San Francisco's iconic Japanese Tea Garden reopened its ornate gates on Wednesday, and there was no shortage of visitors seeking its calming powers.
The nation's oldest public Japanese Gardens had been closed since March due to the pandemic. But as it reopened, visitors were ready to once again wander among cherry trees and koi ponds and escape the outside world.
"When I get here and I just stop," said Mary McCutcheon, "everything starts to slow down."
It was like reuniting with an old familiar friend but with COVID safety modifications. The parks department is limiting the number of visitors to a hundred at a time and reduced visiting hours to Wednesday through Sunday, instead of daily. Visitors were required to buy tickets online.
Among the other changes, pathways are now one-way to keep people from bunching up. And some facilities like the tea garden and the famous arching moon bridge were temporarily closed.
"It's always been a place where people go to experience that serenity, a place of healing and a place of calm," said S.F. Parks Department spokeswoman Tamara Barak Aparton. "I think that's appreciated now more than ever."
The idea of a calming escape into nature seemed the perfect remedy for Tara Raczka, an Arizona nurse who was visiting friends in San Francisco during a break from her job treating COVID-19 patients.
"It's nice and serene, calming, quiet," Raczka said. "Takes your mind off of things."
The gardens opened in 1894 as part of the California Midwinter International Exposition. They have become a popular stop for tourists visiting the city and Golden Gate Park. But with San Franciscans traveling less, McCutcheon said locals were rediscovering sites like the tea gardens, closer to home.
"I'm discovering things in the West end of Golden Gate Park that I've never seen before," McCutcheon said.
Just about everyone visiting the tea gardens reopening day experienced something of a renewed sense of calm -- except perhaps Dana Schiffner -- who had his two small kids in tow and was thankful the gardens were open again -- even if he didn't necessarily feel calm about it.
"School has been closed for five months," Schiffner said with a pained laugh. "We're looking for anything new because we're doing the same things over and over again."
Schiffner said before the Covid shutdown, he would bring the kids to tea gardens once a month to take in nature. With the gardens now open, he planned to add them to the regular itinerary which already includes three trips a week to the Botanical Gardens.
Amid the gardens of azaleas and magnolias, decorated with a giant Buddha head and a colorful pagoda, it seemed the outside world had temporarily peeled away.
"Just savoring the beauty, the small detail," said McCutcheon. "Watching the koi swimming and the dragon flies flitting over the water."