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Your Bay Area Guide to Ramen, Japanese Whisky, and Life-Giving Onsen Soaks

by Liz Shemaria

posted on January 07, 2020

Photo Courtesy: iStock/gregobagel

San Francisco’s Bay Area is home to one of the largest Japanese populations in the United States; fittingly, it’s also home to some of the best Japanese restaurants, matcha shops, and cultural spaces this side of the Pacific Ocean. While there is a Japantown in the city, this guide will take you beyond its confines, exploring everything from a space serving double duty as a bathhouse and tea room, a cult-favorite ramen shop, and a Japanese barware specialist, all injected with characteristic California cool.

Photo Courtesy: sfgate

Five acres of serenity await your exploration in Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden, where you’ll find an abundance of pagodas, greenery, stone lanterns, ponds, and a Zen garden. While here, be sure to take a break in the garden’s tea house, where you can sip on a cup of sencha while overlooking a pond of koi.

Photo Courtesy: onsen.sf

As you cross the threshold into Onsen, you’ll feel as if you’ve landed in another realm. Part spa and part tea house, this soothing space excels at both. Level-up on relaxation with a massage, a soak in the communal bath — the space draws its name from traditional Japanese bathhouses centered around hot springs — or a round of acupuncture. If you’re feeling peckish post-treatment, cap off your experience with a meal in the minimalist tea room.

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Golden fog, Soft egg custard, Poke, Hanger steak, Mushroom dumplings, Black sesame ice cream

Photo Courtesy: Stone Mill Matcha

Crafting the ideal cup of matcha is practically an art form, and the Mission’s Stonemill Matcha takes the process seriously, sourcing tea from Kyoto and carefully whisking each order into a grassy froth. Light wood and an airy interior combine for a vibe that reads more classic cha-no-ma (Japanese for tea place) than its busy location would suggest. Naturally, the green powder makes it way into virtually everything here. Don’t miss out on the pastry case offerings (many items are made in collaboration with the famed Tartine Bakery); if you’re looking for something more substantial, you can’t go wrong with a (matcha-free) pork katsu sandwich.

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Ginger matcha latte, sparkling matcha, matcha cream pie, Mizudashi, green matcha croissant

Photo Courtesy: nathiya

Crafting the ideal cup of matcha is practically an art form, and the Mission’s Stonemill Matcha takes the process seriously, sourcing tea from Kyoto and carefully whisking each order into a grassy froth. Light wood and an airy interior combine for a vibe that reads more classic cha-no-ma (Japanese for tea place) than its busy location would suggest. Naturally, the green powder makes it way into virtually everything here. Don’t miss out on the pastry case offerings (many items are made in collaboration with the famed Tartine Bakery); if you’re looking for something more substantial, you can’t go wrong with a (matcha-free) pork katsu sandwich.

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Yosedofu, Sashimi Moriwase, Bukakke Udon, Yakitori (try the chicken hearts!), Oyako Don Set, Millefeuille Miso Katsu Set

Photo Courtesy: pinpointers

Forget sake and sushi—head to Nihon Whisky Lounge for cocktails made with Japanese whisky and chewy takoyaki: batter-fried octopus balls. The cozy wood space feels like a pub via Japan and you’ll have fun gawking at the bottles crowding the bar.

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Kurobuta sausage, nihon fries, fried octopus, whiskey cocktails, tastes of Japanese whiskey

Photo Courtesy: saru_sushi_bar

This sleek wood-paneled sushi bar in Noe Valley doesn't take reservations, but the wait is well worth it. A cult favorite amongst locals, this tiny spot offers a reasonably-priced omakase as well as artful nigiri and sashimi, spoonfuls of tartare, and other snacks a la carte. For a shorter wait, dine here at lunch, when a set menu is served. On warm afternoons and evenings its sidewalk tables are prime.

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Tempura-fried seaweed cracker with spicy tuna and avocado, hamachi with truffle oil, halibut tartare with yuzu, omakase, nigiri

Photo Courtesy: umamimart

If you want to stock your home bar with the highest-quality glassware, tools, and spirits, head across the Bay Bridge to Oakland’s Umami Mart. Though perhaps best known for its elegant mixing glasses, small-batch bitters, sake, and shochu, this cool Chinatown shop also stocks hard-to-find pantry ingredients, earthy ceramics, and a tight edit of Japanese candies and cookbooks.

Photo Courtesy: eater_sf

Ever since this iconic Japanese ramen shop opened an outpost in downtown San Francisco, lines have spilled out the door. One of Ippudo’s largest locations, the menu here is more extensive than most, making it a particular treat for fanboys yearning for its signature 18-hour tonkotsu broth. Customize your steaming red bowl of soup with noodles cooked to your preferred level of firmness, a variety of toppings, and broth styles. Whatever you choose, you’re bound to leave very full and very happy. The Berkeley location is a perfect dinner option when you're in the East Bay.

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Akamaru Modern, Shiromaru Classic, Mentaiko Rice,

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