Japantown San Francisco Guide
Japantown is one of the most intriguing neighborhoods in San Francisco. As a cultural neighborhood it has a tourist draw to it. However, it is much quieter and less tourist-oriented than its sister neighborhood, Chinatown. In fact, if you don’t know what you are looking for in Japantown, you might overlook the mystery, wonder and entertainment of this fun neighborhood. Luckily we’ve got your guide to all that there is to do in Japantown.
The most popular attractions in Japantown that you must visit include:
o Japan Center Malls. The biggest attraction in Japantown is the partially-underground, partially-outdoor series of malls that are connected in the heart of the neighborhood on Geary between Fillmore and Laguna. Go here for really unique shopping. You can buy Japanese electronics, fancy stationery, foreign books and magazines, kimonos, swords, bonsai trees and more. Make sure to stop into the origami store called Paper Tree to see the amazing paper art there.
o Peace Plaza. In the midst of the malls is the Peace Plaza. Annual events in Japantown are centered in this area. Even if nothing special is going on, you will want to take a photo of the Peace Pagoda here. This 100 foot tall structure celebrates the relationship between San Francisco and its sister city, Osaka, Japan.
o Origami Fountains. In the center of the outdoor mall you will see two unique waterless fountains created by sculptor Ruth Asawa. They are called the Buchanan Mall fountains or the Origami Fountains.
o Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. This is a normal contemporary movie theater with a twist. There are theaters that offer roomy balcony seating with tables in between them. The movie theater has a full bar and restaurant and the food is allowed into these 21+ theaters. Additionally you are able to book specific seats online like you would for a live theater event so you don’t have to wait in lines to see popular films here. It’s a great experience.
o Cottage Row. There is a small red-bricked alley in Japantown called Cottage Row because it is how to a series of row houses that date back to the mid-nineteenth century. It is located just off of Bush Street between Webster and Buchanan. Great spot for photos!
There are some specific experiences that are available in Japantown and shouldn’t be skipped during your San Francisco stay. They include:
o Karaoke. Japantown is filled with karaoke bars (as well as non-alcohol karaoke hot spots for those under 21). Top choices include Playground (a Korean spot that offers private rooms for your group to sing together) and Festa (for a more traditional karaoke experience).
o Eat from sushi boats. Isobune Sushi is a top Japantown spot for eating sushi out of boats that float past you. You can select what you want as it goes by – a fun experience if you’ve never tried it!
o Go sake bombing. Most of the Japanese restaurants / bars in this neighborhood offer sake bombs. Another unique experience.
o Kabuki Springs and Spa. Indulge in ultimate relaxation at this spa. You can get a professional massage or bath. Alternatively you can just go to the spa room to enjoy saunas, steam rooms and hot and cold spa baths. Note that days alternate between women-only, men-only and co-ed so you should check the schedule online before you plan to enjoy this Japantown experience.
If you have already done the major activities that Japantown has to offer then you may want to get into the underground of the neighborhood. Some of the lesser-known Japantown attractions include:
o National Japanese American Historical Society. This organization puts on various events and exhibitions. You can check their website for the latest exhibits.
o New People. This Japantown hot spot is a combination of treats for art lovers. There is an art gallery. There is a movie theater showing Japanese films. And there are frequent events such as fashion shows.
o Konko Church of San Francisco. This church teaches “konko”, a peacefully meditative belief in the golden light of the universe. You can enter the church to experience a unique sense of peace and simplicity.
o Japantown History Walk. You can learn more about this self-guided walking tour here. SF City Guides also does a free guided walking tour that covers the Fillmore Jazz District as well as Japantown.
Japantown Annual Events
There are two major annual Japantown events that you should check out if you are in San Francisco when they are happening. They are:
1. Cherry Blossom Festival. This annual spring event takes place over two weekends in April and has been taking place for more than forty years. It includes a parade, music performances, martial arts demonstrations and more.
2. Nihonmachi Street Fair. This is a street fair that takes place in mid-August of each year. It is designed to raise awareness about diversity and the issues facing Asian Americans today. It includes performances, vendors and more.
Other Japantown festivals include:
o The Annual International Film Festival. This April/May event is held in part at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema in Japantown.
o Asian Heritage Street Celebration. This annual event is held on the third Saturday of each May. It is a street fair designed to celebrate all Asian and Pacific Islander cultures.
o Sunday Streets. This is an ongoing San Francisco event that celebrates one neighborhood at a time in San Francisco. Japantown is celebrated as part of the Western Addition weekend of this event. In 2011 this event will take place in September.
Getting to Japantown
Japantown is located right in the heart of San Francisco. You can get there easily by bus from Union Square. Just hop on the 38 Geary and get off at Webster. Note that this bus is usually crowded, though, so you may prefer to walk a couple blocks north from Union Square to catch the 2 or 3 bus. Get off at Sutter and Fillmore and you’re right on the edge of Japantown.
Staying in Japantown
If you want to enjoy the full Japantown experience then you should consider staying in a hotel in this neighborhood. Top choices for Japantown hotels include:
o Hotel Kabuki. This pet-friendly San Francisco hotel has a wonderfully relaxing Zen atmosphere. In fact there is a suite with a sandy Zen garden that you can enjoy. Hotel Kabuki is affordable by San Francisco standards and the Japantown location puts you close to numerous attractions.
o Best Western Hotel Tomo. This cutting-edge hotel brings wacky Japanese style into each room to make your stay truly unique. It’s an affordable option with a fun twist and artistic flair.
o Queen Anne Boutique Hotel. This hotel located on the edge of Japantown is uniquely furnished with Victorian era décor. The essence of the hotel differs from the other Japantown hotels but the sense of ultimate relaxation remains.
Don’t miss out on the wonderful experience of enjoying this sometimes overlooked San Francisco neighborhood!
Story & Photography by: Kathryn Vercillo, Copyright SFTRAVEL LLC