Known as “Nihonmachi” by many locals, Japantown is off the beaten tourist track. Yet it is an easy bus ride or fast cab ride from the tourist mecca that is Union Square and has plenty to keep you busy for at least half a day. Originally spread over 40 blocks, it now encompasses only about 4. Formed after the 1906 earthquake, it is the oldest Japantown in the U.S., with Los Angeles, San Jose, and Seattle close behind. Shops and restaurants are spread through several indoor malls–great destinations when it rains–and the immediately surrounding area.
Location: Near Pacific Heights.
Bounded by: Fillmore St., Bush St., Gough St., & Geary St.
Getting here by public transportation: From Union Square area/Powell St., take the #38 bus from Geary St. and get off at Webster St.
San Francisco Japantown History Walk
This 10-block, self-guided tour that includes 17 permanent interpretive signs highlighting historical and cultural aspects of the Japanese and Japanese American Community.
Japantown annual events
Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival
Japanese cultural events at this elaborate celebration of spring include traditional dancing, martial arts demonstrations, taiko drum and koto performances, and tea ceremonies. A Japanese food bazaar operates continuously, and demonstrations of the Japanese arts of doll making, calligraphy, and flower arranging are usually scheduled. The festival culminates with a colorful 2-hour, Japanese-style parade.
Nihonmachi Street Fair
First weekend in August. Free.
In addition to a food bazaar, this fair features contemporary ethnic bands and performing arts
The 5-acre Japan Center shopping mall houses shops, restaurants, art galleries, traditional Japanese baths, a Japanese-style market, a movie theater complex, and a hotel. The mostly indoor mall allows shoppers to walk from one building to another without going outside to cross streets. Outside, a landmark five-tiered, 100-foot-tall concrete stupa Peace Pagoda that was a gift from Japan is illuminated at night.
22 Peace Plaza.
#400. The perfect place to take children to select a souvenir, this is Japan’s version of a dollar store. Everything is $1.50 unless otherwise marked. The store is well stocked with trinkets, school supplies, and home goods–even snacks. Most items are especially made for Daiso. Additional items include ceramic bowls, rubber gloves, earplugs, party gift bags, greeting cards, seasonal decorations, and origami paper. Allow at least a half-hour to cruise the aisles. I wound up buying some darling items for my grandchildren–a fuzzy pink kitten bag, a silky pink fish bag, a small kitty-decorated cup with a cat-shaped cover, and long pipe cleaners. I’ll be back!
2nd fl. Featuring a Korean country inn-style décor, with grills in the center of each table for cooking, this restaurant features traditional dishes–including octopus.
2nd fl. #505. This simple spot specializes in unusual rice dishes using fresh seasonal ingredients. It has good sushi, noodles, and tempura. The lunch set includes rice, miso soup, and pickles, while the lunch box includes green salad, tempura, and three pieces of California roll. A few booth-style seats are available for twos, but most seating is at open tables; screening makes the rooms feel smaller.
1737 Post St.
Asakichi Antique, Arts, & Tea Ceremony Store
#365. This Japanese shop specializes in antiques and arts. Their other three locations here are on the Webster Bridge. Gift purchases can be wrapped in a special Japanese fashion called “washi” paper.
Kohshi Master of Scents
This shop carries incense, scented soaps, and candles from more than 30 Japanese companies, as well as tea and tea pots–including cute ceramic cat versions.
#304. This Scandinavian bakery is a tad odd to see in this heavily Asian facility, but it has plenty of fans.
Diners at this branch of the well-known Japanese restaurant chain sit at a community table with a large grill embedded in the middle. Once the seats are filled, the chef dramatically prepares each order as everyone watches. Though there are no karate yells from the chefs, they wouldn’t seem out of place. The chefs are adept performers with their razor-sharp knives, and the show is spectacular.
#375. This branch in a well-established Japanese chain specializes in serving two types of easily digested, low-calorie fresh noodles: udon–fat, white flour noodles; and soba–thin, brown buckwheat noodles. Before walking through the noren (a slit curtain), peruse the plastic food displays in the exterior windows. Noodle toppings include chicken, beef, and shrimp tempura as well as exotic raw egg, sweet herring, and seaweed. Sesame spice salt is on each table for pepping up the blander items. A child’s Bullet Train plate consists of cold noodles with shrimp-and-vegetable tempura and is served in a ceramic replica of the famous Japanese train.
1730 Geary Blvd.
For more information on the three shops below, see the Asakichi Antique, Arts, & Tea Ceremony Store in West Mall above.
Asakichi Incense Store
Asakichi Cast Iron Teapot & Bronze Store
#207. This shop carries iron, bronze, and glass items, including blown-glass spiders and tea pots.
Shige Kimono Store
#203. This shops carries vintage and new kimonos and Japanese artifacts.
1581 Webster St.
#110.. Items sold here include orchids and bonsai and other plants.
2nd fl. #218; and 1st fl. #180. This gigantic two-story book store carries a vast array of imported Asian magazines and design books, as well as interesting gift options. It is the place to get your origami supplies.
