Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, January 19, 2006

San Francisco Japanese Tea Garden

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to original on line news article, where you'll find more pictures.

Thursday, January 19, 2006
(SF Chronicle)
SAN FRANCISCO/Tempest in Japanese Tea Garden/Move to restore fidelity to design, oust the schlock
Charles Burress,
Chronicle Staff Writer

A conflict over cultural sensitivity is brewing at a Bay Area landmarkfamous for its image of tranquility -- the Japanese Tea Garden in GoldenGate Park. The generic souvenirs and junk food sold in the 5-acre garden's tea houseand its gift shop are a glaring intrusion of tourist schlock, someJapanese American community leaders contend. The 112-year-old oasis, the oldest public Japanese garden in the UnitedStates, should more accurately reflect Japanese culture for hundreds ofthousands of visitors annually, the community leaders say.

"We're very uncomfortable with the products being sold at the tea garden,"said Rich Hashimoto, president of the Japantown Merchants Association."They reflect more a Chinese culture than a Japanese culture. And thequality of the products doesn't meet our standards."

Hashimoto and leaders of other Japantown organizations are backing a bid from a Japanese American cafe owner to take over the concession from the current operator, a Chinatown business owner, and bring in more Japanese-themed food and items.

The concession battle includes the open-air tea house, where tea is served with a fortune cookie and other cookies for $3.20. Critics point to the racks of American candy bars and chips and to the casually-fitted robes the waitresses wear, which are meant to resemble normally snug kimonos.

Another irritant is that the tea menu is topped by jasmine tea, more of a Chinese staple. The fortune cookie in the tea service is no problem, however. The tea garden is the reputed birthplace of what has become known as the "Chinese fortune cookie," an American invention ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants in the United States but not commonly found in China.

In anotherJapanese-Chinese admixture, a scene for the recent film "Memoirs of a Geisha," which drew criticism for casting Chinese actresses in Japanese roles, was filmed in the garden.

The gift shop contains some Japanese items such geisha dolls, as well as some Chinese items like tomb-warrior figurines, but the lion's share ofthe merchandise could be found at a typical tourist shop in San Francisco-- cable-car mugs, giant lollipops, Alcatraz caps, little license plates bearing common American first names.

Carol Murata, who sits on the Japantown Merchants Association board and owns Murata's Cafe Hana, a cafe and flower shop in the Japan Center mall, submitted a proposal to the city's Recreation and Park Department to takeover the concession from Fred Lo, whose Chinatown Fashion House Inc. has held the contract for 14 years.

Murata's supporters stress fidelity to the heritage of a garden established by wealthy landscape designer Makoto Hagiwara for the Japanese Village exhibit at the California Midwestern International Exposition of1894. The Hagiwara family ran the garden until the World War II Japanese internment in 1942. Lo, who also has the Coit Tower concession, wants to keep the contract.

City staff members gave a higher bid score to Murata and recommended giving her the concession. The Recreation and Park Commission will consider the issue today.

"I don't know why they gave higher scores to her with no experience," said Lo.

He called Murata's projected 100 percent increase in revenue impossible. He also criticized her plan to offer higher-quality, more expensive goods, saying tourists don't want to spend much.

The city cares about the tea garden's finances because the Recreation and Park Department budget included $200,000 in rent from the concessionaire in fiscal 2004-05. The city received $1.1 million from visitors paying the$3.50-admission fee.

Lo's concession grossed $648,299 this past fiscal year, according to city records. He has hired two attorneys to represent him on the bid and what he called "a specialist ... to create a whole series of Japanese items."

Murata declined to comment, saying city staff members advised her not to. Her plan would add upgraded Japanese-themed gifts and menu items such assushi, miso soup and Japanese desserts, as well as Japanese cultural programs developed in cooperation with Japantown organizations.

"Japanese Americans operated it for many, many years," said businessman Allen Okamoto, co-organizer of the Japantown centennial commemorations this year.

"There was a little consternation in the community about a Chinese American taking over the Japanese Tea Garden." Lo said ethnicity, like gender, shouldn't matter: "You don't need a woman to design the latest dress."

When he took over from the former Japanese American operator, some workers were wearing Raiders' jackets and he helped restore authenticity, he said. Douglas Dawkins, a great-great grandson of Hagiwara, agreed that race is not the issue but said Murata's Japanese American background and ties to Japantown do matter.

"From the Hagiwara family perspective, it's not a racial issue," he said."It's an affinity for Japanese culture issue."

E-mail Charles Burress at

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