Despite having 50 distinct Japanese “towns” or enclaves at one point in the US, it may come as a shock that there are only three which have passed the test of time. While there is much to eat, see and experience in the LA and SF Japanese corridors, there is something special about the third US Japantown located in San Jose, CA.
In some ways, this is actually the last true Japantown we have. Over time, the larger centers in LA and SF have developed substantially, opening the door for tourism and gradually closing the tradition of stores operated by local Japanese families. A trip to San Jose’s Japantown is a journey into the past. A simpler time of low volume and high quality — of strong community and broad smiles.
Be sure not to blink while driving down Jackson St, because you might miss the entire town! Exaggerations aside, this town is very small, but it packs a big punch per square inch. Boutique stores offer there unique crafted items, a plethora of Japanese, Korean and Hawaiian restaurants begin to fill up as the clock hits noon, and the back aisle of the Nijiya market is packed with people on lunch break looking for a fresh chirashi or sushi tray to hold them over.
A final not-to-be-missed, cornerstone of SJ’s Japantown is the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.
This museum exemplifies all of Japantown in that it doesn’t look like much at first glance, yet has a great deal of heart and character within. We took a docent led tour (free with the $3 student admission) in which we learned an in-depth history of Japanese American conditions during the 19th and 20th centuries. From pre-war prosperity (namely, in agriculture), to the plight of concentration, to life after the war, this museum tells a big story with strong visual queues. In example, JAM-SJ has a replica of a concentration camp barrack built into the interior space which has been used as the backdrop for movies and documentaries alike. Also, they have a huge inventory of 19th and early 20th century Japanese-owned farming equipment and information.
For this trip, we chose going up to see this quaint little slice of Japan instead of attending Southwest’s Chinese New Year Festival and Parade in San Francisco — the largest celebration of any Asian culture outside of Asia. Regret? I think not. Sometimes, it’s not size that counts — it’s how clear of a view into the past and into a culture an experience brings.