Photo by Zak Kelley, courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art
Photo by Kit Leong/Shutterstock
Time your Little Tokyo visit to coincide with Nisei Week in August, an annual celebration of Japanese culture.
Where to play, eat, shop, and stay in one of L.A.’s most bustling cultural hubs.
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Little Bangladesh, Thai Town, Little Armenia, Koreatown, Little Ethiopia, Tehrangeles, Historic Filipinotown—if there’s a culture you want to explore, chances are Los Angeles has a neighborhood for that. One of the city’s most robust ethnic enclaves is Little Tokyo, a district on the outskirts of downtown L.A. that dates to the turn of the 20th century. In 1885, Charles Hama, a former seaman from Japan, opened the now-closed Kame Restaurant on East First Street (the first known Japanese-owned business in L.A.). By the early 1900s, a robust issei, or Japanese immigrant community, settled into the area, which led to an explosion of Japanese-owned shops and restaurants—several of which are still open today. And so Little Tokyo was born.
One of only three official Japantowns in the United States (the other two are also in California, in San Francisco and San Jose), the area’s five-ish blocks are crammed with a significant Japanese American population who operate and frequent the district’s old-school sushi joints, streetwear vendors, Instagrammable soft-serve spots, manga meccas, and more. Bound by First Street on the north, Third Street on the south, Alameda Street on the east, and Los Angeles Street on the west, consider this your indispensable guide to one of L.A.’s most bustling, delicious, and explorable nabes.
The Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC) proffers serenity with its James Irvine Japanese Garden, known as Garden of the Clear Stream (apropos, considering a stream cuts through the lush green space). Cedar bridges are a dreamy stopping point to admire the flowers and foliage—just note the gardens are closed through 2019 due to construction, but will reopen in 2020. Once you’ve soaked up some nature, catch a performance from Asian American musicians or maybe Kabuki performers at JACCC’s Aratani Theatre, or improve your skills in the kitchen with a Japanese cooking class or seminar through JACCC’s Toshizo Watanabe Culinary Cultural Center.
If museums are more your speed, brush up on your history at the Japanese American National Museum, the largest museum in the United States dedicated to the Japanese American experience. There’s a permanent collection of over 60,000 artifacts and the exhibitions are impressively disparate: Shows examine everything from the cultural legacy of Hello Kitty to WWII-era Japanese internment camps. Nearby, you’ll find the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, an outpost of Downtown L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art. See a slew of pieces from the museum’s permanent collection during The Foundation of the Museum: MOCA’s Collection (on view through January 2020), plus Untitled (Questions), a massive wall work by American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger that’s displayed on the building’s facade (up through November 2020).
You don’t need to be a jazz aficionado to appreciate an evening at jazz club bluewhale, where it isn’t uncommon to see heavy hitters like alto saxophonist Dave Binney sharing the stage with emerging talent. For a slightly less sophisticated but equally entertaining musical experience, grab some pals, rent a room at Max Karaoke, and belt out the classics till you’re hoarse (“Turning Japanese” by the Vapors, perhaps?).
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If you’re a planner, you might want to book a trip to Little Tokyo around one of the many festivals held there each year. Nisei Week happens every August and celebrates Japanese culture with a DekoCar show (a parade featuring cars covered in custom anime, manga, or video game graphics), public street dancing, and the World Gyoza Eating Championship (where competitive eaters consume as many gyoza, or Japanese pot stickers, as they can in 10 minutes). In October, JACCC honors Japanese, Mexican, and African cultures with FandangObon, a festival dedicated to the Fandango dance traditions of Mexico, Japanese Buddhist obon circle dances, and West African dances and drum circles. Most years, springtime heralds the return of the LA Art Book Fair, the West Coast sister of the NY Art Book Fair and a one-stop-shop for art book–centric reads from artists, antiquarian booksellers, small presses, and institutions.
You’re going to need some fuel for this sojourn, so consider grabbing a Kyoto-style (aka slow-drip) iced coffee from Demitasse. If coffee isn’t your thing, try the hot chocolate, which comes with an enormous brûléed marshmallow. You could take it to go, but we suggest you stay and sip awhile on the outdoor patio shaded by an awning of suspended umbrellas.
Naturally, there’s no shortage of sushi spots in Little Tokyo, but if you’re looking for a side of ceremony with your sashimi, hit Sushi Gen. The ambience is simple and the line will be long, but the food is worth the wait: The nearly 40-year-old restaurant has a stellar $19.50 omakase lunch special featuring warm tofu, miso soup, rice, and a rotating roster of market-fresh fish. Vegans can satisfy their sushi cravings at Shojin, which specializes in upscale and adventurous vegetable-based sushi (try the Shojin Dynamite Roll 2.1 roll, with spicy tofu and avocado).
If it’s noodles you’re after, Daikokuya is the place you seek. Haters will say it’s a tourist trap, but people queue up for a reason: The ramen restaurant serves up a famously phenomenal tonkotsu pork broth with pork belly chashu (or, braised pork belly), marinated boiled egg, and other toppings.
