One Foot in Front of the Other
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and with warm weather in store for Seattle in the coming weeks, there’s no better time for an educational walk through history.
Stretching from Pioneer Square in the west to the edges of the Central District in the east, the Japanese American Remembrance Trail traces a route through Seattle’s original Japantown. There are 42 current and former landmarks on the way, from Wing Luke Museum and the oldest judo dojo in the U.S. to tea houses, houses of worship, restaurants, parks, artworks and more.
The walk is only 3 miles in total distance (bound on the west by Second Avenue South and on the east by 16th Avenue South), but prepare for a few hill climbs and for bonus mileage required to retrace your steps. I needed about two hours to visit all the sites. (I am the “read every placard” type and did not rush through this free open-air museum.)
Bring a buddy and a water bottle, apply some sunscreen and take a mask in case you stop in at any businesses — which you absolutely should do. For the Wing Luke map with illustrations and info on each landmark, follow this link. There are too many spots to cover in this story; these were some of my favorites.
Japanese American Remembrance Trail
One-way distance: 2.9 miles
There are three anchors for this trail: Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (west), Wing Luke (central) and Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington (east). To visit every pinpoint on the trail, there will inevitably be some backtracking, so your starting site is up to you.
I began my walk outside UPS Waterfall Garden Park, a shaded pocket park with a man-made waterfall designed by Masao Kinoshita, an architect held at Rohwer War Relocation Center, a Japanese American incarceration camp in Arkansas, during World War II.
Two blocks east of the park on South Main Street is Hirabayashi Place, where a series of panels on the building’s exterior retell “A Brief History of Japanese Americans in Seattle,” from the 1800s to today. The panels culminate with a mural depicting the life of Gordon Hirabayashi, who defied incarceration in the 1940s before earning three degrees at the University of Washington and fighting successfully to overturn his convictions — a landmark legal victory for Japanese Americans.
The trail kicks north to South Washington Street then back down again the hill at Sixth Avenue South. There are a dozen landmarks clumped at the Jackson Building at Sixth and South Jackson Street, including NP Hotel — which was built in 1914 and hosted Japanese dignitaries and baseball teams — and Panama Hotel, where Japanese American families stored their belongings during World War II persecution. You can still find a room on sites like Airbnb, or if you’d just like to stop in for a drink, the Panama’s tea and coffee house displays luggage, furniture and more preserved from the building’s past life.
Before carrying on, peek into Nihonmachi Alley. Chiyo’s Garden honors the life of Chiyoko, a young girl born to Sanzo and Matsuyo Murakami, first-generation Japanese Americans (or Issei) who constructed the building. In 1920, Chiyo died from tuberculosis at age 5. The garden memorializes her life and the generations that followed, which are represented in a fence around the green area that tracks our city’s Japanese American population from 1896 (arrival of the Miike-Maru commercial ship with 253 Japanese immigrants) to 2013 (the fence’s construction).
The walk continues eastward beyond Wing Luke Museum and under Interstate 5, creeping farther uphill toward the Central District and several historical centers of worship, medicine, community and more. The official tour zigzags between Jackson, South King Street and South Weller Street, but if you head east on any of those streets, you’re making progress.
The route splits when Jackson runs into Rainier Avenue South; there’s about a mile of walking total at this eastern end of the map, both forks considered.
Heading north on 14th Avenue South leads to South Washington Street, where the Olmsted brothers-designed Collins Playfield was a popular hangout for neighborhood kids from 1913 to 1971. Wisteria Park stands on the site now; today’s parcel is two-thirds its original size.
Directly across Washington from the park: Seattle Dojo and Koyasan Buddhist Temple. The former, established in 1902, is the oldest judo dojo in the United States; the latter, per my map, offers Moon Meditation classes in its meditation dojo. (Martial arts classes at the judo dojo remain virtual, while the temple offers a mix of in-person and digital meditation. I spent some quiet time with the lovely stone Buddhas out front and kept moving.)
I made my way back to Wing Luke to finish the southwestern portion of the route, which stems from South King Street and Maynard Avenue South. The tour follows the footsteps of Hiro Nishimura, a WWII veteran and Chinatown International District resident who offers his daily neighborhood walk as a half-mile bonus trail.
Nishimura’s walk passes popular Hing Hay Park on King Street, where to the west, from the right angle, at the right time, the gate to the Chinatown ID holds the clock tower above King Street Station and the setting sun in the same frame. The station itself is a landmark on the route — leading up to World War II, Japanese American porters were replaced by Filipino Americans who wore large buttons identifying them by their nationality.
A block and change beyond King Street Station is the former Cadillac Hotel, operated by Kamekichi and Haruko Tokita from 1913 until their unlawful incarceration during World War II. The location is now the Klondike Gold Rush park and the western anchor of this route, just a block south of Waterfall Garden Park.
It’s the endpoint of this route, one of 42 testaments to Japanese American art, culture, family, food and resilience. All but six landmarks on the tour remain today — a reminder that our country’s history, including its darkest chapters, does not exist in some distant past.