An elderly Japanese-American man is pruning the tiny pines in concrete planters on a pedestrianised section of the outdoor Buchanan Street Mall, ignoring the teens hunting invisible Pokémon around him and the drone buzzing overhead. San Francisco’s storied Japantown is where aspects of Japanese culture have taken root in America but it’s also, in this tech-mad, trendy city, a neighbourhood that not only keeps up with the latest trends but sometimes sets them.
Japantown (J-Town) is not as picturesque as the tourist magnet of Chinatown, that’s several big hills east of here – but it has its own story to tell. The Japanese moved to this area after the 1906 earthquake, when the areas where they then lived burned down. J-Town has had to weather two other cataclysms: the internment of its 5,000 inhabitants during the second world war and an urban renewal scheme in the 1960s that saw most of its original buildings bulldozed.
“My family was displaced by the scheme,” says Richard Hashimoto, the current head of the Japantown Merchants’ Association. “Many never came back. We went from 36 [city] blocks to nine. And, with the current tech-driven real-estate boom in the city, the mom-and-pop businesses that did make it have another struggle.”
Look east on J-Town’s main drag, Post Street, and this threat is made real by, looming in the distance, the nearly completed Salesforce Tower, the 61-storey block that is now San Francisco’s tallest building.
Still, J-Town buzzes most weekends, its main plaza a meeting point for throngs of techies, teens and twentysomethings, some dressed as anime stock characters or J-Pop stars, most taking place-establishing selfies at the concrete Peace Pagoda off Geary Boulevard. This is the focal point for the community’s many festivals, its sumo, taiko, cosplay, origami, tofu and cherry blossom festivals, as well as several events this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of the construction of Japan Center, the mall that flanks the Peace Plaza. (On 28 March, the plaza will hold a celebration of the neighbourhood’s oldest businesses, and there’ll be a party to mark the mall’s anniversary in October.)
Designed by Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki (best-known for New York’s ill-fated World Trade Center towers), the plaza has long-time tenants that include a manga-filled bookstore, Kinokuniya; a communal Japanese-style bathhouse, the Kabuki Springs and Spa, with shiatsu-specialising masseurs; and two stores, Daiso and Ichiban Kan, selling cute and high-design items at low cost: bento lunch boxes, say, or moulds that transform balls of sticky rice into panda heads.
Queues for the Japan Center’s new, on-trend arrivals tend to be long: Uji Time Desserts offers tofu- and black-sesame-flavoured soft-serve ice-cream in fish-shaped waffle cones, while Marufuku Ramen adds a gourmet gloss to the soup that is a working-class staple in Japan. Outside the mall, another new ramen house, Hinodeya, a small Japanese chain’s first foray into America, sells a dashi(fish broth) version in an elegant room.
Attached to the mall is the 225-room Kabuki Hotel (doubles from £135), which the mainly West Coast-based boutique chain Joie de Vivre recently took over, giving it a $35m rework. Ask for a south-facing room, since the views they afford over Golden Gate park are especially fine.
J-Town’s other food highlights can be hit on a snack-fuelled walking tour from Edible Excursions, led by local insiders. It moves from consuming sweet potato lattes at art-filled YakiniQ cafe on Post Street) to seaweed salads and gyozadumplings at Super Mira Market, to sweet mochi – rice-flour pods with sweet fillings – at Benkyodo, a family business that has been based here since 1906.
Benkyodo sits on a bonsai tree-filled pedestrianised stretch of Buchanan Street, just across the road from the Japan Center, with two other destination shops. Paper Tree, an origami shop, exhibits the work of master makers – a scarab beetle, a dragon, an electric-green frog – with the origami motto: “No cuts, only folds.” And Soko Hardware offers wares ranging from paper moons to traditional Japanese wood-cutting saws, from singing, spritzing toilets to ceramic kitchenware you’d only want to top with equally pretty food. When the store was founded in 1925, the Ashizawa family gave it the Japanese name for San Francisco, Soko, and, after their internment in the war, they returned to the area to carry on.
A few storefronts down from Soko is the National Japanese American Historical Society, which last year put on several exhibitions to mark the 75th anniversary of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordering the removal of Japanese-Americans to camps.
“Persistence is our story,” Hashimoto says. “The challenge for our small family businesses is both with rising real-estate costs and seeing if the next generation will will carry on the business.”