Photo by Danielle Walsh
Japantown's iconic Peace Pagoda, constructed in 1968 by San Francisco's sister city, Osaka.
Most folks arrive in San Francisco and head straight to the Mission, Castro, North Beach, or one of a dozen other neighborhoods…but not Japantown, which is a total shame. The tiny six-block area has a remarkably different feel from the rest of the city and is packed with enough rad experiences to occupy a whole day. Go with your family, your partner, or even alone.
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 this old Japan Center Mall, which hasn’t really changed much since being built in the 60s. Perfect for kids with adventurous palettes, Isobune floats various sushi on boats along a moat that circles the bar.
Hit Mitsu for boba. Pro tip: you can adjust your bubble tea’s sweetness, and should go lower than you might usually—they’re heavy-handed with the sugar but generous with the portions. Daiso is a bit like a Japanese dollar store, with rows and rows of kitschy sake sets and bowls, offbeat candies, and quirky trinkets. Kinokuniya is the city’s motherlode for anime in English and Japanese. Any magazine-lover will obsess over their extensive newsstand, too.
Soko Hardware 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.
SF locals hit Kabuki Springs because it’s clean, serene, and totally affordable. $25 gets you access to their 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 girls once a week.
Ok, so it’s not technically in Japantown, but it’s insanely close: Folks line up for the better part of a day to eat at State Bird Provisions. Yes, it’s great and memorable dining experience, but assuming you don’t have a hard-to-get rez or five hours to wait, check out their newer restaurant down the street, The Progress, whose bar has a killer bites (don’t miss the roti) and seats that don’t take three hours to obtain. In the event you do hit a short wait, try grabbing beer cocktails at the cozy, library-like bar The Social Study.
Kabuki Sundance Cinemas is, hands down, the best place in San Francisco to see both mainstream and indie films. The seats are comfy (and reservable), they serve alcohol in the screening rooms, and, maybe my favorite part, the concession stand carries Humphrey Slocombe‘s whiskey cornflake ice cream in little cups.
>> Next: The AFAR guide to San Francisco
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