Thursday, April 4, 2013

Japantown, San Francisco (Picture heavy!)

Long post ahead!

After spending two memorable years in Japan, are you surprised that my most favorite part of San Francisco is Japantown? It speaks to my fondness of Japan, and how much I miss the place, that I roam Japantown and its surrounding areas at least once a week! Of course it's nothing reminiscent of the sprawling underground shopping mazes mall at the major Japanese train/subway stations, nor is it anything particularly special or nice or even culturally authentic. It's really just your average mall with shops selling overpriced let's-pretend-Asian things. And don't even get me started on the pathetic "Japanese" food they try to pass off there. Just thinking about it makes me mad. But I like the place anyway :P When my cousin J. visited from out of town, we spent a day and a half there exploring all the shops ^.^

Let's start at the intersection of Buchanan and Sutter Streets, where Buchanan Street turns into a pedestrian walk with mostly restaurants lining both sides. This Buchanan pedestrian walk goes one block south towards Post Street, crossing which you will arrive at the Peace Plaza with the concrete Peace Pagoda. The Peace Plaza joins the Kintetsu East and West Malls, pretty much the center of all the attention in Japantown ^.^ And by the way, it was a Monday afternoon in mid March when J. and I were there, which is the reason the whole place looks like a ghost town in these pictures.

Looking back at Sutter from Post on the Buchanan pedestrian walk, with Post Street directly behind me.

Soko Hardware: at the corner of this Buchanan pedestrian walk and Post Street. Ignore the "Hardware" in the name and go inside. The basement level of this shop has a myriad of the most adorable bowls, plates, cups, etc. But hold your horses! Before you start filling up your shopping basket, I'll let you in on a secret - there's a Daiso across the street (where I was standing taking this photo)! You should always check Daiso first for the bowls, plates, and cups you want to buy. Why? Because you're looking at $1.50-2.00 a piece versus, oh, $5-11 else where!

Looking across Post Street at Soko Hardware from the Peace Plaza.

Here's one of the many sakura trees planted around Japantown! And in the right picture I was looking at the Peace Plaza from the side walk of Post Street.

Tadah - my favorite store Daiso!! It's on the ground floor of the Kintetsu West Mall on the left, when facing the Peace Pagoda.

Displays on the ground floor of the Kintetsu West Mall.

I love Daiso!

Here's why: animal mug-n-lid sets, which comes in 4 choices of black kitty, pink piggy, brown teddybear, and green froggy, and totally awesome bamboo coasters. These are all $1.50 each!

Yes, yes, things made in China can be bought for cheap at Walmart, Target, blah blah blah. But think you can find these nifty mugs and awesome bamboo coasters (love these so much!) at said stores? Well, you can try :P And many bowls, plates, and cups at Daiso are made in Japan. I have proof, and yes, I saw several of the same bowls and plates at the local Daiso there in Japantown. Let me tell you, visiting Daiso has always been a great exercise of restraint for me, especially now that I'm home and there's really nothing stopping me from buying all the crazy cute and made in Japan bowls and plates!

Anyway, around the corner the Daiso is a red bridge with a mini zen rock garden underneath it!

Going up the bridge to the 1st floor of the Kintetsu West Mall. Note here in SF, the ground floor is the ground floor and one floor up is the 1st floor. Which means in some other parts of the US, the ground floor may be the 1st floor, and one floor up may be the 2nd floor.

Looking back down at the bridge from the mouth of the stairs, 1st floor Kintetsu West Mall.

Pretty flowers.

Here's another one of my favorite stores - Ichiban Kan. They sell a mishmash of household items, like a smaller scale Daiso with comparable prices, may be a couple of dollars more. I bought the Ichikami Moisture Set here, and this store also introduced me to Glasslock, a Korean brand of tempered glass food storage containers. Our neighbors back east had advised us to avoid plastic food storage, which hubby and I agreed but haven't been able to find a good brand. Until now. Let's just say I went a little nuts and was this close to collecting one in every size and shape. Too bad Ichiban Kan doesn't stock Glasslock regularly, and as soon as they're on the shelves they'd disappear again because they're just that popular and well-priced. I know because I found Glasslock at a different store in the "new" Chinatown in Richmond (will post soon) and they were on average $1-2 more there.

