Situated at the heart of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden is intended as a quiet place, one where guests can experience the beauty and harmony of a traditional, Japanese style garden. Stroll the many paths where, even on the busiest days, nooks and crannies offer guests the opportunity to pause, breathe, and reflect. Towering overhead, Monterey pines (Pinus Radiata), originally crafted as bonsai when first planted in 1894, sway in the breeze, their long limbs a meditation on the intricate and precise skill of Japanese craftwork.
Into this studied landscape, complete with koi ponds and arched pagodas, a tea house sits, the nerve center of this contemplative environment. It is a place where guests can experience some of the flavors of a Japanese tea house, if not the meditative qualities of making their own tea. General Manager Tak Matsuba recently updated the infrastructure and the menu to make the tea house more welcoming, adding seats and eliminating dishes that meant long wait times for guests. Changing the teas served, however, meant changing tradition. “Rikyu was the Japanese monk that started the tea ceremony,” Matsuba said.
Much has changed since the 16th century when Sen No Rikyu, a tea master, designed the original tea ceremony which featured his mandate of rustic simplicity. Maintaining tradition is important but Matsuba looks to Japan, especially Kyoto, for new ideas to add tweaks to the expected tea house formula. First, he brought in newer pottery. The bowls are the same size as before but colors, like lavender and blue, and a smoother design, reflect a more modern sensibility. “Brown and green are more traditional,” said Matsuba.
Perhaps influenced by the general spike in interest around the flavors and traditions of Japanese cuisine and the steady push of matcha into tea culture, Matsuba recently undertook an effort to bring a traditional stone matcha tea grinder to the Japanese Tea Garden. “In Kyoto, they grind matcha by hand and serve. We do the same thing here,” said Matsuba. Certain teas are grown specifically for matcha. “They are incubated in the shade but get the heat of the sun,” said Matsuba. He works with an importer to source the tea designed for use in a traditional stone grinder.
About the length of an adult human forearm, the Tea Garden’s grinder stands tall on one side of the Garden’s gift shop. Matsuba disappears for a moment to find the traditional cherry bark-encased tin that houses the tender, grinder-bound leaves. Using a narrow spoon, he tips a modest amount of tea into a small hole at the top of the grinder, then carefully turns the wooden handle sticking out of the side like Popeye’s pipe. Puffs of green tea powder emerge from between of the heavy stone discs to then be captured in a stone gully that forms the bottom of the device. Matsuba uses a whisk made of bound horsehair (this, too, is dictated by tradition) to sweep the matcha into a glass cup.
The tiny amount of powder will not be enough for even a cup of prepared matcha. Knowing this, Matsuba, who grinds all of the matcha used on site for tours and V.I.P. events himself, does some of the production in advance, especially for large groups.
At the Tea Garden restaurant, visitors can taste their own freshly whisked cup of matcha. It is served with wagashi, traditional tea sweets. Other tea styles served in Kyoto and around Japan, such as Hojicha and Genmaicha, are served along with a selection of light snacks and treats (think tea sandwiches and miso soup). And, of course, the cookies made famous by the Tea Garden’s original landscape architect and caretaker, Mr. Hagiwara, are a perfect accompaniment for a cup of matcha. Grab a seat at one of the outdoor tables to savor the fresh flavor and the historic garden views.
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Header image courtesy of Pixabay.