Saturday, June 4, 2016


Did the Japantown walk for a second time on May 26. I had thought it would cover different ground, provide more information about the Fillmore district, but it focused mostly on the Japanese American history of the area.

The yellow YWCA building on Buchanan street was built by Julia Morgan. Because Japanese Americans weren't able to own property, a group of women struck a deal with the YMCA to own the building on their behalf. The murky ownership arrangement created controversy many years later when YMCA decided to dispose of the property.  I remember taking my first sewing class in this building back in the early 1980's when I first moved back to the West Coast. I didn't know it was built by Julia Morgan, but the internal structure felt very familiar to me. It reminded me of some of the buildings at Mill College, which I attended as an undergraduate.
Our guide, Bill Watt, described the Japanese pastry shop/coffee shop, Benkyodo, as one of the oldest Japanese-owned businesses in Japantown. Perhaps deliberately, the place has not been renovated in quite some time. The counter dining space with odd ball J-A menu items is pure nostalgia and the wagashi selection is good. They also sell okaki and other packaged sweets.

Watt went on to describe the anti-Japanese sentiments in California that existed even back in 1906. Then there was the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942 after Pearl Harbor was bombed. This lead to families losing jobs, properties and belongings in the Fillmore area. Large masses of people were sent to inland camps, which were horse stables or barracks hastily built and barely habitable. It happened, even in a democratic country like the United States, when fear overtook reason. The vacated homes were then rented by African Americans, who arrived in large numbers to work in the shipyards during the war.

1712 Fillmore Street building housed Jimbo's Bop City, a jazz house where musicians like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald could jam before they played in downtown venues. The ground floor also was the site of Marcus Books, an African American bookstore that was forced out when new landlords took over in May, 2014. Marcus Books was the longest surviving black-owned business in the Fillmore.

We saw some lovely Edwardian houses in the neighborhood. The whiteness of the buildings were blinding on this sunny day.

And we walked down Cottage Row, one of many "hidden" San Francisco streets. There is a public park adjacent these small, lovely houses. According to Watt, these houses were rented by Japanese Americans that worked as maids and housekeepers for the Pacific Heights wealthy. They grew vegetables and fruits in their small gardens, then held a farmer's market in the park. According to the internet, in the 1930's this street was called Japan Street because the neighborhood was inhabited mostly by Japanese Americans. Of course that changed with the relocation of residents to concentration camps in 1942.

The tour ended in Japantown mall where we gazed at Mifune restaurant's plastic food. This place makes their own udon and soba and some of their offerings are quite good. I am partial to nishin soba (preserved sweet herring), yamakake soba (mountain yam and sashimi) and kitsune udon.