How I See Japantown: Alice Kawahatsu
When visiting San Francisco, pull back the first layer of the city and dive deeper by exploring neighborhoods or experiencing unique events. There are no better experts to steer you in the right direction than the very people that live here. One neighborhood you need to add to your itinerary is Japantown, one of only three Japantowns remaining in the United States. It's six blocks full of things to do, see, eat and drink.
See Japantown through the eyes of Alice Kawahatsu, a third generation Japanese American and resident of Japantown for the last 28 years. On most days, you can find Alice sharing the rich history and delicious food the neighborhood has to offer as she leads food tours for Edible Excursions. This is how she sees Japantown.
Describe your perfect day in Japantown.
A perfect day for me in Japantown is being able to represent all that this special community has to offer. I love welcoming visitors and locals to Japantown and showing them the places I enjoy, whether that be the mom and pop grocery store on the corner that has all the ingredients to make a wonderful Japanese meal to the café that has a unique drink very few people have ever tasted. Sharing the amazing history of how this community came to be and where it is going has been a passion of mine for a long time. When I am able to share this history and tie it to how my family is a part of that history, it makes me feel proud and humble at the same time. Helping visitors feel comfortable about trying new foods and educating them on how culture plays an important role in food and diet is so exciting. The best part of leading a tour is when I can share stories about food memories and hear others share theirs. There is something very special that happens when you bring people together who have a passion for food, an interest in Japanese culture and an appreciation of Japantown’s rich history and legacy.
What should every visitor to Japantown do at least once?
Attend the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, which happens each year here in Japantown every April. While you are here, visit the Kimochi booth and try their Teri burger. It’s messy, but so good! Go to the Konko Church booth and watch them make imagawayaki (Japanese confection) right in front of you. Enjoy the parade the second weekend of the festival and see beautiful dancers, exciting taiko players, and the spirited finale of the hundreds of people carrying the mikoshi shrine!
What’s your favorite place to take a photo?
A couple of places where I like to take photos are the Peace Plaza in front of the pagoda, under the Tori Gate in Buchanan Mall and in front of Benkyodo when my guests are eating mochi (Japanese rice cake) and monju (confection made from mochi).
Where do you indulge your artistic side in Japantown?
I like to go to the New People Cinema and watch movies there. During the CAAM movie festival, they show wonderful independent films there. I love to be able to see a movie, hear the director speak about the movie and thank him personally after. Also at New People is the one-day film festival called “Films of Remembrance,” which is held in conjunction with the Day of Remembrance, the day commemorating the Japanese American internment during World War II. I also frequent the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. They offer a bunch of great classes (i.e, cooking, crafts, dance, exercise, etc.) It’s a great way to meet new people and the classes are offered for all ages.
What’s your favorite event that happens in Japantown?
Besides the Cherry Blossom Festival, it would have to be the Nihonmachi Street Fair. It highlights many Asian cultures and carries a Hawaiian theme. There are wonderful bands playing, great entertainment and food trucks. Grace Horikiri, who is the Executive Director of the Nihonmachi Street Fair is amazing. She is a dog lover, like myself. During the festival they hold a doggie parade where owners dress up their dogs and walk them around. All the proceeds are donated to animal shelters.
Where and what would you choose for your last meal in Japantown?
Every now and then, I get this bad craving for Tonkatsu Donburi (pork cutlet and egg and onion over rice). My secret place to have it is at Super Mira. Remember that mom and pop grocery store I was mentioning earlier? Not many people know that there is a small kitchen in the back. If you ring the bell, Mr. Suzuki or Mr. Miura will come out and you can order it fresh. He also makes a wonderful fried chicken (only on Saturdays). For dessert, I would have the Yasukochi Sweet Stop Guava Chiffon Cake and Benkyodo’s Age monju. It’s like a round doughnut with smooth red sweet bean. I would finish it off with a nice hot cup of Genmaicha tea at Kissako.
Which restaurant is still on your list to dine at in Japantown?
An Japanese Restaurant, Kiss Seaood and Izakaya Kou
Who do you follow to keep up with Japantown news?
San Francisco Merchants Association
The Nichi Bei Foundation
Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California
SF Japanese Consulate General
Any last final advice for travelers in Japantown?
- Japantown has two wonderful hotels that are away from the crowds downtown and are really relaxing. Visit the lobby at the newly decorated Kimpton Buchanan. Look up…. they have lots of whisky bottles hanging from the ceiling! At the Hotel Kabuki, guests receive free sake tasting every Friday in the lobby.
- Go to the dollar stores Daiso and Ichiban Kan. They are both located in the East Mall. Indulge your sweet tooth and try some Pocky and Hi-Chews!
- Pick up a new hobby like taiko drumming, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, hula, ukulele or Japanese dance.
- Visit the churches in Japantown for some quiet meditation. There are four in Japantown.
- Park in the Japantown Garage, take Muni or ride Lyft.