Is This San Francisco’s Most Underrated Neighborhood?

Here’s what to do, eat, and see in this tiny San Francisco neighborhood.

Francisco's Japantown pagoda in plaza, with city in distance

The pagoda in Peace Plaza is one of the most iconic buildings in San Francisco’s Japantown.

Photo by SnapASkyline/Shutterstock

Most folks arrive in San Francisco and head straight to the Mission, Castro, North Beach, or one of a dozen other neighborhoods. But one of our favorites to explore is also one of the city’s most underrated: Japantown. One of only five designated Japantowns remaining in the United States, the tiny six-block area has a remarkably different feel from the rest of the city. And it’s a miracle this place even still exists: Many of the 40-plus Japantowns scattered across the state were lost during the World War II era of Japanese American internment, but San Francisco’s has persevered. Although small, it has enough things to do and food to try to fill an entire day. Here are the best things to do, eat, and drink in San Francisco’s Japantown.

Things to do in Japantown

Japanese imports in a shop in San Francisco, with shelves of colorful teapots in background

Be sure to explore the shops both in and out of the Japan Center Mall.

Photo by Shutterstock

Visit the Japan Center Mall and Peace Plaza

When San Francisco was rocked by the 1906 earthquake, many of the Japanese residents in the city relocated to this corner of the city. Back then, there were over 30 blocks of businesses. What’s left of the shops and restaurants are mostly in the old Japan Center Mall, a pair of two buildings connected by a bridge that hasn’t really changed much since being built in the ‘60s. In between the two buildings that make up the mall is Peace Plaza, a peaceful outdoor area with the neighborhood’s iconic pagoda. Highlights within the mall include:


  • Kinokuniya is the city’s mother lode for anime in English and Japanese. Any magazine lover will obsess over its extensive newsstand, too.
  • Nippon-Ya specializes in colorfully packaged Japanese sweets and snacks. It’s similar to the elaborate gift shops you’ll find in nearly every Japanese airport or train station and is a great spot to pick up gifts to bring home.
  • Daiso is a chain that’s a bit like a Japanese dollar store, with rows and rows of kitschy sake sets and bowls, offbeat candies, and quirky trinkets.


  • Osakaya Restaurant, a casual Japanese-style diner across the hall from Benihana, is an excellent spot for sushi rolls, bento boxes, udon, and ramen (vegetarian options available).
  • Yakitori Edomaso is “the neighborhood’s first true yakitori bar,” according to Jeanne Hizon, a long-time resident and the director of sales at Japantown’s Hotel Enso. Originally started in Tokyo in 1924, the iconic grilled meat stall closed in 2022 only to later reopen its doors on this side of the Pacific Ocean in 2023—bringing both the restaurant’s chef and part of the century-old food stall itself (which has been installed as part of the decor) to the new location.
  • Udon Mugizo, as the name suggests, “is all about the udon noodles. Every dish is really catered towards highlighting the noodles,” says Hizon. “They’re really bouncy too.”

Schedule a tour of the Japanese Cultural Center of Northern California

The best place to learn about the history of Japantown is the Japanese Cultural Center—though you have to arrange visits in advance. It also hosts regular workshops and events aimed at teaching participants about Japanese heritage, such as an introduction to Kabuki theater or a workshop on furoshiki, the traditional practice of wrapping gifts in fabric.

Attend the annual Cherry Blossom Festival

Each spring, Japantown plays host to the city’s Cherry Blossom Festival. Spanning back-to-back weekends, this celebration brings the community together in a vibrant display of Japanese culture and tradition.

This year the festival will be April 13–14 and April 20–21. Events include a cherry blossom–themed parade, live music performances, and street vendors selling food and beverages.

Have a spa day at Kabuki Springs

San Francisco locals hit Kabuki Springs because it’s clean, serene, and totally affordable (it’s one of our favorite things to do in the city). For $49, you get access to its sauna, steam room, and plunge pools where talking is strictly verboten. Just check their schedule the day before heading there: The baths here only mix guys and gals once a week.

Get buzzed and watch a movie

Even with the 2015 opening of Alamo Drafthouse in the Mission District, Kabuki Sundance Cinemas remains one of the best places in San Francisco to see both mainstream and indie films. The seats are comfy (and reservable) and they serve alcohol in the screening rooms.

Hit the local shops

One of the best things to do in Japantown? Bop around its many small shops—many of which sell Japanese items. Outside the mall, some of our favorites include Soko Hardware, which is a lot more than just a store full of cool wrenches and such. You’ll find paper lanterns, racks of aprons, origami paper, wall hangings, knives, and dozens and dozens of teapots.

Another fun shop is SF76 (formerly Sanko), a home furnishing shop that sells a curated mix of decor, housewares, teas, and other items imported from Japan.

