Revitalizing Japantown: Embracing Change, Culture, and Commerce

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From Crisis to Revival: How Japantown Flourishes Amidst Transformation

In the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown, a transformation is underway that’s more than just the fermenting flavors of kimchi and kombucha at the newly opened Fermentation Lab. The district is experiencing a renaissance, marked by the emergence of new restaurants and shops that are breathing new life into this historic community.

Not too long ago, Japantown faced a critical juncture. The pandemic’s impact left its modern hub, the Japan Center malls, shuttered even as the rest of the city began to reopen. This exacerbated an existing issue of vacancies and unpaid rent, casting doubt on the survival of the nation’s oldest Japanese enclave.

Enter Grace Horikiri, the driving force behind the Japantown Community Benefit District. She reports that the number of vacancies has dramatically reduced to just around five, down from the peak of 13. Japantown defies the odds as one of the three neighborhoods in the city reporting higher sales tax collections post-pandemic. The iconic Peace Plaza bustles with life on weekends, embodying the district’s resurgence.

Yet, this resurgence is not taken for granted. Business owners conveyed a desire for more events, prompting a return to cherished traditions like the Cherry Blossom Festival and Parade. April witnessed a full-scale version of the festival for the first time since the pandemic’s onset. Additionally, a vibrant lineup of events includes the Nihonmachi Street Fair, Origami-Palooza, OK Marketplace, and even unique offerings like sake tastings and R&B yoga at the Kimpton Hotel Enso.

Events serve as the backbone of Japantown’s revival, complementing its historical significance with contemporary allure. Rich Hashimoto, President of the Japantown Merchants Association, emphasizes the need for shop owners to refresh their offerings. Even Grace Horikiri acknowledges the potential for enhanced self-promotion within the neighborhood.

Embracing technology has proven instrumental in this endeavor. Japantown’s social media presence, managed by adept young interns, acts as a magnet for visitors. Uji Time’s taiyaki (fish-shaped ice cream cones) beg to be Instagrammed, while TikTok showcases the delights of mochi. Augmented reality, facilitated by Adobe and Paper Tree, adorns the area with digital paper sculptures, charming a younger demographic.

Jeannie Kim, co-owner of Fermentation Lab, epitomizes this progressive spirit. Expanding to Japantown with a larger space, she’s keen on providing diverse offerings including Equator Coffee. Kim’s move mirrors the district’s openness to change and rejuvenation.

Japantown’s resurgence might hold lessons for other retail centers facing adversity. This historic district has embraced change, exemplified by its support for the Geary bus rapid transit plan, which has drawn a younger crowd to the mall corridors via Muni.

Seizing upcoming opportunities, Japantown eagerly anticipates APEC, a global trade gathering in November. The community is preparing to host large Asian delegations, tapping into its cultural essence with flower arranging classes.

As Japantown flourishes post-pandemic, it raises a thought-provoking possibility. Could this revival serve as a model for other distressed retail centers? Perhaps the Westfield mall could take inspiration from Japantown’s formula, welcoming businesses that once thrived elsewhere. San Francisco’s multicultural fabric and the success of malls like Stonestown with their Asian-oriented approach suggest the potential for a downtown renaissance.

With Japantown’s emphasis on cleanliness, safety, and vibrant events, it’s conceivable that this formula could thrive downtown, offering a precious gift from a community that’s weathered a century’s worth of challenges through its resourcefulness and adaptability.

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