Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco, Golden Gate Park

Bridge, Pagoda and Cherry Tree

Bridge, Pagoda and Cherry Tree

Keeping with the high art of form of Japanese Gardens, the Hagiwara Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco delivers an astounding array of sights, sounds and smells in a small, easy to explore garden. The manufactured miniature landscape skillfully creates the illusion of natural scenes. Japanese Gardens have their roots in Buddhism and Daoism and thus, invite visitors to quiet contemplation, offering a retreat from the hectic day-to-day life. Besides creating a peaceful sanctuary, the Japanese Tea Garden also exhibits elements of Japanese culture and design that appeal to our western civilization. No wonder the Garden is one of the biggest attractions in the Golden Gate Park.

Makoto Hagiwara originally developed and expanded the garden from its small beginnings at a Midwinter Fair Japanese Village attraction. Unfortunately, authorities threw him into a camp during WWII and the park fell into disarray. Today, the restored and enhanced park shines again.

Colorful pagodas, tranquil ponds, distinctive bridges, a waterfall, winding narrow stone paths, lanterns, adorned gates, cherry trees, a Buddha statue and an unbelievable amount of flowers and trees provide overwhelming possibilities of compositions waiting for you. It is no wonder that the Japanese Tea Garden is teaming with photographers waiting to capture the blazing colors.

Do not let the presence of other shooters discourage you! The caretakers constantly develop and upgrade the garden, making sure that you will have new food for your hungry cameras. Come to see this unique park in the heart of the Golden Gate Park, near the de Young Museum!

How to get there

go cars

go cars

The tea garden is located at 7 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, southwest of the deYoung Museum. The parking garage underneath the deYoung Museum is pricy. If you arrive early in the day, you can usually find free parking on Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. just south of the Tea Garden, or on Stow Lake Drive if you are a little later. If you cannot find parking anywhere here, try Fulton St. west of Park Presidio Blvd.

Free buses are available on weekends and during holidays in Golden Gate Park. Other public transportation options are available from anywhere in San Francisco (via Muni) and with Caltrain and BART even from other areas of the San Francisco Bay Area. Check out the de Young Museum public transport options (see below) for more information.

GPS position

How to photograph the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

Japanese Tea Garden Entrance

Entrance to the Japanese Tea Garden

Photographing a densely grown garden represents a challenge. The amount of subjects is overwhelming, causing snapshot behavior and cluttered photographs. Slow down and ask yourself what drew your attention. What is the focal point of this composition and what is the main subject.

Isolate your subject! Use a shallow depth of field or frame the subject tightly.

Using a shallow depth of field concentrates the viewers’ attention on your subject while removing the context. It works best with dark backgrounds and light subjects (cherry blossoms below). Cropping tighter while using a larger depth of field will also isolate your subject, while retaining the context of the surrounding garden.

Buddha Statue

Buddha Statue

Think about where you place the subject in your frame. The center of the frame is rarely the best place, unless you wish to emphasize the symmetry of your subject or if the subject itself has an even stronger point of interest (Buddha face) that is off-center.

Include people in your photographs! We often strive to keep people out of our shots, but deliberately including them can create even stronger compositions.

This advanced technique is difficult to master and takes patience. People who just happen to cross in front of your camera rarely add any value to a picture. Anticipate the movements of others and try to set up an interesting shot including them. Have a person walk into the frame and never out of it, to keep the viewers attention in the picture. Elderly and quietly contemplating people nicely complement the theme of this garden.

Pagoda and Waterfall

Pagoda and Waterfall

Creating dynamic photos without people is more challenging. Look for elements that draw attention into the frame and observe the background. Sometimes moving a little bit to the side, hunkering down or climbing a bridge can give your composition the edge it needs to become interesting and to create excitement. Observe the background, sweep your viewfinder for distracting objects like tree branches before you take a photo. Amazingly, our brain has evolved to filter out as much unwanted information as possible. This makes our daily lives easier, but we often miss obstructions, unless we consciously look for them. In the final picture, those obstructions have the opposite effect. They suddenly become very visible and ruin our photograph.

Look for reflections in the ponds! The drum bridge and its mirror image complete a circle, making the reflection an equally important part of the picture. The pond in the southeast corner of the park reflects the two pagodas on top of the hill.

Capture the stone path leading across the same pond and lead the viewer deeper into the picture, ideally to an interesting subject. Such pictures create tension and spark the imagination. We wish to embark on a journey along the path shown.

Depending on the season, the garden changes colors. Look for complementary colors or colors that make your images pop. For instance, you can use the red hues of the gates to frame other subjects or offset the red pagodas against a green background. Frame orange hues of blossoms with the blue sky in the water. The excellent color range of the garden gives you plenty of opportunities to get creative with color.

Cherry Tree Blossoms

Cherry Tree Blossoms

For a couple of weeks in spring, the cherry flower trees bloom, adding even more sparkle. Tree branches in direct sunlight benefit from the relative darkness of the surrounding landscape. A white foreground element with a darker background seems to jump out of the frame and at the viewer.

Cherry blossoms that you photograph against the sun, with a slight angle, seem translucent. As the sun shines through the flowers, they glow and they seem to radiate light by themselves.

Concentrate on your wide-angle compositions first and work on the detail photographs later. Since the garden quickly fills up in the morning, you should use what little time you have alone to get the scenic shots.

Best Time of the Day and Best Season

The cherry blossoms look best during the spring between late March and early April. A day with good weather and no overcast sky offers the best shooting. The garden is usually very crowded during the spring. Come at 9am if you are serious about your photography, to take advantage of the emptiness.

Time required

2-3 hours are more than enough time to photograph the garden.


Less is more in crowded environments. Restrict yourself to the necessary things. Use your favorite focal length and leave excess baggage in your car or at home. Tripods are great to shoot HDR and fight the dynamic range problem, but the crowds will make it difficult for you to set up and get three overlapping images. If you shoot for recreation only, do not bother with a tripod. If you shoot for business, come very early to beat the crowds and use the tripod.

  • Zoom Lens
  • CP filter
  • Tripod


Admission costs are $5 for Adults, $3 for Seniors (65+) and Youth (12-17), $1.50 for Children (5-11) and free for younger Children. Recently the park imposed an additional $2 for everyone except San Francisco’s residents.

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays you can get in free if you arrive between 9am and 10am. Tuesdays and Thursdays are thus less crowded.

Difficulty Photographing

The tiny garden boasts a large number of subjects and sees a sizable amount of visitors every day. Isolating subjects, avoiding people and staying in the Zen mood all at the same time is challenging to say the least.

Close Locations

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  1. Posted 2010/03/25 at 18:55 | Permalink

    I was at the Tea Garden last weekend to see the cherry tree’s blossom. If you ever planned to go there, now is the right time. The garden is gorgeous right now.

  2. Posted 2010/03/27 at 20:48 | Permalink

    Excellent as usual Andre. Love the entrance shot.

    Your comment about a location that is overwhelming turning you into a snapshooter is quite true; have had it happen to me lots of times.

  3. Posted 2010/03/28 at 20:55 | Permalink

    I’ve been there! Ages ago, on a weekday, and it wasn’t crowded at all. I guess all that has changed. Great photos, as always.

  4. Posted 2014/12/04 at 06:34 | Permalink

    Hi there! This article could not be written muych better!
    Looking through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept talking about this. I’ll send this information too him.
    Pretty sure he will hve a great read. Thanks for sharing!

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