By Mary Charlebois
The ground seems to blush when cherry blossoms fall in early spring…
…conversations and signage are Japanese language. Pagodas, paper parasols, kimonos, and happi coats pop in and out of view. Tonkotsu ramen is an art form, sushi bars, sake lounges, and izakaya are commonplace. You are in San Francisco’s Japantown.
Once, thirty-square-blocks embraced the tradition and culture of Japanese-Americans in San Francisco. It was called Nihonjin Machi, Japanese People’s Town.
WWII sent 120,000 Japanese-Americans to detention camps. Japanese-American citizens were held prisoner, in the name of national security.
When the war ended, and prisoners were released, not all returned to their homes. For many San Franciscans, there was nothing to return to. Japanese-American homes and businesses were judged abandoned. Properties were seized, buildings were demolished. Gentrification had arrived.
Years of urban renewal further reduced the number of Japanese-American residents and businesses to the current size of six-square-blocks.
San Francisco’s compact Japantown is one of only three remaining Japanese-American communities in the United States. The small, inner-city neighborhood has a quiet demeanor. Deep cultural traditions merge with modern American life.
Spend a no-drive weekend absorbing Japantown’s people, history, food, entertainment, and shopping.
Best home base – Explore Japantown on complimentary bicycles from the Kimpton Buchanan, a boutique hotel in the center of the district. The Buchanan is an oasis of comfort and culture, with some urban buzz thrown in. The Asian-inspired décor has clean lines, primary colors, dazzling art, and sumptuous details.
In the Kimpton’s lobby, you’re surrounded by art. The walls and ceiling are art installations. The overhead lighting is an undulating sculpture made from whiskey bottles. The walls are covered with staves from bourbon barrels arranged in a chevron pattern. A coffee bar in the morning and a wine bar in the evening, the lobby is a happy space. Guest rooms are spacious and bright. Most have a stupendous city view. The crew at the Buchanan are unbeatable. Always welcoming and helpful, the attentive staff is committed to your safety, comfort, and enjoyment of Japantown.
Best view hint – Ask for a city-view room on an upper floor for up-graded vistas.
Best history & culture experiences – Start your Japantown exploration with the San Francisco Japantown History Walk. It begins and ends at Japantown Peace Plaza. Along the 10-block route, 16-interpretive panels chronicle the communities’ history. The walk takes you through neighborhoods old and new. Architecture fans have your cameras ready.
Peace Plaza and Peace Pagoda are at Japantown’s heart. The Peace Pagoda was a 1968 gift. The gesture of goodwill came from San Francisco’s sister city, Osaka Japan. The plaza is the site for community celebrations and festivals. It’s a popular meeting location for tour groups, and an ideal spot for a take-out lunch.
The National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS), is a non-profit organization dedicated to collecting and sharing Japanese-American history through events, programs, and exhibits. Visit NJAHS at 1684 Post Street.
The Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC), is a lively place. All are welcome to classes, workshops, concerts, martial arts, crafts, games, sports, computer classes, cooking, and much more. The community center is located at 1840 Sutter Street.
To get a real taste of the neighborhood, check for events and festivals when you plan your weekend escape. Cherry blossom, children’s day, Coz Play, Japan Day, bazaars, and Origami Palooza are just a few.
Best places to eat like a local – Mouthwatering, tantalizing food in Japantown is ubiquitous. Food and beverage to satisfy all budgets and taste are plentiful. Eating like a local is easy. The selections are numerous and varied. I love to ask the question, “Where is the best place for lunch in the neighborhood?” Japantown has many answers.
Ramen Yamadaya – The specialty here is Tonkotsu Ramen. Tonkotsu means pig bones. The deeply umami broth is made with pork bones simmered more than 20-hours. The very-first slurp is transformative. Tonkotsu Ramen is served with pork belly, soft-boiled egg, mushrooms, vegetables, and fresh green onions. It’s under $15 and is more than enough to share. Located at 1728 Buchanan Street.
