Before Silicon Valley, There Was San Jose

Before Silicon Valley, There Was San Jose
Alexander Baer, 4, of Los Altos, Calif., plays on a restored historic trolley at the Kelley History Park in San Jose. (JAKUB MOSUR / For the Times)
I told friends I was planning a trip to San Jose. "Are you going there for anything in particular?" they asked politely.

"History," I answered. That drew the same kind of blank stare I used to get when I lived on the East Coast and told people--sincerely--that I missed Los Angeles for its cultural vitality.

But despite its position as the capital of Silicon Valley, San Jose has more to offer than the hustle of high tech. The city is also California's oldest, and as I found out with my family last month, it's a great place to explore the state's rich and varied heritage. My wife, Shiru, and daughter, Elly, and I proved it is possible to balance fun for a child with a meaningful experience for parents.

After flying up from Burbank on a Friday evening, we began our date with history at our downtown hotel, the Hyatt Sainte Claire. The Sainte Claire opened in 1926, touted as the "million-dollar hotel" because its construction cost was extravagant for that era. Over the years, the elegant Spanish and Italian Renaissance Revival building deteriorated into a decrepit flophouse until it was restored in 1992.

Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Sainte Claire masterfully combines luxury and good taste. Its lobby is adorned with gilt scrollwork, Italianate furniture and dark wood ceiling beams framing hand-painted panels. The rooms are full of fine details. Elly, 2, especially liked the painted bathroom ceiling depicting doves in a blue sky filled with milky clouds.

The service, however, wasn't as competent as the restoration work. When I booked the room online (a weekend rate of $99 plus tax per night), I had made sure to reserve a king bed and a rollaway. This detail was bungled repeatedly by the staff, which couldn't get us the right room until our second night, after several requests. I finally complained to the manager, who, though not aware I was a reporter, graciously didn't charge us for the first night and gave us free breakfast coupons.

So we set out Saturday exhausted by a nearly sleepless night in a noisy room with cramped double beds. The front desk told me the noise was part of the hotel's "European style," an excuse that brought Continental curse words to mind as we groggily headed out to another annoyance: The hotel staff had been evasive when I asked about alternatives to the $15-a-day valet parking. I later learned that weekend parking is free in a city lot across the street. But onward we went to Japantown.

San Jose's Japantown emerged at the start of the 20th century in an area that also had housed the city's third Chinatown. (The first two were burned under suspicious circumstances during periods of anti-Chinese hostility; the third simply faded with demographic shifts.)

The section of Jackson Street between 1st and 7th streets is a living reminder of California's Asian heritage. As journalist Carey McWilliams noted in 1946, commercial fishing and farming in California were industries built largely by not just the labor of Asians but by their know-how and capital as well.

By the mid-1800s, Asians already constituted nearly a third of San Jose's population. Japantown was a thriving business district by 1902. Today Japantown's modest shops and restaurants form a quaint, small-town kind of scene in a mostly residential neighborhood a few blocks north of downtown.

Our initial stop was to pick up food for a picnic lunch. At a carryout place on Jackson called Bento Xpress, we bought sushi rolls, a cold noodle somen salad and gyoza potstickers. Properly stocked for lunch, we ventured a mile or so to Kelley Park, where we visited two attractions: History Park, a collection of 27 historic buildings forming a replica of an old town, complete with a running trolley; and the Happy Hollow Park and Zoo.

Happy Hollow is a brilliantly executed playground for kids 2 to 10. There are rides, including two merry-go-rounds and a locomotive, as well as puppet shows and plenty of grassy open space. Unlike commercial theme parks, nonprofit Happy Hollow is peaceful and sane, with few lines and an admission fee of $4.50 per person. (Visitors younger than 2 and older than 75 are free.)

The small zoo is just right for young children. A jaguar, lemurs, meerkats and monkeys live in pens designed to give little ones unobstructed views. There's a model Vietnamese farm with potbellied pigs. Elly especially liked the "contact area," which has an open petting zoo with adorable baby goats, chickens and guinea pigs.

After our picnic, we moved on to History Park. Reconstructed city landmarks and old houses moved to the site form a pleasant village overlooking the valley. The village hub is the turn-of-the-century Pacific Hotel, which contains a museum gallery and gift shop.

