The patchwork nature of San Francisco’s neighborhoods makes it possible to showcase the richness of all the diverse cultures contained within this one city. A good example is San Francisco’s Japantown, also known as “Nihonmachi.”
It’s one of only three viable Japanese neighborhoods in the United States and has been a part of San Francisco for over 100 years, though what visitors to the area see today is only about four decades old. The original neighborhood was leveled as part of a post-World War II revitalization project and the new shopping area sprang up by the end of the 1960s.
This compact area, bordered by Post Street and Geary Boulevard to the north and south and by Laguna and Fillmore Streets to the east and west, respectively, holds a number of independent shops and chain stores that carry traditional and modern goods, including everything from art and antiques to apparel and accessories. The main bulk of the shopping exists in the Kinokuniya, Kintetsu, Miyako and Buchanan malls.
For first-time visitors to Japantown, dollar stores like Daiso and Ichiban Kan, located in Miyako and Kintestsu malls, respectively, are good places for shoppers to get their feet wet. Both stores offer household items, beauty products and foods imported from Japan. Many of these items are priced in the $1 to $5 range. These include hair accessories, wrapping paper, erasers in the shape of carrots, ceramic bowls and teacups, cleaning supplies and tons of plastic containers to keep everything organized.
Found on two floors of the Kinokuniya mall is Books Kinokuniya, the largest bookstore chain in Japan. The Japantown store was its first outpost in the United States, and it’s a good place for anyone who wants to immerse oneself in Japanese language and culture through the printed word. Books and magazines cover every topic from anime to design to food.
Also split between two floors in the Kinokuniya mall is the stationary store Maido. The lower level shop is more kid-friendly, showcasing a plethora of items featuring the bear character Rilakkuma, along with ear buds in the shape of pigs and LaQ puzzle bits. There are also cards and calendars from San Francisco-based designer Tomoko Maruyama. The second floor store holds more sophisticated stationary supplies like fountain pens, but also some fun dog calendars, Andy Warhol pen cases and holiday cards.
Akabanaa, in the Miyako mall, is a boutique specializing in products from Okinawa. It’s the only retail store of its kind outside of Japan and the goal of its owners is to introduce and promote the Okinawan culture in the United States and beyond. The store carries edible items such as chinsuko cookies and moromi vinegar, as well as gift items such as music CDs and colorfully stenciled bingata fabrics.
Located across Post Street from the Miyako, Kintetsu and Kinokuniya malls is the Buchanan mall. There shoppers will find Paper Tree, a perfect place for origami enthusiasts. It carries fine papers in a myriad of colors and textures, of course, but also books about origami, sumi-e (brush painting) supplies, stamps and other art and office necessities. The Mihara family has run this business since the early 1970s and sisters Vicky Mihara Avery and Linda Mihara are both award-winning origami artisans, so it’s a great resource for anyone looking to know more about the art of origami.
Down the mall from Paper Tree is the Aloha Warehouse, bringing a bit of Hawaii to California’s shores. This retail shop carries aloha shirts and sun-dresses, Pa’u (hula) skirts, Hawaiian books, CDs and DVDs, ukuleles, hula supplies, fresh flower leis, jewelry, specialty foods like poi and Kalua pig, wedding and party favors and custom gift baskets.
A relatively recent addition to Japantown is the New People building. It houses a number of stores, including SOU-SOU, a company that takes a modern spin on traditional Japanese apparel. The company does this by creating fresh and modern clothing while at the same time preserving the traditional techniques by using skilled craftspeople and time-tested materials. Inventory includes the split toed tabi work shoes and socks, in addition to original textiles fashioned into kimonos, scarves and more.
Also off on its own on Post Street is Illest, formerly known as Fatlace. This street boutique is still backed by the Fatlace brand and carries many of the same items that the store had before. This includes their eponymous apparel and accessory line, like beanies, caps, hoodies and tees, but also shirts from Stussy and sneakers from well-known brands like Nike, Adidas and Native.