To many people, Japanese food is a special and exotic treat — that often consists solely of sushi or ramen. A new tour aims to demystify the dishes, and teach those who may be otherwise hesitant about them.
Since 2004, Lisa Rogovin has taken locals on culinary tours around the Bay Area. Her knowledge of local food and their farmers, chefs and retailers has given her extensive insight into worlds such as San Francisco’s Mission District and North Berkeley’s “Gourmet Ghetto.” In October, she launched her newest tour, the Japantown Culinary Tour.
Rogovin, who is a professional “epicurean concierge,” has 16 years of experience in worldwide culinary exploration. She got her start as an epicurean concierge while working at Four Seasons Hotel as a food guide for exclusive culinary experiences, which led her to creating her own culinary tour business.
According to Rogovin, she was approached by the Japantown Merchants Association and asked to do a food tour of Japantown. Richard Hashimoto, president of the association, said the project is part of its marketing efforts to promote Japantown businesses.
“A lot of visitors don’t know where to eat in Japantown,” said Hashimoto. “This is a perfect opportunity to experience all sorts of food that’s offered here.”
Hashimoto described Rogovin’s tours as catering to higher-end customers. He added that it offers a chance to promote various Japantown Merchants Association businesses, as well as restaurants, by physically attracting people every Friday afternoon.
“I’m so excited to launch this tour,” said Rogovin. In three months, she combed through the streets and malls of the ethnic enclave to leave almost no culinary stone unturned.
More than Sushi and Tempura
The three-hour tour, led by Rogovin and her team, offers a filling way to spend an afternoon, and aims to help locals who are interested but are not well versed with Japanese culinary traditions to learn about tasty food beyond the sushi and tempura fare.
“I’d like to demystify what’s here,” she said in introducing her tour. “Culturally it’s a very different world.”
While the tour has just started and the staff is still learning, Rogovin and her crew are excited about learning and sharing their experiences in Japantown. “We keep meeting new people every tour and expanding what we know,” she said.
Emunah Hauser, a local food lover and publicist, and Sarah Henry, an Australian food writer, are training to learn the cultural landscape along with Rogovin.
“The learning curve is certainly steeper,” said Hauser, who also leads tours for the Ferry Building Farmers Market and the Mission District. “The cooking style and ingredients used are very different compared to western cooking. Even with the Mission District, there’s some crossover.
“In that vein, there’s a lot more to discover here, and [you’re] more likely to find something people don’t know about,” said Hauser. “For that, I’m excited about the [steeper] learning curve to the depth of Japanese culture found in California.”
‘In’ with the Merchants
The tour also aims to connect participants with the local shop owners and the history of the neighborhood through its cuisine. Rogovin largely thanked Bob Hamaguchi of the Japantown Task Force, Hashimoto of the Japantown Merchants Association and community member Greg Marutani for helping her secure an “in” with the neighborhood, which allowed her access to the food and the history behind the Japanese American experience.
“It’s very much about getting the store owners to let them share their passion with you,” said Rogovin. “When Bobby, the owner of Benkyodo, gave me his cell number, I felt ‘I’m in!’”
The tour starts in the Peace Plaza, at the center of Japantown, with Rogovin giving a basic introduction of the neighborhood’s history. She talked about the formation of Japantown after the 1906 earthquake and fire, which leveled the city of San Francisco and how Japanese Americans resettled in the Western Addition. She explained that the Japanese American neighborhood was once much larger, compared to the seven or so city blocks the core Japantown is now comprised of. Rogovin noted the Japanese American wartime incarceration, their return to the neighborhood and their subsequent uprooting with redevelopment. She admitted the she was only skimming over the deep history of the neighborhood and its Nikkei denizens, but cited that the tour was mainly focused on food.
“We’re here to eat!” she said, and so the participants ate. Rogovin regularly takes six to 14 participants to restaurants, markets and cafés throughout Japantown. Typically, the tour has seven or eight food stops, with short interludes of cultural trivia and small talk. In all, participants get more than a full meal as they wander through the neighborhood to sample a spectrum of Japanese cuisine.
New and Traditional Cuisine
The tour covers both the new and chic and the traditional fare. Rogovin led the group through YakiniQ Cafe, located under the YakiniQ Korean barbecue restaurant (on Post between Laguna and Buchanan streets). Christy Hwang, who owns and operates the café, served her family’s own sweet potato latte.
Hwang, who used to work in Web design, started the café when her brother, Daeho Hwang, invited her to use the space under his restaurant. The café is open later than most of the other shops in Japantown and is geared toward “the younger people with their laptops,” as described by Rogovin. The café is open Mondays through Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Just a few feet away from YakiniQ Cafe is Uoki K. Sakai Company, one of the oldest businesses in Japantown. Rogovin briefly explained the company’s history. Robert Sakai, a third generation owner, operates the store, which was founded in 1906. Rogovin described Sakai as “the hardest working fellow in San Francisco.”
Sakai met with the tour group after his morning deliveries and pricings. He spoke about cooking Japanese staples such as rice and miso soup. He also shared facts that may be second nature to Nikkei, but often are overlooked or relatively unknown, such as the element of dashi (soup stock) in miso soup and the minute consistency and shape differences of Japanese-style rice.
