because of fear of getting shot down …….for taking too big of bite…………………then what………? (I must admit, I am not an historian.) So, now I’m taking that bigger bite and Rosalyn of NJAHS has been asking me some question in regarding those items. Again, you should have stayed awake. right? Perhaps, was this a one of the reason Hokubei Mainichi went belly up? Just to remind you. On November14,1996 (page2) Hokubei Mainich advertised for Shinshichi Nakatani’s contribution for the 1894 Expo. showing photo of Drum Bridge having blessed in front of his home! Yes, I knew the address so, in 1998, I visited Yoshie Nakatani. Perhaps, you should click into my website and do some research. I believe we now have over 2,000,000 hits!!!!

    Yes, I believe I do have some other item’s proof. Shinshichi Nakatani did built more than the Bell Gate and and the famous Drum Bridge which is known as one of the highest tourist attraction in SF…………..”visitors head sraight for Drum Bridge as Shinshichi envisioned” W.N.

    No, I am not a writer, only a retired MTA bus mechinic. During my days, college was not an option. You’re the WRITER !…….. originally from Hokubei Mainichi? Yes, I must admit, 12 years was a long time to fight the City of San Francisco concerning Nakatani plaque placement issue. This is the reason I approached you few years ago, however, you fell asleep on me, right? I desparately needed your media help!!

    Thanks to Susan Uyemura, David Miyoshi, Geo. Nakano, Chas. Igawa, Dana Swarts, were the original supporters from So. Cal. Ef Schuster, Rosalyn Tonai, Sandy Mori, Benh Nakajo, Mr Kaji and others from SF area finally succeded relocating Nakatani plaque from rear trail to left of the Taiko Bashi. I Under stand those two ladies by passed the Parks Department and went “above” and finally a success! On our first meeting Rosalyn volunteed saying, “Kats, this is a SF’s problem and not LA’s…….you live too far…….they will not listen to you…………let us handle this for you”. Powerful………WOW !!

    This issue is not about removing Hagiwara name. You need to understand your wording on paragragh 3,”It was “created” for the C.M.I .E.,1894 by lanscape architect Makoto Hagiwara,……….” Simplt , how can you claim he “created” then he was not here in 1894! That’s my issue with you and the SF/ Park Trust. And on paragraph 5: “Today, a plaque near the main gate (shoronomon) honors Hagiwaras……..” I shall mention to you again. That plaque says he came in 1895….. so, how in the heaven “created” the garden in 1894 Expo? So, who was there in 1894? You tell me that ! The problem is that you didn’t mention “1895”…. Kats

  3. As I recall, you came without an appointment and talked for a very long time.

    No one is disputing that Shinshichi Nakatani was involved in the garden from the beginning and that he built the drum and gate. But now you seem to be saying that Hagiwara did not build the garden. Do you have documentation to that effect?

    Nakatani got the recognition he deserved, belatedly, when the plaque was dedicated in 2000. My understanding is that you do not have a problem with the plaque itself, but its location. That is an issue to be taken up with the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, and you have had 12 years to do that.

    Again, no one is questioning Nakatani’s contributions. Do you want Hagiwara’s name removed and Nakatani’s name in its place? Again, that is something that must be addressed by the City of San Francisco and the Japanese American community of San Francisco, not Los Angeles.

    The article was about the concessions but I mentioned Nakatani to give him his due. I can add a link to your website. But you are perfectly capable of writing your own article to say whatever you want to say. I suggest you do that.

  4. Hello Mr. J.K. Yamamoto,

    Do you remember me two or so years ago I visted you at Rafu and tried to explain to you about origin and my ancestor’s contribution. However, you didn’t want to listen and even closes your eyes and fell asleep!

    On paragraph three: “First. a little bit of history………..It was created for the California Midwinter International Exposition by landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara…………….”

    Paragraph five : Today, a plaque near the main gate honors the Hagiwaras………… On Hagiwara plaque it states “1895-1942!. Wouldn’t that means he came a year after the Exposition? So, how can he create it when he wasn’t there? Master Shrine Builder was there. I have documentations to prove my claim showing Drum Bridge being blessed in front of his home in Jigpzen-mura, Hiroshima ken, his youngest carpenter Hochi Nagato sitting in Tea

    house and same man standing next to the water fall. These photos all came from Yoshie Nakatani’s home in Jigozen…….the same home in the back ground of the drum bridge being blessed. A sign shows tea and cookies were already intrduced in 1894 including it’s price. This stuff is only tip of iceburg, J.K.. It’s my turn, you sgould have listen to me long ago and I have more to say…………..Perhaps you should check in with Susan uyemura of JALL: Fullerton , National Japanese American Historical Society. David Miyoshi and others.

    Best regards,

    Kats Nakatani