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Japanese Tea Garden

by James Smith

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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 internment camp.

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 at

Used by permission: James R. Smith, San Francisco's Lost Landmarks, Word Dancer Press, Sanger, CA © 2005, 2007

Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library

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Midwinter Fair's Japanese Village in 1894

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Baron Makoto Hagiwara and his daughter, 1924

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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.