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 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
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.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.
|Unique gifts and clothes with flair at Momo
|Kobo's has preserved portions of the old Higo store in their artisan gallery shop
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?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.
When You Go
When You Go