You’ve just touched down in San Francisco and you’re short on time — who isn’t these days? Grab your carry-on. Catch a ride into the city. And head on over to one of our micro-neighborhoods, Japantown!
This small but mighty community didn’t exist until after the Great Fire and Earthquake of 1906 — when nearly 80% of the city was destroyed. Deplorable race politics of the late 1800s had forced Japanese immigrants into an already overcrowded Chinatown on the steep slopes of Nob Hill.
While these days Nob Hill is one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, 30 years before the advent of cable cars it was some of the least desirable land in the city. Would you live on a hill if the only way around was on a horse drawn buggy?
But the devastation of 1906 created an opportunity for Japanese-Americans to claim their own space. To embrace their culture. And honor their history. So, the recently transformed sand dunes in the Western Addition became the nation’s first Japantown — rising from the ashes of a smoldering city in ruins.
Check-in to Hotel Kabuki
In the heart of Japantown, a bonsai filled Japanese garden and koi pond welcome guests to Hotel Kabuki, one of our newest hotel partners. The rooms have unbeatable views of Japantown from above. Rice paper soji screens and fusuma panels set the tone and offer a tranquil reprieve from the perpetually hip decor found elsewhere SF.
In honor of our partnership, we’ve hit the streets, Scouting out the best ways to make the most of 24 hours in Japantown!
9AM: Mimosas with brunch at Sweet Maple
Sweet Maple isn’t just a nice spot for brunch on the edge of Japantown — it’s one of the city’s quintessential brunch spots — we’re talking TripAdvisor’s #5 Restaurant in San Francisco!
True to San Francisco norms, this pillar of the breakfast community does not take reservations. If you can make it by 9am, there’s a good chance you’ll beat the crowds. Anything after 10am and your brunch will be looking more like, well, lunch.
In a rush for breakfast? Just head around the corner to one of the few standout bagel spots in the city — Wise Sons Bagel & Bakery — for what many locals consider the best bagel in San Francisco! Our condolences for the notoriously terrible bagels you may find elsewhere in the city.
Some argue the Japantown has been Disney-ified, but the distinct style seen here has good intentions. This was an attempt at improving the strained race relations and anti-Japanese sentiment that lingered into the 70s.
San Francisco City Walks offers an exploration of Japantown and neighboring Fillmore District every Saturday at 2pm that we absolutely love. No need to sign up, just meet next to the large Japanese gate at the entrance to the pedestrian mall.
12PM: Ruin your appetite with dessert crepes at Belly Good Cafe & Crepes
These might just be the cutest crepes you’ll ever have the joy of eating, but don’t let the adorable presentation fool you, these crepes are the real deal!
Come hungry because they’re fully packed with heaps of ice cream, whipped cream, syrups and marshmallows.
You don’t want to spoil your appetite, so we’ll suggest eating this *before* lunch!
1PM: Eye your favorite pieces of sushi for lunch at Isobune Sushi
We just need to get this out of the way: sushi boats are gross. Normally.
Many SFers have a love/hate relationship with the sushi boats at Isobune. We love this upgrade from what you typically get from sailing sushi, but we hate how easy it is to stack those little plates into one big bill! So, yee be warned sushi seafarer.
Sushi chefs work from their own little island in the middle of the moat — so if you don’t see something you like floating around it’s easy to ask.
3PM: #TreatYoSelf at Kabuki Springs & Spa
Need a relaxing urban oasis to get away from it all? Visit Kabuki Springs & Spa, located in San Francisco's Japan Town. Once you walk through the doors your city life will melt away. They specialize in traditional Japanese public baths and have a hot pool, cold plunge, dry sauna, and steam room. They also offer additional spa treatments such as facials and amazing massages. For $25 (or $15 w/treatment) you can enjoy the baths, sauna and steam room for as long as you wish. We especially loved the exfoliating salt scrub they provided. Be sure to check it out! Find their online schedule for men, women, and coed days: kabukisprings.com #kabukispa #japanesebaths #sfjapantown #sanfrancisco #onlyinsf #urbanoasis #massage #sfspa #relaxation #bayareabuzz
One of only two public bathhouses in San Francisco, Kabuki Springs & Spa is free (normally $25) to guests who booked their rooms directly from the hotel website, so there’s no excuse not to #TreatYoSelf. We recommend starting with the dry sauna and working your way up to the hot pool — and don’t forget that the occasional cold plunge builds character.
