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Asian San Francisco: Chinatown, Japantown & Little Manila

Tan, a San Francisco native, also has strong opinions when it comes to the city's Chinese-food scene. "For me, being Chinese means getting together with family and eating," she said when I first phoned her. She then proved her point by inviting me to dinner along with 12 family members and friends and two small dogs (which dozed in a carrier by her feet) at her favorite Shanghai-style restaurant, the Fountain Court (354 Clement St.; 415/668-1100), in the Richmond district.

As heaping platters of jellyfish, beef, chicken, and lobster spun by on the lazy susan, Tan's mother eyed me anxiously, admonishing her daughter to "make sure the foreigner is well fed." She needn't have worried. My chopsticks never rested while Tan described for me some of her favorite pursuits in her "chinese" hometown: watching tai chi practitioners in Washington Square Park; buying good-luck charms at Sam Bo Trading Co. (14 Ross Alley; 415/ 397-2998) - "You can spend anywhere from one dollar to a hundred" - and shopping for food and kitchenware at the Happy Supermarket (400 Clement St.; 415/221-3195).

Tan's final recommendation - for an offbeat, quintessential tour of Chinatown - was to follow the brass marching band that plays for Chinese funerals. "Anyone is welcome," she explained; "the more, the better. Try to go for a Saturday funeral, when all the locals are out grocery shopping and the streets are packed with tourists." Start at the Green Street Mortuary, and follow the band as it plays Christian hymns all through the neighborhood. The Chinese onlookers bow and doff their hats, and the tourists stand and gawk. (Chinese funerals are usually scheduled a week in advance; call the Green Street Mortuary, 649 Green St., 415/ 433-5692, for times.)

As second- and third-generation Chinese have moved out of Chinatown, the Richmond district has emerged as the city's "new Chinatown." Restaurant and shop signs in Chinese, Korean, Thai, and other Asian languages dot the landscape; in recent years, similar ones have begun to appear in the Sunset district as well. While these areas offer none of the touristy exoticism of Chinatown, they attract serious eaters with superb and informal restaurants. At one of them, the Happy Immortal (4401 Cabrillo St., at 45th Ave.; 415/386-7538), food writer Shirley Fong-Torres introduced me to the house specialty: a crisp, deboned chicken stuffed with sweet rice (to be ordered in advance). "Never ask a skinny Chinese where to eat," Shirley warned as she served me two helpings of the rice - the double portion's a Chinese custom, she explained, so that one doesn't seem stingy. But stinginess is not a problem at the Happy Immortal. After the restaurant cleared out, the staff sat down to their own dinner. When they saw Shirley and me eyeing their sauteed oysters, they graciously offered us each a serving on the house.


The Japanese first arrived in San Francisco in the mid-19th century, settling in Chinatown as well as south of Market Street (at that time not the fashionable area it is today). After the 1906 earthquake they headed out to the Western Addition to the area that became known as Japantown. There they stayed until they were forced to relocate to internment camps during World War II. Some returned after the war, but great numbers moved to the suburbs, diminishing the city's Japanese presence. Yet Japantown remains-- and that's where I headed to re-create for myself an entire "day in Japan."

At first glance there's something uninviting about Japantown, whose heart is the five-acre, fortresslike Japan Center, a collection of shops, restaurants, theaters, bookstores, and hotels. Unlike the real Japan-- known for its crowded streets-- Japantown can be eerily deserted, particularly on weekdays. I was tempted, for nostalgia's sake, to have lunch at the corner Denny's, since that chain restaurant is ubiquitous in Japan (there was one across the street from my Tokyo apartment). Instead I chose the most authentic Japanese meal in Japantown, at Maki (Kinokuniya Bldg., Japan Center, 1825 Post St.; 415/921-5215). Maki not only has good food, but it's a near-perfect facsimile of a Tokyo restaurant: the right size (walk-in closet with a small counter and six tiny tables); minimal decoration; and attractive and friendly women in aprons scurrying about, taking orders and pouring hot tea. My ten don lunch-- tempura on top of a huge bowl of rice, with pickles and miso soup-- tasted just like the real thing.

The national sport of Japan, as anyone who's been there can tell you, is not sumo but shopping. After lunch I decided to get some exercise. There are a dozen stroes in and around the Japan Center (a growing number of which are actually Korean-owned), and you can buy anything from a 19th-century woodblock print to a 20-pound bag of rice. The best shopping I found, whoever, was a few blocks east of Japantown at Kiku Imports (1420 Sutter Street; 415/929-8278.) This huge, handsome space is filled with Japanese furniture and antiques, all beautifully restored and so reasonably priced that Japanese tourists buy here and ship home. Kiku's specialty is Tansu chests, one of which now graces my home.

Returning to the Japan Center, I stopped for a quick cup of coffee at On the Bridge (1581 Webster St.; 415/922-7765), a snack shop that nonsensically advertises "Japanese-European cuisine." If you really want to know what young people are eating in Japan, order the curry rice, or spaghetti topped with natto (fermented soybeans), or, if you're very brave, the white-bread gratin - all as authentically Japanese as Hello Kitty and the Sony Walkman.

The weird juxtaposition of popular and traditional culture is what has always fascinated me about Japan. So, after visiting On the Bridge, some friends and I attended a tea ceremony at the Japanese American Association (1759 Sutter St.; 415/921-1782). With her open, handsome face, Mrs. Sekino, our tea teacher and hostess, was living testimony to the benefits of whisked green tea, since she looked and acted three decades younger than her 86 years. Sitting on tatami mats, we sipped tea, nibbled sweets, and chatted in Japanese and English as Mrs. Sekino seamlessly performed the detailed movements of the ceremony.

We emerged into the afternoon sunlight refreshed, and decided to unwind even further with a visit to the Kabuki Hot Spring (Japan Center, 1750 Geary Blvd.; 922-6000). In Japan, the bathhouse is one of the few places where people literally and figuratively let down their hair. Even though most Japanese now have baths at home, many still visit their neighborhood bathhouses for a relaxing soak and some convivial gossip. But inside the spic-and-span Kabuki Hot Spring, with its showers, cold and hot pools, sauna, and steam room, there were shh! signs everywhere, and the patrons (all Caucasian) were grimly silent. One naked man meditating in a full lotus pose looked just like one of those roly-poly dolls that bounce back when you knock them over, although I suspect he thought he looked like the Buddha. After my friends and I were twice "shushed" for talking, we washed quickly and left, sorely disappointed. How could they have gotten it so wrong?

Although I spent seven years in Japan avoiding karaoke, there is, I've learned, a time and a place for beer and bad singing. With this in mind, later that evening we strolled into Shinjuku (Japan Center, 1581 Webster St.; 415/ 922-2379), a karaoke bar next door to the restaurant Maki. The selection of both Japanese and English songs includes "Hey Jude," "Teenager in Love," and, of course, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" - all at a dollar a crack. If you're so inclined, a few tunes and a tall Sapporo beer make a great way to end a "day in Japan." Just stay away while I'm at the microphone.


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