A Trip to Japantown in San Francisco

7 May

I recently had the pleasure of visiting and staying in Japantown in San Francisco, California. We stayed at the lovely Hotel Kabuki, a traditional Japanese-themed hotel located in the dead center of Japantown itself. The hotel is connected to the Japan Center Parking Garage (quite possibly the cheapest place to park in San Francisco) and to the Japan Center mall, which houses a variety of Japanese shops and eateries.

The boy messing up my photographic feng shui.

Being the fan of Japanese culture that I am, I was sold on Hotel Kabuki upon discovering that, in addition to the traditional Japanese-style decor, the rooms come equipped with Japanese style baths. Most rooms have a deep soaking tub (with complimentary bath salts) along with a faucet where you sit on a little wooden stool and clean yourself with soap and a bucket. After cleaning off, you dunk yourself into the tub for some serious personal zen time. This feature alone was worth paying just a little bit more than it costs to stay at Hotel Tomo, another hotel in Japantown by the Joie de Vivre company. (For the record, we got a pretty sweet deal using Priceline.com!) Some other nice amenities at Hotel Kabuki are the Japanese teapot and teacups available for use in your room (along with a strainer for loose tea), bamboo lemongrass scented toiletries and gorgeous shoji screens.

The bathing room of mega-awesome.

The night of our arrival in San Francisco, we headed over to Sanppo Sushi for dinner; the only place still open to eat in the area. The green tea served was genmaicha and they had some really amazing miso soup. We both ordered yakisoba, which was okay, but I personally prefer the yakisoba/yakiudon at my local Japanese restaurant. (Go figure. Must be the sauce.) Above Sanppo was a karaoke bar and Korean food place, but we never went there, as there is likely no possible way to make my boyfriend drunk enough to ever sing in public. Hmm.

A riveting view of Post Street.

Our first day in San Francisco was spent entirely in Japantown. We started out at Daiso, a Japanese chain where most everything costs $1.50. They had lots of odds and ends, but the money was better spent at Ichiban Kan, where there were some higher quality and slightly more expensive items. I picked up stationery gifts for my friends and family, along with an ear-cleaning doo-hicky and an old yaoi magazine from 2004 that turned out to be short stories instead of manga. (Oh well, it didn’t even cost me two bucks.) One of my favorite items at Ichiban Kan was fake cat paws that actually kind of felt like real cat paws. Awesome. There is something similar to these called “Neko Nyanbou” that actually have retractable claws. The ones I saw were a little less creepy and a little more endearing. :P

Desserts at Murata's Cafe Hana

One thing that bugged me about the eateries in the Japan Center mall is that they nearly all took cash only. Pretty much anywhere you’d go and spend $10 or less refused to take credit. These people need to get with the times! Regardless, I still indulged at Sophie’s Crepes (Strawberries + Nutella!) and May’s Coffee Shop, where I finally got to try both taiyaki and oh-so-delectable spam musubi. I also had some great Tsubu Anpan from Andersen Bakery and amazing mitarashi dango from a little tea stand whose name I forgot.

Artbooks GET!

The highlight of the Japan Center mall was, of course, Kinokuniya. I try to make it a point to go to Kinokuniya in Little Tokyo (in Los Angeles) whenever I visit California, so on this trip we went to the one in San Francisco instead. Japantown’s Kinokuniya is basically 2 floors and 3 stores – 2 of which are stationery shops. All of the anime/manga books were in the downstairs half of the bookstore. They had an extensive selection of manga, magazines and artbooks, as well as an unusually large yaoi section, but no hentai section to be seen (yaoi but no hentai; what’s that about?). Over the course of my two trips to the bookstore, I ended up buying 2 manga magazines and 4 artbooks. The 4 books I decided on were Pixiv Girls 2010, Ten Colors Illustrations: Juunin Toiro, Nanatsu no Ashiato – Naru Nanao Illustrations and Souen – Noizi Itoh Illustrations III. For the magazines, I bought the May 2010 Dengeki Maoh (entirely for the awesome furoku – a Spice and Wolf mini-artbook!) and an issue of Neko no Shippo, a publication consisting entirely of ridiculously cute cat-centric comic strips.

May 2010 Dengeki Maoh w/Artbook

Neko no Shippo

There’s another newer shopping center in Japantown called “New People” (go go Engrish) that consists of four floors of Japanese pop culture. The first floor has a mini-cafe that serves bento boxes from Delica and coffee from Blue Bottle. The second floor has a gift shop and the other floors have a movie theater and art gallery, respectively. The theater shows stuff like recent anime films and monster movies from Japan. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to make it to the gallery floor. The shop had quite a few neat things, but my only purchases were a couple of postcards with artwork by Imai Kira and Kamijo Eri (whose 2010 calendar I reviewed in one of my very first blog posts). Scans below!

"Sweet Parfait" by Imai Kira

Postcard by Kamijo Eri

My favorite meal in Japantown was, without a doubt, at Shabu-sen, a Japanese-style fondue or “nabemono” (hot pot) restaurant. Every table has a little stovetop on it where the food you order cooks at your table. You either order Shabu-shabu style or Sukiyaki style. You can order various meats, seafood and vegetables to be cooked. As an appetizer I ordered the Zaru Soba (cold soba noodles with dipping sauce). We opted for sukiyaki-style pork and beef for our main course. This came with vegetables and udon noodles as well. The sukiyaki sauce was absolutely delicious. I loved this meal so much, I really wanted to go back and eat there again. I’m drooling a little just thinking about it…

Cooking Sukiyaki Pork & Beef

Overall, I think I liked Japantown in San Francisco more than Little Tokyo in L.A., if only because the majority of the shops are all crammed into one area that’s easy to get around. Little Tokyo has a lot of stuff more spread out and is generally a less attractive area overall. (L.A. is ugly; there’s no denying it.) San Francisco’s felt a lot more like “Japan away from Japan” and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who loves Japanese culture. Like me. Can I go back now?

Japantown. It's like Japan... but not.

One Response to “A Trip to Japantown in San Francisco”

  1. Elizabeth McClung September 3, 2010 at 7:17 pm #

    THanks for this – due to your review, I was able to find the ‘new people’ mall and the same shop and got quite a few doujinshi postcards myself, I really appreciate this as it made this my best part of my trip to Japan town (oh, Japan town, all the illegal ADA non 36 inch width, the having to go half way around the block to get in and the people staring at someone in a wheelchair…just like Japan!)

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