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Culture and sophistication

In San Francisco

The LGBT community has a long relationship with the San Francisco Castro district, which is concentrated between Castro and 19th streets. Moreover, many have seen the movie “Milk”, the story of the merchant who pronounced himself “Mayor of Castro” and is viewed as an important figure in the fight for the recognition of the identity and rights of that community.

Even though Castro remains a main attraction for the LGBT community in San Francisco, other neighborhoods in the city attract those for whom culture and sophistication are center to their travel experience.

And Japantown, bordered by Geary Boulevard and Fillmore, Laguna and Sutter streets, is one of those neighborhoods. Despite its limited size, it is packed to the brim with things to do, see, eat and drink. It is also the oldest of the three Japantowns remaining in the U.S.

A page of history that is less than stellar

Before 1906, San Francisco had two Japantowns (commonly referred to as Nihonmachi in Japanese), one near Chinatown and one south of Market Street in a neighborhood called South Park. Not until after the 1906 earthquake did Japanese residents move to its current location. By World War II, the neighborhood had one of the largest populations of Japanese outside of Japan.

However, that all changed in 1942 when President Roosevelt signed an Order, which forced all Japanese by birth or descent out of the neighborhood and interned them on the Pacific Coast outside of the city. After the war, many chose not to return, shrinking the neighborhood to what it currently is today.

A little part of Japan

There is no better way to discover the neighborhood than walk it! And why not take a walking tour with a city guide who will share his or her knowledge on the history of Japantown and its Japanese-style architecture, as well as Victorian architecture?

You will see Cottage Row (between Bush and Sutter streets), a row of houses that date back to the mid-19th century. You will stop in the heart of Japantown on the Japanese Peace Plaza with the Peace Pagoda, a five-tiered shrine designed by Japanese architect Yoshiro Taniguchi, a gift from the people of Osaka, San Francisco’s sister city. One has to know that pagodas are empty spaces providing peace and silence and conducive to meditation. It is irresistible; one has to experience it, even if you are not a meditation enthusiast.

You will admire the Origami fountains, two waterless fountains in the form of lotus, created by the sculptor Ruth Asawa, in the middle of the Japanese Center Mall. A partially underground mall connecting Fillmore and Laguna streets, it is the perfect place to buy fancy stationery, kimonos, bonsai trees, paper art (origami), swords or electronics, cameras and more.

Sushi and Bento

Why not combine them and enjoy them under the sun on the Peace Plaza? Buy them at the Nijiya Market, on Post, a true paradise for Japan’s gastronomy with its jams, candies, sauces, fresh fish and noodles, etc.

Or, to stay in the tradition, enjoy a bowl of noodles at the Tanpopo or Ramen Yamadaya, two traditional establishments sitting next to each other on Buchanan Street. You will see that it is quite different from the Ramen sold in grocery stores!

For a well-deserved break

At a five-minute walk from those two restaurants, you will find the Kabuki Springs and Spa where massages, saunas, steam rooms and hot and cold spa baths are offered in private or in groups. Be careful to check before going since each day, the public rooms alternate between women-only, men-only and coed.

Or we suggest another out of the ordinary stop at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema. One where you reserve seats, eat and drink in the theater comfortably seated in a love seat or rocking seats. A winning combination for someone who wants a local experience, provided you carefully choose your movie, of course!

Even more culture and art

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco recently kicked off its 50th birthday festivities with a programme celebrating the beauty and depth of Asian art and cultures through 2016 with over 18,000 paintings, sculptures, textiles, ceramics and more that span from Turkey to Thailand over an awe-inspiring 6,000 years.

And until August 7, it is still possible to see the exhibition "Dancers We Lost: Honoring Performers Lost to HIV/AIDS" at the GLBT History Museum. It pays tribute to dancers who have distinguished themselves in various disciplines, including ballet, Broadway and Vegas shows, TV varieties, films, videos and even commercials and who died from HIV/AIDS.


San Francisco is pleasant at any time and in any season.

Nonetheless, if you really want to see Japantown at its liveliest and feel the Asian atmosphere, check it out during the Nihonmachi Street Fair, held this year on the weekend of August 6-7. You could combine this with a visit to the "Dancers We Lost" exhibition.

Where to stay

Of course in Japantown! Here are a few interesting options:

Hotel Kabuki - Elegant hotel with an indoor garden and a fishpond. An elegant blend of Eastern and Western designs.

The Kimpton Buchanan – With its 131 oriental-style rooms, it offers luxury and a few thoughtful additions, such as a yoga mat in your room.

For more info.

Research and writing: Christiane Théberge

The Peace Pagoda

Japan Center Mall

 Origami Fountain

Cathedral St-Mary-of-the-Assumption

Hotel Kabuki




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