If you are looking to travel to Japan without the long flight, we’ve got the spot for you! San Francisco’s Japantown is very walkable, super family-friendly and a whole new world all rolled into one. Scroll down to see some of our favorite spots to shop and enjoy a bowl of ramen!
photo: Monica O. via Yelp
This plaza sits between two wings of the Japantown mall and is a nice open space for your kids to run around. In one corner of the plaza stands the towering Peace Pagoda, a gift from San Francisco’s sister city of Osaka, Japan and a fun photo opportunity. Oftentimes cultural exhibitions or other events are held in the plaza—check the official SF Japantown site for news.
1704 Post St.
Japan Center Mall
This three-building mall is the heart of Japantown. It’s filled with restaurants, cafes and shops, most of them unique and celebrating Japanese culture. You can spend hours browsing unusual crafts, Japanese beauty products and foods, and cute souvenirs that you probably won’t find anywhere else in the city. You’ll find our favorite stops listed throughout this guide.
1581 Webster St.
If you or your kiddies are addicted to the selfie filters on your phone, you can’t miss Pika Pika. This collection of photobooths lets you take photos of you and your family, and then decorate them digitally with stamps, text and other cutesy doodles. You walk away with a sheet of personalized photo stickers as a memento of the day.
1581 Webster St., 2nd Floor (in the Japan Center mall)
This sleek building celebrates Japanese popular culture, from fashion to art to film. There’s a cinema on the lower level that shows foreign films, trendy fashion boutiques and a cute tea room on the ground floor (check out the the entry on Crown and Crumpet below). There’s also an escape room on the top level with constantly changing challenges—fans of escape games won’t want to miss it.
1746 Post St.
photo: Maddie R via Yelp
Benihana probably has the dining room with the most kid appeal in Japantown—the teppanyaki cuisine comes with a show. Your tableside chef will dice, slice, flip and serve up your food with a flair that will keep kids mesmerized. The dishes are also kid-friendly: grilled chicken, steak, shrimp, noodles and fried rice. Make a reservation if possible as they can get very busy.
1737 Post St. (in the Japan Center mall)
There’s always a long line outside Marufuku; no surprise since it serves some of the best ramen in the city. Their tonkotsu (pork-based) ramen is rich, creamy and flavorful. If you get in early enough, try to get one of their chicken paitan deluxe (only 15 servings made every day), which is a chicken based ramen served with a huge grilled chicken leg. Tip: put your name on the electronic sign up sheet, then walk around and enjoy the mall until they message you that your table’s ready.
1581 Webster St. Ste 235 (in the Japan Center mall)
Crown and Crumpet
Classic English high tea in Japantown? Yes! Crown and Crumpet, located on the first floor of the New People building, has a modern-day princess vibe, with pink-and-white dishes, teas with names like Pretty in Pink and Alice Drink Me, and trays piled high with macarons and mini cupcakes. For little kids, there’s a Nursery Tea with hot chocolate, mini sandwiches and tiny sweets.
1746 Post St. (in the New People Building)
If you’re looking for a change from the popular tonkotsu ramens, Hinodeya offers a traditional dashi broth ramen or a chicken broth ramen, both lighter but just as tasty. There’s even a vegan ramen made with sesame and soy milk and spinach noodles. Kids will love the fried chicken karaage appetizer. To avoid long lines, try getting there a few minutes before they open.
1737 Buchanan St.
photo: Shirley H via Yelp
Belly Good Café and Crepes
This little shop may make the cutest desserts in Japantown, and that’s no small feat. You can choose from over 20 styles of sweet crepes, filled with fruit, ice cream and other sweet toppings. The twist is every crepe is decorated super kawaii to look like cute little animals or happy faces. Your kids will go gaga over these adorable crepes and may have a hard time wanting to eat them! Cash only.
1737 Post St. Ste. 393 (in the Japan Center Mall)
If you’re looking for an introduction to traditional Japanese sweets, there’s no better place than Benkyodo Co. This unassuming shop is one of the original businesses of Japantown and has been operating for over 100 years. They specialize in mochi, a sweet chewy rice candy filled with red bean, fresh fruit, or even ice cream. Your kids will have a hard time picking just one, but at less than $2 per piece, you can indulge.
1747 Buchanan St.
photo by Kev L via Yelp
If you thought the ice dragon in Game of Thrones was the coolest thing ever, you’ll want to check out the Dragon’s Breath dessert at Chocolate Chair. One bite of the liquid nitrogen-infused Fruity Pebbles-like cereal will have you blowing super chilled plumes of air out your mouth. Your kids might be a little intimidated by the super cold cereal, so it may fall on you to impress your kids with your smoky breath. Have your camera at the ready to capture the effect.
1737 Post St Ste 383
San Francisco, CA
Yasukochi’s Sweet Shop
Set inside the unassuming Super Mira market is one of San Francisco’s iconic desserts. Turn right when you enter, head to the bakery counter and ask for a slice of the coffee crunch cake. The owners have been making the confection of airy cake, whipped cream and coffee-flavored toffee topping since 1974. Cash only, and come early if possible as they regularly sell out by afternoon.
1790 Sutter St. (in the Super Mira Market)
The words “fish” and “ice cream” don’t usually go together, but one look at these fish-shaped ice cream cones will have you changing your tune. Uji Time turns taiyaki, a traditional Japanese fish-shaped pancake, into a soft serve cone. Ice cream choices usually include matcha, black sesame and rotating seasonal flavors. Top with sprinkles, cookie wafers and Pocky sticks and you have the tastiest looking fish ever. Be forewarned they make the cones fresh, so sometimes there can be a wait.
22 Peace Plaza, Ste 440 (in the Japan Center mall)
Daiso is THE place for affordable Japanese goods. You can find everything from housewares to kitchen tools to snacks to party supplies. Be prepared to lose a whole afternoon in here perusing items you never realized you needed. Most items are only $1.50, so it’s a great place to stock up on household basics or gift bag goodies.
22 Peace Plaza, Ste 400 (in the Japan Center mall)
This wonderful bookstore is truly one of the city’s hidden gems. Kinokuniya specializes in Japanese books but also carries a selection of English books (including a children’s section). The lower floor contains a huge collection of anime and manga that make it a must-visit for any fan. They also have a great selection of Japanese pop culture merchandise, including an entire Totoro section. A great place to browse or pick up a unique gift.
1581 Webster St. (in the Japan Center Mall)
If your child (or you) are obsessed with all things cutesy, Amiko Boutique is a must stop. Stuffed floor to ceiling with plushies, toys, stickers and collectibles from adorable brands like Pusheen, tokidoki, Sanrio, Skip Hop and many more, you may find yourself getting sucked in as much as your kiddo. Many of the specialty items they carry, like toy blind boxes or tokidoki bags, are hard to find elsewhere!
1737 Post St. Ste 317 (inthe Japan Center Mall)
Paper Tree is an ode to the beautiful art of origami. The Mihara family, which started the store, are origami masters, have published books on the craft, and continue to teach today. Check out their eye-popping creations and pick up some origami paper to practice yourself. They also have a gorgeous selection of Japanese artisan papers, handcrafted cards and other craft supplies.
1743 Buchanan St.
Photos by the author except where noted.