San Jose’s Japantown, centered around the intersection of Jackson and Fifth Restaurant, is one of only three remaining centers of Japanese culture in the US (the other two being in San Francisco and in Los Angeles.) Almost destroyed by the forced internment of most of its citizens during World War II, it has bounced back as a nucleus of Japanese restaurants, shops, and community organizations.
If you go to Japantown, it’s best to start with a good meal. Kubota’s on 5th is an upscale favorite of local Japanese businessmen and their visitors from Japan. I’m a big fan of their chirashi, which comes with a really good tofu salad along with a sizable bowl of rice topped with generous slices of raw fish. If you want a more casual meal you might try Gombei, the sister restaurant around the corner on Jackson, which specializes in sushi.
After lunch, a stroll along 5th street on the other side from Kubota’s will lead you to the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Temple, with its serene garden inviting some digestive meditation. If you can, enter the temple and admire its beautiful sliding shoji screens, gilded lanterns, and handsome icons.
From the intersection of 5th and Jackson, a stroll up and down Fifth Street gives you a chance to browse in shops featuring Japanese anime action figures and bobble-head toys, music stores featuring Japanese stringed instruments and taiko drums, houseware stores, and a variety of Japanese and Korean restaurants and tea shops.
My favorite is Nichi Bei Bussan – a gift shop which has been in business over 100 years, featuring all things Japanese, including kimono fabric and patterns, whimsically decorated socks designed to be worn with flip-flops or Japanese sandals, beautiful tea sets and platters, origami paper, craft books, gift wraps, Japanese graphic novels and magazines and charming, helpful sales people who will gladly help you find the perfect item.
After shopping, time to reflect on the history of Japantown. Go back down Fifth street past Kubota’s and find the memorial sculpture and garden next to the Nissei Memorial Building housing the Japanese American Citizens League. It’s worth studying each face of the three-sided memorial before visiting the Japanese American Museum just a few doors further down.
The Japanese-American Museum traces the history of Japanese immigrants in the US, from their being imported as easy-to-exploit agricultural laborers to their forced removal to concentration camps during World War II. The museum includes videos, recorded intreviews, and a replica of a family’s space at Manzanar, one of the relocation camps. You cannot spend time in this museum without feeling a bit queasy at how easy it seemed to have been to deprive thousands of U.S. citizens of their rights, even as our country fought against the same arbitrary cruelty as seen in Nazi Germany.
On a lighter note, try to schedule your visit to coincide with one of the special festivals. I recently happened to arrive during the summer Obon Festival, which featured dancers, taiko drummers, men and women in traditional costumes, lots of food and crafts booths, and an open house at the Buddhist temple offering one-hour classes in “Buddhism 101”.