Cultural Learnings in San Francisco, Part II

Posted on May 2, 2009 by Holly Hayes
Part of: San Francisco Road Trip

So to pick up where I left off on the last big post, on Friday we continued our celebration of diversity by exploring Chinatown, Japantown, and the Fillmore District.


It was a fine morning, so David headed out early to take pictures from the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower. He had a great time. Later we met up in Chinatown, which was absolutely fantastic. It is the largest one outside of Asia and the oldest in the United States.


At one point I walked at least two blocks without seeing a single other westerner - it was a weird and wonderful experience! I've never been to China so I can't compare it, but it felt like I was teleported there for a brief visit. The markets and sidewalks were swarmed with Chinese people buying their produce and many signs had no English at all.

David had just had this delicious lunch at a Mexican place (in Chinatown!) but I was hungry and ready to try some authentic Chinese snacks. So after we met up, we explored another long street of Chinatown, then headed back to a Dim Sum place I'd spotted earlier.

lunch in chinatown
The menu wasn't much help... so I chose by pointing.

lunch in chinatown
This is what I ended up with.

The potstickers were tasty, but the meat inside was strangely pink. Although they were probably fine, they gave me visions of lying on the bathroom floor in agony so I didn't eat much of those. The round ones were filled with shrimp and green onions and David loved them. The big winner for me was the pork hom bow - a sweet, eggy roll like French brioche glazed with sugar and filled with tender teriyaki pork. I ordered another one on the way out!

From Chinatown we headed downhill to the Financial District and the waterfront. We stopped for iced drinks at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, which was great fun for me since movie stars always seem to visit that chain in Los Angeles. I even recall rumors of Britney Spears having their products flown to Louisiana during her Crazy Period.

Their drinks were quite delicious and the baristas were very friendly.

At the waterfront we took some pictures of the Bay Bridge (to Oakland) and walked through the Ferry Building, which had a lot of great restaurants and shops. We picked up some delicious gelato (mine was Ghirardelli dark chocolate) but bypassed this place:

Next up was Japantown, which was clear across town so we took a cable car most of the way. It is one of the few Japantowns in the USA, so it has that going for it, but is not as large or "authentic" as SF's Chinatown.

The neighborhood was originally settled by Japanese people during the gold rush, but sadly they all disappeared to internment camps during WWII. They only recently came back and made a concerted effort to revive it as Japantown, so the neighborhood doesn't have the continuous history of Chinatown. However, it did seem to be an authentic center of Japanese culture and a solid majority of the people we saw there were Japanese.


I really enjoy Japanese culture, so I had a great time there. Japantown mainly consists of the Japan Center, which is just an indoor mall! But the mall has some great-looking Japanese restaurants and some fun shops. We looked at weird candies, cute stuffed toys with big eyes, beautiful furniture and handmade noodle bowls. We also visited a Japanese bookstore, where I flipped through some Japanese-language magazines, which I was interested to find they are oriented backwards from western ones - you turn the page on the left side.


Out in the courtyard is a modern Peace Pagoda. It is horribly ugly, but at least there were some cherry blossoms next to it. On our way out, we had a hard time finding the exit from the bottom level of the mall, and ended up walking through an office for the San Francisco Film Festival!

Adjacent to Japantown is the Fillmore District, an African-American neighborhood known for its jazz heritage. There we stopped by the Church of Saint John Coltrane, a wonderfully unique church in the African Orthodox tradition that celebrates the mystical power of jazz.

church of saint john coltrane
The church is the modern gray building at center right.

church of saint john coltrane

The church is no more than a small rectangular room, wider than it is long. We wandered inside and were greeted by a lady reverend, who shook our hands and warmly welcomed us. A man was practicing some sort of stringed instrument at the front. The walls were decorated with beautiful African-style Orthodox icons, including one of Saint Coltrane himself! I asked if I could take a photo and she said only if one of us was in it. I can understand that policy, since the icons are modern artworks and therefore still under copyright. But it does ruin the photo!

We concluded our walk with a visit to the Painted Ladies, a row of prettily painted Victorian houses overlooking a park. They are some of the few houses of that era that have survived in the city and they appear on most postcards of San Francisco. The light wasn't ideal for photography, but the houses are very pretty and we did the best we could with them.

painted ladies

Then we hopped on a bus back to our hotel, where we staggered in the door and only moved long enough to buy some Thai noodles downstairs for dinner.