Patrons return to the Japantown mall

‘We’re so happy—it’s really hard to make a profit’

Roaming around San Francisco on the state’s full reopening day, I saw few signs of an overnight shift—except when I sat down to eat in Japantown.

Shopkeepers in the Japan Center East and West malls have notoriously struggled during the pandemic, the dual misfortunes of being an indoor mall during a pandemic and a long path to rent relief from landlords. Vacancies have been a common sight, along with flyers for a “customer appreciation month” raffle.

But the indoor area was much more alive on Tuesday compared to when I visited in March, this time decently populated with students on their summer vacation and other visitors. I ignored the usual instinct to stop inside Japan Video — still filled with the Sailor Moon and Nintendo merchandise that drew me to San Francisco as a high schooler — and searched for a spot to eat.

I ultimately sat down at Nande-Ya for some katsu curry, surprised at my relative comfort with eating not only indoors but at a restaurant deep in a mall. A conversation nearby briefly touched on India’s latest pandemic shutdown before an abrupt pivot to watches. The restaurant was nearly full, no more social distancing required — a great relief to owner Miharu Tanaka.

“We’re so happy,” Tanaka said. “It’s really hard to make a profit.”

Switching to takeout and keeping tables separated placed a great burden on staff and profitability. Under 50 percent capacity limits, the team often had to make customers wait or send them away. A handful of stores, like Amiko Boutique (where I’ve made multiple trips for Gudetama pins), opted to retain capacity limits to ease into the changes.

Tanaka has noticed more people are visiting domestically. “For now it’s pretty good, but we need more international visitors,” she added.

One of those local visitors was San Mateo County resident Jolie Lau, who has been comfortable with trips into San Francisco for months but continues to mask up. Much of the world remains far below San Francisco’s vaccination rate.

“Probably when we know other countries are vaccinated and most states are vaccinated,” Lau said outside Daiso when asked what would bring more assurance to go mask-less. “With the new variants, everyone just kind of feels safer with masks on. You’re just not sure how you know.”

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