Edible Excursions – Japantown

I was fortunate enough to buy two tickets to the Edible Excursions – Japantown tour from the Daniel Webster ‘Taste of Potrero’ auction site.  Japantown is a very inclusive neighborhood, one of only three in the US, including Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo and San Jose.   The Japanese are a tight-to-the-vest community, so it’s hard to find a way in, but Lisa Rogovin of Edible Excursions has spent many years earning the trust of the local Japanese merchants, good enough for all on her tour to feel welcome, appreciated, and at home on the Edible Excursions’ Japantown tour.  Lisa Rogovin began her Edible Excursions business over ten years ago which makes her one of the first foodie tour companies in foodie San Francisco.  Edible Excursions’ Japantown tour is just about the only way to see the real Japantown.  Don’t think that, just because I’m giving you a detailed rundown, that the tour isn’t well worth your time and money.  Lisa gives so much detail and recommendations for other places to explore on a return trip.

Japantown was created around 1906 when the huge loss of land due to the earthquake and subsequent fire cleared out 36+ blocks in which the Japanese settled.  A 1912 law prohibiting Asians from owning property enabled a quick eviction and internment of this local Japanese population during World War II.  All kinds of squatters abused the community enough that most of the beautiful Victorians in the neighborhood were bulldozed to create the current, smaller late 60’s malls and shopping areas of the current Japantown.  The lovely Buchanan walk was closed off in the early 80s.

The beautiful pagoda pictured in my gallery was donated by San Francisco’s sister city, Osaka, in 1968.  As you walk through Peace Plaza at Post and Buchanan, there is a sculpture in triangular form that is replicated in the two other Japantowns in the US.  Then, on the Buchanan walk, there are two beautiful Ruth Asawa sculptures.

There are all kinds of events and festivals going on in Japantown.  One of Lisa’s favorites is J-POP, coming up this year 7/19-20.  It’s all about art, culture and gourmet food

Our first stop was Yahiki Q, a lovely, quaint, Korean-owned coffee shop.  The owner served a sweet potato latte, made from canned sweet potatoes, pureed and then steamed with milk and simple sugar.  From the owner’s childhood, it is simply awesome, authentic, and out of this world.  The Kiniko Korean BBQ upstairs is run by Yahiki Q’s owner’s brother, and Lisa advises it is quite good.   Japantown still hasn’t recovered from our economic recession, so century-old stores and markets, like Iwoki Sakai, have been shuttered.  The area is becoming more diverse simply to fill the stores.

Kiss Sushi up the street is Lisa’s #2 favorite in the area for sushi.  A5-course omakase is $65 with a $20 sake pairing.  This is a really good deal, and I’ve now got it on my list.

There are 3-4 ramen shops on Buchanan Walk, but at the Buchanan corner of the walk is Benkyodo, a mochi-maker and diner, in the family business since 1906.  People, you HAVE to go here.  Tell them Lisa of Edible Excursions – Japantown sent you.  Gus will give you a smile.  The selection is amazing, innovative, some seasonal.  Mochi is balls of sticky rice paste with a filling.  They are sweet and chewy.  My favorite was the seasonal strawberry with fresh strawberries in the middle.  Benkyodo steams, bakes and deep fries their kochi.

We went to Super Mira which is Japantown’s last local market.  They have beautiful produce, and an excellent selection of Japanese products along with sushi-grade fish and meats.  A man cooks ready-to-eat food there, too, and this day we saw killer-looking fried chicken flying out the door.  Lisa arranged for a sampling of hijiki salad, tofu and kombu, and a nice serving of ramen.  There are seats inside to sit and enjoy the food.  It is quite excellent.

The Tea Tasting Association is up the street on Buchanan, and they offer formal tea tasting.  Be prepared to sit a long time on your knees!!  It’s at Sutter and Laguna, and 7 people are included in the tasting.  I saw Mum’s near there for shabu shabu, where you are given raw meats and vegetables and cook them at the table.

Then, it was back to the mall.  There’s a Daiso there, too.  (Remember my talking about the one on Market during our chocolate tour?)  It’s a large store filled with inexpensive items for cooking, gift wrapping, toys, you name it.  It’s worth spending several hours milling through the malls.  They are filled with fascinating things to see.

Lisa took us to May’s Coffee Shop, and we are all a bit surprised because it didn’t look like anything special.  But it certainly is.  They make tan yalki.  There are fish-shaped molds in opposing directions and batter is poured in and begins frying.  Then, you choose red bean, taro, chocolate or banana/chocolate for the filling.  It’s placed on one side, the the opposing side closes over it.  A simple back and forth, and the tan yalki is ready.  I had the banana/chocolate, and it was super delicious.  May’s Coffee Shop has been there since the mall opened in 1968, so you know it has to be good to keep people coming back for more.

We headed to Mitarashi Kusi for a delicious onigiri, which is a rice cake filled with various ingredients.  Ours was filled with salmon, and the manager there was very hospitable and gave us all kinds of insights about Japanese culture.

Next, TOTALLY different, was Pika Pika.  The store is filled with Japanese photograph booths.  Everyone in our group got to be in a series of pictures, and then, you can create all kinds of graphic additions to the pictures taken.  It’s a really cool idea and would be fun with a group of kids.

Nippon-ya is a wonderful little gift shop, specializing in pre-wrapped gifts, called oniyage.  It’s a Japanese custom to bring gifts from a trip, and Nippon-ya’s gifts are from various Japanese regions.

Mifune Don is upstairs in the east mall and serves, from what Japantown Edible Excursions tells us, is the only place to enjoy okonomiyaki, a popular dish from Hiroshima. For a reasonable $9.20, you get a large pancake on crispy ramen, stuffed with pickled ginger, shrimp, pork, beef, a sauce similar to bbq and worcestershire sauce, green powdered seaweed and bonito flakes on top.  This dish is so tasty with marvelous texture.  Definitely worth a trip upstairs to try.  Their menu looked amazing.

Lisa tells us that the nearby Ino Sushi is ultimate, authentic sushi and well worth a return visit.  Check out Japantown Edible Excursions and their many other off-the-beaten path tours.  You will enjoy every minute and thank Lisa for her ultimate knowledge of the tours she runs.


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