The city of San Francisco is trying to give a facelift to its Japantown neighborhood, and the folks there are nervous. A much-loved tourist destination for decades and a blessing to residents eager for Japanese restaurants and groceries, Nihon-machi (the Japanese term) is just about nine square blocks in the Western Addition district. Right now, it's on the verge, but nobody is quite sure of what.
The wildly successful Joie de Vivre hospitality chain of boutique hotels has moved in to buy and renovate the two biggest lodgings here, turning the venerable Miyako into the Kabuki (as of January 1, 2008) and the slightly less fancy Best Western Miyako Inn into the Tomo (which means friend). That, plus the recent upgrading of the cinema complex here, makes some people happy about the city's development plans, currently in the "advisory stage." Skeptics, however, don't trust the city to get anything right and are worried. Plans for the redevelopment of the area are to be announced late this year or early next, the city says. More information available online at www.sfgov.org/site/planning.
Japantown in San Francisco got started in 1906, after the big earthquake, and flourished until World War II. When the US government set up concentration camps for Japanese Americans in 1942, the area was devastated. After the war, many former internees did not return to live here, though quite a few resumed their work as shopkeepers and restaurateurs. In 1968, the Japan Center opened, hosting a collection of restaurants, art galleries, bars, antique shops and other establishments, all related to Japan. There's a so-so website at www.sfjapantown.org.
The three biggest events of the year in Japantown are the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Nihonmachi Street Fair, and the Obon Festival/Bon Dance. The Cherry Blossom Festival in mid April is celebrated on two consecutive weekends with performance, displays of crafts and food, martial arts and other activities. On the second weekend's Sunday, there is a cute parade starting from the Civic Center to Japantown at 1pm. 2007 was the 40th year for this event. Details at tel. 415/563-2313; www.nccbf.org.
The Nihonmachi Street Fair this year is August 11 and 12, at the Japan Center and in surrounding Japantown. This is the 34th year for the festival, which features lion dancers, taiko drummers, displays of arts and crafts, some musical entertainment, lots of food and events for the kiddies. Check out details at tel. 415/771-9861; www.nihonmachistreetfair.org.
The Obon Festival and Bon Dance is set for August 26 this year, tentatively, and takes place in Japantown on Post and Buchanan Streets. This festival honors the departed and has been observed for at least 1,400 years by Buddhists in Japan. Here you will see more taiko drumming, and hear traditional music as celebrants step along in the Bon Odori. Details at www.sfjapantown.org.
Outside Japantown, the city is marking the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, seven festivals going on between June 11 and July 1. California residents can get three nights for the price of two at 16 hotels in the city during the month of June. More details on the festivals and the hotel deal at www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com
The best Japanese-style bath cum day spa in San Francisco is the Kabuki Springs & Spa, also owned by the Joie de Vivre people. You can go in and scrub yourself, soak in the hot tub (like a swimming pool) and just relax for $20, but massages and such are also on tap, so to speak. This is not oriented toward pampering and cosmetic courses, but centers around getting you clean and relaxed.
There are three main buildings in the Japan Center, which is the heart of Japantown, taking up three blocks. The three include the Kinokuniya Building, the Kintetsu Mall and the Miyako Mall. There are nearly two dozen shops selling antiques, gifts and general merchandise. In addition, there are five apparel shops, two art galleries, five shops selling books, CDs and videos, two for electronics, and five Japanese markets and pastry shops. Add to this nearly two dozen Japanese restaurants, ten other restaurants and coffee shops, and about half a dozen cocktail lounges, and you have the Japan Center. The antiques stores I liked best are Asekichi and Mashiko, though the latter features a rather grumpy dragon as possible owner/guardian.
Between the Kintetsu Mall and the Miyako Mall is an ugly pagoda-like tower on Peace Plaza. From here, across the street, is the Buchanan Mall, on which food stalls are erected during the Cherry Blossom and Nihonmachi Street Fair festivals, and where some other good restaurants, particularly the Iroha, are located.
The best reason to come to Japantown is to eat, but choosing between the many restaurants here is difficult. Dining ranges from cheap noodle places (which I love) to packed sushi spots and all the way to some cuisine that is so fusion it is barely Japanese at all. The latter is typified by Bushi-tei, which was awarded a Michelin star for its French-Japanese fusion, to the great dismay of many other French restaurants of long standing in the city. Looking at the menu last week, I felt it was 95% French and 5% Japanese, finding only some miso sauce amidst the entrees listing duck, filet mignon, veal and other European standbys. Chef Waka has an Omakase (three-course tasting menu with wine, featuring salmon, tuna, lobster, Kobe beef and more) at $50. Bushi-tei Restaurant, 1638 Post Street (tel. 415/440-4959; www.bushi-tei.com).
