San Francisco: Japanese Tea Garden

We did not want to leave. It was busy here, people coming and going, but as soon as we entered, we forgot they were there. The grace of this garden pulled us in as no other garden has. We wanted to linger. And we did, looping through the paths, letting our eyes wander over this living work of art. Taking pictures, taking a detour, maybe, to cross a narrow stone bridge. Watching koi along with kids. Testing stepping stones. Admiring yet another piece of stone sculpture. Taking more pictures. Stopping to rest in the Teahouse.

Without our quite being aware, the garden took us through, up, down, and around layers of greenery and statuary. Our eyes would scale a patchwork of texture and tone on a hillside, or we’d lean over a railing to get a sparrow’s view of a pond. Then, with an aha, we’d come face to face with what we’d already seen, and we were given a second chance to see.

Greens and soft sister shades dominate, gentle our pace, again without our quite being aware of the reins. Azaleas must be spectacular in springtime, but today the garden is muted. Japanese iris anchor solidly in mossy islands, their blooms almost gone, and bronze cranes are grace notes. The orange pagoda that rises from waves of texture and shape becomes an exclamation point.

Some of our happiest times in gardens occur when we meet and talk with their caretakers. Here, we had an impromptu lesson in pruning as we watched gardeners snip away at bamboo and pine. This is no Harry Hatrack chop-em-down hack-away. Small scissors and small, careful cuts on old plants. Patience. Experience. Their particular handiwork is invisible. The result is art.

This is the oldest Japanese style garden in the United States. Makoto Hagiwara had a dream and he made it happen. Only an acre when it opened as part of an exposition in 1894, it soon grew to its current five acres. Hagiwara was the garden’s designer and caretaker until World War II. He lived there with his family. He steered its growth. He poured his talent and personal wealth into its creation. Then, in 1942, he and his family were forced into internment camps along with 120,000 Japanese citizens. After the war he was not allowed to return, and, sadly, many family treasures were lost.

How fortunate we are today. We can appreciate his vision, more than a century later.

Photos by Susan and Carolyn

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