Throughout 2016, San Francisco’s Japantown saw many changes. Several longtime businesses changed hands while others have taken over empty locations. As the changes affect Japantown’s landscape, some expressed wariness over the neighborhood’s future as well as pointed out the difficulties the ethnic enclave’s business owners currently face today.
Unique New Businesses
Richard Hashimoto, president of the Japantown Merchants Association, said Japantown is changing to cater to more upscale clientele, but added that the neighborhood is also “saturated” with Japanese restaurants, he said in an e-mail interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly.
The saturation of restaurants has been somewhat felt among both old and new members of the community in Japantown. A few noodle shops have closed or changed this year. Longtime mainstay Mifune in the Japan Center West Mall was sold to a new owner and is currently transitioning into an izakaya-style restaurant called Nande-Ya. Meanwhile, two ramen shops, Sapporo-Ya in the Kinokuniya Building and Shalala Ramen at 1737 Buchanan St., have closed their doors this past year.
The new restaurants that have opened in the area emphasize unique offerings not seen among existing eateries. Masao Kuribara recently opened Hinodeya Ramen Bar in the former Shalala Ramen location. He said he aims to start a new wave of ramen by serving dashi ramen. Hinodeya’s clear broth soup is lighter in taste and not at all like the creamy and heavier tonkotsu broth, served at Ramen Yamadaya across the mall or Waraku up Post Street.
Kuribara said opening his restaurant in San Francisco’s Japantown was a good fit. He said he likes San Francisco’s size and the water the city uses, as well as the willingness for people in the city to “try new things.” Moreover, he chose Japantown because his ramen incorporates a taste that’s familiar to Japanese Americans. “Dashi is part of Japanese culture, so I want to spread Japanese culture through the ramen,” he said. “This is a suitable area to spread Japanese culture … second, third generations (of Japanese Americans) can understand what dashi is.”
Several Japantown community members welcomed Hinodeya’s opening.
“When people now ask me which place has the best ramen, I now have to ask, ‘what kind of ramen do you want?’” said Linda Mihara, owner of Paper Tree next door to Hinodeya.
Down the street, Tetsuro Ozawa opened OzaOza in the former location of Kappa, an upscale sushi bar at 1700 Post St. While Ozawa has kept the nine-seat sushi bar interior the same, his new restaurant serves only a pre-set, multi-course kaiseki dinner for $100 per person.
“We do only kaiseki,” he said, noting that there are no other kaiseki-only restaurants in San Francisco.
Meanwhile Takara Restaurant in the Japan Center East Mall has come under new ownership as Hiro Sato entered a joint management with the former owner of the restaurant in August. The 30-year-old Sato, who trained in San Francisco’s Umami as its second chef up until its closure in June of 2016, said he is taking the very traditional sushi and Japanese fare and modernizing the menu to attract new customers. He also said he wants to note his restaurant purchases their fish directly from the Tsukiji Market in Japan to offer the highest quality fish.
Outside of restaurants, Chato, a tea shop opened Nov. 25 in the former location of the JC Beauty Salon on the second floor of the Kinokuniya Building. “There was a void for an actual tea shop,” said Hideko Reyes, one of three partners in the business specializing in Japanese green tea from Uji city near Kyoto and the town of Kawane in Shizuoka Prefecture. “It’s been quite successful because it’s very difficult to find good teas which are fresh (from Japan).”
These businesses were among a number of new businesses that have opened their doors in Japantown in 2016. Pearl Spa, located in the former Uoki K. Sakai Market’s building at 1656 Post St., opened its doors Nov. 12, offering what owner Tracy Lee described as an affordable way for women to relax and de-stress in a Korean spa. Beque BBQ Grill aims to open up its third location at the former location of Yakiniku House Juban on the first floor of the Kinokuniya Building. Beque is part of a small chain of family-owned Korean BBQ restaurants currently operating in Santa Clara, Calif. and Newark, Calif. The Japan Center West Mall also welcomed two new beauty product stores, K-Pop Beauty at the former Sanrio Store location and Candy Doll Beauty at the former Ikenobo Ikebana Society of America’s headquarters, while Japan Center East Mall welcomed Izakaya Umai at the former location of Ramen Underground.
