San Francisco: Places to Explore


Pacific Heights and Japantown

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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, which range from glam to funky, have become a draw for the whole city.

Japantown, on the other hand, feels somewhat adrift. (Also called Nihonmachi, it's centered on the southern slope of Pacific Heights, north of Geary Boulevard between Fillmore and Laguna streets.) The Japan Center mall, for instance, comes across as rather sterile. Where Chinatown is densely populated and still largely Chinese, Japantown struggles to retain its unique character.

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 '70s 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 vocal group rallied to "save Japantown," and some new blood is finally infusing the neighborhood with energy: Robert Redford's Sundance corporation revived the Kabuki Theatre; local hotel group Joie de Vivre took over the Hotel Kabuki; and the new J-Pop Center, New People, brings Japanese pop culture and a long-missing youthful vibe to the neighborhood. Japantown is a relatively safe area, but the Western Addition, south of Geary Boulevard, can be dangerous even during the daytime. Avoid going too far west of Fillmore Street on either side of Geary.