Japanese Tea Garden Review: Home of San Francisco’s Hidden Sea Monster


At first glance, the Japanese Tea Garden nestled within Golden Gate Park seems innocent enough.

Birds frolic in its ponds. Verdant trees tower high above your head. And everything seems to be at perfect peace. At first glance, at least.

What you don’t know is that the Japanese Tea Garden is home to a disguised Sea Monster, hidden in plain sight. And even without the sea monster as a point of interest, the Garden is a wonderful place. After all, it’s oldest public Japanese garden in the US, and there is history behind every corner.

So let’s begin with the first thing you’ll see.

The Verdancy of the Main Pond

Main Pond in Japanese Tea Garden

Upon entering, you have lots of options in which path you can take. You can take the pathway around the Main Pond to see the massive 5-roofed Pagoda reflecting in the water, or you can start heading toward the Torii gate. Did I mention how absolutely vibrant and lush this place is? I visited in September, which seemed to be the best time to visit San Francisco, overall.

Not only had I picked the right month, I also happened to be there on the right day, because in the distance was an awesome, mysterious white mist that surrounded the entire garden. You can see more examples of this in the photo gallery that accompanies this article (link below).

And not long after I entered, I found myself at the foot of a very strange (to the point of being somewhat wacky), bridge called:

The Taiko Bashi (Drum Bridge)

Drum Bridge (Taiko Bashi) arching over stream

Without a doubt, the Drum Bridge, made from carefully cut strips of wood, is something you must walk over during your time at the Garden. In fact, this was commissioned, built, and blessed in Japan before it was brought over to San Francisco. To complete the bridge and the nearby Bell Gate, the builder sold the family rice fields. Only decades later was his son able to repurchase the family fields. Things really came full circle, which is synchronistic considering that the bridge forms a perfect circle when seen with its reflection in the water below.

And yes, the bridge is a bit steep, but the view is worth it.

The Buddha without a Shelter

Bronze-Buddha statue from 1790

Although you might not guess at first glance, this 10 foot tall bronze statue is over 200 years old. It was originally cast in Tajima, Japan, for the Taionji Temple; but in 1949 it was presented to the Japanese Tea Garden. And I’m thankful for this because the statue itself seems to radiate the energy of Japan to all of its surroundings.

Perhaps because it was blessed before it came to America, but it lent a welcomed energy to the Garden. Its name, “Amazarashi-No-Hotoke”, is certainly appropriate since it means “The Buddha that sits throughout the sunny and rainy weather without a shelter”.

And you know what? It didn’t even need a shelter.

The Ornate Temple Gate

Red Temple Gate leading out of garden

I continued wandering the many vibrant paths of the garden; and when I saw this, I was instantly amazed. For the first time in weeks, I felt as though I were actually in another nation. This ornate Temple Gate, and an amazing 5-roofed Pagoda nearby, came from San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. And despite being nearly 100 years old, they were in very good condition. The white and red-orange paint of both made them pop out against their verdant surroundings.

The Zen Garden & The Sea Monster

Sea Creature made of rocks in Zen Garden

At last, after wandering through the Garden, admiring its many plants, statues, and bridges; I came upon the Zen Garden within. It was so immaculate and meticulously maintained that I wouldn’t have guessed that it was designed in 1953. And although landscape architect Nagao Sukurai claimed that this Zen Garden symbolizes a miniature mountain scene, I think we both see through that illusion.

Do you see the head? Do you see the green body of the creature? Surely, you see the tail rising up out of the water. These are not miniature islands and forests. Don’t let the azaleas fool you. There is more going on here than meets the eye.

I encourage you to look at a larger version of the photo in the gallery. See the triangular stone head at the left? This is a Sea Creature that has shape-shifted into bits of plant and stone. Don’t believe me? Have a closer look and come to your own conclusion.

In either case, the Japanese Tea Garden within the Golden Gate park is a lovely place to visit to relax, have some tea, and reconnect with nature. Recommended.

Stumbling Across the Twisting Trees

Having explored nearly every nook of the Garden (and my stomach beginning to rumble), I took the West Gate exit and headed toward Stow Lake.

Twisting Trees by green field

This strange, twisting tree was something I came across as I moved west. It didn’t seem to grow up so much as it grew around and along invisible lines of force. And while it didn’t try to kill me (at least not in an obvious way), it did look menacing. Nearby the creepy tree, I also saw a group of people playing bicycle polo.

Because that’s just something they do in San Francisco.

People playing Bicycle Polo in field

— Bonus —

Marco the Spacefarer appears in all 27 photos in the accompanying photo gallery. If you’re new to the “Where’s Marco” game, it’s similar to “Where’s Waldo” or “I Spy”, and it’s totally fun!

Learn how to play →
Then find him in the photos! →

Coming up Next:

An incredible view of San Francisco and the bay from Twin Peaks. And then, I got to visit the little-known Sutro Baths ruins on the west side of the city, discovering some mysterious caves nearby in the process:

See what happened next →


All accompanying photos are in the Japanese Tea Garden photo gallery. With so much free, high-quality content, why not tell a friend and share this article?





7 bits on Japanese Tea Garden Review: Home of San Francisco’s Hidden Sea Monster

  1. I can’t wait for retirement.. or at least the kids to be off to college. Will have to visit and stop by the Taiko Bashi and admire the twisted trees. Will be following your blog from here on out, great stuff!!

  2. Japan is truly lovely and beautiful, it’s really a beautiful place. Thanks for bringing with us this paradise.

  3. The Verdancy of the Main Pond, The Taiko Bashi, The Buddha without a Shelter, The Ornate Temple Gate, The Zen Garden & The Sea Monster,and Twisting Trees. All of these I am going to visit if I’d go. LOVE IT.

  4. The Japanese Tea Garden is beautiful. Perfect for vacation this summer.

  5. I like this Japanese Tea Garden, very relaxing. Hope I can visit the place. Perfect for vacation.

  6. The ambiance of Japanese garden is really refreshing and relaxing.

  7. Pingback Lovely Word Vol. 41 « Writing as a Sacred Art