Updated July 15, 2023.
Come and relax in the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. It is a popular tourist attraction, but it's still a peaceful and lovely place to wander.
Temple Gate and Waterfall
The Tea Garden is definitely worth a visit; the locals love to come here as well. I started coming here as a young child and then brought my own child here too.
Covid info. Face masks are no longer required. The reservation requirement/option has been dropped and tickets are now good for any day or time, so there's no advantage to buying them online, unless you don't have cash to buy them at the door (cash only).
(...and some Insider Tips)
The winding paths travel across wooden bridges and stepping stones, past koi ponds and pagodas. Enjoy the colorful temple gate, peaceful Zen garden and acres of beautiful plantings.
After wandering through the tranquil gardens, you can sit in the natural setting of the tea house and enjoy authentic Japanese refreshments.
Japanese Tea House
It's the oldest formal Japanese garden open to the public in the United States.
The Tea Garden arose out of the Japanese Village exhibit built for the 1894 World's Fair in San Francisco (California Midwinter International Exhibition).
Makoto Hagiwara, an immigrant from Japan, created an authentic Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park, contributing many valuable sculptures, structures and plants. He and his descendants were caretakers of the garden until 1942.
During the war, anti-Japanese sentiment led to the Hagiwara family being interned and the garden was renamed the Oriental Tea Garden. The garden went into a decline and many artifacts were stolen. After the war, the garden got its original name back and the street was named after Mr. Hagiwara.
For the past fifteen years, the Japanese Tea Garden concession had been under other management, but in the summer of 2009, the garden returned to Japanese hands. Most of the servers in the Tea House are now Japanese (or Japanese-American).
There was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the controversy surrounding the change.
The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco was also, oddly enough, the first place in the world to serve fortune cookies as we know them, although something similar had been sold in Japan many years ago and was probably the inspiration.
Mr. Hagiwara introduced the U.S. to fortune cookies around 1900, serving them in the tea house, and they eventually spread to Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, then all over the world. And they still serve them here: probably the only Japanese establishment in the U.S. that does!
The origin of fortune cookies was officially disputed. In 1983, the SF Court of Historical Review actually had a hearing on this issue and the Tea Garden version won. (The other claimant was a Chinese business, the Hong Kong Noodle Company, in Los Angeles.)
After entering the enclosure through the Japanese gate, take time to wander along the paths and over the bridges. The exquisitely landscaped grounds cover five acres, so there are plenty of beautiful spots to explore.
Tea Garden Pagoda and Lantern
The tea house overlooks a koi pond, surrounded by Japanese azaleas and bonsai trees.
The koi ponds are full of plump, healthy-looking fish in gorgeous colors- brilliant yellow and fiery scarlet, as well as the more classic patterns.
In an out-of-the-way spot, you will come upon a raked-stone Zen garden designed for peaceful contemplation.
On the upper level, an ornate Japanese temple gate leads into an area with a colorful pagoda, both created in 1915 for the Pan-Pacific Exhibition. A bronze Buddha is nearby, cast in Japan in 1790, and donated by the Gumps Company in 1949.
As a child, I loved climbing the high arched drum bridge, and it's still a lot of fun! The color varies over the decades; I remember it being bright red in earlier years. This bridge, also called a moon bridge, was built in Japan and shipped here in 1894 for the San Francisco Midwinter Exhibition.
There is such a feeling of peace in the garden, even on a busy day. The visitors seem to melt into the greenery.
Cookies for Your Tea
When you're done exploring, be sure to stop for tea and treats in the rustic tea house overlooking a koi pond.
The tea house has changed their menu again. There's an assortment of traditional Japanese snacks and desserts to try out, along with some fruit-flavored Japanese children's drinks that you don't often see. How about some green tea cheesecake; it's quite good!
Check out the Japanese Tea Garden Menu, with photos of some of the choices.
Order and pay at the counter, and the server will bring it to your table.
Tea House Patio
Here is view of the last makeover for the tea house:
The tea house has added a large table in the center designed for traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. The ceremonies aren't being offered at the moment; hopefully they will start doing them again!
Open daily.Summer (Mar-Oct): 9 am to 6 pm.
|Ages 12-17 and 65+
SF residents and veterans are free.
Entry is free between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
|My Neighbor Totoro!
The Tea Garden is next door to the de Young Museum on the Music Concourse, near the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. See map.
The Japanese Tea Garden is on Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive between Stow Lake and the de Young Museum. You can enter Golden Gate Park either on the south side via 9th Avenue or at 8th Avenue, onto JFK Drive, on the north side.
Parking can be tricky, especially in summer and on sunny weekends.
There is a parking garage underneath the de Young Museum nearby, with two entrances: one entry off Fulton Street at 10th Avenue, and another at the west end of the California Academy of Sciences on Concourse Drive, just off MLK Jr Drive. ($ 2.25/hr Mon-Fri; $3.25/hr Sat-Sun. VISA, MC accepted.). Marked on map below.
Ideas for parking spaces: there can be spaces on JFK and Martin Luther King Drives on either side of the Tea Garden (MLK is the better bet usually, and JFK is closed to cars Saturdays and Sundays).
There is no parking on the road that goes past the Tea Garden (Hagiwara) and loops around past the Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum. Another possibility is street parking outside the park near 10th Ave, with the north side being less challenging, but parking in that neighborhood is tough.
Fallback suggestion: If the streets near the Tea Garden are packed, try parking around Stow Lake; there are almost always places available around the loop. It's only about a 10 minute walk from there.
The Japanese Tea Garden Menu. Take a look at the list of menu items and photos.
Looking for a good sushi restaurant near Golden Gate Park?
You See Sushi is a cheap and tasty sushi place near UCSF (and walking distance from the Tea Garden).
Golden Gate Park has lots of other gardens to explore, too. Visit the Rose Garden, Redwood Grove, Shakespeare Garden, and more. For info, garden maps and photos, see Gardens in Golden Gate Park.
San Francisco has one of the three remaining Japantowns in the U.S. This is a cool neighborhood to explore and less touristy and crowded than Chinatown.
You can check out the authentic Japanese shops and restaurants in Japantown.