Spring has sprung at the Japanese Tea Garden
Spring has sprung in San Antonio. To savor newly awakening mountain laurel blossoms and freshly popping wildflowers, a visit to the Japanese Tea Garden can be a delightful, free outdoor activity for the whole family. After climbing up and down the concrete and granite steps and greeting the koi – the Japanese name for carp – swimming in the manmade pools, families can visit the newly renovated Jingu House Café on the tea garden grounds.
In Japan, late March marks the start of the sakura or the cherry blossom season, as well as a series of festivals that stretch into May throughout the nation. Spring starts earlier in San Antonio. And while the Japanese Tea Garden here doesn’t feature the ephemeral pink, Japanese beauties, it does feature pansies, petunias, roses, shrimp plants, and hardy perennials that can survive the heat and the freeze of the South Texas climate.
Before the garden underwent extensive renovation in 2007 and reopened in March 2008, it lay fallow and chained off as a neglected public danger for decades. Originally a rock quarry owned by the Alamo Cement Company in the 1800s, George W. Brackenridge and the San Antonio Water Works Company donated the land to the City of San Antonio in 1899.
Between July 1917 and May 1918, the city’s park commissioner, Ray Lambert, used prison labor to shape the abandoned quarry into walkways, stone arch bridges, an island, and a Japanese pagoda. Renowned concrete artist, Dionicio Rodriguez, replicated a Japanese torii gate, manipulating the durable material to mimic wood.
A Japanese-American artist named Kimi Eizo Jingu moved into the house on the property in 1926 and operated a tea house and restaurant called the Bamboo Room. Additionally, he and his family cared for the massive garden at the foot of the house. After Jingu’s death in 1930, the family continued to operate the Bamboo Room and tend the garden, until 1940. With the nation fearing Japanese spies in the midst, Jingu's family was evicted from the property during World War II. The Japanese Tea Garden was renamed the Chinese Tea Garden, with a Chinese family operating the tea house until the 1960s. Realizing the errors of that historical moment, city park officials renamed the garden the Japanese Tea Garden in 1987, a year before President Ronald Reagan extended an official apology to all Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II.
After decades of neglect, the city of San Antonio commenced on a plan to renovate and revitalize the Japanese Tea Garden in 2004, with the assistance of the San Antonio Parks Foundation. The garden reopened in 2008, after a one-year, $1.6 million renovation. Koi now swim and thrive in its concrete pools. Native plants, and the soaring Japanese-like roof line of a stone, concrete, and wood gazebo make for the backdrops of many wedding photo shoots. A water fall has also been restored, but because of drought restrictions, the water source for those falls have been shut off.
In October 2011, after a $1.2 million, two-year rebuilding project, the tea house opened again, this time with Fresh Horizon’s Creative Catering operating the tea house, selling tea, pastries, and Asian-like food. The entire property is listed as a Texas Civil Engineering Landmark, a Registered Texas Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Sources: City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation and the San Antonio Parks Foundation