Looking downstair from the entrance of Ichiban Kan.

Anyway, here is exiting the Kintetsu West Mall to the Peace Plaza. Going over to the Kintetsu East Mall, looking right is Post Street, and looking left is the Peach Pagoda with its 2 rows of sakura trees that were still barren at the time. We were blessed with gorgeous weather though!

Below are a few neat stores inside the Kintetsu East Mall. Sadly, most of the restaurants in both malls leave little to be desired. It's so mind-boggling, that in a city where an average restaurant serves up decent food, terrible food clusters here of all places! Why? 

Cako Bakery Cupcakes & Ice Cream: Bought my very first cupcakes in San Francisco here and was totally excited to try them. ...Only to find they were dry and their frosting sugary. They tasted like overpriced grocery store cupcakes :(

As you can see, I didn't try just one cupcake. Each time I went, I bought at least 3-4 different varieties, but all were blah with the exception of the Tiramisu cupcake. For some reason, this one particular flavor has been consistently moist and fluffy and really tasted like a tiramisu cake! Needless to say, I stopped going to Cako. When I do go, I only get the Tiramisu cupcake.

Andersen Bakery: facing Cako is a much much better bakery with one of the most delicious Cappuccino cake ever! Their pastries are yummy too! Check out my tea set, complete with my favorite Cappuccino cake from Andersen and milk tea served in the piggy mug from Daiso ^.^ Heaven in a tray.

Osakaya: well positioned at the start of the restaurant row, you'd think they serve better good. Nope. Food was urgh, service was blah. It was a total let down. I want to give it a second chance to prove itself, but I'm not sure I would invest the time and money, especially when I can find much better food else where! 

Ordered a spicy California roll (okay), a shrimp tempura roll (disgusting), seafood yakitori appetizer (meh). Sigh.

Katachi: another neat shop. They had this promotion where you'd get 20% off on 2 or more items, so J. bought a set of dragronfly rice bowls and I bought a lovely porcelain owl mug (it's got a gorgeous jade green tint and is translucent - real porcelain, folks!). We both love what we got. Hubby promptly "claimed" the mug - his exact words were, "Hunney, can this owl mug be mine?" What the?!? NO, that mug is MINE!!! When J. got home, she served her home-cooked meal with her rice bowls and then lamented to me over a text that she should have bought 2 sets ^.^

Kohshi: sells Japanese incenses, incense holders, teas, mugs, etc. I found my most favorite Japanese incense here! It was a little overpriced, but hey, still cheaper than a plane ticket to Japan ^.^

Amiko Boutique: This shop has tons of cute stuff, but the standout, at least when J. and I were there, were these hilarious cotton tote bags and t-shirts by Angry Little Girls Inc. They were on sale for 20% off, so I'm not sure if they'd still be there now :P

J. and I spent a good while laughing at these catty captions xD

I wanted to buy this tote bag so badly, but I need to grow some balls to step outside with it LOL!

There were also these cute stuffed animal hats ^.^

Sanrio: Would anything Japan-related be complete without Sanrio? J. loves Hello Kitty tote bags. Me, not so much. 

...Until I spotted this coolest most awesomest Hello Kitty tweed, plaid, and faux leather satchel. OMG want!!! I googled it immediately when I got home and discovered it also comes with a matching wallet. OMG double want!!! I was so crazy for these hubby bought them for my birthday, which is still 2 months away so I don't get to open them up and take pictures yet LOL! You'll have to make do with these stock photos. Sorry!
***Stock photos from Beadesaurus UK.

Moyo: A self-serve frozen yogurt shop. Basically, there are 6 dispensers against the wall for 6 flavors, you get a paper cup (various sizes available), pick your flavor(s), go to the toppings bar and dress your frozen yogurt however you like (fresh/canned fruits, chopped nuts, crushed candies and chocolates, even boba and jellies, etc.), then you pay by the weight. J. said shops like this popped up everywhere in her area because it's hot year round, but she never tried any. So we came in buying just one small cup to share, just for J. to have a taste.

