Haven’t heard much about SF’s Japantown? Well, if you are in the area and can pull yourself away from the Wharf, Alcatraz and Chinatown for just a bit, you will find this little slice of Japan to be one of the cities most humble gems.
Tucked between the Richmond district and Tenderlion, Japantown is a clean and expansive oasis in the eastern-most point of the cities’ West Addition. It is a very walkable district with Japanese shopping and eatery options abounding. Also, it’s a stone’s through (or a jolly skip) to the posh Fillmore Shopping District.
I’ve fallen hard for this place and have developed a top five list of can’t miss things to do in Japantown. Let’s jump right in!
#5: Japan Center
This is the visual crown jewel of Japantown and is very hard to miss. Spanning three city blocks, this mall has some amazing stores, restaurants and activities for those young and young at heart. In it’s center is a giant peace pagoda which makes for a great photo opp and performance space.
Wanna pick up some unique Japanese gifts? The center has an endless amount of options. There is Daiso for bargain shopping, a few video stores, boutiques galore, a supermarket and a large bookstore.
Spending a good portion of the day at the Japan Center can be very entertaining, culturally enriching and light on the wallet. Plus it made for a beautifully decorated, yet relaxed holiday shopping experience which was miles from union square (in more ways than one).
#4: Benkyodo, Co.
For over 100 years, Benkyodo, Co. Has put out some of the best Japanese baked goods available in the US. Touted as the best mochi outside of Momma’s kitchen, Benkyodo puts out a wide array of sweet and savory rice cake delicacies and always seems to have a captive audience.
Our trip came at the beginning the mochi high season. These delicate confections are a Japanese symbol of good luck. Essentially, Christmas trees are to the US just as Mochi is to Japan. Dozens of ladies packed the small shop placing mochi orders and reservations for the new year, seasonal flavors, such as blueberry were hot off the press and moving fast and the regulars sat at the counter for a cup of joe and a bite amidst the organized chaos.
As a lover of all things savory, I took a liking to their “not so sweet” sweets. The green tea mochi stuffed with red bean paste (above) was especially delicious and uniquely Japanese. But the biggest shock to me was how amazing the Lima Bean paste stuffed mochi was (pictured above next to the hot cocoa). It tastes absolutely nothing like it sounds.
If your in the area Tuesday through Saturday, I’d say that it would be criminal not to stop by for a small breakfast or a mid-day bite at this humble family-run Mochi/Manchu shop. But be sure to bring cash (no cc accepted).
#3: Festa Cocktail Lounge
“Karaoke? Me?” I asked as they passed the 4″ binder my way. The friendly folks at Festa, located inside of he Japan Center, wouldn’t let me pay the tab without getting my Freddy Mercury on — and I’m glad they insisted!
This quaint and classy Japanese bar served as the perfect setting for me to lose my karaoke virginity. Two Japanese Whiskies later and I was on my third song! The clientele was eclectic and friendly and the bartenders were some of the most welcoming people I’ve ever encountered. Atsuko (pictured above) was my main cheerleader. Despite a considerable crowd, song requests were granted in ten minutes or less.
This spot is good for night crawlers of all ages (above 21) and is a sure fire memorable experience.
#2: On The Bridge
On The Bridge is, well, on the bridge which connects two wings of the Japan Center over a city street.
In all honesty, this place should really be tied for first place. I will dream about this restaurant/bar for the entire year until I go back next December.
What makes it so special you ask? It is Japan in a bottle. A diner which promotes the inner child in all of us.
Anime posters and memorabilia adorn the bright colored walls, Bookcases of manja (comic books) line the outer perimeter, anime movies play on different wall mounted screens and the Mother-Daughter wait staff run around taking orders and refilling shochu cocktails
Case in point, I ordered the absolutely delicious okonomiyaki pizza, xx-spicy style. The homemade pie crust was topped with a slow cooked fire okonomi sauce reduction, bonito flake, Japanese mayo, cheese and green onion — one of the most amazing and avant guard creations I have ever tasted!
I made the mistake of telling Chef Makamura’s daughter that I will ask for xxx-spicy next time. She nearly ran back to tell him so he could pour some more fire on my plate (thus calling my bluff).
I liked this place so much that I tried to sabotage the rest of our trip’s dinner plans so that we could go back for a second time (to no avail). It is the perfect mesh of unique food/ambiance and great friendly service.
#1: Ino Sushi
A walk into this tiny sushi bar transports you, without warning, directly to Tokyo. If you’ve ever seen the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi you know that true sushi is no joke. Attending an artisanal sushi restaurant is not a casual experience where you throw back sake bombs and carelessly drift through choice cut rolls. It is a one-on-one experience. You and the sushi chef — all eyes on the artist.
Being a true novice, I was unaware of the protocol, the correct tray to use for soy sauce, the appropriate way to use the warm towel, the fact that the nigiri shouldn’t sit on the counter for more than thirty seconds (lest it self-destruct). Thankfully, the nimble sushi chef was quick to sternly adjust me as if I were his behaviorally challenged adolescent teenager. While some take offense to this (believe me, take a look at the yelp reviews), I found it to be endearing and a great preparation for my future trip to Japan (fingers crossed).
Okay, so they have strict rules, why waste my time? Well, the fish is absolutely out of this world and very reasonable.
The Ankimo (above) or monkfish liver nigiri was one of the best tasting things I’ve ever put in my mouth and it was only $6 for on order. The uni was as fresh and tasty as it is when scooped fresh out of the shell and was only half the price of a comparable order at Nobu in Malibu.
If your interested in giving this mildly intimidating gem a shot, make sure you sit at the sushi bar! It’s half the experience and service is lightening fast. All sushi bar seating require a reservation.
I hope you find as much joy and wonder in this SF district as I have. I will stay on the prowl and provide an update next year if anything new catches my eye.