San Francisco is often described as a city of neighborhoods, and it’s true. Neighborhoods like North Beach, Chinatown, and the ever-funky Haight-Ashbury are familiar to everyone, but we have other interesting neighborhoods too. One of these is Japantown, a nine-block area off Geary and Fillmore along the northern side of the Western Addition.

The heart of Japantown is a two-story mall called Japan Center, which covers a three-block area along Geary Blvd. It begins with the Sundance Kabuki Cinema on the west end, and ends with the Hotel Kabuki on the east end. In between, there are several dozen shops, stores, restaurants, and the Peace Plaza.

01) Japantown (Z-15-750)

If you simply walk through Japan Center, you may feel like you’re in a Japanese themed shopping mall that happens to be heavily laced with eateries. That’s all good, but, for those who are also interested in history and culture, there’s more. The best way to experience it is to begin with the Japantown History Walk. Go here and download the free map. The History Walk is a self-guided tour that weaves around Japantown for ten city blocks. Along the way, there are 16 interpretive signs that recount the history and experiences of the Japanese American community. The signs, which you can also view here, are nicely done and include lots of photos, stories, and cultural details.

The interpretive sign at Stop 3 tells the story of Uoki Sakai Market. This family-owned grocery and seafood store operated here for 105 years, but, sadly, it closed at the end of 2011. 

Continuing on toward the Benkyodo Candy Store (Stop 6), the walk goes through Buchanan Mall where you can see Ruth Asawa's Origami Fountains. Though cast in bronze, the two fountains are made to look like origami lotus flowers.


The first Japanese came to San Francisco in the 1860’s and initially settled in Chinatown and south of Market. After the 1906 earthquake, many Japanese moved to the Western Addition where they established a Japanese style neighborhood. They built shrines, temples, shops, and restaurants, and called the area Nihonmachi, or Japantown. It’s the oldest of the three remaining Japantowns in the U.S.

The Japanese built their own neighborhood for the same reason other ethnic groups do. They were heavily discriminated against, and it gave them a community where they were not treated as outsiders and could carry on their traditional ways.

In 1942, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military declared the west coast Japanese a threat to national security and imprisoned the entire west coast Japanese American population. 120,000 people were rounded up and moved to concentration camps in the desert. They could only take the possessions they could carry, so most of them lost everything they had: homes, businesses, furnishings, everything.

This shameful, heartbreaking chapter of American history began to close in 1946, when the Japanese were freed and allowed to leave the camps. Many returned to San Francisco’s Japantown and began the long, difficult task of starting over.

Another consequence of the WW II is that the western addition had become home to many war workers and was overcrowded and run-down. It was a prime target for a major urban renewal project in the 1960s. Urban renewal had its downsides, especially for many African American families who were forced to move, but it also cleared a three-block area along Geary where the new Japanese Cultural and Trade Center opened in 1968; the name was later shortened to Japan Center.

The history tour ends back in Japan Center where it started. Check out the Peace Plaza with its Pagoda, and memorial sculpture, wander through the shops, and take a break for lunch or dinner at one of the many restaurants.

02) Peace Pagoda (Apr '11-Z-12-422)

Peace Plaza

The plaza is home to the five-tiered, 100-foot tall Peace Pagoda designed by Japanese architect Yoshiro Taniguchi; it was a gift from the people of Osaka, San Francisco’s sister city. The cherry trees, around the pagoda, bloom in mid-April.


03) Injustice to Redress (3 Photos)

While in the plaza, don’t miss the memorial sculpture: From Injustice to Redress. The three faces of this nine-foot high bronze sculpture “depict the Issei pioneers, the WWII internment experience, and current community life." The sculpture is the work of artists Eugene Daub & Louis Quaintance.


04) Maneki Neko (Z-15-742)


There are 35 or so shops and stores in Japan Center, and collectively they carry a huge variety of Japanese goods including wood-block prints, bonsai trees, origami, tea, jewelry, kimonos, antiques, and home furnishings. The Kinokuniya Bookstore chain has two locations in Japan Center; they have thousands of books about Japan and Asia, including everything from language texts to anime and manga. The tiny photo store, Pika Pika, has real purikura machines (photo sticker booths). The large Sanrio store has more Hello Kitty stuff than you ever imagined existed. And, don’t miss Daiso Japan, the $1.50 store. Daiso, and some of the other stores, have shelves of maneki nekos, beckoning cats.

05) Red Bridge (Z-15-694)06) Zen Garden (Z15-688)

While wandering through the shops, don’t miss the staircase near the Daiso store in the east mall. It’s incorporated into a red bridge that arches over a small Zen garden.


07) Food (Z-15-718)08) Kushi Tsuru (Z-15-716)


If you’re in the mood for sushi, sashimi, teriyaki, or tempura, you’ll find it here in abundance. There are more than two-dozen restaurants in Japan Center; many, but not all of them are listed here. There are upscale restaurants like Benihana, small udon and soba noodle shops, and everything in between. And, just as you see in Japan, many of the resturants have visual displays of their menus.

While taking photos for this blog, we stopped at Kushi Tsuru and had excellent shrimp and vegetable tempura and washed it down with Asahi Beer. If you’re a sushi lover, check out Isobune (ee-so boo-nay); it’s the first sushi boat restaurant to open in the U.S.


09) Parade (Apr '09-P1060847)


Japantown hosts two major events every year. The Cherry Blossom Festival is held over two consecutive weekends in mid-April when the cherry trees are in bloom. The festival includes a Grand Parade on the final Sunday). The Nihonmachi Street Fair is held in August.


The Sundance Kabuki Cinema in Japantown is not, as it’s name suggests, a traditional Kabuki Theater where skilled actors in elaborate costumes and makeup act and dance in plays depicting historical events and domestic dramas. It’s a regular eight-screen theater complex that shows both foreign and independent films. The cinema’s claim to uniqueness is that it has a 21+ section on the balcony level with a full bar and restaurant and comfortable seating with tables; you can eat, drink, and see a film.

If karaoke interests you, Japan Center has that too. There are at least two karaoke clubs here: Kabuki Karaoke Club and Feste Lounge.

Unlike most shopping malls, Japan Center is very calm and peaceful and there are lots of benches where you can sit and relax. With the self-guided history walk, shopping, and eating, you can easily spend a few pleasant hours here. And, if you spend some money here, all the better because the merchants here are actively involved in raising money to help Japan recover from the devastating March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant disasters.


© Virginia E. Vail 2012