It's very easy to fall in love with San Jose's Japantown district, especially if you're strolling through during Sake San Jose, Thursday evening's ninth annual celebration of the Japanese alcoholic beverage.
While sipping some of the nearly 30 varieties of sake available helped put a shine on everything, the real sense of community you get from the historic neighborhood requires no boozy embellishment. There were about 500 people out during the three-hour event, which made for an active but not too crowded scene on Jackson Street.
The tastings took place inside restaurants, shops and other favorite sites like Minato Restaurant, Shigematsu Insurance, San Jose Taiko, the hip Cukui boutique and the Japanese American Museum, where KTVU reporter Robert Handa was helping to pour. Other community leaders played roles, too, like legendary judo coach Yosh Uchida, who led a group of dignitaries in a traditional breaking open of the sake casks at the Yu-Ai Kai Senior Center, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and is the fundraiser's beneficiary.
More than 100 blue-shirted volunteers, led by event chairwoman June Tanaka, lent a hand at tasting stations and directing people who were looking for bottled water or a good place to eat. A senior taiko group performed during the opening ceremony, and the Wesley Ukulele Group played in front of Ukulele Source on North Fifth Street. Tattoo artist Horitaka, who owns State of Grace in Japantown, designed the festival's logo for the fifth year in a row.
"The involvement of the community here is what sets Sake San Jose apart," said Jesse Pugach, a sake specialist for Southern Wine & Spirits who gave a short lecture on the fundamentals of sake at the event. "This is the only one I go to that's out on the streets, and the way the restaurants and shops all come together is unique."
COMING SOON: Downtown diners will soon have another option this summer when restaurateur Ashwini Kumar, who owns Madhuban Indian Cuisine in Sunnyvale and North San Jose, opens M Lounge Bar and Restaurant, serving an upscale South Asian fusion menu.
The restaurant -- featuring a mix of Malaysian, Singaporean, Thai and Indian food -- will open at the 7,100-square foot corner spot on South Second and San Fernando streets that was abandoned by P.F. Chang's three months ago. Kumar is aiming for an August opening.
"M Lounge will be a great addition to the downtown area, and is a perfect fit for the corner location" says Case Swenson, president of building landlord Barry Swenson Builder.
BOOKED IN LOS GATOS: Palo Alto author Betsy Franco was at Village House of Books in Los Gatos on Wednesday night with her new novel, "Naked," which is the first adult effort for the prolific children's book author. She brought along one of her sons, not actor James Franco but artist Tom Franco, who is director of an East Bay art collective and who provided the illustrations for his mother's book.
A good-sized crowd showed up for the event, and Village House of Books is expecting another good audience next month for San Jose's Bryan Kramer on June 18. Kramer, CEO of brand-marketing company Pure Matter, has been preaching the social media gospel all around the world lately and will be talking up his book, "Human to Human: #H2H." Kramer's message to companies looking to make the most of social media is common-sense brilliance: "There is no B2B (business to business). There is no B2C (business to consumer). It's human to human."
VOLUNTEERS LAUDED: San Jose-based Parents Helping Parents, which provides support for families with special needs children, had two big honors at its annual volunteer appreciation event on Thursday. Mike Drennan -- known to all at PHP as "Dr. Mike" -- was honored as Volunteer of the Year for his work in adapting toys so children with disabilities can play with them.
And Kristin O'Rourke, a young woman with Down syndrome, was presented with the Florene Stewart Poyadue Achievement Award. O'Rourke's basketball team, the Union City Hoopahs, will be competing against teams from around the country in the Special Olympics USA games in New Jersey next month.
A GIANT HONOR: When former Giants slugger Will Clark addressed the crowd at last year's Building Communities breakfast for Hope Services, he made a promise to Charlie Hughes, a Hope Services client who also spoke at the event, that he would arrange to have him throw out the first pitch at a Giants game.
Clark, who now works in the Giants' front office, has some pull and kept his word: Hughes, a 25-year-old Palo Alto resident, is scheduled to throw out the first pitch at Tuesday night's game at AT&T Park against the Chicago Cubs.
Hughes is a twin who weighed just two pounds when he was born prematurely and spent the first nine months of his life in the neonatal intensive care unit. He says he's a longtime Giants fan and credits his second-grade teacher, Sue Garadis, for using box score stats from Giants games as a way to teach him math.
He says he's not sure how he won Clark's heart, but he's glad the two of them connected at a reception the night before the breakfast. "He is a great guy, and I really liked meeting him," Hughes said.
By the way, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" actress Cheryl Hines will be the keynote speaker at Hope Services' 10th anniversary breakfast on June 6 at the Santa Clara Convention Center (Get details at www.hopeservices.org/breakfast).
Boy, has she got a tough act to follow.