Japanese Tea Garden Getting Makeover: Japantown Businesswoman Takes Charge of Concessions


HISTORIC TEA GARDEN GETTING RENOVATED — The Hoji-Cha set with fruit-flavored mochi, made at Cafe Hana in San Francisco’s Japantown. Carol Murata now runs both establishments.

It’s a sunny fall afternoon at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. The wooden teahouse, overlooking a small tree-lined pond, is bustling with visitors. The soothing sounds of a waterfall rise up whenever a moment of quiet punctuates the chatter. At one table, a group of four MBA students visiting from Miami, Fla., are trying mochi for the first time. At another, a woman is explaining the difference between various Japanese pastries while sipping tea with two friends.

A little more than two months have passed since the contract for the garden’s concessions changed hands, and businesswoman Carol Murata, owner of Café Hana in San Francisco’s Japantown, took over the teahouse and gift shop. Changes — big and small — have been afoot: The floor of the teahouse has been pressured-cleaned and the rafters overhead given a scouring. The teahouse’s menu was changed to include more Japanese tea and more Japanese and Japanese American foods, such as red- and white-bean manju and Spam musubi.

Murata has made sure there are many tea-related items for sale in the store now, such as the kettle and bowl. photos by Vivien Kim Thorp/Nichi Bei Weekly

The gift shop, which some had complained was stuffed with too many tourist tchotchkes, has been paired down with more focus on Japanese culture, Japanese tea and its accoutrements. There are myriad teapots, Japanese ornaments, teas and books on tea for sale. And, though plenty of the offerings are still touristy, many are at least Japanese or Japanese-inspired. You can still buy San Francisco-themed magnets and turn a penny into a garden-imprinted souvenir, but Murata is trying to seek a balance.

“It’s a fine line,” she said. “We have to serve the public and the community. But it is a tourist destination, so we want to have some San Francisco tourist items.”

The fight for the bid from the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department spanned more than three years and was not without controversy. But, in the end, Murata’s bid — which vowed to make the garden “a more contemplative respite reflecting authentic Japanese history and traditional culture” — won out over the other 10.

Bob Hamaguchi of the San Francisco Japantown Foundation has visited the garden since Murata took over. “She did a great job cleaning up,” he said. “The gift shop has new books and displays of art and other authentic Japanese items. It looks terrific.”

Douglas Dawkins, a descendant of the Makoto Hagiwara family whose members ran the gardens from 1895 until 1942, was part of the selection panel. Dawkins said Murata seemed to have a genuine affinity for Japanese culture.

“I think the biggest thing was for me, my personal concerns and the family’s concerns, was that whoever won the concessions, going forward that they would have as much sensitivity for Japanese and Japanese American culture as possible,” he said.

More major changes are yet to come. Renovations to the teahouse and gift shop will begin at the end this month. “We’re doing it in winter. And it’s all outside work so there is the rains,” Murata said. “And, of course, the buildings are all historic, so it has be done carefully.” During this time, Murata will try to keep at least one of the concessions open at a time, though she couldn’t promise this would always be the case.

Dean Shibuya, a San Francisco-based architect, is the lead architectural advisor for the renovation, as well as the designer of the interior fixtures. He’ll be working with Len Brackett of East Wind (Higashi Kaze), an expert in traditional miyadaiku (temple) and teahouse carpentry.

“We’re trying to make the teahouse more Japanese by adding real wooden ceilings and removing the turquoise-painted transoms, which have nothing to with Japan,” Brackett said.

Brackett will be using hinoki (cedar) and mud plaster, both prized building materials in traditional Japanese construction, to cover or replace much of the teahouse’s support beams, awnings and rafters. The gift shop will get a new hinoki ceiling, a cherry wood deck, fresh shoji paper and real sliding wooden Japanese doors leading to the storage area.

A traditional table where ryurei-style tea ceremonies can be held will serve as the teahouse’s new centerpiece. “The tea ceremony will be more expensive, of course, than the regular tea,” said Murata. “But it will be authentic, and the waitress will be skilled in authentic Japanese tea service.” In addition, more than a hundred koi, donated by a Northern California koi club, will be added to the garden’s waters.

Murata is hoping for a grand re-opening in January or February. Then she plans on scheduling regular cultural events, such as the tea ceremonies and classical Japanese dance performances. And, post-renovation, more of the staff should be dressed in kimono, as they were in the Hagiwara family days.

In addition to a returned focus on culture and tradition, some Japanese American community leaders are hoping to create a stronger link between the famous gardens and San Francisco’s Japantown neighborhood. Brochures for San Francisco’s Japantown are now on prominent display on the gift shop’s counter, as well as coupons for vendors, both provided by the Japantown Merchants Association.

However, the big-picture goal is a tourism shuttle that would move visitors between the two attractions. Murata hopes to get this running once the renovation is complete. Hamaguchi, who sits on the San Francisco Japantown Foundation’s board, is hoping this will help make Japantown and the Tea Gardens “mutual attractions for visitors.” “I think it’s an important opportunity,” he said.

Of the experience so far, Murata says taking over the concessions has been trying but exciting. “You want to get your hands on something and make it good,” she said. “This is a real opportunity for Japanese and Japanese Americans to bring back the authenticity to the garden that it deserves.”

Though none of the visitors interviewed had knowledge of the garden’s renewed historic and cultural aspirations, some did notice a change. Sylvia Peacock of Sunnyvale, who had first visited the garden in August, was surprised upon entering the gift shop. “Last time you couldn’t move in here,” she said. “This is just really cute. There’s a lot more tea, and it feels more appropriate for a tea garden.”

Peacock, who had stopped by with a friend after visiting the Conservatory of Flowers, was excited to hear about the renovation plans and tea ceremonies. “I’ll have to come back and buy a teapot,” she said.

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