Almost every major West Coast city has a neighborhood faithfully and carefully inhabited, cared for and enlivened by Asian-residents. Once called “Chinatowns,” more accurate names like that of Seattle’s – the International District – have become the favored modern monikers and official names. It’s a more befitting term because many of these neighborhoods are more diverse than to be only occupied by Chinese or any single nationality. They are indeed often a mixture of cultures, even if the differences may be seem too subtle to be distinguished for the unfamiliar eye and ear.
The district here in Seattle, for instance, is actually made up of smaller sections for each of the historically predominant groups here: Japantown, Chinatown, and Little Saigon (Vietnamese). Of course, the area is home to residents of a wide variety of Asian and non Asian backgrounds, but the three aforementioned are the most ever-present within the history, shops, restaurants, architecture and the culture that forms the foundation for the International District. However, the I.D. also transcends even the value of its cultural wealth and history. It is also home to a vanishing element of the city, it is one of the few remaining areas that has managed to maintain these things. It seems to maintain a visage still aging gracefully, as the rest of the city’s neighborhoods succumb to innumerable “face lifts” and “makeovers”. The past can still be seen and appreciated here.

These are the observations that fill my thoughts passing under the “China Gateway” at the entrance into the I.D. I know so little of the actual history, and that small amount is owed largely, and with much thanks, to Wikipedia. What I do know, is the experience, and its one I have had on many different days, in many different seasons with only the streets and structures themselves ever somewhat the same. This is somehow the first time I have watched the daylight fade from these streets, however, and the drive into nightfall adds a fresh feel to them. The energy becomes palpable, from the buzz of the neon signs to the fiery changing of the shift in colors I can feel a rush and an appetite within me and surrounding me. As evening sets, I find my pace has hastened, but only from a mysterious excitement.

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I cross 5th Avenue and pass under the China Gate Archway. The sun has just began to set, and I can only for the first time see how true the red of its pillars is. Snapping pictures, I wander up the corner a block to Hing Hay Park, presenting me with what looks to be a modern interpretation of the historic archway I’ve only just passed. I dart my gaze back at that same archway and the rapidly shifting sky instead captures my view. The light is golden in its last embers as daytime has almost dissolved. I ascend the lazily meandering platforms that form the largely contemporary-style layout of the Park – steps and tiers of concrete and metal – the reward at the summit is the beautiful pavilion. This structure is older than much of the park, it was donated in the 1970s and mimics a much older Asian architecture style. Its allegedly been feng shui’d in with the rest of the new additions to evoke positive energy and as you sit watching the sun slip even further away and the silhouette of the pavilion melts into a nighttime sky within just a full breath, I can feel the energy still on in and around me. There is a  moment… it passes and I realize I’ve forgotten something…
…Uwajimaya, of course! How could I forget?! Are you unfamiliar with the Uwajimaya? Then, I’ll help you get well-acquainted. Uwajimaya is an almost indescribable kind of experience, demanding its own attention here in the I.D. This is one of the largest Asian supermarkets in the United States at over 35,000 sq feet. The brand, which has a total of four locations, has been around for more than 86 years – and that’s all interesting, but even if you don’t know or care to know all of that, you’ll still enjoy the hell out of this place. The food court alone would make it a worthy visit, but this is an entire city block also containing a home goods shop, a bank, a grocery store, a book store and various other outlets. Entirely made up of Asian imported products (with very few exceptions) it feels immersive, foreign, and mentally expansive.I find myself here, as usual, lost and wandering but happily so and, no, I don’t ever ask for help. Though its completely dysfunctional, I somehow always just fall into what draws me in – some kim chi, Poke Candy, a beautiful cast iron teapot. Its a great place to grab something you’ve never seen before and give it a first try. The less you know, the more you’ll be surprised.
Uwajimaya is fun, but its also adept at pilfering my pocket change. I’ve been a bit burgled (mostly by myself) and even though the last thing my wallet needs is another expenditure, there isn’t a chance in Hades that I’ll be leaving the I.D. without having dim sum. There are a plethora of sumptuous, delicious restaurants in the area. Admittedly, my tastes here can run from sushi to sichuan, so often its hard to narrow the desire down, but hunger is rampant and the closest spot is the Purple Dot Cafe. I pop in and order a simple chicken and broccoli dish with rice. Its ok and certainly nothing to write home about. To be entirely forthright, I have a bit of buyer’s remorse as I leave, full, but suddenly aware that one of my absolute favorite eateries – Hong Kong Bistro – is right next door. It isn’t until I stroll passed another – Harbor City – that I recognize there is too much good food here to ever walk away feeling satisfied. This proverbial, existential struggle is matched, if not exceeded, by the literal struggle of making my way back to the light rail station with this lead engorgement in my belly.

Eventually, I make it back through the ancient archway, snapping another shot and waving goodbye. I may have actually waved, I’m lightweight enough that the two Sapporo’s from earlier are driving me into strange, giggly behaviors. Crossing back across 5th Ave, I snap some more night shots of the King Street station, grimace as I review them and tuck my phone into my jacket. There’s a chill biting at me in the sturdy north wind that blows, so, I look back at the China Gateway – and the International District beyond – this time letting the mind’s eye attempt to capture the image. I smile in gratitude for the evening as I descend the stairs into the train station. Tomorrow is a bus to Portland, but tonight, I say thank you to the I.D. for this goodbye memory. This will not be our last rendezvous.