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All You Need to Know About San Francisco's Most Underrated Neighborhood

The best spots to eat, drink and shop in San Francisco's Japantown

There aren’t many Japantowns left in the United States, but San Francisco’s is one of the nation’s largest and oldest with over a century of cultural history built into its several square blocks. Home to shopping malls, Japanese-language bookstores, imported food markets and a respected Zen Buddhist center, Japantown is demarcated on the south by the five-tiered Peace Pagoda, a gift from San Francisco’s sister city of Osaka and designed by Japanese architect Yoshiro Taniguchi, who also designed New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

 The five-tier concrete Peace Pagoda at Japantown Peace Plaza between Post and Geary streets
The five-tier concrete Peace Pagoda at Japantown Peace Plaza between Post and Geary streets (©www.bluewaikiki.com/Flickr)

Where to Eat and Drink

Japantown has every meal and after-dinner treat covered, from casual lunch spots to high-end tasting menus. Hinodeya Ramen Bar serves satisfying, steaming noodles and soups for lunch and dinner, including vegan ramen. Jitlada Thai Cuisine is known for its curries: savory pumpkin, jungle (clear curry with vegetables) and evil princess (spicy red coconut). For a lighter bite, try the small bites at The Social Study, a charming beer and wine bar with plenty of sake on the menu as well. For an intimate night out, head to An Japanese Restaurant for the chef’s omakase. Reservations-only OzaOza showcases a unique, expansive culinary tradition with its kaiseki spread, featuring specialty sashimi and the chef’s choice of fresh seafood and Wagyu beef across nearly a dozen perfectly plated courses.

Mochi from Benkyodo Company
Mochi from Benkyodo Company (@ChadMagiera/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Established in 1906, family-owned Benkyodo Company is known for handmade manju and mochi. These Japanese rice flour confections are made fresh each day, often with seasonally special ingredients. Miyako Old Fashioned Ice Cream serves up scoops from family-owned San Francisco institution Mitchell’s, featuring inventive varieties including green tea, ube (purple yam) and Filipino-style coconut flavors such as macapuno and buko.

Kabuki Springs & Spa
Kabuki Springs & Spa (©Frankie Frankeny)

Things to Do

Kabuki Springs & Spa mimics traditional Japanese-style communal bathhouses with public bathing pools and a full-service, wellness-focused spa. The newly rebranded AMC Dine-In Kabuki 8 movie theater shows an array of art house and general release films with high-end snacks and a full bar. On the second floor of the Kintetsu Mall, the Playland Japan arcade attracts all ages to its imported consoles including drum game Taiko no Tatsujin, Pachinko, a stress-busting table flipping gam, and an ultra kawaii claw machine filled with tiny pastel stuffed animals.  

The lobby atrium at AMC Dine-In Kabuki 8
The lobby atrium at AMC Dine-In Kabuki 8 (©Cesar Rubio)

Along a pedestrians-only stretch of Buchanan Street, beautiful, serene Forest Books is a destination for used and rare book seekers, especially those interested in San Francisco history and Eastern religions. The enticing sidewalk sale rack is always stocked with classic works of modern fiction. For those who enjoy writing as much as reading, Paper Tree specializes in fine Asian-inspired stationery and origami supplies. Elegant Song Tea & Ceramics is owned and operated by Peter Luong, who worked in his family’s Chinatown tea business before hanging his own shingle. Pull up a seat at one of the inviting tasting tables made by a local woodworker and sample from the shop’s selection of loose-leaf teas. In addition to tealeaves sourced from suppliers around the world, Luong sells one-of-a-kind teapots made from Zisha, a clay from China’s Jiangsu province.