A taste of Japan--and a great place to soak

A traditional festival and a new spa enliven San Francisco's Japantown

My grandmother was 18 when she left Japan for Los Angeles and marriage to a man she'd never met. For years afterward she would cry, homesick, then slice vegetables for sukiyaki.

These days, when I'm lonesome for my grandmother, I head to Japantown, where culture comes neatly packaged in a neighborhood near Webster Street and Geary Boulevard.

I start at Kabuki Springs & Spa (1750 Geary; 415/922-6000). The old Japanese baths were transformed in 1999 into an upscale retreat. After a sublime kneading that leaves my spirit 20 pounds lighter, I step into the communal bath to scrub, steam, and soak. Three hours later I stagger out with puckered fingertips and a face that is as flushed as a stewed cranberry.

Just around the corner, Japan Center is great for a lazy postbath afternoon. I stop to browse in Kinokuniya Bookstore (567-7625), then inhale fragrant sandalwood at pocket-size Asakichi Incense (921-3821). Upstairs at Mifune Don (346-1993), I order okonomiyaki, a homey omelet seldom found in this country outside of the homes of Japanese grandmothers.

The center's plaza and refurbished Peace Pagoda will host several activities of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival (April 8-9 and 15-16). I vow to return for its tea ceremonies, court dancing, sumo wrestling, ikebana flower arranging, and parade.

But for now I'm content to linger at May's Coffee Shop (346-4020), where perfection comes in the form of a hot taiyaki, or waffle, baked in the shape of a carp and stuffed with bean paste that tastes as sweet as nostalgia.

Japan Center is bounded by Geary Blvd. and Post, Laguna, and Webster streets. Information on the Cherry Blossom Festival: 563-2313.