In the lobby of San Francisco's Hotel Tomo, the Giant Robot vending machine does a brisk business in J-pop T-shirts, caps, and toys.
At nearby Bushi-Tei, the French-California fusion restaurant that won a Michelin star shortly after it opened in November, foodies enjoy an imaginative menu that manages to combine unlikely ingredients like miso-marinated Washugyu beef and camembert cheese.
Though it's 102 years old, Japantown suddenly feels new again.
A pop-culture center is opening here in early 2009, with manga (comics), anime (animation), and street fashion.
But - especially in spring, as cherry blossoms fall like pink snow - there's no need to wait to visit San Francisco's most improved neighborhood.
San Francisco's Japantown is on Geary Blvd., about 1 mile west of Union Square. INFO: japantownparking.com or 415/567-4573.
Bushi-Tei Even at $95, the omakase (tasting menu) is a worthwhile splurge. More economical is Sunday brunch; don't miss the brioche French toast. INFO: $$$$; closed Mon; 1638 Post St.; 415/440-4959.
Kiss Seafood The artful presentations and attentive service feel like a real indulgence, but the prices are fair, especially the $42 six-course tasting menu, which includes everything from steamed sea urchin with tofu to slow-cooked octopus to ultra-fresh sashimi and sushi. It's tiny, so make a reservation. INFO: $$$$; closed Sun-Mon; 1700 Laguna St.; 415/474-2866.O Izakaya Lounge izakaya
Sundance Kabuki Cinemas A refreshing new model for the multiplex: online seating reservations, living-room-like armchairs, and a balcony bar ($$) where you can pair wine with an artisanal cheese plate or grilled panini. INFO: $8.50-$13.50; 1881 Post; 415/929-4650.
Kabuki Springs & Spa It was one of the largest communal bathhouses in the United States when it was built in 1971. These days, it's also the city's most democratic spa, serving up serenity to the masses: It's just $20 to $25 to use the hot pool, cold plunge, sauna, and Japanese bathing areas (more for spa treatments). INFO: 1750 Geary Blvd.; 415/922-6000.
Katsura Garden Learn everything about bonsai at this tiny, tidy florist. INFO: In Japan Center's Kinokuniya Bldg., first floor; 415/931-6209.
Kinokuniya Stationery Adorably packaged mini everything: notepads, stickers, erasers, and more. INFO: In Japan Center's Kinokuniya Bldg., second floor; 415/567-8901.
WHERE TO STAY
Best Western Hotel Tomo The flamboyantly decorated rooms at the newly reinvented hotel look straight out of an anime magazine. Downstairs, Mums ( $$) is a locals' hangout. INFO: From $139; 888/822-8666.
Hotel Kabuki Deep soaking tubs, a tea ceremony, and evening sake at Japantown's most elegant hotel. INFO: From $159; 800/533-4567.