Rediscovering San Francisco’s Japantown
Japantown is a compact cultural enclave tucked in between the Fillmore district and the Western Addition neighborhoods of San Francisco. Also known as J-Town by locals or historically as Japanese Town, or "Nihonmachi" ("Japan town", in Japanese), San Franciscoʼs Japantown is one of three remaining “Japantowns” in the US. First settled in the early 1860ʼs, generations of Japanese immigrants and their descendants have kept alive the arts and culture of Japan. Here you will find three indoor/outdoor “plazas” that offer a delightful assortment of Japanese restaurants, traditional, fusion and contemporary. There are specialty food markets, bakeries and food stands offering “street snacks” from traditional onigiri (“Japanese rice balls” steamed rice formed into the typical triangular, ball, or cylinder shapes, usually wrapped with nori; dried seaweed and often filled with fish or meat) to contemporary treats like “mochi-donuts”.
Those that come for the food will also find a unique shopping experience in Japantown and vice versa. Whether you are buying or window browsing, there is much to explore. Shops offering books, paper goods, manga and other novelties from Japan are plentiful as are small boutiques that specialize in cosplay fashions and all things anime. There are also lovely artisan craft stores with porcelain pottery and galleries with antique folk art as well as a few karaoke bars, day spas and hotels hotels sprinkled throughout.
The Japantown Peace Plaza is much like a public square for the area and where many cultural events are held. It is located between Post St. and Geary Blvd., near Buchanan St. You can access the Peace Plaza as on foot using the “Webster Bridge” that takes you over the busy throughfare of Geary Blvd, providing a safe pedestrian walkway and a bird’s eye view of Japantown. The bridge design is said to reflect that of traditional Japanese pedestrian walkways.
The Peace Plaza features the "Eternal Flame" monument, a contemporary five-tiered pagoda that is often the centerpiece during community celebrations including the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, Nihonmachi Street Fair, the Summer Obon Festival, and the Year-End Festival. Other times it serves as a stage for occasional street performers and a spot to eat lunch al fresco. The monument was created and donated in the mid-1960s as a gift from Osaka, San Francisco's sister city in Japan. It was inspired by a series of pagodas that exist in Japan's ancient capital, Nara, and is said to be a symbol of goodwill and friendship.
The Japan Center opened in March 1968 and was originally called the Japanese Cultural and Trade Center. The mall itself is composed of three mall buildings; from west to east, they are the Kinokuniya Mall, Kintetsu Mall (now Japan Center West), and Miyako Mall (now Japan Center East).
During the City’s Covid “Shelter in Place” mandates, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) launched “Picnic at the Plaza” tranforming the Japantown Peace Plaza into a festive, socially distanced outdoor seating area for diners to enjoy their takeout under the pagoda. Japan Center also introduced “Restaurants at the Plaza” a program providing tents for restaurants inside the malls to take to-go orders outdoors at the Upper Peace Plaza seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Greg Viloria, director of community affairs and marketing for the Japan Center malls, says its likely to return when the SIP mandates are lifted and milder weather returns.
Japantown is more than a neighborhood, it is a cultural experience. From the food to the shopping to the people, it’s the perfect place to spend some time wandering around, it’s like an urban hike with rewards. Get your steps in, eat a little, shop a little, repeat. The weekends are busier than weekdays and the lines a bit longer due to Covid restrictions so if you have time on a weekday, its little quieter. Though even during peak times, the indoor/outdoor areas allow for room to move freely and safely.
Here are a few of my favorite places to visit in J-Town:
1790 Sutter St San Francisco, CA 94115
Start your trip to J-Town early and start it here. On the corner of Sutter and Buchanan streets, just before you enter Buchanan Mall, is a little bakery tucked inside a small market you will find Yasukochi's Sweet Stop serving their signature and delicious “coffee crunch cake” for over 45 years. Its life changing and possibly addicting. Come early, slices sell out and full cakes must be ordered one day in advance, by phone, no online orders here and bring cash, they don’t take credit cards.
1747 Buchanan Street San Francisco, CA 94115
Now, I know we just had a slice of “coffee crunch cake” (if you were lucky) but the handmade manju & mochi here is a must. Types and flavors change daily. If they have the blueberry mochi, get it. Grab a mixed tray or a box to go. This place is cash only also and they make the mochi daily, once it sells out, they close so go early!
1758 Buchanan St, San Francisco, CA 94115
This shop has a wonderful Japanese ceramic bowls, plates, glassware, jewelry and more. Sanko opened in 1982 selling Japanese imported goods to their community. They have maintained that original mission and introduced their beautiful and unique Japanese wares and goods to a broader clientele. The top seller during the pandemic I am told by an employee Megumi, the Donabe (clay pot in Japanese). She says, “Because everyone is at home, it has become very popular with people that want to eat healthier”. The clay used to make the pots have properties ideal for cooking at high temperatures. This kind of clay is very porous, so it builds heat slowly (and, similar to a slow-cooker, may take a longer time to initially heat up) but once it reaches peak heat, it really holds its temperature.
