The sun-bleached Douglas fir floors at the Panama Hotel and Tea House may be 111 years old, but they still support the customers who sit at tables sipping steaming mugs of nutty genmaicha. Below, in the property’s basement, is a long-shuttered but marvelously preserved public bath. Its neat rows of wooden lockers and deep marble tubs made it indispensable during the early 20th century when few people had private baths. But it also served as an important gathering place where the day’s news flowed freely among residents of Seattle’s Nihonmachi, or Japantown, an area just east of Pioneer Square.
During the neighborhood’s glory days, between the two world wars, it was the nation’s second-most-populous Japanese district, and its streets buzzed with restaurants and shops. The year after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order resulting in the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans living along the West Coast. Few of Japantown’s once-booming businesses remained by the time their owners were released from internment camps; even fewer have lasted the 75 years since. Today, the survivors are tapping into the same spirit of perseverance in responding to COVID-19. These original restaurants and shops give visitors a glimpse of the past while offering a testament to the community’s resiliency and evolution.
Panama Hotel and Tea House
A clear panel in the teahouse floor reveals suitcases that Takashi Hori stashed for fellow Japanese Americans who were forcibly relocated to camps during World War II. Hori ran the hotel from 1938 until he retired in 1985, when current owner Jan Johnson purchased the property and set out to preserve its original details. The restoration efforts of Johnson, combined with the presence of the country’s only intact traditional bathhouse, earned the hotel a spot on the list of National Historic Landmarks.
Opened in 1904, Seattle’s oldest Japanese restaurant has been a mainstay ever since for dishes like wild salmon nigiri and bluefin negitoro. Its 90-year-old hostess and bartender, known simply as Mom, has been mixing strong, straightforward cocktails since 1960. “Maneki has been through the Spanish flu, two world wars, internment camps, and recessions,” says owner Jean Nakayama about the restaurant’s chances of making it through the current pandemic. “We’ll be here—we’re too stubborn to go away.”
Kobo at Higo
Beginning in 1907, Japanese Americans came to the Higo Variety Store (originally the Higo 10 Cent Store) for everything from traditional sandals to kites. When its founders, the Murakami family, were interned, neighbors watched over the property and paid the bills. The store closed in 2003, but Paul Murakami, a relative of the original proprietors, still owns the building. The current tenants turned the space into a shop and gallery, Kobo at Higo, where, as a way to honor the building and neighborhood’s history, they display original inventory from the store, like antique fans, alongside contemporary art.
When Seattleites need fresh uni or new chopsticks, kumquats or miso, they turn to Uwajimaya. Fujimatsu Moriguchi began the business in 1928 by selling homemade fish cakes from the back of his truck. After internment, he opened a little grocery store in Japantown. Though the store has moved a few times (and expanded throughout the Pacific Northwest), the present-day Seattle outpost is near the historic heart of the community. Today, Fujimatsu’s granddaughter Denise Moriguchi runs the business.
This article appeared in the April 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.
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