Japanese Tea Garden
by James Smith
The California Midwinter International Exposition
held in Golden Gate Park in 1894 offered an
opportunity to set up cultural displays from other
countries. A Japanese Village placed west of the
Horticulture building took form with pavilions,
gardens, and a traditional teahouse. Makoto
Hagiwara, a wealthy local Japanese landscape
designer and member of Japan's aristocracy,
funded, built, and managed the project, depleting
the family fortune for his labor of love.
Maintaining a closed society, Japan remained a
great unknown to most Americans at this time.
The few who immigrated to San Francisco proved
very different from the local Chinese population.
The village offered an opportunity for Mr.
Hagiwara to share his unique culture.
The first fortune cookies served in the United
States were to patrons of the Japanese Village at
the Midwinter Fair. Mr. Hagiwara asked his baker,
Ben-Kyo-Do, to produce the Japanese "Tsuji ura
sembei" or sembei cookies served at Shinto
shrines during the New Year celebration.
Sweetened to appeal to Western tastes, the
cookies were served, often gratis, with tea by the
Japanese Village's kimono-garbed hostesses as
welcome refreshment to visitors. Modern fortune
cookies are not Chinese in origin, and yes, they
did originate in San Francisco in 1894.
Golden Gate Park officials decided to retain the
Japanese Village following the closing of the fair.
Makoto Hagiwara and his family, who had built
the village, agreed to continue it as the Japanese
Tea Garden under a handshake agreement with
John McLaren, the famed superintendent of
Golden Gate Park. The family lived in and
maintained the garden until 1942, when the
federal government sent the Hagiwaras a notice
to quit, evicting them and transporting them to an
The renamed Oriental Tea Garden fell into
disrepair, lacking the intricate care necessary to
maintain it. Hostesses still served tea, but now
they were Chinese women wearing their
traditional Chinese garb. After the war, the city
refused to honor McLaren's promise that the
Hagiwara's could resume management of the
garden, and also failed to reimburse them for the
cost of creating and maintaining the garden,
although it reinstated the name Japanese Tea
Garden in 1952.
In March of 1974, the City of San Francisco
placed a bronze plaque in the garden to honor the
family for their accomplishments and service.
Unfortunately, the garden bears little resemblance
in look and aesthetic feel to the Japanese Tea
Garden of the Hagiwara family. Restoration of the
garden has been an ongoing project, with the
gates repaired in the mid-1980s and many of the
rare plant varieties recently returned.
Erik Sumiharu Hagiwara-Nagata, the great-great-
grandson of Baron Makoto Hagiwara, the creator
of the Japanese Tea Garden, continues the family
tradition as a recognized expert in horticulture.
Mr. Hagiwara-Nagata donated one thousand
flowering cherry trees to the Arlington National
Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and a smaller
number to National Cemetery in San Bruno in
honor of the centennial anniversary of the
Japanese Tea Garden. You can view his website
Used by permission: James R. Smith, San Francisco's
Lost Landmarks, Word Dancer Press, Sanger, CA ©
Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library
Midwinter Fair's Japanese Village in 1894
Baron Makoto Hagiwara and his daughter, 1924
George Hagiwara and Sakoye Antoko crate a bronze antique from the Tea Garden in 1942 before they were evacuated to an internment camp.
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Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.