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Whether you’re coming to reconnect with your roots or explore one of S.F.’s most fascinating neighborhoods, Japantown San Francisco awaits.
5 min read
November 16, 2021
San Francisco’s Japantown is one of the three remaining ones in the nation, having first settled in the early 1860s. Generations of Japanese descendants have kept the arts and culture alive in this neighborhood and far far beyond. If you look close enough, an entire world of famed artists, performers, and cultural cuisine will reveal itself in the neighborhood’s corners, resembling experiences you’d have in Japan. Whether you’re coming to reconnect with your roots, see the Japantown Peace Plaza, or simply explore one of S.F.’s most fascinating neighborhoods, Japantown San Francisco awaits with open arms.
Doesn’t matter if you’re seeking an epicurean adventure or craving a familiar dish, Japantown delivers every single time. The neighborhood is sweet and savory galore with delectable delights like sushi ramen and mochi rice cakes and matcha green tea desserts. Delve into the refined world of fine dining in one of the many restaurants, find Japantown’s famed mochi, or grab a bite on the run at a quirky food stand. Simply hit Japantown’s markets and you’ll find plenty of things to do.
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Several of the restaurants you’ll find will definitely serve Japan’s most famous dish, but there are a few that serve sushi exclusively. Michelin-starred An Japanese Restaurant offers gourmet dishes in a cozy atmosphere served along with selections of local and imported seasonal items. Alternatively, there’s Omakase, an eatery where the menu is chosen by the chef; a dining experience you’ll be telling your grandkids about.
If you’re a meat-eater, then you’re probably familiar with shabu-shabu—a group meal experience. Priding itself to be the home of shabu-shabu, Mums at Kimpton Buchanan Hotel serves several all-you-can-eat shabu-shabu meal options, including vegetarian takes on the iconic experience.
Comfort food in the form of noodles can be found at many restaurants. Whether you want Japanese buckwheat soba, thin somen in a delicate sauce, udon in an array of broths, or fried yakisoba, Japantown is the place to look for it. And while ramen is originally Chinese, the Japanese have taken the hearty dish and elevated it to a whole other level. Line up early at Marufuku, where handmade noodles, Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen, and broth cooked for over 20 hours awaits to send your tastebuds to flavor heaven.
While directly translated as ‘cute,’ kawaii as a cultural term implies much, much more. With origins dating back to the Edo period in Japan, kawaii art appealed to women particularly, evoking feelings of care, love, and protectiveness. But as the movement progressed and kawaii became a counterculture phenomenon of sorts, this style climbed the ranks of international fashion. And with the birth of Hello Kitty in 1974, Sanrio launched kawaii as a universal commodity—the appeal of loveable, bright, and innocent charm is what makes this culture so popular; it’s also a reason to scout for it in Japantown stores.
When it comes to S.F.’s Japantown, there’s definitely no lack of kawaii knick-knacks, and they are way too adorable to pass up. There are even specialty shops that carry kawaii-only merchandise; take Amiko Boutique for instance. Considering itself the one-stop shop for everything kawaii, this store has goodies ranging from Momoji dolls to Tokidoki backpacks. If you want to incorporate kawaii into your wardrobe, Mee specializes in the latest Japanese and Korean fashion; it also has K-pop fan products and plushies, the cute little stuffed characters you find on key chains and lamps. There’s also a J-pop photo booth that offers several customized backgrounds including a pose with aliens. Decorate your pictures with cat or dog ears, makeup options, and much more.
The national dress of Japan, the kimono is a beautiful creation with complex cultural nuances. Mostly associated with a flowing silk robe with long sleeves and an elaborate brocade belt, the kimono is a masterclass in craftsmanship and a staple of Japanese traditions. Yet, there are so many things people don’t know about this dress. For example, did you know that there are many variations (and names) of Japan’s traditional attire that don’t only belong to women? In S.F.’s Japantown, you can find actual classes on how to wear the kimono, whether it be casually or on formal occasions.
Prices for the dress usually range from thousands of dollars to very affordable. In addition to the formal silk kimono, the light-weight cotton yukata is also popular casualwear you can see at Japantown’s festivals, particularly if you’re visiting in the summer. Likewise, the happi (often called a happy coat) is known for its short length and colorful, almost-festive sparkle worn by both men and women.
You can find all of these styles and more at Asakichi and Shige Antiques—stores that specialize in vintage kimonos, most of which were created in Japan before 1945. Sakura Sakura is one of the few stores in the Japan Center that sells new kimonos from Kyoto with a beautiful obi, sash, as well as zori and geta, which are traditional shoes that go with the attire.
Japanese thoughtful and visually stunning gifts are an aesthetic you should definitely apply to this year’s gift-giving. Many of Japantown’s malls and stores offer complimentary gift wrapping, which is particularly convenient since ‘tis the season. Unique finds with trendy gifts and affordable stocking-stuffers can be found everywhere—you might even be able to find something perfect for the hard-to-shop-for person in your life (dads, we’re looking at you).
Katachi has an impressive line of swords and knives, and they also carry a lot of cool T-shirts. Soko Hardware is an independent, family-owned business specializing in tools and things that are going to be needed around the house. If there’s a gardener among your family or friends, they’ll be pleased to know that this is the place to find those hard-to-get planters and seeds, including those to grow specialty Asian vegetables. Kinokuniya has books in English as well as in Japanese to add to your reading list, as well as novelty gift items such as board games, puzzles, and other nifty collectibles. If you’re a writer (or aspiring), then Kinokuniya will help you get there, with state-of-the-art writing implements including calligraphy supplies, fine stationery, and specialty papers. Shop at Forest Books for rare and out-of-print books and signed editions in world culture, the arts, and social sciences. This family-run bookshop is truly a delight and also carries a large selection of popular fiction; whether you want it pocket-size or hardback.
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