Have you ever wished that you could visit Japan without a passport? Well, the neighborhood in the heart of San Francisco, that is known Japantown, may be the answer! Located approximately one mile west of Union Square, just off Geary Boulevard at Fillmore Street, San Francisco’s Japantown is a blend of deeply-rooted traditions and values with the vitality of an attractive, modern environment. It is one of only three remaining strictly Japanese communities in the continental US. The other two are located in San Jose and Los Angeles.
The first Japanese arrived in San Francisco in the early 1860s. For the most part, they settled in Chinatown and in neighborhoods south of Market Street. It was not until the devastating earthquake of 1906 where fire drove many of them from their homes that they began moving to what is known as the Western Addition. As the Japanese settled here, they built shrines and opened shops and restaurants. The neighborhood took on a very Japanese character and before long became a miniature Ginza known as Nihonmachi, or Japantown. It was here that the foundations of San Francisco’s Japanese American community took root.
With the advent of World War II, the Japanese Americans in San Francisco and in other West Coast communities were suddenly uprooted and interned in camps such as the Manzanar War Relocation Center. Following the War, many of the original Japanese American residents returned to the city to pick up where they had left off. Today, nearly 12,000 Japanese Americans live in San Francisco and approximately 80,000 live in the greater Bay Area.
Visiting Japantown for a weekend allows one to escape into a different culture without going very far. You can reach Japantown by public transportation but if you prefer to drive, park your car in the Japantown Center Garage and just leave it there until you are ready to leave. This is a good destination to visit any time of the year since many of its attractions are housed indoors. If you do plan on spending a lot of time outdoors, San Francisco’s weather is best suited for outdoor activities during the months of April and October.
If you only spend one day in Japantown, spend it walking around the Japantown Center, shopping and exploring. San Francisco City Guides offer free walking tours of Japantown. If you are a guest at the Hotel Kabuki, you can participate in a free tour provided by one of their Golden Gate Greeters. Or if you prefer, take part in the San Francisco Japantown History Walk, a self-guided tour consisting of 16 interpretive signs along an approximately 10-block route through the heart of Japantown. The tour provides visitors with a unique insight into the community’s years of history and culture.
Or if you want to visit Japantown during the Festival (Matsuri) Season, the Cherry Blossom Festival takes place in April and the Nihonmachi Street Fair happens in mid-August.
Shops in Japantown Center offer a wide range of Japanese goods, including books, ikebana flower-arranging supplies and housewares. Daiso, a Japanese bargain shop, also offers a fun shopping experience. You can find all kinds of fun and kitschy stuff for very affordable prices at this store.
You will find many Japanese restaurants in Japantown Center, serving a variety of Japanese dishes. For an evening of Japanese food and great jazz, Yoshi’s serves up both. The establishment is only a few blocks away from Japantown Center.
If you want to pamper yourself the way the Japanese do, visit The Kabuki Hot Springs & Spa. Here you will have the unique opportunity to experience a Japanese-style bath that comes with an extremely reasonable price tag. The spa also offers massages at a decent price.
For whatever reason you chose to visit Japantown, you will find that it is worth your while in many ways.