The Insider’s Guide to Getting Lost in SF’s Japantown
From ramen and sushi spots to karaoke dives and kawaii treats.
It’s been hard times for Japantown during the last several years. First, it was unknown whether mall landlords were going to keep Japantown as Japantown. More recently, many food businesses inside the malls didn’t have outdoor seating options, putting them at higher risk of closure, in addition to rent disputes. We had to say goodbye to Japanese dollar stores Ichi Ban Kan and the SF flagship location of Daiso. Benkyodo, a legendary mochi shop that’s been around since 1906, announced the owners’ retirement (or hopefully sale of the shop…TBD) at the end of 2021. To support the ongoing efforts of Japantown’s small businesses, you can donate to the Heart of Japantown Resiliency Fund.
But despite these setbacks, there are still plenty of reasons to visit Japantown. From December 3 through January 21, 2022, the neighborhood hosts Tokyo-based artist Ryotaro Muramatsu’s Dandelion installation, a work of art that encourages visitors to make a wish for peace and then “blow” upon the dandelion installation to send seeds floating to another dandelion installed in a different location to produce a flower there. SF’s Japantown was chosen as the first U.S. location for this installation because of its history as one of the largest and oldest in the world. You can even send virtual wishes to friends who aren’t in SF. And that’s not all—the iconic Peace Plaza pagoda still stands, and J-Town remains the hub for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival and Nihonmachi Street Fair. Now that most of Japantown has reopened, with places old and new, see for yourself what lies beyond tempura and sushi.
When the kalbijjim (Korean braised beef short rib stew) restaurant Daeho first opened a couple of years ago, groups of friends whispered to one another not to tell anyone else about what could be the best Korean restaurant in San Francisco. But the cat’s been out of the bag for a while now, and with good reason. With a variety of tender, fall-off-the-bone, family-size beef stews to choose from, any can be topped with cheese, and blowtorched right at your table. Bonus: leftovers are machine-sealed with plastic so your saucy dishes and banchan won’t spill on the way home.
How to order: Walk in, add yourself to the waitlist via Yelp, or order takeout/delivery online.
With lines wrapped around the corner, it’s hard to believe that the new Korean-Japanese-French patisserie is still in soft opening mode. That kalbijjim croissant, a collaboration with the also-insanely popular kalbijjim spot Daeho up the block, is the number one draw, prompting a two croissant-limit per customer. However, don’t overlook the hojicha cream-filled påte à choux or the toffee latte laden with huge chunks of homemade honeycomb candy.
How to order: Walk in.
Owned by Kinokinuya, which has the eponymously named bookstore nearby, Maido Stationery fulfills a need for a devastatingly cute variety of knick-knacks (mini felt cats!) and pretty pens, much of which are Japanese-made. There’s so much variety that Maido actually has two stores that carry different goods — one on the ground floor for cards and gifts, and one on the second floor for stationery. Locally made goods like pouches embroidered with iconic San Francisco landscapes and East Bay pride kitchen towels make great gifts for both locals and tourists.
Known for Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen, made of super rich pork bone broth, Marufuku offers it in normal and deluxe bowls. The milky chicken paitan ramen is also a hit, with the deluxe version including a grilled chicken leg that is limited to 15 servings per day. There’s almost always a wait, but you can add yourself to the waitlist via Yelp, and flip your meal and eat dessert first at Matcha Cafe Maido while killing time.
How to order: Add your name to the digital waitlist if necessary, or order takeout and delivery online.
Hidden inside the homey-looking Super Mira market, Yasukochi Sweet Stop has been home to a legendary coffee crunch cake since 1974. The cake is denser and the toffee is lighter than its main rival in the city, Chinatown’s Eastern Bakery. You can get a slice for $6 or whole round cakes up to nine inches. Staying true to its mom-and-pop roots, the shop is cash or check only (if you young ‘uns even know what that is). Sadly, one of the original owners passed away from COVID-19 in 2020, but family members continue to run the business.
How to order: Walk in for slices, call 415-931-8165 in advance for whole cake orders.
With a worn awning and sparsely decorated interior, one wouldn’t know right away that Aloha Warehouse is a real connection to the islands for those homesick for Hawaiʻi. With roots in Oʻahu, the family-run shop stocks what locals actually like — frozen Zippy’s meals that sell out within a day or two, li hing gummy bears, and Kirstie’s Shortbread Oatmeal cookies. It’s also a lei and ʻukulele shop, plus there’s a newly opened skate shop and creative hub in one of the side rooms from the Patch Kids Crew.
The increasingly rare species of local, independent book shops has an even rarer subspecies in the used and rare books area. Forest Books is just that, and has been standing for 32 years — first in the Mission District, then in Japantown since 2013. Each book is hand-selected by owners Gregory Wood and Clare Young-Wood, with an emphasis on the arts, literature, and social sciences through the lens of peace and Zen Buddhism. There’s also a cute children’s book room with classics like Goodnight, Moon.
Walk by the restaurant that connects the East and West Japan Center buildings, and the giant menu boards seem like theyʻre luring you into a tourist trap. However, what waits for you inside is a quirky, 30-year-old restaurant that was one of the first in SF to offer yoshoku-style food, a Japanese-Western style of cooking that includes soft-crust pizza topped with curry and cocktail sausages, mentaiko cream pasta, omurice, and hamburger katsu. The couple who owns the restaurant is friendly, and knows exactly which Japanese sakes or beers to pair with your food selection.
