Thursday, January 26, 2012

Nihonmachi Afternoon: Exploring Seattle’s Historic Japantown

Did you know that Seattle’s Nihonmachi (a.k.a. Japantown) is the most intact historic Japanese American district in the U.S.?

While an active Japanese American community doesn’t live there anymore, it’s still culturally important here in the Puget Sound region.

 And definitely worth a visit.
Nihonmachi’s numerous old and newer buildings are scattered across a south-facing hill tucked on the southeast edge of downtown, in Seattle’s International District.  It’s an eclectic mix of historic buildings with modern boutiques and galleries, Japanese restaurants, and a hillside garden park.  The destination businesses are centered on the block between South Jackson Street, 6th and 7th Avenues South, and South Main Street.

Looking south on Seventh Avenue South in Seattle's historic International District

I can’t quite pin down why I’m so drawn here (and the International District in general).  I suppose for a variety of reasons—the historic charm of the low-rise brick and stone masonry buildings, the sense of history the district evokes, the intriguing East-meets-West and old-meets-new vibe, and of course some of my favorite businesses there.
Panama Hotel Teahouse
As I often suggest to out-of-town visitors, last weekend I met friends for tea at the
Panama Hotel Teahouse up the hill on South Main Street.  About 10 years ago this serene space was renovated and reopened as a lovely teahouse in the old Panama Hotel.  With exposed brick walls and gleaming refinished wood floors, the teahouse is a relaxing spot to meet friends, read a book, write, or just enjoy the fine tea and maybe a delicate wagashi confection made by Chef Chika Tokara in north Seattle.

Seasonal artisan wagashi by Tokara served at the Panama Hotel Teahouse

It’s also a bit of a museum. Framed black and white photographs of the district from the pre-World War II era line the walls, when Japantown was a thriving community of Issei (first-generation) and Nisei (second-generation) Japanese Americans.  As detailed in the bestseller novel The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which features the Panama, the formerly bustling Nihonmachi was decimated when Japanese-American families were forced from their homes and businesses to internment camps here on the West Coast.

Photos from pre-World War II Japantown
The Panama Hotel back in the day

Cullom Gallery
[Cullom Gallery no longer is in this space and has converted to a pop-up, online gallery] Next door to the Panama Teahouse on South Main, petite
Cullom Gallery features contemporary and historic Japanese and Japanese-influenced woodblock prints and paper art. I’ve got my eye on one of artist Kristina Hagman’s 36 Views of Mount Rainier prints, an ode to the famous Hokusai and Hiroshige series 36 Views of Mount Fuji woodblock prints.
Collum Gallery is one door south of the Panama Hotel Teahouse

Kaname and Maneki Restaurants
Maneki, which claims to be Seattle’s oldest restaurant at over 100 years, is just around the corner from the teahouse and gallery on Sixth Avenue. It has a bit of a hole-in-the-wall look out front, which is just as well. This popular spot is often crowded, especially on weekend nights.  Yelpers rave about the black cod collar bone, but my tastes run toward the perfectly prepared soba noodle bowls.

Down the hill on the same block, but on busy Jackson Street, Kaname specializes in classic, rustic Japanese fare.  The interior is charmingly decorated like an authentic old Japanese noodle joint.

Stop in Kaname for a steaming bowl of noodles
Momo and Kobo at Higo
Right next door to each other at the corner of 6th and Jackson, Momo and Kobo at Higo are destination shops.  Momo’s friendly owner Lei Ann Shiramizu was featured in Seattle Magazine for her great sense of style, and Momo reflects her varied and impeccable taste. I’ve purchased numerous gifts here, from an antique clay sake jug to an authentic Saint James French sailor shirt. Momo is part high-fashion boutique, part gift shop, and always fun to shop. 

Unique gifts and clothes with flair at Momo
In a nod to history, Kobo has maintained the original Higo sign and some old fixtures from Higo’s 73 years as a family general store. Today Kobo sells exquisite artisan ceramics, woodwork, jewelry, prints, books, silk scarves, and more, with an eye to Japan.  When in need of inspiration for gifts, I always find something at Momo or Kobo.

Kobo's  has preserved portions of the old Higo store in their artisan gallery shop

Fuji Bakery
If you want a snack, scoot a block south of Jackson Street beyond the Nihonmachi boundary to Fuji Bakery, named one of Seattle’s top ten new places to eat in 2011. This jewel of a small corner shop features exquisite pastries and baked goods prepared in a classic France-meets Japan style. Beautiful round sesame seed-sprinkled buns sit next to glistening fruit tarts and croissants in the display case. My personal favorite:  the seasonal vegetable focaccio.

Get your fresh veggies in a delectable focaccio at Fuji Bakery

And how about you? If you're a local or have visited this part of Seattle, what are your favorite places?

