San Francisco is filled with Asian culture from the city’s authentic Chinatown to its expansive Asian Art Museum. While yes, many cities in the US have a Chinatown of some sort, San Francisco is one of the few cities to have a designated Japantown, one of three cities to be exact.
Today Nihonmachi (日本町), literally meaning “Japantown”, is located near the Western Addition district. At six city blocks in size, it’s the country’s largest Japantown, and also the oldest.
When Japanese immigrants first started settling in the area back in the 19th century, Nihonmachi actually spanned 30 blocks in total. Unfortunately, WWII saw most Japanese Americans being sent to relocation camps. After the war ended and re-urbanization began, Nihonmachi shrunk significantly in size.
One of the focal points of Nihonmachi is the beautiful five-tiered Peace Pagoda.
This was a gift from the people of Osaka, representing their sister city relationship, which began not too long after WWII in 1957. San Francisco’s first-ever sister city was Osaka, which is why one of the city’s nicknames is “Little Osaka”.
Coincidentally, you can also find plenty of Osakan dishes at the restaurants in the area and a miniature replica of Osaka Castle.
The other main focal point of Nihonmachi is the Japan Center, which opened in the late 1960s. The Japan Center is made up of three Japanese malls, all connected to each other by footbridge.
Inside you’ll find plenty of Japanese shops, restaurants and grocery stores.
We spent a long time exploring here. From kimonos to anime figures to omiyage shops, we were surprised by the selection of goods. A lot of the stores were actual popular stores found in Japan such as Daiso, a popular 100-yen shop (aka dollar store), and Kinokuniya, a bookstore.
Nihonmachi is more than just a mall however, within the six block radius you’ll find plenty of other stand-alone shops and restaurants, along with some Japanese schools, temples and cultural centers.
It really is a fully-functioning Japanese community.
I loved how the streets and buildings were all design to resemble bits of old Edo, it really felt like Japan.
One of my favorite things about Nihonmachi is that many Japanese cultural events and festivals are held there throughout the year. San Francisco’s two largest festivals are the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival and the Nihonmachi Street Fair.
The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival is held for two weekends every April when the cherry blossoms are still blooming. This festival is the country’s second largest cherry blossom festival, after the one in Washington DC, and sees 200,000 visitors annually!
The Nihonmachi Street Fair, held in August each year, is also quite popular showcasing Japanese tradition, culture, and cuisine.
To complete your whole Nihonmachi experience, I highly recommend staying in one of the Japanese hotels in the area, such as Hotel Kabuki or Hotel Tomo. Just be aware that if you’re going during festival weeks, the hotels sell out months in advance!
When to visit: Daily
Where to visit: 22 Peace Plaza #510, San Francisco, CA 94115
How to visit: Walk from the end of the California Street Cable Car stop or from the metro stop Civic Center/UN Plaza