San Jose’s Japantown is one of just three in the US. We’ve all been to a Chinatown at least once, but when was the last time you went to, or had even heard of Japantown?
All three official Japantowns are nestled in California. Japanese migrants flocked to Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose after Japan was returned to imperial rule, in 1868 following a coup and a brief civil war.
The instability meant Japanese people fled first to Hawaii and then to the mainland US, mostly to California because it was the most easily-accessible coast.
Many joined the agricultural industry, bringing their own culture and tradition to a new country.
San Jose’s Japantown is a meshing of the old and the new. You might think that a Japanese American Museum recounting the history of Japanese immigration and internment in the US and Buddhist temple would sit incongruously with street art and café culture.
You’d be so wrong. Here are some of the best things that San Jose’s Japantown has to offer.
You’ll find street art all over the Japantown streetscape: on shopfronts, bars, laundries and eateries.
And not only on walls either. The Art Box Project SJ has been beautifying the city’s utility boxes since 2011 when traveler Gary Singh mentioned the idea to friend Tina Morrill, saying that it couldn’t be done.
So Tina went ahead and began the project. In Japantown you’ll find dragon, fish and kimono-clad women to name a few.
Then there are the murals – walls full of colour that pop up in residential spots, on main streets and next to the railway line.
JAPANESE AMERICAN MUSEUM
Nestled between suburban homes sits a traditional Japanese building, which houses the Japanese American Museum.
Spanning the Japanese immigrant experience through history, the museum begins with the first migrant workers being screened at Angel Island.
Farming machinery, tractors and cars sit in rows outside of a mock Japanese-American home, complete with furniture and utensils to get a feel of what living in California was like for them.
The attack of the Pearl Harbor by the Japanese military would change things for Japanese Americans. In February 1942, President Franklin D Roosevelt allowed for Japanese Americans to be interned.
San Jose’s Japanese were forced to abandon or sell their property for a pittance. Otherwise some Americans took the deeds to their properties and returned them after the war.
More than 112,000 people were interred at camps in deserts and swamplands until 1946, when the last resident left the Tule Lake center in California.
The museum has recreated the living quarters of these internment centers, based on the memories of those who returned.
The eerie, drafty room is dimly lit, with beds lining one wall, separated only by a privacy sheet hanging from the ceiling.
CAFE AND IRON CHEF-APPROVED TOFU
There’s one proper institution in San Jose’s Japantown and that’s Roy’s Station. The 1935 building was originally a gas (petrol) station belonging to Roy Murotsune and his wife Esther.
When Murotsune’s relatives were released from World War II internment camps (see more above), they bought the building on Jackson and Fifth Streets.
Muratosune and his brothers ran the gas station until 1990. Next door, his other siblings ran an American diner.
The building is still in the family though, Murotsune’s children and grandchildren refurbished and opened Roy’s Café in 2009 to honour their relatives.
It’s the place to go for coffee, pastries and a 1957coke machine that’s still selling drinks for $1.50.
The San Jose Tofu Company
Speaking of institutions, The San Jose Tofu Company is renowned for its handmade tofu. It is possibly the last handmade tofu shop in the vicinity and owners Amy and Chester Nozaki are keeping the tradition alive.
The store is tucked away on Jackson Street, a door under a blue awning heralding the company name.
Inside you’ll find the Nozaki’s toiling away in their kitchen of sorts, or selling their wares to eager people from all over the city.
It’s a tiny, cosy space and the shop was started by Chester’s grandfather in 1946, and passed down through generations. Amy takes care of the tofu making while Chester handles the rest of the business.
Even Japanese Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto has sampled the Nozaki’s tofu and wanted to use it at his Napa restaurant. You don’t get much higher praise than that!
BUDDHIST CHURCH AND GARDEN
Traditional Japanese gardens are known for highlighting the landscape they inhabit. It’s impossible to miss the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin and its adjacent garden, on North 5th Street.
The temple was completed in 1937 and was cared for by an attorney while Japanese immigrants were interred during Word War II.
Betsuin is a term bestowed on temples that have historic or geographic importance. While you can sit in on Sunday services (obviously without disturbing those practicing their faith) to marvel at the beautiful interior, there is another way you can see inside the temple.
Each July the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin celebrates the Obon Annual Summer Festival with Japanese food, entertainment and folk dancing.
The family affair has been running for more than 125 years and invites the community to witness the thousands of Obon Odori dancers and Taiko drumming groups.
SAN JOSE ART WALK
During summer San Jose’s Japantown runs The Jtown Art Walk every second Friday. The last one for the 2017 season was last Friday night.
It’s a way of showing the public everything Japantown’s artistic and creative (think dancers, singers and musicians) residents have to offer.
Download the map from the Jtown Art Walk website and take your own tour of vintage, stationary and accessories stores, live music, sushi, ice cream and all of the street and multimedia art you can handle.