How to order: Walk in or call 415-922-7765 for takeout.
Itʻs a toss up between Uji Time and Matcha Cafe Maiko for soft serve that comes in matcha and other Japanese and East Asian flavors, like black sesame. But Uji Time wins this round for having a bold limited-edition offering: sweet corn soft-serve topped with crushed Flaminʻ Hot Cheetos. Using taiyaki (fish-shaped cake pressed in an iron) as ice cream cones really doubles the dessert, and even triples it if you get all the fixings like red bean, Pocky sticks, and rice pearls. Uji Time also offers hard scoop ice cream in collaboration with local businesses like TCHO Chocolate and Red Giant Coffee.
How to order: Walk in or order online for pickup/delivery.
This basement dive bar has been at risk of shutting down in the past for operating as a hostess bar (which isn't illegal, but there was a technicality violated…). However, it’s miraculously survived until now. It’s a great spot for karaoke and you’ve also got a choice of going to the neighboring dive Pagoda, which is sometimes home to after-hours parties for industry folks.
How to order: Walk-ins only.
Sasa opened in 2018 as a combination sushi joint and modern Japanese restaurant. With a spacious dining room on the second floor of Japan Center mall, Sasa offers a reasonably priced omakase at around $55, and the mystery boxes featuring chef’s choice chirashi bowls are some of the most popular dishes. Don’t overlook the appetizers, such as a luxe oyster shooter that includes uni, quail egg, and sake.
How to order: Walk in, make reservations online, or order pickup and delivery online.
Above-ground karaoke that is decidedly classier and more brightly lit than Dimples, Festa’s price for cleanliness does require each singer to stand on stage in front of the whole bar to sing. After a lychee martini or two, though, that shouldn’t be a problem. There is a small selection of bar bites available, but you’re best fueling up on food somewhere else in J-town before a night of cocktails and crooning.
How to order: Walk in, call 415-567-5866 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to make reservations.
For fans of thick and chewy house-made noodles, Udon Mugizo hits the spot, from more traditional tempura udon to the contemporary and popular uni cream udon. The restaurant’s been around for a while, so it doesn’t always have the crazy lines like some of the newer J-Town eateries do.
How to order: Walk in, or order online for delivery/pickup/takeout
From shiatsu massage and communal baths to cold rooms and stream rooms, the serene bath house also gets high marks for a no-talking policy. Feel free to get naked on women-only and men-only days, or wear a bathing suit on all-gender Tuesdays. Complimentary fruit water and salt scrubs complete the rejuvenating experience. Unlike old-school spas, people with tattoos are welcome.
How to book: Book an appointment online.
There are a couple of places to get Japanese street-style dessert crepes that you eat like a giant ice cream cone with your hands. But Belly Good wins for being most kawaii, with animal and monster faces making up the signature happy face crepes. Choose your own combo of ice cream, sauce, fruit, and toppings that range from cornflakes to peanut butter.
How to order: Walk in or order pickup or delivery via delivery apps.
Mochi lovers will have to say goodbye to the O.G. Benkyodo at the end of the year. However, Kissako tea still has you covered for those chewy, melt-in-your-mouth textures, right in the middle of the mall. From sakura to matcha, it’s fun to eat the colored balls of mochi and dango on skewers. Shueido Manju Shop sweets are available on most weekends, too. Kissako has snacks galore, so make stomach room for an array of savory onigiri and Japanese specialty drinks.
How to order: Walk-ins only.
The three-story building houses all things J-pop in the form of tea, food, art, clothing, and movies. Of note is the pink-themed Crown and Crumpet Tea Shop. While in the middle of the mall, the afternoon tea menu is solid for a city that only has a handful of options. Sou Sou is a contemporary Japanese clothing boutique, and Baby, The Stars Shine Bright and Alice and the Pirates offer more extreme Harajuku-inspired fashion. New People Cinema often hosts film festivals for those wanting something different from the mainstream offerings of AMC Kabuki 8 across the street.
Good hardware stores are often surprisingly great gift shops. Soko (an old name used for “San Francisco” in Japantown) of course has the goods for home repair and gardening. The two-story shop also has a beautiful array of carp kites, Japanese-glazed dishware, charcoal soaps, and cool kitchen gadgets like taiyaki pans to make fish-shaped cakes to fill with whatever you please.
If you want a bento box or sashimi for lunch, but don’t have the cash to drop at one of the J-town restaurants, Nijiya is your answer. There’s tons of ready-made food, from salmon onigiri to chirashi bowls to endless sushi and sashimi combos. Grab a Royal Milk Tea and Calpico marshmallows to round out your meal. Or get quality groceries like golden yolk eggs, Japanese sake and beer, and pre-sliced beef and pork for shabu shabu for a fancy at-home dinner. There’s also a cult following for Nijiya’s monthly meat sales, so be on the lookout for that 20% off day, and be prepared to fight the crowds.
Izakaya Kou is great for those who want both izakaya (small barbecued plates), and sushi, which are rarely served in the same restaurant. You’ll find a sophisticated dining room with wood-paneled walls and interesting dishes like grilled whole squid with butter and ponzu, housemade chicken tsukune (meatball skewer), and open-faced cheese katsu with an insane cheese pull that puts fondue to shame. The two happy hours per day are killer deals, with up to half-off booze and 60% off some small plates.
How to order: Walk in, or order online for takeout/delivery.