[Best of the Santa Clara Valley 1997]

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Best of San Jose's Japantown

Best Place to Get Hip to
Japanese-American Culture
For insight into Japanese-American history in the Santa Clara Valley, peek into the Japanese American Resource Center and Museum, located in the Issei Memorial Building. Standing exhibits document the life of Japanese-Americans before, during and after the war. Docents like Ken Iwagaki can point out familiar faces and buildings in the pictures and tell where they are today. The current exhibit features an interesting look at the Japanese-American baseball leagues--the prewar San Jose Asahi and postwar San Jose Zebras. There are also reading rooms, artifacts from camp and a huge photo exhibit documenting the heroic 100th and 442nd combat regiments' role in liberating Dachau.
565 N. Fifth St., San Jose (408/294-3138)

Best Japanese Porn
Got your attention, didn't it? It figures that a store with the words "Japan" and "culture" would have to include some element of sex. Japan Culture Video stocks plenty of Japanese soaps, TV shows, movies, rows of manga books, even the requisite Zatoichi and Kurosawa samurai flicks. But in the back, behind the black curtain, lurks the browsing area of many a hentai (Japanese for "dirty old man"). Schoolgirl, office lady and S&M are the dominant fantasies on display here but beware; perv-eyors of mainstream porn will be disappointed by Japanese imports. All Japanese hard-core flicks are pixelized, with those annoying mosaic screens (so popular in Cops) blurring out the private parts. But there's a market for them, as Japan Culture stocks racks of imported blue (called "AV" in Japan) movies.
161 Jackson St., San Jose (408/293-3350)

Best Sophisticated Human Tricks
While the South Bay exhales with superlatives after another glorious Cirque du Soleil run, not too many CdS fans know San Jose has its own version, Cirque San Jose. The troupe performs similar feats of cruelty-free magic and whimsy at their Japantown facility as well as at local events and halftime shows. High-wire acts, fast-track tumbling (as seen in Cirque du Soleil's Alegria), high overhead ropes, contortionists, hand balancing, juggling, ball walking and trapeze are all part of the show. The troupe--which consists of local and international circus professionals and amateurs--opens its new show, "Spaced Out '97," in October. "We're San Jose's first theatrical circus," brags artistic director Cheryl Taylor. "Our vision is to develop good production and good performers. We have guest performers from Moscow Circus, Ringling Brothers and Chinese circuses. We have pros and amateurs growing together and people from many different cultures, languages, backgrounds. It feels like a mini-United Nations."
634 N. Eighth St., San Jose (408/295-2276)

Best Place to Ponder the Fate
of Your Tamogotchi
As the cycle of popularity ebbs, so do the life spans of the friendly egg-shaped Japanese toy. Parents are discovering a new dilemma: how to explain death to the young'uns when the cute, egg-shaped creature grabs its wings and halo after it starves to death from inattention. People have become so attached to these toys, there are--honestly--Tamogotchi support groups. One source of solace on the local landscape: the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin. In popular Buddhist faith, roughly translated, death is not to be feared. When something dies, the soul reaches nirvana--a state of bliss after the soul is freed from suffering and absorbed into the supreme spirit. Which means that the Tamogotchi can spend eternity eating, sleeping, playing and otherwise tormenting people well into the afterlife.
640 N. Fifth St., San Jose (408/293-9292)

Best Japanese Food Preferred
by Japanese Nationals
Walking in and seeing plenty of Japanese nationals seated in a California Japanese restaurant is always a good sign. Gombei attracts more Japanese nationals than any other Japanese restaurant in Nihonmachi. Gombei unofficially caters to the homesick business traveler, offering comforting foods arranged in a way that looks like home: pickled vegetables in a side cart, chawan of rice, cup of tea and fish broth. Non-Japanese are attracted by the hearty curry dishes and bento boxes that don't skimp. The lines start to overflow onto the sidewalk at about 11:30am, so get there early or bring extra quarters for parking, as one recent couple paying a visit unwittingly found out.
193 E. Jackson St., San Jose (408/279-4311)

Best-Read Restaurateur
What do the five-year-old Japanese news magazine The Beam and 34-year-old Ginza Restaurant have in common besides being almost next door to each other in Japantown? They are both owned by Taketora Hirano, known as Carl. Publisher Hirano distributes The Beam to Japanese communities all over the United States, with a special emphasis on Northern California. The tabloid is written entirely in Japanese. Ginza, Hirano's restaurant, is one door down the street. It's a terrifically lively place with a celebrity wall signed by the likes of George Takei, Jerry Rice, Norm Mineta, the Visalia Oaks baseball team and a host of other celebs. No less than two Bronze Star awards and three Purple Heart awards also dignify this wall, earned by Hirano in Vietnam. The ever-smiling Carl says he "used to be 6-foot-2," but his war injuries cut him down to his current size. Carl would also be the first to mention that the sushi is fresh and prepared just the right way--not to mention the saimin, a bowl of noodle soup that is the best ever. Arigato gozaimas.
Ginza Restaurant, 215 E. Jackson St., San Jose (408/947-8135)
The Beam, 219 E. Jackson St., San Jose (408/280-5185) Beam@Mikuni.com

Best Martial Arts Supplies
Whether gearing up for Aikido or preparing for that arduous Muay Thai kickboxing lesson, Nichi Bei Bussan stocks workout clothes, shoes and practice equipment, aikido swords, sparring gloves, helmets, jocks, even foam nunchucks. Black belt not required--Nichi Bei is for everybody! Moms can outfit kids in happi coats and cute Japanese American-themed T-shirts. Indie rockers go ga-ga at the selection of kick-ass sew-on martial arts-themed patches. Hip-hoppers can read about the origins of Shaolin Kung-Fu rather than getting it secondhand from a Wu-Tang Clan video. Those attempting to shoplift anything from Nichi Bei Bussan could suffer one hell of an ass-whupping.
140 E. Jackson St., San Jose (408/294-8048)


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From the Sept. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro.

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