Next door is the Banca d'Italia, the reconstructed first branch of what became Bank of America. The park also houses Ng Shing Gung, a replica of a Chinatown temple built in 1888.

The park is a great place for a stroll, but we especially enjoyed riding the electric trolley. Rebuilt by volunteers, the trolley car is a beauty, with reversible seats, wood-framed windows and period advertising cards. The park also has early cars on exhibit, including a Model T and a 1916 electric car with a remarkable 70-mile range.

Our History Park visit ended with a trip to O'Brien's Ice Cream Parlor, a re-creation of a shop that operated in San Jose from 1868 to 1956.

While Elly and Shiru napped at the hotel, I took a short drive to the last remnant of San Jose's original pueblo, the adobe house built by Luis María Peralta in 1797. The two-room cottage is a hidden gem, apparently even for locals. I was the only one on my tour.

Charlie, my volunteer guide, didn't mind and proceeded with enthusiasm, recounting Peralta's rise from pioneer to millionaire land baron, all while living in the same tiny shack in which we stood.

We then moved across the street to the ornate Victorian built by San Jose Mayor Thomas Fallon in 1855. By moving from one house to another, we crossed from San Jose's Spanish-Mexican era to its Anglo-American period, a move Charlie dramatized by changing from a poncho to a morning coat. As such close neighbors, Charlie said, Fallon and Peralta no doubt knew each other, but the austere Spaniard and the flamboyant Irish immigrant were clearly worlds apart in style and tastes, if not fortunes.

After that excellent account of 19th century California history, I returned to Japantown. The neighborhood has its own sights for history buffs, including a small museum and sidewalk plaques with pictures and notes on events such as the World War II internment of San Jose residents.

I window-shopped at quirky places such as Hank's Custom Rod and Reel Shop and Soko Ace Hardware, which had an impressive collection of Asian cookware and a display of the elaborate toilets popular in Japan, with heated seats and electronically controlled warm-water bidets.

At Nikaku Japanese Arts, a second-story gift shop with a wide selection of Japanese animation videos, I picked up a tape of the 1960s Japanese TV cartoon "Kimba the White Lion," which I had heard about.

Animation buffs believe Disney ripped off "Kimba" to create "The Lion King." Disney insists similarities, such as the character name Simba, are coincidence. If anything supports Disney's argument, it's the depth of the Japanese show. The "Kimba" episodes deal with justice and morality, never presuming children deserve only light entertainment. For Elly, I chose a "Kimba" tape titled "Freedom and Responsibility."

We all returned to Japantown for dinner at Okayama, a 35-year-old neighborhood spot featuring standards like the beef sukiyaki, chicken teriyaki and chirashi sushi we ordered. Okayama and the rest of Japantown reminded me of neighborhoods like Baltimore's Little Italy--a place where storefronts display fliers for the Veterans of Foreign Wars bento lunch sale and the Young Buddhists Assn. spring musical.

Okayama is the Japanese American equivalent of the red-sauce Italian restaurant, where civic clubs meet for lunch and company softball teams celebrate victories. The food was substantial and consistent, with nice touches like freshly made tofu from the San Jose Tofu Co. across the street. There were also endearing gestures by the staff--for instance, a waitress brought Elly chopsticks fastened together with a rubber band, making them easier to use with her little fingers.

Sunday, after breakfast at the hotel, we took a quick walk to the magnificent Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph nearby. The current building was constructed in 1876, but the parish was established in 1803.

Between services, visitors are welcome to marvel at the cathedral's interior, full of sculpture and stained glass. Eight saints are depicted in panels circling the 70-foot-high domed ceiling. In the loft sits an organ, built in 1886 and featuring more than 1,500 pipes.

We made one last stop in Japantown for lunches to take on the plane. At Santo Market, a grocery store with a Hawaiian-style deli, we picked up three box lunches with broiled mackerel, black-bean pork ribs and string beans wrapped in beef teriyaki.

During our flight back, I considered the cost of our trip. We spent a few dollars on admission fees, and no one pushed overpriced souvenirs. The historic sites were maintained by volunteers, motivated only by their desire to teach us about California's history.

I doubt Elly learned any history, and I didn't expect her to. But she did have fun, and someday not too far off, she will see that there are people who spend their weekends keeping up places that connect us to our past and, by extension, to one another. Their work enriches us, and our visits are their reward.


Peter Hong writes for the Metro staff of The Times.