When You Go
Click here for a map of the area. Be sure and check the Seahawks or Mariner’s schedules in the summer and fall because parking and traffic can get ugly in the I.D. on game days.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Snowy in Seattle: Subies, Sorels, and NOT Snowmageddon

Whenever we get much of any snow here west of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington, our newscasters and local governments work themselves into a frenzy.

It's Stormwatch 2012! 

With our many steep hills here in Seattle and Portland, and drivers inexperienced with driving in the snow (except us skiers), it really can get hazardous out there on the roads. Schools start late, close early, or don't open at all (to the delight of my niece); buses reroute or drop routes; and generally most of us hunker down at home.

Then we venture outside to play.

Snow days here in the western Pacific Northwest bring out the ebullient kid in most of us.  The famous "Seattle Freeze" thaws a bit as people talk, laugh, and maybe commiserate or cheer with strangers about the weather.  It shakes up our routine, cleans up the neighborhoods in a layer of white.

For me it may as well be another day because I work at home. But I'll sneak out for a walk at lunch in my Sorel boots, then maybe later head down in the all-wheel-drive Subaru to my go-to teahouse and mingle with friends. Tonight I'll throw some logs in the fireplace and be cozy and warm while the snow lightens the dark winter night.

How about you? How do you like to spend snow days, wherever you are? Have you met anybody because of the snow? Chime in below with your comments.

Happy winter!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Skiing the Summit at Snoqualmie: Early Does It

Hey skiers and riders, sometimes do you just need to get in some turns but can't take a full, long day away for the joy? While there's nothing flashy or glamorous about skiing Snoqualmie Pass just an hour east of Seattle, it's easy in/easy out when you're short on time.

 Here's a tip for some really quick access to skiing:  Get yourself up to the Pass before 8:30 and head to the Silver Fir lift parking lot (east of the main Summit Central parking/base lodges). I consistently find a parking space in the front row just 20 or 30 feet from the lift. So it's not Crystal  Mountain (or Alpental), but you're not slogging 20 minutes up to the base from the lower lots or waiting in the cold for the shuttle.

While I assumed the lifts opened at 8:30 a.m. like they do at Crystal, they actually don't officially open until 9:00. This past Saturday we parked right in front, bought our tickets at the warming hut, and got on our skis in front of the lift by 8:40. Nobody else was there (duh!).  The friendly lifties let us scoot onto the lift anyway, and we had the slopes to ourselves for a couple runs. Whoo hoo!

After a few cruiser runs on the groomed corduroy off Silver Fir, we took the "Inter-Summit 90" crossover to Summit East. Personally I always enjoy this trail through beautiful evergreen forest.

Despite its slightly lower elevation, there are some fun little steeps and trees to ski through over at Hyak, especially since they moved the summit chairlift back over to the left side of the front hill and returned the lift to the backside last season. And it's generally less crowded because the ski school buses don't park there and it's the Nordic Center, where more mellow cross-country skiers abound and head off away from the downhill runs. 

A little skating at the beginning of the Inter-Summit 90 Crossover

 Yes, that's a Christmas ornament in the tree!

Looking across I-90 from Hyak toward the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Another tip:  Don't wear your new, light-colored parka on the backside lift.  It was dripping muddy drops onto us when we passed under the lift towers.

Even though the Summit at Snoqualmie is the ultimate local ski area and will never be a destination resort, it still always surprises me with the beauty of its majestic alpine backdrop. Any day in the mountains is a good day.

Looking northwest towards Alpental

Moi having fun!
So we got in a good three and a half hours of skiing, got some freshies in the bit of untracked fresh snow over on the backside lift at Hyak, and were back in Seattle by about 1:15. Not bad.

And how about you? Have any tips to share about how  or where you get in your skiing/riding fix when you're short on time? Thanks for your comments!

When You Go
Head east from the Seattle metropolitan area on Interstate 90 and you'll hit Snoqualmie Pass in about  an hour if the roads are snow-free and you're not speeding. This season daytime lift tickets are $59.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Happy New Year, Happy No Drear

While I'm a passionate Pacific Northwesterner, I have to admit: The contrast between my New Year's weekend in sunny San Francisco and gray Seattle was harsh this morning as I rode the Link light rail home from Sea-Tac Airport.

Even native Mossbacks have our moments of impatience with the dark, damp, chilly winter days. (Which is why we often leave for winter vacations to sunnier, warm climes.)

Now that I've been home for 8 hours and I'm parked at my favorite teahouse, which is warm and light and friendly, the  dark skies and rain seem comforting again. ( Not that I wouldn't take blue skies, sunshine, and mild temperatures for a while longer.)

And so the new year begins. 

 Although in year's past I've made all sorts of health and fitness resolutions, this year I'm thinking more about precious time and using it as wisely as possible. Because really, right now, this very moment, is all and everything we have.

How about you? What are you resolving to do (or not do) in the year ahead?

Here's to a wonderful year ahead, in which every moment is fresh and new.

And more Pacific Northwest adventures!