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Cultural immersion can be just a neighborhood away…

Although my husband and I love to explore other cultures with our kids, we don’t have the time, the energy or the finances to jet off every weekend. Luckily, we live in San Francisco where several ethnic neighborhoods offer the perfect fix for our cultural wanderlust.

On a recent weekend we decided to “travel” to San Francisco’s Japantown. Neither big nor crowded, this little sliver of the city is easily navigable with little ones. Both our toddler and six-year-old walked the few blocks that ring in the sushi, tempura and noodle restaurants and curio shops that abound.

Japantown Peace Plaza Mall - Our Whole Village
Japantown’s Peace Plaza Mall in San Francisco.

We unintentionally started our exploration with an impromptu discussion of physical and cultural differences among people. As we got out of the car, an Asian couple walked past us. Our older child immediately asked (and not quietly) whether people with “closed eyes are Japanese.” Ack! Oh my goodness? Did they hear?

I’m not entirely sure whether they did. At any rate, they didn’t react. By asking – if a bit loudly – a legitimate question, our little girl unwittingly opened up the conversation to talking about other cultures and, in particular, some of the similarities and dissimilarities between the many Asian countries. Learning about other ways of life piqued her interest in checking out Japantown even more.

Nijaya Market - Our Whole Village
Japanese goodies at Nijaya Market in San Francisco.

When we are exploring with our pint-sized entourage, we typically spend only a few hours visiting a neighborhood. We stroll the streets, check out some shops, listen to the languages being spoken and try to learn the words for “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” And then, we eat – the best part of all!

On this particular trip to Japantown, we had an ulterior motive, though. We needed to pick up a few items from Nijaya Market for a chef friend back east. The main Asian grocery store for the neighborhood, it is a feast for the eyes! The kids couldn’t get over the “strange” candies – with their colorful wrappers and pictures of lychees, durian and other unfamiliar fruits –  and the many different types of noodles available. Meanwhile, I couldn’t get over the miso selection –  four feet wide and five feet tall, it was as big as an entire eggs-and-butter section of a regular grocery store, and it was just miso!

The miso section at Nijaya Market in San Francisco - Our Whole Village
The impressive miso section at Nijaya Market.

The younger of our two munchkins is a two-year-old boy. Needless to say, we don’t eat out with him much. Every time we do, we say “never again!” – only to find ourselves making the same mistake several weeks later. But, of course, we couldn’t visit Japantown without having a meal there!

So, refusing to learn from our mistakes, we tucked into warm, kid-friendly Takara Restaurant. My husband and daughter both ordered soba noodle soups. Digging in with gusto, they declared these Japanese staples delicious and the perfect fare for combating year-round chilly San Francisco weather.

Chirashi at Takaya in San Francisco's Japantown - Our Whole Village
Chirashi and green tea at Takara.

I ordered chirashi, which came with two pieces of pickled vegetables, and miso soup. Our little guy licked the pickled vegetables then claimed the broth for himself, while our daughter ate the only piece of salmon and most of my rice. Alas, I was left with child-slobber-covered pickles (no, thanks), a couple of slices of sashimi, a few bites of rice and the shiso leaf – my favorite Japanese ingredient, so at least I got that.

As I inhaled my lunch, a dribbling boy on my lap, I told my daughter about the four months I lived in Tokyo and taught her the few words I could recall. On the way out, she stopped by the host and said, “Arigato!” Thanks! Thanks, Japantown, for another wonderful cultural adventure!

cultural immersion with kids

Nijaya Greeter - Our Whole Village

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(1) Comment

  1. Sharon Harrison

    Great blog! We so often miss that which is right in front of us. Thanks for “opening” our eyes to those opportunities right at home.

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