Ikenobo, which moved its headquarters from the West Mall to the Kinokuniya Building in 2012, also closed at the end of 2016 with the retirement of Nobu Kurashige, its managing director.
Japantown also gained a new office tenant, as JPT America Inc. moved its offices from South San Francisco to 1760 Buchanan St., above its recently-acquired Sanko Kitchen Essentials business. JPT, an import/export wholesale distributor, typically supplies businesses with Japanese household goods, textbooks and stationery. They moved into an open office space at the end of October after JPT acquired
Sanko last July, Tomoaki Takashima, JPT’s vice president said.
Allen Okamoto, head of T. Okamoto Company, said there’s a high demand for real estate in the ethnic enclave. Noting that they had recently leased the space to JPT, Okamoto told the Nichi Bei Weekly that “there’s very little office space available in Japantown, so whenever something opens up, we can rent it out relatively quickly.”
Activity in the Community
Hashimoto said the various new business tenants are a good thing for the economic vitality of the community, but said he hopes these new tenants will participate in the community alongside older business owners.
Sato expressed similar sentiments, saying he too wishes to help the community. While he is currently focusing on making his restaurant profitable, the Japan-born chef said his ultimate goal is to protect the Japanese culture exhibited in the ethnic enclave.
A couple new business owners expressed their interest in participating more in the Japantown community, but they also said they were unsure if they have the bandwidth to do so.
Sato said he had never managed a restaurant before and is currently focused on ensuring that he runs Takara profitably. “I want to do something for the Japanese community, … even a small thing is fine,” he said. “For community, in the beginning I have to make this restaurant successful, otherwise I have no money or time.”
He did, however, say that Japantown businesses could support each other to preserve the Nikkei culture in the ethnic enclave.
Pearl Spa’s Lee said she too hopes to take part in the community in the future. While she is currently focusing on attracting patrons to her spa, she said she hopes to participate in the larger Japantown community by eventually joining the merchants association or by volunteering at the local cherry blossom festival.
Hashimoto also noted, however, that merchants also must consider the future state of Japantown. “In order to make this community successful, the community must change to make it more attractive and appealing for people to come,” he said.
The merchants association president said there is a need for the Japantown community to formulate a plan to create a space and environment that will attract high-tech Japanese investors, such as Digital Garage, a co-working space, or Rakuten, an e-commerce firm. At the same time, Hashimoto said it is important to support the neighborhood’s retail businesses as well, saying the merchants are at the center of a community. “It’s what helps keeps this community going otherwise we will lose to gentrification and may soon lose our precious cultural community,” he said. “It is the commercial businesses that identifies a community. It’s not the residences, it’s not the non-profits or churches.”
He warned he is now seeing what happened in Seattle’s former Japantown which now is the International District.
While most of the recently opened businesses feature Japanese owners, the concern remains that, as existing businesses face increased rent costs and older businesses retire and shut down, the new businesses that take over vacant spaces are not necessarily Nikkei owned or operated. Bobby Okamoto, co-owner of Benkyodo, said he hopes Japantown’s businesses will remain Nikkei, but said that is something outside of the community’s control. “It’s whoever has the money to pay the rent,” he said.
For future developments in Japantown, aside from the New People Building, the Uoki Apartments, and the 1600 Webster St. condos, Hashimoto said Japantown’s community is “obsolete.” “We need to modernize and get variances for projects that are above the height restrictions,” he said. “We also need a developer that is culturally sensitive to our community for the long haul.”
Hashimoto also said the community must prepare for whatever changes may come its way as Beverly Hills, Calif.-based 3D Investments will be free to sell the Japan Center Malls once the covenants expire in four years. The malls today, according to Hashimoto, require a “major overhaul.”
Meanwhile, across the street on the Buchanan Mall, merchants there are facing another difficulty.
“I get customers in here saying they never knew we existed, that ‘oh we usually only stay in the malls,’” Mihara said.
Mihara and Okamura said they are thankful Hinodeya opened on the block, attracting more people to venture out of the malls and up the pedestrian mall. Mihara also credited the Japantown Task Force’s efforts to light up the Buchanan Mall for the holiday season. “We’re seeing more people out there now.”
As a new year dawns, Japantown’s businesses face some uncertainties about what the future holds. To face them and to ensure the ethnic enclave is preserved for future generations, Hashimoto said the community must keep an open mind.