Tales of San Francisco: a paper trail in Japantown, as told by origami artist Linda Mihara

America’s oldest Japantown is a bastion of immigrant crafts, cuisine and history dating back to the 1860s. An origami class with artist Linda Mihara showcases the area’s commitment to preserving Japanese traditions.

Published 5 Nov 2020, 08:05 GMT
Linda Mihara

Linda Mihara of Paper Tree in Japantown, San Francisco.

Photograph by Andria Lo

Linda Mihara is a born teacher. “That’s great!” she keeps saying about my poorly folded bits of paper — the flowers that refuse to look like flowers, the birds that look nothing like birds. “The first fold is always the hardest!”

Not that she’s a teacher by trade; Linda is a world-class origami artist whose work has been exhibited around the world. She’s collaborated with both Hermès and Pixar, but she’s also a stalwart of San Francisco’s Japantown: her family own Paper Tree, an origami and stationery shop opened by her grandparents. The Miharas were the first to import origami paper into the US; they also published America’s first book on the craft. And in the shop, Linda continues her grandparents’ legacy by hosting classes.

“I’ve been doing this since I was five,” she says, methodically sliding thumbs along creases and tamping down with her fingers as square pieces of kami paper (white one side, coloured on the other) bloom into flowers and fish. When she was 12, Linda was one of the young artists whose work was cast into concrete and placed on benches on the block-long pedestrianised stretch of Buchanan Street, Japantown’s main drag.

San Francisco’s Japantown is one of three left in the US, and the oldest in the country. Japanese immigrants started settling in the city in the 1860s; they established Japantown here, 13 blocks west of Union Square, after the devastating 1906 earthquake, which flattened approximately 80% of the city.

Shop owner, Linda Mihara, flipping through Japanese papers at Paper Tree.

Photograph by Andria Lo

But it’s a shadow of what it once was: today’s six blocks used to be 40. The community living there has been displaced repeatedly over the decades; during the Second World War, California residents of Japanese descent were forcibly relocated to internment camps. Many returned to find their houses had been repossessed during their absence. Linda’s grandparents made it back to San Francisco in 1949, but in 1974 they were forced to move again under the guise of ‘urban regeneration’.

Today’s Japantown residents and businesses are all too aware of how the area has been pulled apart over the years. This deep-seated sense of insecurity no doubt explains the strong focus on preserving their culture.

“He wanted to share Japanese culture with kids, and thought origami was the vehicle to do it,” says Linda of her grandfather. Today, children in the store are entranced by her calm folding, while adults are embracing origami for its mindfulness qualities.

Within half an hour, we fold a house, a fox mask, a tulip and a crane. In an hour, Linda can teach most people how to fold a fish. But I have no dexterity — I can’t even double over the paper evenly — but the rhythm of our folding soon lulls me into a spa-like state. Before paper was widely available, origami was a “sacred commodity”, says Linda, reserved for religious or royal ceremonies. Today, in the back of her shop, as we honour her grandparents’ tradition, it still has a sacred feel.

Origami street signs in Japantown.

Photograph by Andria Lo

Three restaurants to visit in Japantown

There’s no shortage of spots to savour classic Japanese fare. Look out for shabu-shabu — a steaming broth prepared on butane stoves

1. Mums

Mums, the family-owned, retro restaurant inside Japantown’s Kimpton Buchanan Hotel is famed for its all-you-can-eat shabushabu: translucent-thin ribeye, vegetables (including four types of mushroom) and tofu cooked in a seaweed broth. The Tam family — the first to bring shabushabu to San Francisco — prefer traditional flavours, but they have sauces, spices and various meats if you want to get adventurous. $32 (£27).

2. Nabe

A nabemono, or nabe, is the collective term for Japanese hot pot dishes. At both Nabe outlets in San Francisco, ‘sets’ start with shabu-shabu and include other one-pot dishes like kurobuta pork belly in kimchi broth, and kamonamban (duck breast, leeks and soba in dashi broth). From $22 (£18). 

3. Mokuku

Book a table in the Tatami dining room and curl up on straw tatami floor mats for your shabu-shabu. Mokuku, which opened in 2019 in Inner Richmond (near Golden Gate Park), does all-you-can-eat shabu-shabu with six types of meat and a choice of broth. $35 (£29).

Classes at Paper Tree start from $20 (£15.60). Linda’s friend, Kristin Posner, has narrated a Japantown audio tour, downloadable at nourish-co.com

Discover more Tales of San Francisco

Published in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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