The Bay Area’s Japantowns adjust to the new normal

With California’s June 15 economic reopening, businesses across the San Francisco Bay Area have gained a new sense of normalcy. The recovery process has varied according to individual businesses, even among the region’s two Japantowns.

A Mixed Bag of Results in San Francisco’s Japantown

TASTE OF JAPAN — Tourists visit San Francisco’s Japantown where business has steadily improved. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced bars could reopen May 6 with limited occupancy, Derek Parker said he and his staff “busted our butt” to reopen Dimples in San Francisco’s Japantown on a few days notice.

“Right when we first reopened, we weren’t sure what to expect. But, surprisingly, that first week we reopened, it was one of the best weeks we ever had,” he said.

Parker said few bars were ready the first day they were allowed to reopen. He said his basement bar on Post Street was likely the only establishment with karaoke in the city. Festa Wine & Cocktail Lounge, another karaoke bar in the Kinokuniya Building a block away would not open until June 1, according to its owner Masae Matsumoto.

Overall, merchants say the ethnic enclave’s businesses are recovering, but many continue to face challenges. As more businesses have reopened, Parker said customers started going elsewhere and now his business is back to pre-pandemic averages. While saying his business will likely be OK, the bar owner noted that, when factoring in the 15-month shutdown, business has been terrible, and he is now in debt.

Up the hill on Post Street, Toshi Sueishi said business has yet to resume to pre-pandemic levels at Futaba Hair Salon. Sueishi, who primarily serves elderly Japanese speaking clientele, said business was down by some 80 percent in early May. While the June 15 reopening saw a small improvement, he noted that he is still down 70 to 60 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

“I am starting to see clients I haven’t seen in a year, they’re making reservations with me now,” Sueishi said in Japanese. “But many customers from The Sequoias (an assisted living facility a block away) are still staying home. Maybe less than half of those clients have returned.”

Aside from local patrons, San Francisco’s Japantown has relied on tourism as a major source of foot traffic over the years. Sachiko and Kingston Gee, owners of ChaTo in the Kinokuniya Building, said weekends are busy and foot traffic in the Japan Center is busy even on weekdays, with visitors from out of state. They said customers seem to be spending money after spending a year cooped up at home.

Sachiko Gee said many out of state customers are traveling to the Bay Area since they can’t go to Japan.

“We got folks from Philadelphia, we have folks from Miami coming just to visit Japantown, to get the feel of Japan.”

Foot traffic in the ethnic enclave, especially during the weekend, has been heavy, with many merchants saying they resemble pre-pandemic levels. The Japantown Merchants Association launched a Customer Appreciation Month campaign in June, which Richard Hashimoto, president of the association, said has been a great success.

“I am so happy to see so many people in Japantown return even before the state’s reopening,” he said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Of course, the reopening made it even better, but as soon as the city entered into the yellow tier, we began seeing many visitors in the malls and community. I guess they have been cooped up too long and needed to get out and I’m glad they chose Japantown to venture out to.”

Hashimoto, who is also the general manager of the Japan Center parking garages, said more people are parking in the city-owned garages, but added the garage is currently facing major losses after California Pacific Medical Center canceled its contract with the garage last year.

“After the loss of the hospital employee parking program, the garage suffered a $900,000 a year loss,” Hashimoto said. “Combined with COVID losses and the automation of parking equipment, we have also had to lay off most of our operational and administrative staff and suspended our vendor services.”

Outside of the Japan Center, Jessette Novero, co-owner of Aloha Warehouse, said tourists have also started to return to the ethnic enclave, but weekdays are still much slower in comparison to a pre-COVID summer. Novero said her store is operating at reduced hours and the pedestrian mall is usually quiet after 4 p.m. on weekdays.

“The thing is, a lot of our business relies on the seasons, so for example graduation season, cherry blossom festival, Nihonmachi Street Fair, and the fact that we’re not really having those again for a second year in a row, it’ll severely impact our ability to stay open,” Novero added.

Meanwhile, according to Kathy Nelson, spa director of Kabuki Springs and Spa, her business is still grossing only about 25 percent of sales compared to 2019. She said her business is facing challenges in hiring staff.

“We simply do not have enough people working to sustain the growth we need to have,” she said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “We have clients, thank the Lord, and for the limited staff we have, we are booked.”

Nelson said she hopes to be back to full capacity in the fall, but is proceeding with caution as the state continues to navigate reopening under the potential threat of a resurgence by the delta variant of the coronavirus.

Dr. Clint Taura acknowledged the difficulty many merchants faced over the past year. The dentist lamented that many businesses in the neighborhood shut down over the past year. Several stores in the Japan Center closed over the past year, including Japanese video game arcade Playland Japan and most recently houseware shop Neat Asian Things. However, Taura and several other merchants acknowledged the contributions the Japantown Community Benefits District and Japantown Task Force made over the past year.

“I hope the community (landlords, businesses, residents, etc.) all see the value of the community benefits district. What Grace (Horikiri, executive director of the JCBD), CBD, JTF and staff have done to get through this is nothing short of amazing,” Taura said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Many merchants around the ethnic enclave have credited Horikiri by name for keeping the community updated on business assistance grant opportunities and other measures to help keep many of the merchants in place during the pandemic.

San Jose Community Proceeds With Caution

TRANSFORMED FROM TOFU — During the pandemic, the trendy Mister+Mrs Hair Salon opened at the site of the former San Jose Tofu location in San Jose’s Japantown.
photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

Meanwhile, San Jose’s Japantown has seen a gradual return of customers to its commercial corridor, but many merchants are still keeping reduced hours and focusing on the weekends.

