Visit to San Antonio’s Japanese Tea Garden

Day-tripping in San Antonio last weekend, my family and I made time for a stroll through the Japanese Tea Garden, located near the zoo in Brackenridge Park. Constructed in an old limestone quarry, the gardens are framed and accessed by fascinating and unusual stonework, including a pagoda-like pavilion with stacked-stone columns that rise like hoodoos from the pond below; an undulating, “dragon-back” bridge; and paths edged with toothy walls that lead up and down the garden’s cliffside terrain.

The garden is free to the public, and on this cool, early-spring Saturday it was not very crowded, although at least one wedding party was wrapping up an intimate ceremony. Entering the faux-bois gate, you may be confused by the sign that reads Chinese Tea Garden until you read the historical plaque nearby, which explains that during World War II, the Japanese-American family who’d run the tea house for nearly 20 years was evicted due to anti-Japanese public sentiment, and “Japanese” was removed from the garden’s name. At the time of the gate’s construction, the garden was known as the Chinese Tea Garden. In 1984 its original name was restored, but the gate remains as a reminder of the war-fueled paranoia of that time.

A colorful mix of native and tropical plants greets you as you enter, like this red hibiscus and purple-blooming Texas mountain laurel.

I like this wiggly line of dwarf yaupon hollies bordered by colorful marigolds.

Entering the garden you are immediately drawn to a large stone pavilion reminiscent of a Japanese pagoda. Stacked-stone pillars lead the eye up to a dazzling array of stone arches, huge timbers, and the dome-like roof, which is thatched on the exterior with palm leaves.

The pavilion overlooks several large ponds that cover much of the base of the old quarry, and a series of rock stairs lead to the lower gardens. Instead, however, we took the path that winds along the cliff at the top of the garden before descending on the far side.

Halfway around you’re treated to a spectacular view of a ribbon-like waterfall, which drops 60 feet from the top of the quarry to the ponds at the bottom. Lush vegetation on the cliff walls gives the impression of a tropical vista.

An undulating bridge spans a large, shallow pond from the base of the cliff to the lower gardens. It was too early for water lilies, but I imagine in summer their pads and flowers spread across the pond’s surface.

Bridge detail, and my patient family posing for a photo.

Along the trail, the scarred leaves of a cliff-hugging Agave lophantha reveal the impulse of park visitors to leave a record of their passing.

From the initials and date carved into the rock below, you can see it’s not a recent phenomenon.

Bamboo leans over the pond, its leaves yellowing as part of its spring leaf renewal.

Enormous koi swim lazily in the ponds at the bottom of the garden, approaching tamely in hopes of a feeding.

Palms add tropical texture to the garden.

In one section of the garden, an annual display of edibles is paired with spring-blooming Jerusalem sage.

The pavilion as seen from the lower garden—a romantic hideaway for at least one couple.

I remember visiting the Japanese Tea Garden as a senior in college way back in 1989. I was reminded to revisit thanks to Shirley’s post about the tea garden at Rock-Oak-Deer and, before that, Ivette’s reminiscences about the garden at The Germinatrix. Once you read their posts, you’ll be ready to explore the garden too.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

7 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Heck, I am ready to visit now. I love all that stonework. It seems odd to me to think about a Japanese Tea garden in TX because I think of JTG as a cool calm oasis. Of course the calm can be replicated most anyplace but the cool?? hmmm I would like to see all the plant material that they use. A beautiful family shot.

    Japanese gardens are quite popular here in the Lone Star State, Lisa, although I can attest that they get hot in the summer, just like everything else. ;-) Actually, I believe parts of Japan have some pretty hot and humid summer weather too (I looked into a visit once), so maybe the gardens are a visual way of cooling things down. —Pam

  2. Susan says:

    Wonderful photographs! The tea gardens recently ‘re-opened’ after being closed for a while and I’m so glad it’s open again ~ one of my favorite photography spots in SA.

    I can see why, Susan. I’d love to return when the water lilies are in bloom. —Pam

  3. Shirley says:

    One of my favorite spots in town! It’s beautiful, easily accessible, and free.

    You’ve captured it beautifully Pam. Thanks for the link love!

    And thank you for reminding me of all the reasons to visit, Shirley. —Pam

  4. Great shot of the koi! San Antonio is one of my favorite destinations, but I never made it to the tea garden. Thanks for the tour and the suggestion. Cute family!

    San Antonio is a fun city to visit—lots to do and such a tropical-Texas vibe. —Pam

  5. Jenny says:

    I had no idea this place existed. Having seen your lovely photos it will be on the list of must dos next time we are down there.

    You’ll enjoy it, Jenny. The rock work is especially interesting. —Pam

  6. Wonderful pictures of a beautiful place! :) I love it too – although I would caution mamas with strollers and the elderly – it is not easily accessible for them unfortunately. Such a magical place – I feel so lucky to have such a place in San Antone.

    Good point, Heather. It’s not a place for strollers but well worth the clambering to enjoy all the views. —Pam

  7. Faye says:

    We visited this beautiful garden in December when we were touring with a bus group from Iowa. It was offered as an extra on our visit to the great city of San Antonio and it was worth it!

    I’m glad you had a chance to visit, Faye. I bet it still looked pretty green even in December, eh? —Pam