Without a doubt, one of the highlights of living in the Bay Area is discovering the little distinct neighborhoods within our cities. For a Japanophile like myself, having easy access to the superb Japantown neighborhood in San Francisco, the largest and oldest of its kind in the United States, is such a treat. Japanese Americans began settling in the area after the 1906 earthquake. Though dominated by the multi-block Japan Center, it spreads past in all directions, with many of its best features located outside the shopping center. This is by no means a comprehensive guide to Japantown, just some of my favorite things about this often-underrated part of the city.
Food and Drink
This unassuming mochi shop has been around for over 100 years, though I naively only discovered it for myself months ago. The tiny shop’s retail area is half mochi case, displaying the 10 - 15 varieties of filled mochi and manju they make daily. Favorites include the age manju, a sugar-coated donut filled with red bean paste, and the strawberry mochi, filled with white lima bean paste and a strawberry, when in season. The owners at this family-run shop are incredibly helpful and prices are crazy reasonable, especially for fresh, handmade mochi. It is softer than commercial brands, and the bean pastes are smooth and sweet, almost melting in your mouth. Oh man, I think I need to go back pronto.
The other half of the shop is a 1940’s era diner counter, serving chili cheese dogs and pastrami sandwiches, among other diner fare. I’ve never tried anything there, but it is certainly intriguing.
A relative newcomer and my favorite ramen I’ve had in the area. This outpost of a Los angeles-based chain focuses on tonkostsu ramen, made by simmering pork bones for 20+ hours. There are tons of choices for ramen in Japantown, but Yamadaya gets my vote for two reasons: 1) Their noodles are super thin and on the hard side, which is the style I fell in love with in Fukuoka and 2) they have tsukemen (aka dipping noodles). I love tsukemen, which is cold thicker ramen noodles, served in a separate bowl from the thick broth and toppings. You dip the noodles into the broth and then greedily slurp them. The broth is thicker, fishier, and richer than normal ramen broth, which helps it cling to the noodles during the dipping process.
Another unassuming place, just kitty corner from Benkyodo. It is a very old Japanese grocery store, with a solid selection of sushi-grade fish and various other Japanese groceries. In the back of the shop, they have a small kitchen, where you can order from a similarly small menu of rice bowls and noodles. The owner prepares your food, from scratch, while you wait. The oyakodon (chicken and egg) rice bowl I had there is one of the best I’ve had in the city, all for the low low price of $7. The shop also has a bakery attached, Yasukochis, which has allegedly one of the tastiest cakes in the city.
This tiny shop, located between Kinokuniya and Sophie’s Crepes seems to exclusively cater to an older Japanese ladies who lunch clientele. Don’t let that deter you. Forge ahead into this very tiny, very Victorian, tea shop. It is challenging to find a place that serves just straight up matcha, not a matcha latte or god-forbid an iced mint matcha latte atrocity (I’m looking at you, Peet’s). For about $5 you get hot frothy matcha served in a beautiful chawan (matcha bowl) with a scoop of sweetened bean paste to eat with it. Lovely stuff.
Oh, how I love this place. I have spent well over an hour here browsing on several occasions. This spacious bookstore is filled with both Japanese and English language books and magazines. Their art and design book section is basically unparalleled in the city. This is where to go to get weird little books on Japanese crafts and chic sewing manuals. They also have a surprisingly large selection of cookbooks, not only of Japanese cuisine.
I have been going to Maido since 1999, when I was in college and there was a branch out at Town and Country shopping center in Palo Alto. Hands down the best stationery store for the Japanophile or pen-obsessed. Super wide selection of pencils (including my favorite Palomino Blackwings and Hi-Uni), pens, markers, silly notebooks, calligraphy sets, washi tape, and handmade paper. Oh, and fun erasers and office supplies.
Visiting the 100 yen stores in Japan is a nearly daily activity for me when I travel there, so I was super excited when Daiso began opening shps in the Bay Area. Basically a Japanese dollar stores, but with much cooler inventory than its American counterpart. Almost everything here is $1.50 in departments ranging from kitchenware, to decor, to storage.
This is a pretty small, but well-stocked outpost of the Japanese grocery store. Really solid selection of prepared bento boxes and sushi up front, as well as snacks and spices. We come here for rice, soy sauce, and the meat counter, where you can find thinly sliced meat for shabu shabu and various chicken parts (like necks, separated wings, and the strangely elusive boneless skin-on thighs) for making yakitori.
The shops change frequently, but always feature highlights of Japanese pop culture. There have been Japanese design stores, clothing stores featuring Lolita fashion, Japanese textiles, and nail decorating, among others. There is an oddly out of place British tea shop on the ground floor and a small cinema showing Japanese and Japanese culture films. Definitely worth a wander.