Bring along your birthday suit because swimsuits are optional in the bath house, except on co-ed Tuesdays. Men only on Saturday, Monday and Thursday. Women only on Saturday, Wednesday and Friday..
We also recommend the Thai Yoga Massage. Get a full 80 minutes, you won’t regret it!
6PM: Become a Phan: dinner at SF’s most famous chef at Out the Door
Charles Phan’s career got off to a rough start when his first project, a proposed creperie with Vietnamese influences, was closed in 1982. Before it ever opened.
In the 90s, he opened Slanted Door in the Mission District, putting San Francisco on the map as a burgeoning culinary destination.
Since then, SF has become a major food stop — consistently making the top ranks of the Washington Post’s 10 Best Food Cities in America. SFers consider Charles Phan the spark that ignited our foodie revolution.
Out the Door is Slanted Door’s outgoing and approachable little cousin. You’ll see similarly inspired entrees at a more affordable price point. And, with a communal table and large bar area, walkins and last minute reservation requests are easier to come by!
7:30PM: Get the best Instagram of boba milk tea topped with cotton candy at Mitsu Teahouse
You’ll want to take a few snaps of this decadent sweet treat — it makes for a fun Instagram!
If you’re in more of a snack mood, I’d suggest trying their fluffier Taiwanese take on Hawaiian Shave Ice — Mitsu Snow.
8PM: Catch the sunset at Alta Plaza Park
Summers in San Francisco are notoriously foggy — thanks to Karl the Fog. So, if you’re lucky enough to be visiting on a clear day you’ll want to make the hike up to Alta Plaza Park. Perched atop Pacific Heights, you’ll have a great vantage point to watch one of those infamous California sunsets wash over the city.
9PM: Get your groove on at the Boom Boom Room
The Boom Boom Room straddles the border between Japantown and the Fillmore. Japantown briefly became a ghost town after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Effectively declaring Japantown a military zone and forced the internment of all people of Japanese ancestry in 1942, falling on the heels of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
With ample work in the shipyards of San Francisco, laborers from the South flooded into the city and settled into what we now call the Fillmore, transforming the neighborhood into the Harlem of the West. You would’ve regularly found Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Etta James performing on stage.
In the late 90s, one of the most legendary of all blues musicians, John Lee Hooker, became “co-owner” of the Boom Boom Room. But he didn’t buy in. Not officially. Instead, allowing the use of his name to be used in exchange for his own private booth and easy access to an endless stream of bourbon. This is a locals favorite and a must for fans of live music!
12AM: Indulge in some late night karaoke at Festa
With a stage lined with illuminated skyscrapers, Festa is the kind of karaoke joint that elegantly walks the fine line between kitschy and tacky. Which makes it the perfect spot for a late night rendition of Don’t Stop Believing (or maybe Lights — just as long as it’s from SF’s most beloved band for karaoke, Journey).
While this is the largest of America’s three Japantown’s, SF Japantown is one of the smallest neighborhoods in San Francisco, taking up only six square blocks.
This unique gem of a neighborhood has been in flux since it emerged from the destruction of the Great Fire and Earthquake of 1906. First, with the birth of the Fillmore’s Harlem of the West. Coming at the expense of much of Japantown during the forced internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Something that descendants of the first Black Americans in the Fillmore still feel today.
And again in the 50s when homes and businesses were destroyed in an effort to widen lanes on Geary Boulevard — physically segregating Japantown from the predominantly black community of the Fillmore.
Much of Japantown continues to be chipped away. Ever so slowly being absorbed into the much more affluent Pacific Heights neighborhood at its northern and western edges. Be sure you to make the most of your 24 hours at Hotel Kabuki, before Japantown disappears from the streets of San Francisco.
[Feature Image by Nicole Abalde via Flickr]