Set on the southern slope of Pacific Heights and occupying six square blocks, Japantown has enjoyed a storied history since the 1860s when Japanese immigrants arrived in San Francisco. Below, we’re visiting this iconic hub with an inside tour of architectural sights, sushi bars, ramen shops and unique storefronts.
Iconic Architecture and the Arts
In the heart of Japantown, you’ll find the iconic Peace Pagoda, a five-story concrete shrine designed by minimalist Japanese architect Yoshiro Taniguchi and gifted by the people of Osaka in 1968. The Peace Plaza also hosts celebrations including the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Summer Obon Festival and the Nihonmachi Street Fair. Inside the Japan Center Mall, you’ll uncover a patch of zen thanks to two waterless origami fountains created by the sculptor Ruth Asawa. Art and fashion lovers gather at the cutting-edge New People (aka the “J Pop Center”) featuring an art gallery, anime and a movie theater screening Japanese films.
Noodles, Sushi and Sweets
Come hungry! There are plenty of authentic eats around Japantown. For tasty fried chicken ramen, Suze Noodle House has you covered. Or drop by the decade-old Udon Mugizo for made-in-house hot and cold soba, udon and ramen bowls. Looking for classic street eats? The no-frills Takoyaki Yama-chan serves steamy dough balls filled with tako (octopus). Foggy day? Warm up with tasty Japanese comfort fare at Izumiya, known for its okonomiyaki (a savory pancake dish cooked on a teppan). And, in Japantown Mall, the minimalist Oma San Francisco Station eatery offers omakase and small plates. Wash down your meal with ice cream and shaved ice at Matcha Cafe Maikoor opt for soft ice cream in fish-shaped taiyaki cones with flavorful swirls of peanut butter or sesame at Uji Time. Tucked away in the Super Mira Market, try the coffee crunch cake at the old-school Yusukochi’s Sweet Shop or sneak inside the Miyako Old Fashioned Ice Cream for throwback candy bars and unique hand-dipped cones in ube (a nutty, vanilla-like flavor) and buco (coconut strips with a pandan flavor).
Odd and Ends
Don’t miss a trip to the Kinokuniya Bookstore (est. 1969), a cultural emporium stocked with Japanese literature, comics, graphic novels and toys alongside a large anime and manga section. For a lovely selection of Japanese ceramics (painted pottery, teapots and chopsticks) Daikoku by Shiki is your best bet. A touch of Hawaiian tropics in California? The cheery Aloha Warehouse stocks sweets, lei arrangements, ukuleles and hula supplies. Later, learn about the art of the bonsai tree (including pruning techniques) and its meditative practices at the popular Katsura Garden. Later, you’ll find elegant gift papers and scrapbooking supplies at Paper Tree (psst: they also offer origami classes).
For a classic Japanese-style bathhouse experience with hot tubs, steam rooms and cold plunge pools, not to mention a traditional massage menu, drop in to the tranquil Kabuki Springs & Spa – they also offer a rotating schedule of communal soak days. Meanwhile, the Korean-style Pearl Spa and Sauna (women only) offers hearty scrub treatments and massages alongside several water features. And, if you’re looking for a relaxing facial, Lori Anderson Skincare offers personalized treatments and natural products.
Next time you’re in San Francisco, book your stay at the newly reopened Kimpton Hotel Enso. It’s a little bit traditional Japanese sensibility, a little bit West Coast cool – and a whole lot of harmony. Find your Zen with us.