Afternoon Ambles: Japantown

Contributed by Lindsay Ellen Howland, CSR and Foreign Language Program Coordinator, ILSC-San Francisco


San Francisco’s Cherry Blossom Festival (photo credit: Flickr user Nicole Abalde)

In a city brimming with brunch spots (and the notorious lines that lead there) and dotted with lunch dates or dinner reservations, sometimes our days seem defined by the big meals we eat. But what about that delicious sweet spot, right between your midday sandwich at the Ferry Building and your early evening pasta and wine in North Beach? That lovely little pocket of day after a long morning of studying and just before you have someplace to be, when you can simply stroll and soak in the last of the day’s rays? I can’t recommend a good afternoon amble enough. Whether you’re a student wrapping up your last class, or a teacher looking to clear your head before a night of lesson planning, follow me to Japantown for a few hours of solitary sweetness.

Wandering through San Francisco, we step over the invisible lines that zigzag one block from the next and are swept up in different neighborhood personalities. Downtown, we’re knocked off our feet by little whirlwinds of life moving quickly, loudly. We’re pinballed through blinding storefronts and up shiny escalators, swallowed up and spat out by shops laced in neon flashing lights and glaring sale signs. We are hurried and herded through busy intersections, bumped by swinging cameras and arms struggling under a thousand shopping bags. There’s a frantic buzz, a steady swirling and a breathlessness downtown. It’s an energy that ignites excitement, but by the end of a long day, a quiet calmness is what I walk towards.


Japantown (Photo credit: Flickr user Cubmundo)

Stepping through the streets of Japantown, we inhale a softer breath; our eyes slow their jumps and jolts and our gaze loosens. Thoughts don’t dart, but rise and fall gently, deliberate and delicate as hands on a piano. Our minds pull crisp, subtle details from quiet shops: the kind that draw us in not with blinding displays, but with delicious smells and doors slightly ajar.  With neatly placed, geometric architecture and wide streets freckled with cherry-blossom trees, there is a simple beauty in Japantown that is far from plain.

As you soak in the pastel-skied afternoon, pause at one of Japantown’s loveliest little cafes: YakiniQ. Spacious and lit by hanging paper globe lights, this cafe attracts students and writers with its soft glow and quiet atmosphere. There is minimalism in the assortment of tables and chairs, board games and teapots and knickknacks on shelves: an uncluttered neatness in mismatched things. Famous for its sweet potato lattes and plates of desserts as pretty to look at as they are delicious to gobble up, a trip to YakiniQ is sure to soothe both stomach and soul. For a delicious citrus spin, try the piping hot, tangy yuzu honey tea. And don’t forget to balance your palate with a couple of sweet macaroons on the side: earl grey, rose, and green tea yuzu…Hello, joy.

All your relaxation essentials await you at the Kabuki Spa

All your relaxation essentials await you at the Kabuki Spa (photo: Celine Nadeau)

Let the rest and relaxation continue by strolling a couple blocks west towards Fillmore. On the corner that meets Geary Blvd, you’ll find one of the city’s most peaceful gems: the Kabuki Spa. Allow yourself slip into peaceful bliss in Kabuki’s communal baths, featuring a 104 degree hot pool, a frigidly invigorating 55 degree cold pool, dry sauna, and steam room. When you’re not soaking up the heat or testing your limits by a freezing plunge, rehydrate with a warm cup of tea or ice water garnished with fresh cucumber and a slice of lemon. Feeling knotty? Loosen up with a massage. From Thai Yoga to Reiki and varieties of both Eastern and Western styles, your body is sure to dissolve into a puddle of euphoria. Relish in the texture of a good fluffy towel, go wild testing every lotion and scrub under the sun, and give yourself permission to relax; you deserve it.


Sundance Kabuki Cinema (photo credit: Flickr user kennejima)

Alternatively, if pampering’s just not your thing, consider treating yourself to the simple pleasure of a good film to round off your afternoon. In the very same complex as the spa (but on the corner facing Post Street), you’ll scope one of the loveliest spots to catch a movie in the city: the Sundance Kabuki Cinema. With its tall, sloping glass walls, natural light rushing in, and bamboo shoots skyrocketing up and around, you’ll feel like like you’ve skipped the theater and wandered straight onto the set of The Secret Garden. Sip a cocktail before the show at the Sundance’s gorgeous balcony bar or head straight to your reserved seat, where you’ll enjoy a perfectly unobstructed view of the screen thanks to the cinema’s tiered seating. Best of all, the theater is ad-free, so you’ll never have to worry about finishing all your popcorn before the movie starts. As the auditorium dims, let your Japantown-infused afternoon ease you into the early evening while you sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

As the activities coordinator at ILSC-San Francisco, the questions I field daily from our students tend to revolve around suggestions:  what places should I check out, which foods do I need to try, are there cultural events that shouldn’t be missed?  There are few things I love more than unfolding a map of the Bay Area and pointing out all my favorite spots to those who’ve ventured to this corner of the world and are eager to explore.  Having lived in various neighborhoods of this vibrant city for the last three years, I’m delighted to write posts for the ILSC Voice that illuminate the little jewels I’ve discovered in San Francisco, neighborhood by neighborhood. 



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