Monday, August 29, 2011

Japanese Tea Garden Tour in Golden Gate Park Review

Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California
photo by Thierry

City Guides of San Francisco offers free walking tours, perfect for those on a tight budget who want to experience the City of San Francisco, California. Five or six strolling gardens with koi ponds, waterfalls, ducks, bridges and gorgeous vegetation comprise the Japanese Tea Garden walking tour, located on Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in San Francisco's historic Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco Tours: The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

Although the City Guides tour is no cost, visitors must purchase a ticket to get into the Japanese Tea Garden. Tickets are $7 for adults, $5 for residents, children $2-5, and only cash is accepted. The garden is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., but docents like Gwen Joe will be waiting just inside the entrance to give tours at the following times:

March and April Schedule:

  • All Sundays of the month at 1:00 PM
  • All Mondays of the month at 9:30 AM
  • All Wednesdays of the month at 1:00 PM
May Schedule:

  • Sunday May 2, 9, 16, 23, 30 at 1:00 PM
  • Monday May 3, 10, 17, 24, 31 at 9:30 AM
  • Wednesday May 5, 12, 19, 26 at 1:00 PM
June through September Schedule:

  • All Sundays of the month at 1:00 PM
  • All Mondays of the month at 9:30 AM
  • All Wednesdays of the month at 1:00 PM
"Japanese like odd numbers in their floral arrangements," said Gwen Joe during a recent tour. She led about a dozen visitors through a 50-minute stroll, describing the garden's history, differences between red and green leafed Japanese maples, the spiritual purposes of fountains (cleansing) and how to drink tea. "The cups don't have handles so that you have to hold them from the bottom," she said. "That way you will know if the tea is cool enough to drink."

History of the Japanese Tea Garden

The impressive front gate was constructed without nails in traditional Japanese style, with Buddha masks on the roof as guards, for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exhibition and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. After the Exposition, San Francisco wanted to turn the site into a Japanese garden. The granite tile entryway leads past white rhododendron and bonsai Monterey Cypresses, the largest being about six stories tall. The entry garden has a 300-year old Japanese Black Pine supported by wooden posts next to a koi pond, with Turtle Island in the midst.

A gentleman named Makoto Hagiwara designed the original garden. He was the second son of a Japanese aristocrat, an adventurer who would never inherit his family homestead, so he headed for California. What he found were wealthy San Franciscans fascinated by all things Japanese, especially the gardens. Hagiwara found a niche for himself as a landscape designer and brought many exotic plants and birds over from Japan. His family was granted a 99-year lease to live in the garden he was tending.

Hagiwara started with one acre which eventually grew into five acres of azaleas, camellias, Japanese maples, ferns, junipers, grasses and Siberian Irises. Other plants in the garden included palm trees, wisteria, flowering crab apple trees, Japanese Red Pines, Japanese flowering quince, and Japanese Umbrella pine trees. Lily pads floated in ponds near big boulders. However, not all plants from Hagiwara's native country thrived in San Francisco's climate, so some American plants were incorporated, like strawberries. A Mt. Fuji shape near the entrance is pruned from English and Italian shrubs.

The Japanese internment during World War II interrupted the Hagiwara family's idyllic lifestyle, and they never returned to Golden Gate Park. The City of San Francisco took possession of the "abandoned" Japanese garden, and today two full-time employees and one part-timer are the caretakers. Only the ornate doorway remains of Makoto Hagiwara's house.

Things To Do in San Francisco: Admire the Landscape

"Look at the tree pruned in the peony style," says Gwen Joe. Branches shaped in semi-circles or umbrella shapes throughout will cause the tree to look like a giant peony when it snows. Forty flowering cherry trees bloom around April 1st, she also explains, and then drop their blossoms like pink snow. Ginko trees come either male or female.

A black stone pathway shaded by Japanese Maples shines beautifully when wet, but the uneven pavement can then also become dangerously slippery. A zen garden, also considered a "dry" garden, has unusually shaped rocks from Asia, a water basin, and small stones raked to look like flowing water. Japanese Maples, camellias, azaleas and grasses complete the scene. William Randolph Hearst once bought a Spanish monastery and then donated some of its stones to the Japanese Tea Garden. They are placed as stepping stones in one of the ponds, topped with cement to keep them from deteriorating, now with baby tears dripping down their sides.

San Francisco Travel: the Japanese Tea Garden

The Chinese Pagoda, a relic from the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition, was built quickly and never intended to last, sporting a rotting roof and peeling paint. The Siamese gate is also in disrepair. In contrast, a rock solid peace lantern given by the children of Japan sits quietly near the path. A massive Buddha statue, cast in 1790 for a Japanese monastery, was purchased and donated by Gump's Store. Other structures are bridges and a high wooden arch over a pond.

The tea house has open walls so patrons will feel a part of the garden surroundings. The air can get chilly, so the hot tea and miso soup are welcome. Chewy, flavored rice cakes called mochi and senbei (Japanese crackers), are also offered, all at reasonable prices. Nearby a small gift shop sells tea sets, ceramic owls, wooden dolls, chopsticks, Japanese lantern nightlights, toy samurai swords, fans, origami paper and wooden sandals. The usual touristy earrings, postcards and edible treats are also sold.

City Guides Walking Tours of San Francisco

City Guides of San Francisco is a non-profit sponsored by the San Francisco Parks Trust "to preserve and perpetuate the history and folklore of San Francisco and to celebrate its rich history of cultural diversity." They host 83 free walking tours, perfect for sightseers who would like to visit wonderful sites like the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.
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