The links between San Francisco and Japan stretch back to the end of the 19th century, when the first emigrants arrived in the city. Today San Francisco has the largest remaining Japantown area in the US. And in 1957 it strengthened its relationship with Japan by adopting Osaka as a twin town. All of this makes San Francisco an excellent place to get a taste of Japanese heritage and culture.

Japanese Tea House

The traditional tea house in the Japanese Tea Garden

The Changing Fortunes of the Japanese in San Francisco

We started in Japantown, where information boards mark out a short walk around the main sights, taking in a temple, churches and other community buildings. Each board details a different aspect of the area’s history, including education and religious life. I learnt a lot from this walk. Not just about the history and culture of the Japanese in San Francisco, but also about the troubled relationship between the immigrants and their host nation.

Shops in Japantown

Shops and a decorative “origami” fountain in Japantown

TheofirstoJapanese immigrants to the US arrived in San Francisco in the 1870s. Much of the early settlement was on the edge of the already settled Chinatown, but the community moved to the present location after the earthquake of 1906. Although they were keen to integrate into American society, the Japanese faced discriminatory attitudes and legislation, affecting where they lived and how their children were schooled. Matters were made worse during the Second World War, when a directive was issued requiring the internment of all people of Japanese descent living in the US.

Sensu in Japantown

Visitors to Japantown are greeted by a giant sensu (traditional fan)

Japantown Since the War

The Japanese returned to Japantown after the War, but in smaller numbers, so that the community which once spread across thirty blocks now only occupied about ten. However attempts were made to revitalise the area, with investment by both the US and Japanese governments. The twinning with Osaka was a first step towards a more harmonious relationship between the city of San Francisco and the Japanese people. As you walk around Japantown you will see many symbols of this new understanding, most notably the Peace Pagoda and several sculptures including a giant sensu (traditional fan).

Peace Pagoda in Japantown

For most tourists the focal point of the area is the Japan Center. This is a Japanese style mall with wooden bridges, Zen garden, sculptures and artworks. The shops are full of antiques, gifts and collectibles. We stopped to look at brightly coloured fabrics, boxes of incense and good luck charms. Then it was time to explore the “Restaurant Row”, a whole area of restaurants and cafés. We chose Benihana, where we drank sake and had traditional “lunch boats” with soup, salad, rice and prawns.

Japan Center

Restaurant Row in the Japan Center has a choice of cafes and restaurants


Japanese Tea Garden

Of course the Japanese influence in San Francisco isn’t confined to Japantown. Our next stop was the Japanese Tea Garden, part of the massive Golden Gate Park. This was created for the World’s Fair in 1894 and later converted into a permanent park, using trees, plants and even birds imported from Japan. The garden was laid out in accordance with Buddhist and Shinto principles, and includes a pagoda and other wooden structures.

Pagoda in the Japanese Tea Garden

Traditional buildings in the Japanese Tea Garden

Part of the philosophy of the Tea Garden is to create a calm and relaxing environment by slowing you down. It does this by taking you along winding paths, across bridges and onto islands. And by encouraging you to stop frequently, with rocks, water features and sculptures along the way. We walked around slowly, noting the bonsai trees and the koi carp in the water. We went up to the pagoda and admired the Zen garden and the large bronze Buddha. Then we sat in the wooden tea house and sipped jasmine tea while enjoying the view and listening to the sound of a nearby waterfall. It was a fitting conclusion to our brief exploration of Japanese culture.

Buddha in the Japanese Tea Garden

Look out for the large bronze Buddha

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