Japantown: San Francisco's Heart
By Mary Charlebois
San Francisco is one of America’s most visited cities. The bayfront town is famous for cable cars, Victorian painted ladies, bridges, fog horns, and ships. Pacific seafood, California wine, rock music, and visual art are some of the best in the world.
Shaped by Spanish Missions and the California Gold Rush, it’s a bit bawdy in places and angelic in others. SF is a tech-center and an incubator for alternative everything.
San Francisco has seen boom and bust. It shook down, burnt down and came back like a Phoenix.
The 47-square mile city is home to 885,000 people, densely packed into neighborhoods that ramble up and down the famous hills. There is so much to see and do, you’ll want to return, many times.
There are two ways you can optimize your time and budget while exploring SF. Use public transit and pick the right neighborhood as a home base
Japantown lies in the middle of San Francisco’s most visited attractions, sights, neighborhoods, parks, and waterfront. The tiny, architecturally distinct district is the perfect bivouac position for exploring.
It’s two miles or less to Fillmore, Height & Ashbury, Golden Gate Park, Chinatown, Embarcadero, Fisherman’s Wharf, Fort Mason, Marina, Presidio, Mission, and ATT Park. Key MUNI lines cross north/south and east/west through Japantown serving direct routes to many destinations.
Japantown is six-square blocks. The traditions and culture of San Francisco’s Japanese citizens flourish here. Once called Nihonjin Machi, Japanese People’s Town, it was the largest Japanese settlement in the US.
The small neighborhood has a quiet demeanor that nods to deep culture with modern design. Here you can absorb neighborhood history, food, entertainment, and shopping.
The Peace Plaza and Peace Pagoda is the center of the neighborhood. The Peace Pagoda was gifted to Japantown in 1968. The gesture of goodwill came from San Francisco’s sister city, Osaka Japan. The plaza is the site of community celebrations and festivals. It’s a favorite meeting spot for friends and tour groups.
The San Francisco Japantown History Walk starts at Japantown Peace Plaza. Along the 10-block, self-guided route, sixteen interpretive panels illuminate the communities’ history and culture.
The Kimpton Buchanan has 131-rooms sitting on the edge of the Peace Plaza. The art-filled lobby host an evening happy hour and morning coffee. Parking is available, but pricey like all SF hotels.
The Buchanan is located at 1800 Sutter Street, the corner of Sutter and Buchanan. There is a bus stop outside the hotel lobby. You are steps from restaurants, the mall, history, culture, and entertainment.
Across the street is Super Mira Market, an organic grocery and deli. The family-owned, and operated market is warm and welcoming. The shelves have Japanese food and products of every kind. The deli serves hot and cold dishes.
This is a great place for picnic supplies or in-room snacking. The imported sake and beer selection are excellent.
A secret picnic location, Cottage Row, is 1.5-blocks from the Buchanan. To find the tiny pocket park, walk west on Sutter. It’s tucked between two rows of Victorians.
If the Buchanan is booked, try one of these.
Hotel Kabuki, also in the heart of Japantown, the Kabuki has 218 rooms and suites. It’s decorated in traditional Japanese decor with a touch of western. The hotel has a restaurant and lounge serving traditional Japanese food and beverage. This busy hotel hosts many foreign visitors. Located at 1625 Post Street.
Queen Anne Hotel was built in 1890. The fully restored Victorian mansion has 48-rooms and suites. The décor is decidedly Victorian. Rich velvets, warm woods, ornate carpets and gilded furniture grace each room and public space. Located at 1590 Sutter Street, San Francisco.
Hotel Majestic is Edwardian elegance near Japantown. Canopied beds, marble sinks, wrought iron, stained glass, and warm woods grace 58-guestrooms. The Hotel Majestic is a short walk from Japantown at 1500 Sutter Street.
Don't Drive--Use MUNI
San Francisco traffic is anxiety-inducing. Parking is expensive; when you can find it.
Luckily, public transit is plentiful, safe, and budget-friendly. When arriving by air, water, or train, use public transportation to get to your hotel in Japantown.
A MUNI transit hub in the neighborhood provides direct buses to destinations citywide. Download the MUNI App for routes, times, and ‘tap your fare’ payment. Visit the MUNI webpage for info on riding, fares, routes, and stops.
Visitor Passports are a Bargain
The best budget stretcher in San Francisco is a Visitor Passport. Passports are available for one, three, or seven consecutive days. They provide unlimited rides on Muni, Muni Metro, historic streetcars, and cable cars.
Single tickets for cable cars are $8, and a single MUNI ticket is $2.50. A one-day passport is $12 when purchased online. The passport will save you plenty, the more days you purchase, the cheaper per day the price.
Uber and other ‘shared ride’ companies are readily available. Choose ‘Uber Pool,’ and most rides will be under $10.
Car, Moped, and bike share programs are everywhere in the city. Drive and Park on the MUNI website is an excellent resource for deciding what works for you.
If You Have a Car
My number one suggestion is to park it outside the city at a ferry, train, or MUNI terminal. It will cost you much less than parking in San Francisco.
The ferry is my favorite way to enter the city. Ferry Terminals are located around the bay. You have a relaxing bay trip with a libation or snack as you cruise.
Once you arrive at the ferry terminal, you are 2-blocks from the Embarcadero Transit Center, where you can catch a train, bus or cable car.
If you must keep your car with you, not all hotels offer parking, those that have a car lot can charge as much as $60 per day.
Check Drive and Park on the MUNI website for details on parking. There is a city parking garage about 3-blocks from the Buchanan. I suggest parking your auto and taking transit.
San Francisco is an exciting, ever-evolving city with destinations of interest to everyone. To make the most of it, let someone else do the driving and make Japantown your home base.
Mary Charlebois is a freelance journalist and photographer. Her home base is on California’s Mendocino Coast. She travels by train, plane, bus, boat, shoe sole, and auto. She digs into the culture, people, and history wherever she goes and isn’t opposed to a little adventure along the way.