Mum’s, famous for Shabu-Shabu, adjoins the Buchanan. Take a group or go solo for a cook-your-own hot-pot meal. Mum’s has a full-service bar featuring premium sakes and sake-based cocktails. Mum’s serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Benkyodo Company – Opened in 1906, and family owned and operated since opening, Benkyodo makes traditional Japanese sweets called Mochi and Manju. The wonderfully sticky buns are sweet and filled with red or white bean paste or fruit. They are super sweet, but oh so light, delicious, and under $2. One or two will satisfy a sweet tooth quickly. Located at 1747 Buchanan Street.
Best place to satisfy the munchies – Neighborhood markets in Japantown are a learning experience all by themselves. Pick up lunch or a snack and walk to a park or the Peace Plaza for a picnic, or head back to the Buchanan for a stay-in evening.
Super Mira Market, a Japanese organic grocery, and deli. Just browsing here could occupy you for hours. This superbly clean, beautifully stocked, family owned and operated market/deli/bakery, is warm and welcoming. Super Mira Market is the neighborhood corner grocery. The shelves are stocked with Japanese and American food and products of every kind.
Take out is made daily, using local organic ingredients and generations of experience. Try ramen, katsu, tempura, curry, sushi, sashimi, salads, and bento boxes. A wide-ranging selection of sake and Japanese beer are on offer. Prices are very reasonable; quality and service are A+. Super Mira Market—1790 Sutter Street, the corner of Buchanan and Sutter.
Local secret – People line-up for Super Mira’s house made Crunch Cake.
Best quiet picnic spot – Cottage Row, a mini-park, 1½ blocks from Super Mira, is situated between rows of Victorian cottages. Walk west on Sutter.
Best places to shop – Japantown is a shopper’s nirvana. Countless shops and markets are filled with quality Japanese imports. Try a mixture of the Japan Center Mall and side-street merchants. It’s a feast for your eyes, and an excellent way to immerse in the Japanese-American culture.
Japan Center Malls are located on either side of the Peace Plaza. They are home to authentic Japanese culture, shopping, eating, and entertainment. There’s a Taiko Dojo (drum school) and an antique kimono merchant. Home décor, clothing, jewelry, furniture, videos, books, art, toys, cookware, and food populate the multi-level mall. Need a happi coat, tea service, rice noodles, or a waving cat? Want to make a video with friends? Yearning for a Japanese language movie? You’ll find it in Japan Center Malls.
Across the street from the mall, duck into Soko Hardware. Since 1925 the store has been owned and operated by the Ashizawa family. You’ll see superbly crafted hand tools for woodworking and gardening. Find paper lanterns and lamps; bamboo wall hangings; seeds for Japanese vegetables; traditional cooking vessels and utensils; lacquered boxes and trays; and everything you need to make a shoji screen (including instructions). Soko Hardware is located at 1683 Post Street.
Learn to fold at Paper Tree. The shop is filled with paper and books used in the art of Origami. Owned and operated by the Mihara’s since the 50’s, it’s one of Japantown’s most enduring businesses. Award-winning Origami artists and sisters Vicky and Linda produce books, videos, and classes for beginners to experts. Located at 1743 Buchanan Mall.
Nightlife – In the neighborhood you’ll find music, art, theater, and karaoke in lounges and bars. The Buchanan is a good source for current hot spots.
Best money-saving tip – Don’t drive when you go. Use San Francisco Transit. Drive only if you must. This compact and hilly city is infamous for traffic snarls and outrageous parking cost. Driving and parking in San Francisco are maddening and expensive. Use public transit, it’s efficient, safe and inexpensive.
Transportation tip – Get a Visitor Passport. Available in 1, 3 and 7-day versions, the passport gives you unlimited access to metro, buses, streetcars, and cable cars. The price is right, and you don’t have to worry about correct change, just flash and ride. An Smartphone app is also available for all MUNI fares.
Immerse yourself in Japantown – Spend a long weekend absorbing Japanese culture and people without leaving the US, in San Francisco’s Japantown.
All photos by Mary Charlebois