At Uoki, the group sampled several dishes available at the grocery store: the five-spice (tofu) nuggets and a hijiki tofu salad from Hodo Soy Beanery, an organic tofu maker, and a gobo (burdock root) salad.
Next, the group trekked downhill to Benkyodo Company, another landmark within the community. Run by the brothers Ricky and Bobby Okamura, Benkyodo was also started in 1906. Rogovin introduced the Japantown staple store as “the little local coffee shop run by third generation owners.”
Benkyodo is particularly known for manju, sweet Japanese confections. Rogovin gave a quick introduction to mochi and anko (sweet bean paste). She explained the difference in color and consistency of anko and professed her favorite type was chofu (pancake-wrapped sweet mochi).
Mark Sachs, who was taking the culinary tour with co-workers, was intrigued. “Manju? I’ll have to remember that,” he said as he jotted down notes on the Japanese confections.
The tour headed down to the New People building’s Cinema Café to sample its recent addition, Onigilly. The group was treated to one of three styles of onigiri (rice balls).
“This is every day food in Japan,” said Rogovin. “There is less rice and more filling in Onigilly’s onigiri. Normally, these are the leftovers in Japan, so Koji (Kanematsu, the owner) knew he had to make some changes to suit American tastes.”
After Onigilly, the tour headed back up Post Street to the Japan Center East Mall to visit Mifune Don, where the group sampled two styles of okonomiyaki — Hiroshima style with noodles, and Osaka style without noodles. “Okonomiyaki is a Japanese pancake,” said Rogovin. “Okonomi means ‘what you like,’ so they load the kitchen sink into the batter.”
While seated, Rogovin talked about the culinary culture of Japan, as well as the bar scenes and nightlife in Japan. She introduced the members to some of the shops around the East Mall before moving on to the West Mall for Café Hana’s.
She explained that Café Hana is run by Sansei owner Carol Murata, the daughter of May Murata, who runs May’s Coffee Shop. “May’s Coffee Shop to Japantown is like the Cheeseboard in Berkeley — it’s an institution,” she said.
The group was treated to a mini Geisha Float at Café Hana, a decadent dessert with green tea ice cream, azuki anko, sweet mochi cubes on shave ice sprinkled with matcha powder. While the normal size for the dessert is as big as a meal in itself, the tour was served a small sample size. “Normally this is much larger, but previous tours professed they just couldn’t eat it all and still have space for the rest of the tour,” said Rogovin.
Attendee Patrice Bergman noted, “it’s such an interesting experience to eat beans (azuki anko) on ice cream.”
As a final stop before a sit down lunch, the tour sampled some confections at Nippon-Ya, a Japanese omiyage (gift) store. Nippon-ya’s owner, Tobin Tsuji, explained the concept of omiyage and a few details behind some of his products.
The Gateway Mochi
“Chocolate mochi is sort of a gateway into this stuff,” said Tsuji. “It’s chocolate, something people are familiar with, on mochi, which is rice, so people can get over it and be willing to try it. From there they can move on to other kinds of manju and Japanese confections.”
Tsuji said his store’s products are flown in from all across Japan, something unique compared to other Japanese gift stores in Japan. “Our parent shops in Japan have multiple locations but they primarily sell products made locally to that store. We have products from all over Japan.”
Almost stuffed to the brim, the tour participants made their way into the Kinokuniya Building, where Rogovin gave a quick introduction to the merchants there, and their highlights, such as On The Bridge and their Japanese-style pasta, Maki and their wappa (steamed) dishes, and the Kinokuniya Bookstore for their selection of cookbooks.
The tour concluded with a sit-down lunch at Mifune Bistro. One of three Mifune locations in Japantown, it features food that is closer to its fusion cuisine, a carryover from when the restaurant was known as the bushi-tei bistro. Rogovin described how the ramen there was made fresh on location and featured some fusion dishes such as a silken tofu dressed with minced raw tuna and basil. The coup de grâce to a more than three-hour long tour was a small bowl of chashu ramen, two pieces of gyoza, the tofu with tuna and a sunomono salad.
In addition to the culinary stops, Rogovin also pointed out a number of stores that she found interesting while making her way through Japantown. She made a detour through Paper Tree to observe the world of origami and noted Fuji Shiatsu offered a cheap but great massage. She made a quick stop in front of the Ikenobo Ikebana Society of America to introduce Japanese floral arrangement and introduced tour members to Pika Pika, a store dedicated to photo booth machines.
While still just starting out, the Japantown Culinary Tour has already become an interesting take on local cuisine from a perspective often overlooked by those within the Nikkei community.
The tour is scheduled for every Friday and second Saturday of the month from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The tour is $85 per person. Rogovin said she plans on rotating merchants pending more research and said she will also tailor events to larger groups if they request anything specific.
For more information on Edible Excursions, visit www.edibleexcursions.net.
Edible Excursions Japantown Culinary Tour
1604 Post St.
Uoki K. Sakai Company
1656 Post St.
1747 Buchanan St.
22 Peace Plaza
(in the Japan Center East Mall)
1737 Post St.
(in the Japan Center West Mall)
1737 Post St.
(in the Japan Center West Mall)
1581 Webster St. (in Kinokuniya Bldg.)