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San Francisco Travel Guide

  • Photo: Rafael Ramirez Lee / Shutterstock

Pacific Heights and Japantown

Pacific Heights and Japantown are something of an odd couple: privileged, old-school San Francisco and the workaday commercial center of Japanese American life in the city, stacked virtually on top of each other. The sprawling, extravagant mansions of Pacific Heights gradually give way to the more modest Victorians and unassuming

housing tracts of Japantown. The most interesting spots in Japantown huddle in the Japan Center, the neighborhood's two-block centerpiece, and along Post Street. You can find plenty of authentic Japanese treats in the shops and restaurants.

Pacific Heights defines San Francisco's most expensive and dramatic real estate. Grand Victorians line the streets, mansions and town houses are priced in the millions, and there are magnificent views from almost any point in the neighborhood. Old money and new, personalities in the limelight and those who prefer absolute media anonymity live here, and few outsiders see anything other than the pleasing facades of Queen Anne charmers, English Tudor imports, and baroque bastions. Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein, Larry Ellison, and Gordon Getty all own impressive homes here, but not even pockets as deep as those can buy a large garden—space in the city is simply at too much of a premium. The boutiques and restaurants along Fillmore Street, which range from glam to funky, have become a draw for the whole city.

Though still the spiritual center of San Francisco's Japanese American community, Japantown feels somewhat adrift. The Japan Center mall, for instance, comes across as rather sterile, and whereas Chinatown is densely populated and still largely Chinese, Japantown struggles to retain its unique character.Also called Nihonmachi, Japantown is centered on the southern slope of Pacific Heights, north of Geary Boulevard between Fillmore and Laguna streets. The Japanese community in San Francisco started around 1860; after the 1906 earthquake and fire many of these newcomers settled in the Western Addition. By the 1930s they had opened shops, markets, meeting halls, and restaurants and established Shinto and Buddhist temples. But during World War II the area was virtually gutted, when many of its residents, including second- and third-generation Americans, were forced into so-called relocation camps. During the 1960s and 1970s redevelopment further eroded the neighborhood, and most Japanese Americans now live elsewhere in the city.Still, when several key properties in the neighborhood were sold in 2007, a group rallied to "save Japantown," and some new blood finally infused the area with energy: Robert Redford's Sundance corporation revived the Kabuki Theatre; the local, hip hotel group Joie de Vivre took over the Hotel Kabuki; and the new J-Pop Center, New People, has brought Japanese pop culture and a long-missing youthful vibe. Japantown is a relatively safe area, but the Western Addition, south of Geary Boulevard, can be dangerous even during the daytime. Also avoid going too far west of Fillmore Street on either side of Geary.Part of the Western Addition, the Lower Fillmore in its post–World War II heyday was known as the Harlem of the West for its profusion of jazz night spots, where such legends as Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker would play. These days the city's favorite jazz club, Yoshi's, is here, and the neighborhood celebrates its heritage every June with the Fillmore Jazz Festival. More live music rings at the Fillmore Auditorium, made famous in the 1960s by Bill Graham and the iconic bands he booked there, and at the blues-centric Boom Boom Room.The larger Western Addition, traditionally one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods, struggles with poverty and gang violence. And yet the same neighborhood includes Alamo Square and its famed Painted Ladies, one of the most photographed spots in town.

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