The International District is a trove of history, art, retail, and dining, especially in Chinatown and Nihonmachi near the transit tunnel. A visit to the famous Kinokuniya bookstore is a must, but more rewards—and great gifts—await those who explore the whole neighborhood, whose historic facades hide eccentric but welcoming shops.
On Maynard Avenue you’ll find the family-owned 1. New Century Tea Gallery (416 Maynard Ave. S., 622-3599). In addition to excellent Chinese and Taiwanese loose-leaf teas, the shop has more than 50 varieties of pressed tea cakes, large and small, oolong and pu-erh. The beautiful wrapping makes them ideal gifts for tea lovers. Co-owner Grace Li is often there, pouring gong fu tea tastings with love. (I recently enjoyed a velvety smooth pu-erh from 1992. So good.) Naturally, they have wonderful accessories and teapots, too.
If you need a snack, the nearby 2. Purple Dot Cafe (515 Maynard Ave. S., 335-5889) is a perfect spot for noodles or dim sum. Plump ha gao and steamy dumplings are a great pick-me-up on a cold day, and the restaurant’s clean, contemporary setting is quite relaxing.
Tucked further back on Seventh Avenue, 3. Deng Studio & Art Gallery (515 Seventh Ave. S., 682-3533) is its own little world, full of everything one needs for ink painting (paper, pigments, brushes galore, unique mineral formations), and plenty of paintings by Zoulie Deng himself. Jade chops line many shelves, and Deng can hand-carve initials into them for a small fee. They make a fascinating, beautiful, personalized gift, perfect for artists and writers.
On Jackson, 4. Momo (600 S. Jackson St., 329-4736) is a hip, quirky boutique with high-style brands (Cop Copine, Marita Huurinainen) and lots of great locally designed gifts, including ceramics, mittens, bandannas, furoshiki, and toys. Next door, the historic 5. Kobo at Higo (602 S. Jackson St., 381-3000) offers a wide range of décor, jewelry, books, and prints. Currently, Kobo is displaying its annual simple cup show, with unique cups from national and international potters. It alone is worth the trip to the ID.
If you are there in mid-afternoon, get some goodies and a hot cocoa from 6. Fuji Bakery (526 S. King St., 623-4050). The fondant chocolate is outrageously rich, and their curry buns are the best in town. If you are in the area for happy hour, pop into 7. Kaname (610 S. Jackson St., 682-1828) for exotic cocktails and Japanese comfort food. Last but not least, if you really want to unwind, head to 8. Panama Hotel (605 S. Main St., 223-9242). It’s not just one of the best cafe settings in town; it’s a museum of local history, including one of America’s most shameful episodes, Japanese internment. You don’t just leave the ID with goodies and fond memories. You also take away a strong sense of place, history, and—hopefully—gratitude.