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Located near the Pacific Heights neighborhood in San Francisco, Japantown is off the beaten tourist track.  Yet it is an easy bus ride or fast cab ride from the tourist mecca that is Union Square and has plenty to keep visitors busy for at least half a day. Shops and restaurants are spread throughout several indoor malls (this is a great destination when it rains) and the immediately surrounding area. Annual events include a longtime cherry blossom festival in April, when blooming trees around Peace Plaza announce spring.

Shop a popular dollar store

Everything not otherwise marked at Daiso Japan costs $1.50 (not exactly a dollar, but close enough) and items, many of which are made especially for this store, are hard to resist. You’ll find lots of kitty items (A pink silk cat-face pouch for a special child, perhaps?) and lots of colorful housewares. (You need a bright lime-green sweep set, right?)  Allow plenty of time to browse.

Tamara Restaurant

Tamara Restaurant | Flickr CC: kennejima

Eat a traditional Japanese lunch

The bargain lunch set at Takara Restaurant includes rice, miso soup and pickles, while the lunch box includes green salad, tempura and three pieces of California roll. The sushi, noodles and tempura are all very good. Seating is mostly at open tables, but a few atmospheric wood booth-style seats for two can be worth a wait.

Slurp some noodles

Another popular lunch spot, Mifune, specializes in noodles. At the SF outpost of this well-established Japanese chain, you choose either fresh fat udon noodles made with white flour or thin soba noodles made from brown buckwheat. A display of plastic food in a window by the entrance to the main outlet (there are several shops in the immediate area) lets you see what you will get. A favorite topping is the shrimp tempura, but you can also choose exotic raw egg, sweet herring, and seaweed.

Browse for antiques

The Asakichi Antique, Arts, & Tea Ceremony Store provides a great browse, and gifts can be wrapped Japanese-style in “washi” paper. But you might want to check their other three shops before you decide. One purveys incense, another both new and vintage kimonos, and another heavy cast-iron teapots and bronze items.

Kinokuniya Bookstore

Kinokuniya bookstore | Flickr CC: Tatsuhiko Miyagawa

Sift through an Asian book shop

The gigantic Kinokuniya bookstore holds a vast array of imported Asian magazines and giftoptions, as well as both imported and domestic books on design, and it is the place to get your origami supplies. Across the way, a related store, Maido, sells exciting paper goods and office accessories, and a branch downstairs presents an alluring array of gift items. Yes, you’re right, many businesses here seem to turn into little empires.

Chill at a small mall

Three floors of the unusual await you at the New People Mall. In the basement, New People Cinema schedules Japanese anime movies and serves Asian snacks. A proper English tea is served on the first floor, and Japanese Lolita wear and split-toe tori shoes are purveyed by exceptional shops on the second floor.

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Munch on fresh mochi

The tiny diner-style cafe and shop that is Benkyodo Company has been making and selling Japanese pastries, candies, and rice crackers since 1906 (with a sad break taken during World War II, when the family was interned). It is famous for their fresh handmade traditional manju and mocha desserts—the strawberry manju has fresh strawberries inside—and is the last place in town to make them.

Kabuki Springs and Spa

Kabuki Springs and Spa | Flickr CC: kennejima

Take a traditional Japanese public bath

Facilities at Kabuki Springs & Spa include large Japanese-style hot and cold deep tubs, a whirlpool bath, a dry sauna, a steam room, and showers.  A variety of treatments and massage are available, including expert shiatsu. The facility is bathing suit optional, except on Tuesdays when both genders are invited to share the facilities together and thus a bathing suit is required.

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Tagged: California

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Carole Terwilliger Meyers
Carole is a Berkeley-based travel writer who most especially enjoys cultural and culinary travel. She contributes to an assortment of publications and is the author of 18 books. Carole oversees two websites, and, and she blogs at

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