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Japantown in San Jose

The spirit of Hawaii thrives in San Jose, where you'll find shave ice, mahimahi burgers, uklele lessons, and a medley of island-influenced wares.

Smiley Kai the owner of Uklele Source in San Jose, picture
Photo credit
Photo: Ben Davidson
Photo caption
Handcrafted instruments made of Hawaiian koa wood live at Uklele Source in San Jose, Calif.

Like a warm breeze, the aloha spirit is blowing through San Jose’s Japantown. Hip, young visitors, expat islanders, and multiethnic families are streaming to the downtown neighborhood to savor shave ice and mahimahi burgers and to shop at distinctive stores. Area code is 408.

  • A hand-carved tiki plays doorman at Island Sol Company, where local Pacific Islanders stock up on T-shirts from Barefoot League, Defend Hawaii, 808 Kine, and Local Motion. Shoppers also pick up authentic aloha shirts, bolts of vibrant fabric, sarongs, children’s duds, and island snacks. Check out the racks of Hawaiian CDs, from traditional Keali‘i Reichel to reggae artists Katchafire. 225 Jackson St., 998-8600.
  • Cukui, a streetwear boutique, is run by one-time graffiti artists. Their original island-influenced wear blends Polynesian tattoo and Chicano cultural motifs. The name Cukui? It’s a hybrid of kukui, a brown nut used in Hawaiian leis, and El Cucuy, the bogeyman in some Hispanic cultures. 229 Jackson St., 899-2768,
  • Hungry? Try da big bruddah combo across the street at Hukilau, a lively eatery offering such dishes as seared ahi poke, pupu platters, kalua pork, and loco moco. 230 Jackson St., 279-4888,
  • Tiny Ukulele Source features exquisite handcrafted instruments made from Hawaiian koa wood (prices start at $500), along with a range of bargain options. 599 N. Fifth St., 998-2640,
  • Sonny’s Place Hawaiian Store—packed with gifts, clothing, and books—fronts the Halau Na Wai Ola, one of Northern California’s largest hula schools, with dance classes for keiki (kids), wahine (women), and kane (men). Tahitian drumming is also taught. 565 N. Sixth St., 216-0450,
  • Upstairs from Sonny’s you may happen into a session at Ukulele Jams, where ukulele master Rodney Takahashi teaches dozens of students, many from local high schools. 565 N. Sixth St., Ste. C, 603-8222,
  • Craving a Kauai Kookie or Hawaiian Sun soda? Dip into a huge selection of island items at Santo Market, a friendly Asian grocery run by the Santos for 65 years. On warm days, line up at a window for shave ice with adzuki bean paste, ice cream, or both (245 E. Taylor St., 295-5406). Shave ice is also served at Banana Crêpe (248 Jackson St., 271-2644) and Shuei-Do Manju Shop (217 Jackson St., 294-4148), devoted to a Japanese confection.



This article was first published in July 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.