The Japanese Tea Garden started as a big hole, a spot ditched by a business looking for better digs where it could be better connected.
It took a lot of local vision and hard work to turn an abandoned quarry into a public treasure — city officials’ innovation and the work of local inmates, donated plants and lighting from the city’s nursery and public works departments, and the contributions of the Jingus, a local Japanese American artist and tea importer and his family. By 1919, visitors were being served tea and green tea ice cream. They could stroll on charming walkways and bridges amid the beauty of the koi-filled lily ponds and lush plants surrounding a waterfall and an elegant stone pagoda, a departure from the usual sage and cedar. San Antonio crafted a treasure but, as is the case with so many of the things we take for granted, we abandoned the garden’s needs, and the treasure tarnished.
If it weren’t for a partnership of those who pushed for its restoration a few years ago — an effort led by the city, the San Antonio Parks Foundation and Friends of the Parks — the garden might have been lost forever. Instead, it was restored and re-opened in 2008, with plans for continuing improvements.
This weekend celebrates the restoration of the Jingu house, which not only was the Bamboo Room where the tea and ice cream were served, but also was the home of the tea importer’s family. The structure, bright with new bamboo floors and windowsills, displays photos of the Jingu family at the garden and postcards that were sold back in the garden’s initial glory days. There is an accessible lift for those with mobility restrictions and rooms ready to be used for private parties or public activities.
“We’ve talked about gardening, yoga, bonsai,” said Sandy Jenkins, parks project manager for the city of San Antonio. “There are great opportunities versus what used to be.”
That’s the real gift; it’s not just a place for out-of-town visitors to come, see and go back and tell the others about. It’s a place for us.
A place to plant a seed with a memorable first date at a table overlooking the garden or to cultivate a future with a remarkable wedding ceremony at the waterfall. A serene spot minutes from downtown where one can escape to weed through a mental tangle or cultivate a percolating idea. A peaceful place teeming with nature to explore with a child who has never seen koi, or to rediscover with a grandparent who just wants to reminisce in the shade of a pagoda built almost a century ago.
The garden was a solid idea; Jenkins said it’s being recognized by the American Institute of Architects for standing the test of time. The lasting lesson should be the importance of preservation and, when necessary, restoration, of those things San Antonians built for the future. That’s why we need the continuing efforts of partnerships like the one that pushed for this restoration.
“That’s really big,” Jenkins said. “Because you can’t really do this without partnerships.”
That’s something those people who crafted the garden knew, and that today’s San Antonians should remember. Because if you abandon treasure, you just might lose it.