Japantown is one of my favorite places to go during a family vacation to San Francisco. It’s the largest and oldest Japantown in the United States of America and one of only three left in the country (San Jose and Los Angeles are the other ones).
For these reasons, you should add Japantown to your San Francisco itinerary!
Is Japantown in San Francisco worth visiting?
San Francisco’s Japantown is a unique neighborhood and a one-stop shop for the best of Japanese culture. The Peace Tower pagoda stands in the center of the Western Addition neighborhood, where you will find delectable Japanese cuisine, unique and cute gifts, and markets with a variety of Asian food.
Although not as popular or big as Chinatown, this neighborhood is definitely worth visiting, especially if you love Japanese culture.
Spend an afternoon in Japantown after visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, or one of San Francisco’s eclectic museums. The entire family can find something here to enjoy!
Kids will especially enjoy anime books at the KinoKinuya bookstore, finding Pokémon cards and Hello Kitty gifts, and eating delicious Japanese desserts – all offered at the east Japan Center Mall.
History of Japantown in San Francisco
Japantown in San Francisco has a unique history – one of immigration, xenophobia, and resilience. Japanese immigrants have settled in San Francisco since 1906 after the Great Earthquake and Fire. Shortly after, the area became one of the largest Japanese enclaves in the U.S.A.
During World War II and soon after Pearl Harbor was bombed, the U.S. government sent Japanese residents to internment camps. Japanese residents, including the elderly, women, and children, were imprisoned as far as away as Arkansas, solely based on their nationality.
At this time, many Jewish and black neighbors moved in, setting up synagogues and jazz clubs, many of which you’ll still see in the area.
To get the full scope of the history around Japantown, go on a Japantown history walk.
Where is Japantown in San Francisco?
Japantown is roughly 6 square blocks in the Western Addition neighborhood between Post Street and Sutter Street, and located between the Fillmore Street and Pacific Heights neighborhood. It is accessible by public transportation, including the MUNI, street car from Union Square, and the BART.
The neighborhood makes its mark with the Japantown Peace Tower and plaza on Geary Boulevard in the heart of Japantown. This is where the annual events such as the Annual Cherry Blossom Festival and Nihonmachi Street Fair take place.
On either side of the plaza is the Japan Center Malls. These buildings were established in 1968 as the Japan Trade and Cultural Center to highlight goods from Japan. Japan Center Mall East houses some of the bigger stores such as Daiso and Nijiya Market, while the west side is a multi-story mini mall housing smaller shops and restaurants.
My top 7 recommendations when in Japantown
Japantown has many things to eat, see, and do, but here are my top 7 recommendations if you can’t do it all!
1. Eat Ramen at Marufuku Ramen in Japantown
There’s a plethora of great restaurants in Japantown, but the draw for me is a traditional Japanese ramen shop. Ramen is the ultimate comfort food! It’s perfect after sightseeing, when the weather is cool, or anytime that you want a warm bowl of savory, slurp-worthy noodle goodness.
Marufuku Ramen is located on the 3rd floor of the Japanese Center Mall West. Hours are 11am – 10pm everyday. Beat the lunch rush and get there when it opens (otherwise you’ll have to wait for a table).
2. Shop at Daiso, the Japanese dollar store, for unique and cheap gifts
Daiso is the “Japanese dollar store” and sells a variety of items for a standard low price. Although it used to be that everything was a dollar, it has slowly crept up to $1.50 and now $1.75. Some items are $5.00 or more.
Daiso is one of my favorite stores and I can easily spend an hour looking up and down the aisles for unique treasures priced at $2.25 each. They sell everything from housewares, office and school supplies, snacks, beauty supplies, toys, and more.
You will find things that you didn’t know you needed. You can also get souvenirs here for cheap!
3. Enjoy the beauty and culture during the Northern California Cherry Blossom festival
San Francisco, with its moderate climate, has cherry blossom trees scattered all over the city, including Japantown. In the springtime in the first half of April, cherry blossom trees burst into pink flowers. Japantown celebrates this time of year with its annual Northern California Cherry Blossom festival.