On the cheap noodle side, there are at least a dozen places to try. I had hiyashi chukka soba (cold Chinese-style soba, with cucumbers, fake crab, veggies) at Osaka-ya, costing only $8.95. I was horrified to discover four large chunks of iceberg lettuce at the bottom of the dish, propping up the real Japanese ingredients in an unsuccessful attempt to make the meal look bigger than it was. The gyoza (fried dumplings) were off that day, so I had steamed shumai ($6.75). I did a double take when the server asked if I wanted them fried, a first for me. My companion had Lunch #12, tempura shrimp and unagi (eel) for $12.95 and was happy about his choice. But for Japanese-style pasta, I would recommend trying another noodle shop, perhaps Iroha (also allegedly featuring a grumpy owner) or Tanpopo.
Among the best known Japanese restaurants here are Mifune and Kushitsuru, both in the Kintetsu Mall.
The Miyako (soon to be the Kabuki) is a charming place to stay, with its 218 rooms completely upgraded by the new owners, and costing $109 to $249, depending on season. The rooms are known for their furos (deep soaking tubs), tokonomas (ornamental alcoves) and rice paper shoji screens. The hotel has its own restaurant, DOT, which serves breakfast and dinner, but not lunch (Japanese breakfast at $16.95; dinner gyoza at $6.85, grilled salmon $15.95). Moreover, you have a direct access to the Miyako Mall, one of the three Japan Center buildings. Here are a few restaurants, and stores, but this is the least prepossessing of the Japan Center units, and is due for some refurbishing in the next few months, the Joie de Vivre people say. Miyako Hotel (Kabuki Hotel from January 1, 2008), 1625 Post Street (tel. 800/533-4567 or 415/614-5400; www.jdvhospitality.com).
At the Tomo (formerly the Best Western Miyako Inn), the 125 rooms have been completely redone, all in a madly futuristic way, with manga-like murals on the walls and minimal accoutrements all around, accented by art styling found in anime and Japanese street fashion. Cost of refurnishing both the Tomo and the old Miyako is about $10 million, the owners say. Room for two here ranges from $139 to $159. Tomo Hotel, 1800 Sutter Street (tel. 888/TAB-TOMO or 415/921-4000; www.jdvhospitality.com).
Hotels in the City Center
If you want to see more of the city, as I did recently, it's a good idea to stay at hotels in the predominately tourist areas, closer to the center of things and better transportation.
(It's fairly difficult to get to Japantown, with only one bus line, the 38, connecting it to the city center.)
The Hyatt Regency has the best location in town for the Embarcadero, with gorgeous views of the bay, Bay Bridge, Alcatraz and more. It has the largest indoor atrium in the world, they say, the balconies festooned with cascades of ivy, the anchor down below a huge ball of sculptured aluminum at the center. A fairly speedy (45 minutes to complete one circle) revolving restaurant, the Equinox, gives the lie to the old canard about revolving restaurants not having good food, as I had a marvelous meal of crab cake and lamb chops there. Service in the atrium restaurant (the Eclipse) was outstanding, as was that in the Equinox. This is a towering mass of a hotel, with 802 rooms on 35 floors, business and fitness centers, the works. They have summer packages such as a Friday night stay for $169, good to the end of the year, or a senior package (62 and over) featuring a 50% discount, also good to the end of the year. Hyatt Regency San Francisco, 5 Embarcadero Center (tel. 800/233-1234 or 415/788-1234; www.sanfranciscoregency.hyatt.com).
A sister to the Hyatt Regency, and one of three in the chain in San Francisco, is the Hyatt at Fisherman's Wharf. If you want a smaller hotel but also want to be very comfortable, you'll choose this place. With only 313 recently renovated rooms on four floors, the Hyatt at Fisherman's Wharf has many modern amenities, such as wi fi access in each room, along with keyboard and hookup to your wide screen LCD TV for Internet and the like. The Knuckles restaurant, with its original 19th-century décor largely intact, is a friendly sports bar serving all meals. The hotel is about two blocks from Fisherman's Wharf itself. Hyatt at Fisherman's Wharf, 555 North Point Street (tel. 415/563-1234; www.fishermanswharf.hyatt.com).
I recommend buying the San Francisco City Pass if you want to visit several of the attractions it covers. Most important, perhaps, is the seven-day pass it gives you on the Muni, which includes subway, cable car, streetcar and bus transport. The other attractions include the De Young Museum and the Legion of Honor Museum, the Exploratorium, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Aquarium of the Bay, and cruises on the Blue & Gold Fleet. In addition, you can choose one of either the splendid Asian Art Museum or the California Academy of Sciences & Steinhart Aquarium. The Asian Art Museum has an amazing exhibition on Osamu Tezuka, the creator of modern manga (comics), such as Astro Boy, the first of its kind outside Japan, from June 2 through September 9. All these attractions and transport for $54, saving, they say, $50 from the $104 value the tickets represent. Children aged 5 to 17 pay less. City Pass (tel. 888/330-5008; www.citypass.com).
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