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.
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