1748 Buchanan St, San Francisco, CA 94115
Next to Sanko is a lovely family run, bookstore that offers a curated selection of used and rare books. If you are looking for a unique gift or have someone difficult to find a gift for, this the place to go. Upon entering the shop, you may notice the scent of Japanese incense (sold in the store) floating in the air or the tranquil sounds of a fountain at the door or perhaps the gentle music playing softly in the background. This is intentional by owner, Jakushu Gregory Wood. He says he wants to express peace is possible anywhere. I believe he has succeeded. He greets everyone with a smile that invites you to browse and he is generous with his time to talk about books or anything else really. He opened Forest Books 33 years ago in San Francisco, relocating to Japantown about 8 years ago offering books about world culture, the arts, literature, the humanities and social sciences. He also has a sweet little reading nook for kids to enjoy, for parents that means peaceful shopping.
22 Peace Plaza Suite 400, San Francisco, CA 94115
As you walk south on down Buchanan Mall, you will approach the Peace Plaza You can take a mochi break under the Pagoda or break to the left and enter the East Mall and check out Daiso, the Japanese variety-store chain with housewares, toys, stationery, decorations, bento supplies & gifts. You can find just about anything you need and plenty of things you do not need here.
Feeling peckish again? How does soft matcha or black sesame ice cream in Taiyaki cone sound? Just around the corner from Daiso, it is Uji Time!
Maybe a mochi donut is more your thing? Head over to the West Mall and check it out
How about something with a little umami? Right next to mochill (in fact you can order both at the same window) you can pick up a savory Japanese street food in the shape of a ball call Takoyaki. Each is about the size of a golf ball with a lightly crisp shell, doughy inside and a piece of tako (octopus) tucked inside and your choice of toppings. This tasty treat originated in the Osaka, Japan in 1935. They also offer, Okonmiyaki (Japan’s version of a pizza made with cabbage, egg, tempura flakes, pickled ginger and flour), as well as Yakisoba (fried noodles with meat or shrimp), and Hiroshimayaki, similar to Okonmiyaki but layered with friid eggs and noodles as toppings.
Just across from Mochill and Takoyaki Yama-cahn is THE place for all your anime and manga needs! Posters, novelties, movies, video games, figurines, you name it, they have it!
Ok, so we have been eating a lot, lets take a walk to the Kinokuniya Mall bridge and see some beautiful Japanese woodblock prints and fine Asian art. Tokaido Arts has been procuring Japanese woodblock prints and fine Asian art for fifty years. They provide collectors, dealers, and museums around the globe with rare works and fine art. Check their website for hours Friday-Sunday, they are open Wednesday and Thursday by appointment only.
In the Kinokuniya Mall, this store is known for its collection of Asian books & magazines, plus DVDs & stationery. Offering an extensive collection of manga, graphic novels, art and design books, cookbooks, travel books, children's books, and more, both in English and Japanese in Jpantown since 1969.
This little food stall in the lower level of the Kinokuniya Mall serves Onigiri fresh, hot and to order as well as other snacks, sweets and specialty drinks. They offer different fillings for their Onigiri, an inventive Japanese comfort food made from steamed rice formed into triangle and wrapped with nori (dried seaweed).
Japantown hosts 13 annual outdoor events to celebrate seasonal holidays and Japanese observances. While they have either been postponed or gone virtual during Covid, you can stay up to date on Japantown events when you sign up for the monthly newsletter here: https://www.sfjapantown.org/event-directory/
Hotel Kabuki at Post and Laguna has a picturesque Japanese garden and a stylish cocktail lounge both are fantastic spots to enjoy a cocktail (per or post shopping) and an ideal place to stay in Japantown. Whether it is a vacation, staycation or an overnight getaway, this is a stylish, boutique hotel with easy access to the many sites of San Francisco.
Hotel Buchanan is another great option for boutique hotel accommodations and delicious “shabu shabu” at Mums restaurant on site. Both are temporarily closed during Covid SIP, so keep these on your list to visit once things reopen.
Parking couldn’t be easier with two public garages offering discounted, validated parking.
Ruth Asawa designed the twin origami-style fountains in the middle of the one block open air mall, known as “Buchanan Mall, along Buchanan street between Post and Sutter Streets opposite to the Peace Plaza facing north. Providing a lovely spot to take a rest with “to go treats”.
The AMC Kabuki 8 Theater - home to the annual San Francisco Asian American Film Festival - is at the western most end of the Japan Center mall and the Kabuki Springs and Spa is at the other end, yet another way to make a day of it in Japan town.
It was very difficult not to include almost EVERY shop in Japantown, there really are so many wonderful places to east and explore there. I may have to do a follow up…to be continued!