“Before we were the ones who stayed open on Monday because everybody else closed on Monday,” Arlene Damron, owner of the Nichi Bei Bussan department store, said. “But now, it doesn’t make sense.”

Now, she primarily opens by appointment and for customers if she happens to be in. Damron said facing the pandemic for a second summer in a row hurts since the annual Obon season is her “Christmas” in terms of sales.

“We’ve been closed three times in our history,” Damron said. “Ojichan opened in 1902. 1906, the earthquake and fire. And three years during internment, ‘42 to ‘45. Then COVID.”

Similar to Nichi Bei Bussan, many merchants in San Jose’s Japantown are keeping reduced hours and focusing on weekends. The popular confectionery Shuei-Do Manju Shop is only open Thursdays through Sundays and its neighboring Nikkei Traditions gift shop is open on Saturdays and Sundays.

“I think middle of July, we do plan on bringing staff in and hopefully we will be open Thursday and Friday,” Pam Yoshida, co-owner of Nikkei Traditions, said. “Saturday and Sunday is just kind of a day where we can be here, we don’t have to pay anybody, and we can see how things are going.”

Many businesses temporarily shut down, but found ways to adapt in the South Bay ethnic enclave. Zonkey, a toy store, began selling plants. Jose Rodriguez, the store’s owner, said pothos, Calatheas and Venus flytraps have been popular along with Funko Pop and Kid Robot figurines and plushy toys.

“The beginning of the year was a bit of a struggle finding ways to be open with the restrictions that the state gave us, but over the last eight months, we’ve been kind of getting back on our feet with integrating the whole plant system with the toys,” Rodriguez said.

For Johnny Granado, co-own–er of Mister+Mrs, a salon that opened in the former location of San Jose Tofu, the recent relaxing of restrictions has finally helped him feel like his business is “open” after initially opening for business last September during the pandemic.

“Now it feels like it’s open,” Granado said.

San Jose Japantown’s Santo Market has repurposed their poké window to sell groceries, rather than open their doors during the pandemic. photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

Several merchants have also adapted their businesses to serve their customers outside. Mark Santo said he repurposed his poké window, meant to sell to-go orders of their popular poké, as the only point of interaction his customers have with his staff. Santo, the market’s owner, said he decided to use the window to keep his staff safe.

“Instead of having customers come up, those without a mask or something, they’re going to be outside, other side of the table from the window to make sure we provided some kind of social distancing,” he said.

While reopening has rescinded many restrictions, Santo said he intends to keep the current system in place for the time being to keep his staff safe from potentially irate customers.

“We do know we’re losing a little bit of sales because people can’t browse and do your impulse buy kind of things, but it’s safer for my employees,” Santo said.

Similarly, Jasmine Rast of Roy’s Station Coffee and Teas and Tom Kumamaru of Shuei-Do Manju-Shop have barred entry into their businesses and kept customers outside. Rast closed her popular corner gas-station-turned-cafe during the beginning of the pandemic, but reopened to serve customers outside in June of last year.

“We were fully closed for a month, but then we realized, ‘Oh wait, this was going to be a little bit longer than we anticipated,’” she said.

She plans to continue serving customers through her cafe’s doorway with reduced hours while they remodel their interior.

Kumamaru also said he had been closed for about a month before figuring out how to serve customers without admitting them into his confectionery. He said he was satisfied with the system and had no plans to change it for the remainder of the year, citing concerns over whether all of his customers will be vaccinated or not.

“As long as everybody’s gonna get vaccinated — because we’re all vaccinated here, but you never know about the customers outside,” he said. “So we’ll keep it as it is for now, everything’s done on the outside, nobody comes in. And it’s been pretty efficient this way.”

Yoshida, who is also co-president of the Japantown Community Congress of San Jose, said the community is navigating reopening to gauge the community’s comfort levels.

“We’re gonna send (the board) a survey and ask them if they’re comfortable meeting … in person,” Yoshida said. “A few board members indicated that some of their nonprofits are going to start meeting live from September, but we haven’t made a commitment.”

To Yoshida, the community’s willingness to support each other was instrumental in helping the community survive. She noted her landlords, the Dobashi family, extended rent relief without asking during the outset of the pandemic.

“They were very gracious from the very beginning. We didn’t even ask. They just volunteered, offered from the beginning,” she said. “The Dobashi family has been in Japantown for a long time, and they did have their own business. So, being in the retail business, they do know what foot traffic is like Japantown.”

Dobashi Properties Inc. said in a statement to the Nichi Bei Weekly the owners unanimously felt their tenants needed help when the pandemic hit. The company leases property to Kaita Restaurant, Shuei-Do Manju Shop, Nikkei Traditions and the State of Grace tattoo parlor.

“Each of the tenants or lessees are an important part of the local community,” the Dobashi statement said. “It is important to keep these businesses in our community, each contribute in a different and innovative way.”

Merchants concurred, stating they gained a renewed sense of importance of how community plays a role during an extraordinary time.

“I feel that the last year has kind of shown us how we have to evolve as a company, and especially how we have to evolve as a community, as far as helping each other out,” Rodriguez said. “I think, pushing through this whole situation of the COVID, it just made us stronger as a community, especially businesses, local businesses around here, to just help motivate support and elevate our businesses as a whole.”

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