Secrets of Japantown

Welcome to Japantown

Tucked between lively Polk Street and affluent Pacific Heights, San Francisco’s Japantown is packed with fascinating history, cultural festivals, mouthwatering food, and some of the city’s best shopping.

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A little background: San Francisco has the largest and oldest Japantown in the country. The area that is now Japantown was originally built up as part of Western Addition, a subdivision that was developed between Van Ness Avenue and Divisadero Street in the 1870s. Many beautiful Victorian and Edwardian homes still stand in the quiet streets surrounding the neighborhood. (Architecture buffs ought to check out Cottage Row between Sutter and Bush Street!) The first Japanese immigrants arrived in San Francisco in the 1860s, but it wasn’t until after the 1906 earthquake that they began to settle in the Japantown area. Soon afterward, the neighborhood became known as 日本町: Nihonmachi, or Japantown.

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Today, the focal point is the Japan Center mall and the five-tiered Peace Pagoda, which was designed by modernist architect Yoshiro Taniguchi and presented to San Francisco in 1968 by the people of Osaka, Japan: a sister city to San Francisco. More than 100 years later, rich Japanese culture fills the tiny neighborhood’s six city blocks, with near-weekly festivals celebrating everything from sakura (cherry blossoms) to sumo, kimonos, and ramen.

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This is the place to satisfy your ramen, udon, and sushi cravings. It doesn’t get any better than a hot bowl of udon with chewy, fresh noodles made by hand. Try Udon Mugizo in the West Mall for delicately flavored broth, long noodles, and interesting flavor options like ume (seaweed and pickled plum) or mentai (udon served in sea urchin cream sauce). For dessert, sample some mochi (a sweet, chewy dessert made from rice flour dough). At Benkyo-do Company, the fruit-flavored mochi, like strawberry, have a chunk of fresh fruit in the center. Or, grab a trio of mochi on a stick for $2 from Kissako Tea in the West Mall.

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It’s easy to spend an afternoon browsing the boutiques of Japan Center, Sutter Street, and Buchanan Street, discovering treasures that range from bonsai plants to yuzen origami paper and handcrafted ceramics. San Francisco is also home to one of the few U.S. locations of the Japanese bookstore chain Kinokuniya.

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The adorable Katsura Garden in the West Mall specializes in bonsai, but also sells orchids, air plants, and peace lilies. Hazuki, who works at the shop and often brings her sweet bulldog, is incredibly knowledgeable about the care of these plants, and can get you started growing your own teensy tree from a starter kit.

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If you love handmade paper, a stop at Asakichi is a must, especially for their selection of exquisite yuzen paper from Kyoto. Yuzen is made by silk-screening patterns onto soft handmade paper. The paper is often used for origami, gift wrap, or scrapbooking. A few doors down, Daikoku sells gorgeous ceramic bowls, plates, serving platters, and tea sets in a rainbow of colors and finishes.

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At the end of a busy day, Hotel Kabuki is a great place to unwind. Book a stay and check out the koi in the peaceful courtyard pond, or take in the gorgeous sunset views from the upper floors. Plus, Hotel Kabuki is pet-friendly, so you can bring your furry companion with you on your Japantown adventure!

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