#195. High-end Japanese food and sweets imports are sold here, including special green tea from Kyoto Ippodo, yokan (Kanten jelly made of seaweed) from Kyoto Kamehirowaki, and fresh mochi from Shueido.
#270, 2nd fl. A wide variety of Japanese fare is available here, including greaseless tempura, stir-fried seafood, and good croquettes. Crisp gyoza makes a good appetizer, and tempura soba is a favorite dish.
Nearby, dessert awaits at Sophie’s Crepes (#275), where you can watch crepes being made.
#215. Sushi on a conveyor belt makes the rounds of a big rectangular bar.
(outside the mall)
AMC Kabuki 8
1881 Post St.
At this very green theater, an additional amenities fee covers the costs of reserved seats, free wi-fi, posh decor, real butter on popcorn, seatbacks made from recycled materials, and more. All seats are selected and reserved at time of ticket purchase. An informal restaurant and bar are located on the top floor, and you can take food and drinks into theaters upstairs.
New People mall
1746 Post St./Webster St.
This mini-mall has three floors of unusual offerings.
New People Cinema In basement. This subterranean movie theater shows Japanese anime movies, serves Asian snacks, and has exotic Japanese toilets in the WC.
Crown & Crumpet Tea Stop Cafe On 1st floor. It seems odd to see an English-style tea room in this Very Japanese complex, but it does seem to jive style-wise with the Baby, the Stars Shine Bright boutique offerings. A child-friendly Nursery Tea and Gluten-Free Tea are among the offerings.
Baby, the Stars Shine Bright On 2nd floor. This is a link in a Japanese boutique chain that sells Victorian-era inspired Lolita fashions that feature pastel colors (pink is especially popular) and ruffles. Skirts are short, and women look like little girls when they get decked out here.
Sou Sou On 2nd floor. Sou Sou means “yes yes” in Japanese, and perhaps you will say that to the classic Japanese tabi-style shoes and socks purveyed here. Colorful clothing is described as comfortable with a radical edge.
1737 Post St./Webster St.
Ready-to-go meals are perfect to grab for eating now or later, but this grocery is fully stocked with both the necessary and the exotic. Fresh organic fruit and produce is also available.
Buchanan Street Mall
A 1976 Japanese mountain temple gate is the symbolic entrance to this quiet cobblestone pedestrian street mall, known as Osaka Way.
1731 Buchanan St.
Featuring the largest selection of ukuleles in Northern California, this small shop is outfitted with Hawaiian foods and music as well as aloha wear. Fresh flower leis are made to your specifications and must be ordered ahead.
1702 Post St./Buchanan St.
This cozy Japanese restaurant serves a tasty traditional menu. Appetizers include gomaae spinach (uncooked and sprinkled with sesame seeds), harusame salad (sweet potato noodles mixed with lettuce, onion, and a creamy dressing), and housemade gyoza (similar to Chinese pot stickers). Entrees include a light tempura, deep-fried fresh oysters, and nasu hasamiyaki (grilled slices of ginger-marinated beef and eggplant). A large selection of noodle dishes is also available, and vegetarians can count on the vegetarian miso ramen and avocado-cucumber sushi roll.
Kabuki Springs & Spa
1750 Geary Blvd.
Traditional Japanese public baths here include large Japanese-style hot and cold deep tubs, a whirlpool bath, a dry sauna, a steam room, and showers. Bathing suits must be worn during co-ed hours. A variety of treatments and massage are available, including expert shiatsu and Thai.
1625 Post St./Laguna St. 13 stories; 218 rooms. Fitness room. Evening snack; restaurant; room service. Valet parking, limited free self-parking. Pets ok. Resort fee.
Located at the back of Japan Center’s East Mall, this atmospheric hotel offers serene western-style rooms with Japanese touches as well as two traditional Japanese-style suites with futon feather beds on tatamimats. Tea is delivered shortly after arrival, and the hotel hosts an evening sake hour. Some rooms have deep furo bathing tubs, and some suites have a private redwood sauna. The serene lobby overlooks a koi pond and a Japanese garden large enough to stroll in. Adding to the East meets West vibe, one lobby wall is decorated with the covers of ‘60s rock albums, including the famous peeling banana Rolling Stones album designed by Andy Warhol.
A Japanese-style tavern with vintage Japanese baseball decor and a flat-screen TV tuned to games from across the Pacific, The Bar at Hotel Kabuki serves light snacks and bar bites and features a selection of more than 20 sakes. The Nari Thai restaurant operates adjacent.
Kimpton Easo Hotel
1800 Sutter St./Buchanan St.. 8 stories; 131 rooms. Evening sake tasting; restaurant. No pets. Self-parking.
Featuring the spare atmosphere of a Japanese ryokan, this modest hotel features sleek urban lines, distinctive design, and a prime location. Rooms are large, many have dramatic city views, and some are equipped with steam baths and shibori-print kimonos.
(www.berkeleyandbeyond2.com; copyright Carole Terwilliger Meyers)