Satisfy your sweet tooth at Mikawaya, the 109-year-old dessert shop where mochi ice cream—balls of Japanese rice cake filled with assorted ice cream flavors—was invented. For something a little more ’Grammable, swing by Bae’s blacked-out storefront, where photogenic soft-serve flavors like charcoal pineapple, cinnamon toast crunch, and earl grey are swirled into jet-black cones. (“Boujee Toppings,” including edible gold stars, are available for an extra $1.) Then snap a pic in front of its neon sign (“with love, from bae”). Across the way from Bae is Milk + T, L.A.’s first self-serve boba (or bubble tea) bar: Get #BobaWasted (its words, not ours) on the Salted Caramel Milk Tea + Vanilla Ice Cream.
Lest your liver feels left out, cap off your day at Wolf & Crane, purveyor of fine Japanese whiskeys and promoter of excellent daily specials (whiskey flight night on Tuesdays; all-day and all-night happy hour on Sundays). Beer fiends will feel right at home at Far Bar, a cozy spot with exposed brick and strings of twinkle lights that has 34 beers on tap (not to mention the largest selection of bottled craft beers from Japan in Southern California). Last year, the team behind Far Bar opened the Sake Dojo nearby, a sleek spot serving sake and a wide selection of bottled Japanese beers, too.
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Little Tokyo is compact, meaning you can make a significant dent in your bank account in a short time. Japanese Village Plaza is chockablock with boutiques ranging from traditional to painfully hip. Mosey over to Make Asobi and upgrade your beauty routine with myriad Japanese sheet masks, makeup, and hair products. L.A.-born designer Roy Kuroyanagi’s Japangeles is a beacon of minimalist streetwear and an homage to his roots (his grandparents were residents of Little Tokyo). Swing by to stock up on T-shirts, sweatshirts, and snapback hats that put an L.A. twist on Japanese iconography (one tee features a lucky maneki-neko, one of those waving cats, with shades on). Sneakerheads looking to spruce up their kicks might opt for a deep clean at Jason Markk, the world’s first “drop-off shoe care service.” The menu starts at $6 for a lace cleaning and goes up to $75 for the Purple Label Detail (an overhaul of laces, liners, undersoles, and insoles)—but be sure to mind the three-day turnaround. There’s also Popkiller and Popkiller Second, known for their fun and bright graphic tees and sweatshirts.
Outside of Japanese Village Plaza, vintage fans will be in their element at Raggedy Threads, Pomona native Jamie Wong’s impeccably curated boutique stuffed with finds that span centuries and date as far back the 1880s. Anime collectors can’t skip a trip to Entertainment Hobby Shop Jungle, an enormous space stocked with covetable and rare model kits, action figures, posters, retro video games, J-Pop CDs, and more. Poketo is a bright, airy shop for accessories and home goods. Their collection will speak to anyone with a modern aesthetic: quirky bike helmets by Thousand; vintage typewriter-style keyboards for your desktop; chocolates from local confectionary Compartés (try the Churros and Horchata bar); out-there scents from Na Nin (in case you’ve ever wanted to smell like “Cannabis/Opium Den”). Bowls has a selection of Little Tokyo–friendly paraphernalia that skews irreverent (think that same waving cat giving the finger), not to mention a wall of Herschel bags and backpacks, tees and denim, and a selection of grooming products.
Over in the open-air, three-story shopping plaza Weller Court, Books Kinokuniya peddles the stuff of bookworms’ dreams; what started as a small hotel shop has grown into chic, well-appointed standalone store full of art tomes, manga, niche magazines, and all sorts of other genres, not to mention an extremely satisfying array of pens, journals, and art supplies. The bookshop is open until 8 p.m. daily, and if you end up in Weller Court after dark, you can take a moody photo in Portal, known more colloquially as the Weller Court light tunnel. The short hallway is home to a kinetic installation by Japanese artist Akiko Yamashita that features 7,000 pixels of dancing animated light.
Little Tokyo’s a bit of a desert when it comes to cool lodging options, but should your trip to the nabe get too rowdy and you find yourself in need of a place to crash, book a room at the DoubleTree. Free cookies should be incentive enough, but knowing that you could spend your mornings walking the stone pathways of the hotel’s Kyoto Garden is another pretty stellar reason to stay. Besides, with adjacent DTLA attractions like the Arts District and the museums and cultural institutions of Grand Avenue (the Broad, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Walt Disney Concert Hall) a stone’s throw away, you might as well hang out awhile.
If you’ve spent even a femtosecond in L.A., you know that driving and parking in this city can be soul crushing. But abandoning your ride is easy in Little Tokyo. Roll up to Weller Court and use the plaza’s underground garage, where parking all day will only set you back $10. (Head’s up: It’s cash only.) If you’re going car-less, you can catch the Metro Gold Line to the Little Tokyo/Arts District station—yes, there’s a train in L.A.—or hitch a ride via Uber or Lyft.
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