Since Carol Murata took over as the concessionaire of the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 2009, the destination point has experienced a brilliant renovation, thanks in large part to a generous donation from late philanthropist Jack Hirose. Murata aims to provide an authentic and attractive locale for visitors.
The tea house now exhibits a traditional tea table in the center, while the gift shop has gained an air of elegance. The shop has done away with kitsch souvenirs that had cluttered the shelves while under previous concessionaire Fred Lo’s charge. The shop now highlights higher-end Japanese stoneware and gift items. Murata, who also owns Café Hana in San Francisco’s Japantown, donated a school of large carp for the pond, which is located near the garden’s entrance.
The tea house and gift shop has also been remodeled using miyadaiku (traditional Japanese carpentry) construction that does not use nails. According to Murata, Len Brackett of East Wind (Higashi Kaze), who oversaw the construction, is an American architect and carpenter who studied for seven years under a world-renowned miyadaiku master in Japan.
The renovations were costly and time consuming, but have brought a more traditional experience to the concessions.
“It takes time with permits; it’s been a long haul,” Murata said.
On Oct. 20, members of the Japantown community who aided in the renovation of the garden and the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department came together for a grand opening and dedication of the Jack Hirose Tea House at the garden.
“Two years have passed since Carol Murata and her team was assigned as concessionaire to the Japanese Tea Garden,” said Benh Nakajo, the emcee for that evening. “They were charged with reconnecting the garden’s historic ties … and making it a destination for the sight, sound, touch and taste of Japan.”
Murata’s appointment to concessionaire and the renovations were largely indebted to Hirose, a philanthropist and former concessionaire at the tea house. Hirose donated $500,000 to the San Francisco Japantown Foundation, for a renovation that used traditional Japanese construction methods.
Hirose served as concessionaire from the 1960s up until 1992. Prior to working with the Tea Garden, he was a CPA and a World War II veteran who served in the Military Intelligence Service.
Hirose passed away on Christmas morning in 2009, less than a year after Murata was appointed concessionaire. Prior to her appointment, Hirose, through the foundation, supported Murata in a three-year-long bidding war among 10 potential concessionaires.
According to a series of articles published by the Nichi Bei Times, the bidding war started as the previous agreement with Lo had expired. Murata, Lo and Yoshie Akiba, co-owner of Yoshi’s Jazz Club and Restaurant in Oakland and San Francisco, were among those who entered bids.
Lo came under fire by the Japanese American community for providing an experience that was not traditionally Japanese at the tea garden. Lo claimed during a city hearing for the bidding war that he had received a lack of support from the Japanese American community when he had sought their assistance.
Murata was ultimately assigned the contract — a decision that Lo called “racist.” According to an article published by the Nichi Bei Times, Michael Sullivan, who was then serving on the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission, called the approval of Murata’s proposal “an easy decision.” Many within the community were equally pleased with the decision.
The Japanese Tea Garden was originally built for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition. Japanese immigrant and gardener Makoto Hagiwara designed the bulk of the garden as the Japanese Village for the exposition and served as its caretaker from 1894 up until 1942.
Hagiwara received permission from the city to make the garden a permanent part of the Golden Gate Park and expanded the original one acre plot to a five acre exhibit of Japanese flora, fauna and culture. In 1942, he was incarcerated along with Jack Hirose and 120,000 other people of Japanese decent in American concentration camps.
After five years of planning, with the help of Hirose’s gift, the support of the Recreation and Park Department and the San Francisco Parks Alliance, Murata and her team finally saw the culmination of their efforts.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony featured city supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Eric Mar, members of Jack Hirose’s family, foundation members and the Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Hiroshi Inomata. Prior to entering the grounds, those gathered witnessed the raising of 1,000 origami cranes by Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the Recreation and Park Department and Inomata. The folding of 1,000 origami cranes enables a wish to come true, as made famous in the story of “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.” Nakajo stated the cranes are “in hopes that Carol Murata’s efforts will continue for years.”
A dedication ceremony for the Jack Hirose Tea House was also held inside the garden.
“Let me welcome you to this little jewel of San Francisco,” said Don Tamaki, president of the San Francisco Japantown Foundation.
Tamaki reflected on Hirose’s commitment to the community and his philanthropy. Despite being forcibly removed from his home and incarcerated during World War II, Tamaki described the Nisei as someone who “never lost faith in this society.”
“He may not have won the Mr. Congeniality award, but he had a heart of gold,” said Tamaki. “He donated tens of thousands of dollars to the community.”
Hirose’s son, Don Hirose, spoke on behalf of his family, including Kiyo Hirose, his mother. “He was entrepreneurial, always thinking about how to do things better,” he said. “He had a mission to restore the tea garden.”
Don Hirose, who works in Los Angeles as a commercial real estate appraiser, said he got his start working as a bus boy for his father at the tea garden in the 1970s. He said he worked as a high school student and also for one year while he was a freshman at UC Berkeley. He admitted to not having been back to the tea garden in more than a decade, but said the new grounds had improved tremendously.
“The view is incredible, especially with the koi in [the pond],” he said.
With the renovations complete, Murata has set her sights on drawing people back to the tea garden.
“We’d like to have more local people…come back,” said Murata.
Murata said she will start offering authentic tea services to patrons as part of her mission to offer a more authentic experience.
“Not many people have experienced a traditional ceremony before,” she said. Murata says the authentic service will be by appointment only and that reservation methods will be available online soon.
The Japanese Tea Garden is located at 7 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. For more information, including cost of admission, visit japaneseteagardensf.com.