J. loved it, I wasn't too impressed, but only because there's a much better one near grandma's house (though admittedly a few states away, Aspen Leaf Yogurt) with some 15 flavors and a gigantic toppings bar. My sister initially scoffed at the place, Aspen Leaf Yogurt that is, but became a convert after just one bite, and she's hell of a picky eater - their original flavor tasted like fat free frozen Greek yogurt, and their cappuccino flavor was to die for! In contrast, the original flavor at Moyo's was too tart, and its coffee flavor bitter. Seriously, how can you mess up so badly with frozen yogurt?!? Oh well, at least J. liked it enough to start trying the places in her area. Hopefully they're better than Moyo's LOL!

Here you reach the end of the Kintetsu East Mall, and through an indoor bridge crossing over Webster Street underneath, you get to the Kinokuniya Mall.

First floor (one floor up) of the Kinokuniya Mall with entrance to the Kinokuniya Bookstore. Hooray for Japanese magazines (yes, I bought some, just haven't had the time to post...)!!! ^.^

If you're looking for mangas and other otaku things, they're downstairs on the ground floor. Saw these art books for Toki no Kizuna: Sekigahara Kitan and Kakuouki: Shinsengumi Kitan there, both are otome games. Hakuouki became popular enough to spawn 3 anime series (12, 10, and 12 episodes each, respectively, and 6 OVAs) and no doubt Toki no Kizuna is going to be animated in due time. I tried to watch Hakuouki, but true to their otome roots, it's all eye-candy and no [sensible] plot. Yes, the boys are all drool-worthy, but I need substance to keep the interest going. I have standards, folks.

There are a few other neat shops on the first floor of the Kinokuniya Mall, like the super popular Sophie's Crepes which is almost always packed with long lines on the weekend(!), a Japanese purikura shop Pika Pika (probably the only purikura shop in town, state, country?!?), and an awesome stationery shop called Maido.

Maido: think stationery shop splashed with Japanese flavor. Nothing impressive, but they won me with a shelf of stamps, including miniature crystal stamps. 

I first came across these miniature crystal stamps some 8-9 years ago when I first lived in Japan and fell so much in love I bought myself and my sister a complete set of 9 each along with two mini ink pads. These stamps are itty bitty, a little less than 2cm in length. They are meant to stamp in the limited space of the schedule books but of course they'll make any letter, envelope, whathaveyou, aww-inducing! Can you spell a-d-o-r-a-b-l-e? And I don't even care for stamps!!!

Here's the set I bought for myself back then, which I still have at home, packed away somewhere...

Here's my sister's set, which she displays in her little glass display cabinet in her bedroom ^.^

Check out her piggie at lower left ^.^

Even the ink pad is freakin' cute!

So yes, that's why Maido is awesome. Every time I go, I stop by to look if they have new stamps, and occasionally they do. They're all terribly marked up of course, with each stamp $2.60 + tax (versus Japanese retail of 126yen tax included) and each stamp case $7.50 + tax (versus 368yen tax included). A complete set of 9 stamps and case totals to around $33.60 with California sales tax (versus 1,502yen tax included, ~$15 with the current exchange rate!). So yes, you're looking at 100%+ markup! But I'll pay that price, especially when these cannot be found anywhere else, not that I know of anyway, and these stamps are sentimental to me. So I bought another set for myself, my sister, and for a friend xD

For my (left) and my sister's (right) second set, I made sure not to get duplicates. And OMG they had the golden poop stamp with a smiley face on it!!! And a panda bear sticking up his butt! And a bee! And an elephant blowing heart bubbles! Gyahh!!!

I got this set for a friend ^.^ Check out the seal in the middle!

Anyway, down the staircase you get to the ground floor of the Kinokuniya Mall. 

Right next to this staircase is Kissako Tea, which I read have good bentos but I haven't tried but definitely will soon. At far left you can see the entrance to Kinokuniya, where all the mangas are.

Behind Kissako Tea is this mini replica of Osaka jou.

Anyway, next weekend is the start of Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, right here in Japantown! I'm so excited!!!

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