San Francisco’s Japantown

Neighbourhood Watch

At once kitschy and classic. San Francisco’s Japantown is one of the few districts in the city whose unwitting cool has survived the second tech boom, its cherry-blossom-lined plaza, octogenarian shopkeepers and hole-in-the-wall noodle and sushi spots still as authentic as ever. The neighbourhood’s never had many places where you’d want to stay, however. But now there’s The Buchanan right by residential Pacific Heights and trendy Fillmore.

Looking north on Buchanan Street, across Post Street in Japantown

The boutique hotel takes creative hints from its setting, with shibori-print robes and a Japanese spirit-themed lobby where thousands of empty bottles decorate the ceiling and wood barrels make up one wall; and the hotel shares space with Mum’s, one of the city’s oldest Japanese hot­pot joints. The Buchanan’s 128 rooms are a study in wabi-sabi: Rough canvas drapes offset crisp white bed linens; pale marble-topped dressers contrast with bright, asymmetrical wall prints. It’s the perfect home base for exploring the area: approximately six square blocks whose treasures are mostly housed in malls (more Tokyo’s Asakusa district than King of Prussia) that sell everything from kimonos and boba tea to bonsai.

Here, a neighbourhood hit list:

  1. Benkyo-do serves fresh mochi out of a nondescript glass-and-brick shopfront. Get the chofu made of plain sweet rice wrapped in a pancake and stamped with Japanese characters. Benkyo-do and their sweets
  2. Kinokuniya Bookstore, a bi-level bibliophile’s dream in the Kinokuniya Building, draws the aesthetically minded for its rare design books, Asian literature and manga selection.
  3. Waraku specialises in steaming bowls of ramen with thick, chewy noodles in pork bone or chicken broth. If you’ve got the appetite, indulge in the Tonkotsu Deluxe Ramen, a heaping plate of noodles with an assortment of toppings ready to dunk into a bowl of fish broth.
  4. Relax at Kabuki Springs & Spa, which offers massages, Reiki and acupuncture but is most famous for its communal baths. (Swimsuits optional, silence mandatory.) The Sushi & Sartori group package includes access to the baths, private massages and sushi.
  5. The airy Song Tea & Ceramics gives free tastings from a hand-picked selection of Chinese and Taiwanese leaves, walking you through the teas’ origins, brewing practises and flavour profiles. Ask to try one of the aged varieties, some of which have been preserved and roasted for more than two decades.
  6. Nijiya Market has the city’s best assortment of Japanese snacks, sake and arid hops. Buy a bag of Kasugai kiwi-flavoured gummy candy arid a bottle of Kawaba Sunrise, a craft amber brew from a mountain village in Gunma.
    Nijiya Market has the city’s best assortment of Japanese snacks 

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