The Cherry Blossom festival highlights Japanese culture in the Peace Center with performances in dance, martial arts, and taiko drumming. There are booths and tables with Japanese food, calligraphy demonstrations, books, and information.
4. Grab a matcha latte, taiyaki, mochi donut or other delectable Japanese desserts
Whether you go for refreshing beverages or baked goods, Japanese desserts are scrumptious! Some options you will find in Japantown include:
- Mochi Donuts. Made of rice flour, these donuts are cute and chewy and more fun to eat then a typical donut.
- Taiyaki ice cream. Creamy soft serve in a crispy and chewy fish waffle.
- Matcha tea latte. A creamy green tea that’s both healthy and delicious at Matcha Cafe Maiko.
5. Get squeaky clean at a Japanese or Korean spa in Japantown
Steam rooms and communal baths are common in Japan, so trying one out in the United States will give you an immersive cultural experience!
For one set price, you can go to the spa where they give you a robe, slippers, and a locker. The communal bath areas are where you can wash your hair, sit in the hot tub, go into a dry or wet sauna, or lie down in a salt room.
For the ultimate pampering experience, pay extra for a body scrub or massage. You will come out squeaky clean and feel shiny and new!
Kabuki Springs and Spa is a Japanese spa that is beautifully decorated on the inside. It has a zen feel and luxury vibe.
Pearl Spa and Sauna is a Korean spa on the outskirts of Japantown. It is more basic than Kabuki but also friendlier on the wallet.
6. Take a historical walking tour of Japantown
Japantown has a unique story about how it came to be. The best way to get all the details of Japantown’s history is to take a guided walking tour of the area.
Here are two options:
- Historical walking tour
- Self-guided audio tour through Viator.
7. Shop for Japanese specialty products
Japan is known for its high quality, dependable, and meticulously detailed products. You can find a variety of Japanese products in the specialty shops in Japantown. Some things that you can shop for:
- Knives at the kitchen supply shop
- Shiseido Cosmetics store for sunscreen and beauty products
- Origami at paper shop
- Tea pots and green tea
Other fun things to do in Japantown:
Browse the Kinokuniya bookstore in the east mall.
Housed in the Japan Center east mall, this unique bookstore offers everything from Japanese literature, comic/anime books, cookbooks, toys, stationary, and gifts.
You cannot go wrong with any of the sushi restaurants in Japantown. This area offers some of the most fresh and delicious sushi in the United States! For a unique experience, try sushi on a conveyor belt at Tenroku Sushi.
Nihonmachi Street Fair
Shortly after the Northern California Cherry Blossoms Festival is the Nihonmachi Street Fair to kick off Asian American Pacific Islander heritage month in May. This street fair celebrates the AAPI community and their cultural heritage with performances, food, and community organizations’ services and outreach
Go grocery shopping at Nijiya Market.
Near Daiso on the Japan Center east side is Nijiya Market, a standard Japanese market offering prepared foods. You can find seafood such as sashimi, frozen noodles, dumplings, etc. This would be a cheaper alternative than going to a Japanese restaurant.
Watch a movie at the AMC Kabuki movie theater.
This AMC movie theater was established in the 1960s as the first authentic kabuki theater, which mixed dramatic performances with traditional dance. Now it’s a typical AMC movie theater showing the latest movie releases. It’s a good place to kills some time in between meals!
Visit other Asian establishments in Japantown
Japantown is not only home to Japanese restaurants and shops, but many other Asian establishments as well. In terms of restaurants, you can find Korean barbecue, Thai food, Chinese dim sum, and Filipino cuisine.
Japantown is a neighborhood in San Francisco worth spending a few hours in. Whether you’re getting a satisfying bowl of ramen, fresh sushi or shopping for Japanese goods, make Japantown a destination the next time you are in San Francisco!