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Japantown hotel delivers anime immersion

Check into mainstream manga: A Bay Area Best Western rethemed by a boutique hotel chain buzzes with vibrant comic sensibility.

October 04, 2009|John Horn

SAN FRANCISCO — I never quite got anime. Yes, I watched the Japanese animated series "Speed Racer" growing up, and I'm impressed by Hayao Miyazaki, the director of the anime films "Spirited Away" and "My Neighbor Totoro." But if I happen to visit a comic book store, I gravitate to Marvel and DC, steering far clear of the anime-style Japanese comic books known as manga.

A newish San Francisco hotel was about to challenge my thinking and prove what a global pop culture phenomenon anime is. Two years ago, boutique hotel chain Joie de Vivre reopened the Best Western Miyako Inn in Japantown as the anime-infused Hotel Tomo. The hotel retained the Best Western name, but that's where the resemblance to any Best Western you know has ended.

Like its guest rooms, Tomo's lobby is decorated in the striking, colorful hybrid of cartoon and graphic art illustration that distinguishes anime. The below-street-level reception area has three TVs playing anime cartoons, and even though one has subtitles, the story was elusive: "I am praying so that you never have anything to worry about," one saucer-eyed girl said to another while they were riding a merry-go-round.

The kids in the lobby watching the TVs didn't seem to care. Three young visitors were splayed across what looked like a giant, elevated upholstered surfboard -- an oblong couch covered in bold blue and yellow fabric with a Yeti-sized pillow on top. The lobby vending machine was filled not with sodas and chips but anime-inspired souvenirs, note cards and clothing, including an $18 Giant Robot T-shirt. For no apparent reason other than style points, a 3-foot-tall inflatable plastic kitty stood nearby.

Upstairs, in the guest rooms, the look is lively but a bit more restrained. As a central part of the renovation, most of the walls in the hotel's 125 rooms were covered with an anime-style illustration by Tokyo artist Heisuke Kitazawa. My room's mural was a nighttime street scene: six police officers with police officer dogs on their backs, crows on the telephone wires, a store selling either big figs or enormous chocolate kisses and, looming over the whole thing, a giant robot. The rest of the room was decorated with lacquered blond wood and brightly colored furniture: a small green table in one corner (with a free manga comic, "Shonen Jump"); a yellow accent desk by the bed; a white, black and yellow dresser; and a large red bean-bag chair.

For all the bright design and vibrant energy, this still is a Best Western hotel. The fitness room is lackluster, the ice machine was out of service and the flimsy drinking cups in the rooms say "do not microwave," an interesting warning given there's no microwave.

In what is either an annoying theft-deterrent idea or a bizarre space-saving move, the iron is permanently tethered to the ironing board, making pants-pressing all but impossible.

Japantown is one of those urban neighborhoods (like Manhattan's Chelsea or Lower East Side) that is near lots of places but not really close to anything. It's a good 30-minute walk from the Tomo to Market Street and Union Square, where the BART trains and familiar stores can be found. But just around the corner is the Fillmore Street shopping area, a concentrated, easily walked neighborhood of wine bars, bakeries and small clothing boutiques.

Japantown itself is an interesting stroll. A well-designed 10-block walking tour guides you through the area's history (Japantown grew out of San Francisco's Western Addition after the 1906 earthquake) with reminders about anti-Japanese discrimination, including anti-miscegenation edicts, the Alien Land Law and World War II's internment. The Japantown Peace Plaza is a surprisingly tranquil urban square, close to crepe shops, manga stores, fish markets and Super7 (1628 Post St.), which designs and prints its own beautiful anime-style casual clothing. (I bought two children's T-shirts for $20 each.)

Although most of the area's businesses aren't particularly high-end, there are two exceptions. The Kabuki Springs & Spa is a tranquil urban retreat attracting guests from all over San Francisco. Women and men have alternate days in the public baths, except for Tuesdays, which are co-ed. I had a 25-minute Shiatsu massage for $65. And the food at the intimate French-California bistro Bushi-Tei was delightful (dinner for one: about $65 with wine).

The colors of Hotel Tomo may be striking, but what really caught my eye was something totally different. I stayed at the hotel for two days in the middle of the summer, when its lobby was filled at all hours with tourists. How many Asian guests did I see in my entire stay?


This anime thing really is catching on.




Best Western Hotel Tomo

1800 Sutter St., San Francisco,

(415) 921-4000,

Doubles from $99.

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