Sightseeing in San Antonio—Part 2: Mission San José and the Japanese Tea Garden

I am embarrassed to say that I did not know much about the missions in San Antonio or the rich history of the area beyond the Alamo, so I was truly amazed during our visit to Mission San José. While there are a total of five missions to visit around the city with a trail connecting them all, we limited our visit to this one due to the expected high temperatures on the day of our visit.

When we have visited other National Park Services sites, we have either been able to talk to a ranger or pick up materials, including stamping Little Bird’s NPS passport, at a table outside the Visitor’s Center. However, at this site, everything was closed up tight and we were lucky to find a map with some information (we were able to request a stamp be mailed to us, which is an awesome service the NPS is offering).

Walking onto the grounds of the mission was like stepping back into time in Europe. Everything about the place reminded me of places I saw in Spain. While I have mixed feelings about the intent of the missions, it was an incredible experience walking the grounds and being able to feel the history around us. In the 1700s, the missions were constructed not only to convert American Indians to the Spanish culture and religion but also introduced an agricultural way of life that helped the Indians survive in droughts and a changing climate in many respects. The missions also provided a safe environment from attacks by other tribes. At Mission San José, the living quarters were originally outside of the main grounds, but eventually everyone was moved inside where it was safer and easier to defend.

It was an absolutely beautiful day on the day of our visit, and I could have stayed there all day long just meandering around aimlessly (and Bird would have happily continued to pick up leaves and sticks). We made our way slowly around the grounds, and Will and I took turns going into the church. There was a small gift shop on the grounds (unrelated to the NPS), so we were able to get a postcard for Bird’s collection.

As we exited the grounds and returned to the truck, it was jarring to go from the serene environment of the mission back to a busy suburb street with gas stations and pharmacies just down the block. However, we had another oasis on our agenda: the Japanese Tea Garden.

In my research of “things to do in San Antonio,” the Japanese Tea Garden repeatedly showed up at the top of lists. The information available online was not incredibly helpful, so we went into it not really knowing what to expect.

The tea garden was built in an old quarry and is gorgeous. The garden was designed and kept up by a Japanese family until World War II when they no longer felt welcome and moved away. At that time, the city also removed all references to Japan from the garden, renaming it the Chinese Tea Garden, and it remained under this name until many decades after the war.

When we arrived at the garden, we were not sure what we would find inside. We knew dogs were allowed, so Daisy was eager to go, but we did not know if we should take the stroller or not. We saw signs indicating an accessible entrance, so we plopped Bird in the stroller and took off. I am sure you see where this is going, but we should not have taken the stroller. Actually, I am not really sure what would have worked best. Once we finally made our way to the garden, we found very narrow and meandering walkways with ponds on either side. While this made for a gorgeous scene, it is not a place where toddlers can be let out of confinement. The waterfall, which is the centerpiece of the garden, was only accessible by going up stairs and over a bridge. While we are adept at maneuvering stairs with the stroller, there were lots of people congregating around the small waterfall, and quite frankly, we were not terribly comfortable—it was getting hot, the walkways in general were hard to navigate, and more and more people kept coming into the garden.

Our visit, as you can imagine, was short, though I would 100% go back if it were later in the spring or early summer when flowers were blooming and if Little Bird was not so little (like in a few years when she has some concept of danger and edges of walkways and maybe knows how to swim, just in case). From what we could tell, I believe there are a couple of trails that extend beyond the main garden area, but we did not explore them (nor did we find a map or printed information that would have guided our visit).

Even with a bust of a second stop, we had an amazing day simply because of our experience at the Mission. If you are ever near San Antonio, seeing at least one of these beautiful missions should be at the top of your list. Maybe on our next visit we will ride our bikes on the Mission Trail to see all of the missions and get the full experience.

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