Nostalgia in San Francisco

February 02, 2016

San Francisco has always held an urban magic for me, probably because I grew up in a small town in the foothills. My family used to visit at least once a year, and every trip I would ride the cable cars through Union Square. I loved standing on the outside edge, hanging onto the handrail for dear life with the salty San Francisco air rushing past my face and the tall buildings flicking past like a slideshow.

We ate free samples of chocolate at Ghirardelli square and I always managed to convince my parents to buy me a giant hunk the size of my face that I would gnaw on for the rest of the weekend.

My dad had many business trips to the city, so we’d get to stay in the fancy 39 story Marriott Marquis on Mission Street. If we were lucky, we’d get to stay on one of the highest floors, above the rooftops of the surrounding apartment buildings, and high above the Yerba Buena Gardens and the SF Museum of Modern Art. I remember once our room had a floor to ceiling window, overlooking the city. I would lay on the hotel carpet right next to the pane of glass to get the sensation of floating above the buildings, like Cassie Louise in one of my favorite children’s books, Tar Beach.

Yerba Buena Gardens by Franco Folini (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Yerba Buena Gardens by Franco Folini (CC BY-SA 2.0)

To escape the bustle of downtown, we'd take walks through Golden Gate Park. We'd spend the afternoon at the Japanese Tea Garden, exploring the rock pathways that wind through manicured pines and cypress, trained to extend their branches at odd angles so that they curve and twist like an expressionist painting. The bridge shaped like a camel’s hump was always my favorite. You have to climb to its top using strips of wood, just wide enough for a foot turned sideways, nailed one above the other, like the rungs of a ladder. You feel as if you’ve shrunk to the size of a squirrel and are climbing a lawn ornament in your neighbor’s perfectly landscaped garden.

The bridge shaped like a camel’s hump was always my favorite.

The bridge shaped like a camel’s hump was always my favorite.

Pathways wind through manicured pines and cypress.

Pathways wind through manicured pines and cypress.

I spent two nights in San Francisco last weekend with my boyfriend, and for the first time in years, visited the Japanese Tea Garden. An Uber dropped us off by the Conservatory of Flowers, allowing us to explore the paths before entering the garden. We veered off the paved sidewalk as soon as we could, choosing a gravel path that led into a California native plant garden. Another narrower path turned off to the left and opened up into a wide granite circle filled with names. Two old women sat on a curved bench talking quietly. At the edge of the circle, colorful paper cranes hung from a leafless bush. Beyond the circle was a streambed of round river-polished rocks curving silently through a stand of redwoods. Someone had carefully stacked piles of the flattest stones atop scattered boulders.

I’d never been here before even though I've walked through this park countless times. It was quiet and the air smelled clean - a stark contrast to the loud, bustling sidewalks of the city, smelling of car exhaust, cigarettes, and a mix of Italian, Indian, and twenty other cuisines. We emerged from a fern gully to see the peaked roof of the entrance to the Japanese Tea Garden.

A stream of stone.

A stream of stone.

Some things felt smaller, like the bridge, but the pine trees with their squiggly branches, like something from a dream, had grown taller. We wound our way through the paths, around the pond ringed in bonsai cypress. They appear to grow out of the water but are actually trained to grow at a 45 degree angle, the submerged ‘trunk’ really just a large branch anchored to the pond’s bottom and acting as a crutch for the domesticated tree. White and orange koi swim in lazy circles above a cement bottom shiny with pennies from wish-makers. Bright green moss carpets the ground beneath a stand of bamboo across the path from a zen garden featuring a knee-high stone pagoda set in a large patch of perfectly raked sand.

The zen garden.

The zen garden.

We stopped at the teahouse for jasmine and toasted rice tea and sip our hot drinks beneath the thatched roof while watching curious visitors steadily enter through the main gates. It’s just as a I remembered, a little less magical maybe, but still a place of beauty and serenity. I am content, sipping my tea in silence, steeped in my childhood memories.

Pagoda, bridge, zen garden, and tea cup photo all by Eric Ressler.

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