A freshly made taiyaki cone at Uji Time. (Courtesy of @spoon_berkeley)

A Modern Guide to San Francisco's Japantown: Photogenic Sweets, Stylish Hotels + All the Noodles

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One of just three official Japantowns in the U.S., San Francisco's hub of Japanese culture is brimming with original restaurants, quirky shops, and unique community vibes.

Go for the annual festivals—the 51st Annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival returns April 21-22, 2018, with the grand parade on Sunday at 1pm. Here's where to hang out while you're in the 'hood.


Where to Stay

A king room designed by Nicole Hollis at Hotel Buchanan.

(Courtesy of Kimpton Hotels)

The most noticeable change to Japantown in the recent years is the opening of bona fide, fashionable hotels, solidifying the neighborhood as a destination for tourists (and staycationers) who come for the area's Japanese culture as well as for the foodie scene in neighboring Fillmore and Western Addition.

This year's major revamp of Joie de Vivre's Hotel Kabuki (1625 Post St.) is luring locals back to the 'hood with posh contemporary design, lofty open spaces that feel inviting for meetings or just a moment of downtime, and a refreshed cocktail bar and restaurant serving kitschy drinks and Japanese-inflected fare. Those with keys can enjoy modern-zen-style rooms with poppy art and cascading rain showers. // Nearby, competitor Kimpton Hotels is raising the stakes at Hotel Buchanan (1800 Sutter St.), where the tchotchke styling of the former anime-inspired Hotel Tomo has given way to sophisticated interiors by SF designer Nicole Hollis. Whiskey is a thing here—perhaps a nod to Japan's love of the stuff—so look for the light fixture made from 3,100 whiskey bottles. All 131 rooms have a curated ambiance including shibori-print pillows and kimono robes.

Eat + Drink

Cocktails come with personality at the new Bar at the Hotel Kabuki.

(Sarah Chorey)

Sure, Japantown's neighbors in Pac Heights and the Western Addition get all the attention when it comes to dining—Dosa, State Bird Provisions, and Octavia are all within walking distance. But Japantown proper offers plentiful affordable, authentic eats that are well-suited to casual meals before or after a movie or a spa treatment at Kabuki Springs.

Sushi, Noodles + More

There's nothing to hate about the fried chicken ramen at Suzu Noodle House (1825 Post St.), a spare yet comfortable eatery for soba noodles and other Japanese delicacies. // Opened in 2014, Udon Mugizo (1581 Webster St.) is one of the few places that makes its noodles fresh in house. Choose from a variety on udon, ramen, and soba bowls to warm you up on foggy SF day. // Often crowded, Mums Home of Shabu Shabu (1800 Sutter St.) is best enjoyed with a group of friends over sake bombs. If you stumble upon Japantown early in the morning, Mums also serves daily breakfast. // We love Kui Shin Bo (22 Peace Plaza), a cozy and laidback place, for its simple, homemade Japanese food at super affordable prices. Must try: takoyaki.

Sweets & Snacks

When hanging around Japantown, matcha seems like a must. Enter the city's first cafe dedicated to the popular green tea. Opened in early April 2018, Matcha Cafe Maiko (1581 Webster St., Japan Center) serves up a taste of Japan in the form of shaved ice, ice cream, lattes, frappes, and floats—every last one so photogenic that the place is already an Instagram darling. // Also sending IGers into a tizzy is Uji Time (22 Peace Plaza, #440), a Japanese fusion dessert spot best known for its soft ice cream served in cute fish-shaped taiyaki cones, each one made fresh in about 15 minutes and filled with satisfying swirls of matcha, sesame, or tofu flavored froyo. // Get your hands on mochis of all flavors at Benkyodo Co. (1747 Buchanan St.), including pink habutai, red bean, and peanut butter. // Sophie's Crepes (1581 Webster St.) offers a genius mix of cones and crepes filled with exotic and traditional ice cream flavors and topped with everything you can imagine. // Hidden inside the Super Mira Market, Yusukochi's Sweet Shop (1790 Sutter St.) has been making one of San Francisco's most beloved desserts, the coffee crunch cake, for more than 40 years. The fluffy dream is filled with buttery cream and coated in candy. To get a taste, go early before they sell out, usually by 11:30 am. // Belly Goods Coffee & Crepes in the Kintetsu Mall (1737 Post St.) serves up crepes with luscious fillings and loads of personality. It doesn't get much better than this, but dieters be warned: One crepe might be worth 3,000 Weight Watchers points. // When cocktails are in order, ask for yours in a Lucky Cat mug at The Bar at Hotel Kabuki (1625 Post St.), inside the recently renovated Joie de Vivre hotel. Here you'll find a selection of Japanese whiskeys, sake, and beer, as well as light bites—don't miss the okonomiyaki and karaage chicken.

Shopping

Japanese treats and finds abound.

(Courtesy of @ichibankanusa)

Makers and creative types love Japantown for its quirky shops filled with unexpected finds. At Kinokuniya Books (1581 Webster St.), you'll enter a world full of Japanese literature, comics, stationery, toys, and lots of gifts. If you don't speak Japanese, you won't be able to read a single word, but the shelves are full of magical illustrations worth the flip time. // Daiso Japan (22 Peace Plaza) is basically a glorious dollar store—browse the aisles for hours and fill your cart with finds under a couple of bucks. // A small slice of Hawaii in the middle of Japantown, Aloha Warehouse (1731 Buchanan St.) is the place to find Hawaiian sweets, hula supplies, apparel, and a huge selection on ukuleles. You know you need one. // Challenge your inner Mr. Miyagi and get yourself a bonsai tree and all necessary accoutrements at Katsura Garden (1825 Post St). Happy pruning! // Pick up some elegant paper for origami, high-end gift wrapping, or classic scrapbooking at Paper Tree (1743 Buchanan St.), which also offers origami classes for everyone interested in the ancient Japenase art. // Ichiban Kan (22 Peace Plaza) is the go-to for all your zany home supply needs. Washing dishes is so much more fun with Hello Kitty sponges, right?

Things to Do

(Courtesy of CherryBlossomFestival.org)

Home to the five-story Peace Pagoda, which was built in the 1960s and given to SF by sister city Osaka, Japan, Peace Plaza (1610 Geary Blvd.) is the center of Japantown and an iconic spot to stop and rest. // A wellness oasis in the heart of the neighborhood, Kabuki Springs & Spa (1750 Geary Blvd.) is a classic Japanese-style bathhouse with hot tubs, cold plunge, and steam rooms. Go for a communal soak (Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are women-only), but also indulge in the menu of massages, seaweed wraps, facials, and more. // It may seem odd, but in Japantown, a lot goes down inside the malls. Kitschy stores, coffee shops, jewelry chains, and restaurants are hidden within the Japan Center and Nihonmachi malls. // Every April, the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival (April 14th-15th and 21st-22nd, 2018) blooms in Japantown. It's a quintessential moment to experience the splendid colors and grace of local Japanese culture. // Another noticeable change to Japantown of late is the change of hands at the Kabuki Theater. No longer the hip outpost of Sundance Cinemas (which served local, artisanal treats in addition to the standard movie fare offering), Kabuki 8 (1881 Post St.) is now run by AMC. This means lower quality popcorn and Coca-Cola products galore, but you can still catch a flick and grab an adult beverage at the bar.

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