And finally, “the Paper Tree origami store is another place you can’t miss,” says Hizon. In addition to selling origami supplies, the family-run store which has been around for more than 55 years also “does origami lessons periodically, which are a really fun for kids.” You can follow its Instagram to get notified about events and pop-ups.

Where (else) to eat and drink in Japantown

Anchovy Bar (left) is technically in Fillmore, but a mere couple steps outside the bounds of Japantown. Japan Center Mall (Right) has lots of Japanese style snacks to sample.

Anchovy Bar (left) is technically in Fillmore, but a mere couple steps outside the bounds of Japantown. Japan Center Mall (Right) has lots of Japanese style snacks to sample.

Photo by Jessie Beck (left) and Albert Hu / Unsplash (right)

You could spend an entire day eating your way through the Japan Center Mall, but these establishments also warrant a visit:

Compton’s Coffee House

Hands down the best place in the neighborhood for a coffee or great cappuccino is the petite and cozy Compton’s Coffee House. Although this locally owned coffee shop now has a second branch in North Beach, the original is right here in Japantown.

Although not technically in Japantown, Hizon recommends pairing your cuppa with a breakfast cookie from Mattina, less than a block away from Compton’s.

Fermentation Lab

Fermentation Lab is a newcomer to the neighborhood, but not to the city. In addition to its Market Street location, it now has a location in Japantown where locals and tourists alike swing by for pan–Asian American fusion dishes like its Japan-inspired katsu burger or Korean-style pancakes. It also has a solid happy hour menu (with both food and drink deals) and brunch service from Wednesday to Sunday.


Perhaps one of the most talked-about restaurants in the neighborhood this year, Korean restaurant Bansang made a splash when it ended up on the New York Times list of the 23 Best Dishes of 2023. The plate in question? Its mulhwe noodles, which are served chilled in a fermented chile broth and topped with fresh fish.


The same restaurant group behind Bansang also has an excellent Korean barbecue spot, Daeho, down the street; it is known for its kalbijjim, or Korean-style beef short ribs. And it’s an especially fun option for groups because this menu was designed for sharing.

Honorable mention: Fillmore faves

The border between the historic Fillmore district, known in the 1940s and 1950s as “the Harlem of the West” for its jazz scene, and Japantown is often blurry—at times, one side of a single street might be considered a part of Japantown and the other part of Fillmore.

While not technically a part of Japantown, one of the most well-known restaurants in the city is just across the street: State Bird Provisions. Even 12 years after opening, diners still flock to the restaurant to dine on Californian dishes with a Japanese twist, served in a dim sum–style format. Don’t miss the quail or any of its rotating savory pancakes.

If you’re unable to get a table there, worry not—the team has two other heavy hitters on the block: the Progress, whose bar has killer bites (don’t miss the roti), and seafood-focused Anchovy Bar.

In the event you do hit a short wait for a table at any of these, try grabbing a beer or cocktail at the cozy, library-like bar the Social Study.

Where to stay: Japantown hotels

A king bed in guest room at the Hotel Enso,  with white bedspread and two indigo-dyed pillows

The newly renovated Hotel Enso draws decor inspiration from Japan.

Courtesy of Hotel Enso

Although most of the city’s hotels are clustered around Union Square and the downtown areas, two of our favorites are right here in Japantown. In general, Japantown is a much less chaotic though still central area to stay in compared to downtown, making it ideal for leisure travelers.

Hotel Enso

The recently renovated Hotel Enso by Kimpton offers a selection of 131 comfortable, bright, and airy rooms. Interior decor nods to the Japanese heritage of the area, with kimono-style robes, indigo-dyed pillows, and artwork mimicking traditional Japanese paper fans, while the hotel’s programming—from sake tastings to community events such as its Sunset Sakura Celebration as part of this year’s Cherry Blossom festival—aims to help guests go beyond the aesthetic and get to know more about the neighborhood. If you can, request a room on the fifth through eighth floors on the Buchanan Street side to get a private balcony with views of the Peace Plaza.

Hotel Kabuki

Hotel Kabuki by Hyatt features 225 guest rooms and suites and modern amenities, such as a fitness center and a serene courtyard garden. The hotel blends Japanese and Western influences in its design and amenities, featuring elements such as shoji screens, deep soaking tubs, and cozy robes. We also love the lobby bar for its excellent selection of Japanese whiskey.

This story was originally published in 2015 and most recently updated on April 5, 2024.

Jessie Beck is a San Francisco–based writer and associate director of SEO and video at Afar. She contributes to travel gear, outdoor adventure, and local getaway coverage and has previously lived in Washington, D.C., Malta, Seattle, and Madagascar.
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