San Francisco: Head to J-Town For A Taste of Tokyo

San Francisco’s Japantown – America’s oldest and largest – includes a cobble-stoned pedestrian mall, cherry blossom trees and possibly the best sushi in the city.

If you’re anything like me you’ve probably lost count of the number of times you’ve devoured dim sum at Chinatown or ordered pizza at Little Italy in a big city somewhere during your travels.

But when was the last time you explored the wonders of Japantown, or Nihonmachi as it’s otherwise known?

Finding an enclave that’s dedicated to all things Japanese is pretty rare these days. But in San Francisco’s western district, about 1.6 kms (one mile) from Union Square, you’ll find a J-town that is steeped in history and culture.

With a five-tier, 100 foot Peace Pagoda at its heart, Japantown is an enclave of largely Japanese restaurants, karaoke bars, spas and shops. 

This is confirmed by the handful of top-class sushi restaurants you’ll find here, as well as  speciality grocers like Nijiya Market on Post Street and the popular Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya, which I recently also discovered in Sydney.

The Peace Plaza at Post and Buchanan Streets is also where seasonal festivals are held, including the Cherry Blossom Festival in April and the Nihonmachi Street Fair in August.

Founded in 1906, Japantown was intended to be reminiscent of Tokyo’s Ginza district – a pedestrian-only area renowned for shopping and dining.

Japantown today covers roughly seven blocks, with boundaries along Geary Boulevard, Fillmore Street, Post Street, Laguna Street, Webster Street, Buchanan Street and Sutter Street.

Although it’s sizeable, it’s a far cry from the 30 or so blocks that shaped this enclave in its heyday during the 1920s and 1930s, before displacement devastated the neighbourhood.

It’s still the oldest and largest of the three Japantowns left in the US (all of which are in California) and was recently classified as a San Francisco Cultural District given its historical and cultural significance, one of seven such districts across the city.

Japan Center

At first glimpse, the Japan Center mall, a series of buildings stretching from Geary to Post and from Fillmore to Laguna, has the allure of a modern shopping mall, albeit a truly Japanese shopping mall.

There’s an east mall and a west mall in separate buildings with the Peace Plaza (Buchanan Mall) and Peace Pagoda nestled between the two.

At either end, the Japan Center is anchored by the Kimpton Buchanan Hotel and AMC Kabuki Cinema (formerly the Sundance Kabuki).

Whether you’re coming to shop or choosing to dine, you’re guaranteed to find the biggest concentration of Japanese supermarkets, restaurants, bookstores and fashion outlets anywhere in the US at Japantown San Francisco.

That’s largely because several years ago when the malls and some nearby buildings were sold, the buyers signed covenants ensuring the preservation of Japanese-themed businesses.

Today you’ll find national chains like Benihana as well as small family-run businesses that offer some of the best Japanese food on the West Coast. 

Typical Japanese fare includes sushi and sashimi, bento boxes, ramen noodles, shabu-shabu (a meat and vegetable style hot pot), maju (a rice confection) and matcha green tea.

For me, landing a seat at Isobune in the east mall was always a thrill. Sadly, I discovered on a recent visit that the novelty sushi counter with its wooden boats on a conveyer belt had closed for good.

On the shopping front you can buy electronics, fancy stationery, foreign books and magazines, kimonos, swords, bonsai trees and even paper art from the origami shop, Paper Tree, next to the mountain temple gate near Sutter Street.

No matter where I am in the world, I always take the time to explore the so-called “Japanese dollar stores”, like Daiso or Ichiban Kan.

Even though things here cost a little more than a dollar these days, you’ll find some really quirky and unique items from sweets and stationary to decorations and kitchenware.

And for a real sweet treat, head to Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop, tucked away inside Super Mira Market at the corner of Sutter and Buchanan Streets, for a slice of their coffee crunch cake (pictured above).

You’ll also find a treasure trove of Asian delights lining the shelves at Super Mira, a small family-run grocery store.

It’s also a great place to find a grab-and-go lunch, with crispy shrimp tempura, pork potsticker and siu mai dumplings among the daily delights.

Peace Plaza and Peace Pagoda

The main attraction in Japantown, certainly from a visual point of view, is the five storey-tall concrete stupa at the north-eastern corner, known as the Peace Pagoda.

Designed by Japanese architect Yoshiro Taniguchi and given as a gesture of goodwill by the city of Osaka, the Peace Pagoda has been a focal point for visitors since 1968.

Look out also for the Origami Fountains in the Peace Plaza, two treasures of Japanese-American culture designed by Ruth Asawa.

Made to resemble flowers of folded paper, the lotus-style fountains were originally made of steel but later recast in bronze because they had deteriorated.

There is also a dark history to San Francisco’s Japantown – a story told through sculptures (pictured above) near Post Street

The sculptures of bronze and stone – part of the California Japantown Landmarks Project –  tell the story of the 120,000 people of Japanese descent who were forced into internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Around 70,000 of those forced out of their homes were American citizens.

The Peace Plaza also hosts various annual traditions, including the Cherry Blossom Festival, Nihonmachi Street Fair, the Summer Obon Festival and the Year-End Festival.

Cottage Row 

An historic area worth visiting on the edge of Japantown, between Bush and Sutter Streets in the Lower Pacific Heights neighbourhood, is Cottage Row.

Many of the Victorian houses have stood here since the 1800s. There are 22 houses and they’re all listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Like the nearby Painted Ladies of Alamo Square, this is another spot to step up your Instagram game.

© 2019 Bernard O’Riordan (Travel Instinct). All Rights Reserved

Getting There:

It's about 12 blocks, or 1.6 kms, from Union Square to Japantown. While it is walkable, it's easier to take the 38 bus along Geary and get off at Japantown.

Staying There:

Japantown is a quiet neighbourhood that's roughly equal distance to downtown San Francisco, The Presidio and Golden Gate Park. 

There are a handful of hotels here including Hotel Kabuki, known for its Japanese design, and the Kimpton Buchanan Hotel, which is a reliable mid-range option. 

If you're looking to save a few dollars, staying in Japantown as opposed to Union Square, might be worth the effort.


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