Exploring Japan in San Francisco
San Francisco, California
I love exploring ethnic neighborhoods in North America – to see and eat new foods, gaze at signs in letters, read what I canâ€™t understand, and browse small shops filled with exotic gifts.
On a recent drive to San Francisco, I had planned to go to the cityâ€™s most famous neighborhood, Chinatown. A funny thing happened on the way, though. As I was driving across town, I became distracted by bilingual signs for a neighborhood I hadnâ€™t known existed, Japan Town.
I was lucky to find a parking space on Laguna Street. From there, I walked to Post Street and headed west. I was drawn like a magnet to the heart of Japan Town, the Peace Plaza on Post Street. Its concrete square is filled with carefully arranged stones and benches that surround a large pagoda constructed in the Japanese style.
The Peace Plaza divides the Nihonmachi (Japan Center) shopping mall into two parts. The east side of the mall is not as large or busy as the west side, but it should not be overlooked. Just to the right of the entrance from the plaza is Genji, a store of fine arts, antiques, and clothing in the Japanese tradition. I didnâ€™t have $4400.00 to drop on the Japanese tea ceremony furniture or even $50.00 for a blue-and-white ceramic vase, but I was able to part with $3.00 for a set of 40 sticks of incense. The staff still treated me like a valued customer, wrapping my modest purchase in tissue paper, fluting the tissue paper, and placing it carefully in a printed paper bag.
In the center of the shopping center there is a wooden bridge with artificial cherry trees on either side of it. Around the bridge towards the back of the center is a shop that sells precious stones of all shapes, colors and sizes. Upstairs are four more places of note: the Kabuki karaoke bar; Ichiban Kan, a discount store with Japanese beauty products and housewares; and two restaurants – Takara and Mifune Don.
Takara was rated one of the top 100 restaurants in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Gate magazine, but it was a little out of my price range. Instead, I chose the more modest Mifune Don. In the glass case of plastic foods outside Mifune Don, I saw one my Japanese ESL students had told me about – okonomiyaki. Inside, the more detailed menu advertised it as â€œJapanese style pizzaâ€. My beef and egg okonomiyaki ($8.35) was round and small like a pizza and may have been baked in an oven, but to me it had a consistency more like an omelet than a pizza. It was topped with mayonnaise, a brown sauce that tasted vaguely like a thin barbecue sauce, and shavings of dried (possibly smoked) squid. It may not sound appetizing, but I assure you it was delicious.
After eating lunch and browsing Ichiban Kan, I went across the park to the west side of Nihonmachi. There were many more gift shops and restaurants. Ironically, the most popular restaurant seemed to be the authentic crepe place. Next to it was my treat of the day – Kinokuniya Bookstore. Kinokuniya is a San Francisco branch of a store in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. As I walked around the aisles looking at the rows of comic books and stories written in Japanese characters, I felt I was back in Asia.
Across the street from the Peace Park is a cobblestone passageway (actually part of Buchanan Street) with more benches and Japanese stores. I was surprised to find a store that was not Japanese but Hawaiian – loha Warehouse, where I discovered beautiful clothes, an enchanting CD collection, and great Pidgin English books. Many people from Hawaii are of Japanese ancestry so I should not have been too surprised.
When I left the passageway, I walked back up Post Street towards Laguna and entered Sakai Co. Market, a grocery store specializing in Japanese products. The sushi was below expectation, but the rice cake filled with sweet red beans wasnâ€™t bad. I should point out that â€œrice cakeâ€ does not mean the dried puffed diet â€œtreatâ€ that tastes like sawdust. A rice cake in the Japanese sense of the English word is a chewy, sticky dessert made from sticky rice that has been ground or pounded, steamed, and then stuffed with things such as red bean paste. Like okonomiyaki, it may be an acquired taste for some. For me, acquiring that taste is part of the fun of exploring Japan Town.