Beyond the ‘Stro is a Queerty/GayCites series exploring the popular San Francisco districts outside the Castro.
You don’t have to travel halfway around the world to experience the Japanese tradition of celebrating the blooming of the cherry blossoms in springtime. In April, the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival is happening for the 49th year in the heart of San Francisco’s Japantown.
The festival concludes April 16-17, bringing together food booths, live bands, martial arts demonstrations, a pageant, cultural performances and more than a few young people dressed as their favorite anime character. The April 17 Grand Parade starts in City Hall and ends in Japan Center.
The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival attracts about 200,000 people, which makes it the best time of year to visit Japantown, one of only three designated Japanese neighborhoods in the U.S. and which also happens to be the oldest and largest.
Japantown encompasses six blocks in the western part of San Francisco, but even though the district is technically only a few blocks, it’s hard to miss. Just look for the five-tiered Peace Pagoda right in Japan Center, a mega-mall of funky shops, restaurants and karaoke bars. Our favorite karaoke place in Japantown is Playground, where you can book your private karaoke room for your friends and bust out to a seemingly endless list of karaoke songs, even K-Pop. The yogurt sake and friend chicken are seemingly endless as well, served seemingly to your heart’s content.
Another must-visit hotspot in Japantown is the Kabuki Springs & Spa, a Japanese-style bathhouse where you can get exotic (but not erotic) spa treatments. Check out their extensive menu – from Thai yoga massage to Indonesian Lulur – and afterwards relax in the hot pool, the sauna, or the steam room.
The Kabuki baths are women-only on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays and men-only on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Tuesdays are co-ed and bathing suits are required. Otherwise, bathing suits are optional.
Kabuki Springs is right behind the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, perhaps the best indie movie theater in SF. In addition to popcorn and soft drinks, this assigned-seating theater also has a 21+ section where you can order craft cocktails or wood-fire pizza that you munch on while watching the flick.
If you want more of a sit-down meal, nearby Geary, Post, and Sutter Streets are brimming with authentic options, especially for sushi, shabu, noodles and sake. We recommend Kiss Seafood, the mom-and-pop sushi place that’s so intimate there is only seats for 12 people. Craving shabu-shabu, the Japanese-style hot-pot fondue? Try Shabuden Restaurant.
In Japantown, even your dreams can be infused with a Japanese flair. The obvious first choice for accommodations is the Kabuki Hotel, where you can have tea and relax in your own private soaking tub. But it’s not all about serenity: the hotel courtyard connects to Japan Center, so you are only a few steps away from the funky, lively scene where video games, anime, manga, karaoke and other Japanese pop culture staples collide.
Fun fact: the Kabuki Hotel was the location of the first GaymerX queer gaming conference.
Main photo: David Yu