Japanese Village Plaza is crowded on a Sunday morning. Most restaurants open around 11 or 11:30am, and lines begin to form at some of the more popular places ahead of that. The tea shops and bakeries are already open, as are the specialty stores selling things ranging from action figures from Japanese cartoons to Hello Kitty plushies. Traditional gates and lanterns bely the commercial focus, but add a sense of beauty and calm to the hustle. This shopping center, a full square block just east of downtown Los Angeles, is the heart of Little Tokyo.
By 1941, there were approximately 30,000 Japanese-Americans living in Little Tokyo, an area just east of Los Angeles’ downtown core. The 1924 Exclusion Act had stopped Japanese immigration to the United States, but those already here gathered in this area. The Japanese community of Little Tokyo was heavily involved in agriculture, and the neighborhood featured a number of vegetable markets selling wares from Japanese-owned farms in California. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps (like Manzanar), and Little Tokyo was emptied. After World War Two, many returning Japanese-Americans were unable to find housing in Little Tokyo, and thus the population spread out from this enclave.
In 1986, a popular movement resulted in the recognition of the area’s historical significance to the Japanese community, and Little Tokyo was born in a commercial sense. Today, it is more a central hub of Japanese culture than a residential enclave, featuring shops, restaurants, and plenty of tourists.
While Japanese Village Plaza will be your base for a day exploring, your visit should start across the street at the Japanese American National Museum. It is well curated, with exhibits focusing on contributions of the Japanese-American community, the complex history including internment, and plenty of culture.
If you prefer to get culture of a different sort, a visit to the Koyasan Buddhist Temple is an enlightening experience. On this morning, I wandered in to admire the beautiful decorations (photos aren’t allowed inside) and encountered a monk getting ready for services. He asked if I was Tibetan Buddhist. When I responded that I was Jewish, he asked me to pull up a chair, and we spoke for fifteen or so minutes about his trip to Israel as a guest of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. I vowed to return to take part in a personalized blessing that the temple offers to Buddhists and guests alike. There is no such thing as too many blessings.
Most visitors come to Little Tokyo for the food, and I am no exception. Daikokuya has some of the best ramen in LA (I went home with some and ate it too quickly to take a picture), while Marugame Monzo is your place for homemade udon (get the uni cream udon). For me, though, this visit is my chance to try a couple new dishes: okonomiyaki and takoyaki, both available from Chinchikurin – although the takoyaki is also able to be ordered from a separate take-out window under the name Tanota.
Okonomiyaki is a layered Japanese pancake from Hiroshima. From bottom to top, mine is as follows: thin pancake, fish powder, cabbage, ground beef, crispy noodles, egg, eel sauce, green onion. It tastes almost of chow mein in layered form, and is spectacular!
Takoyaki is octopus (tako in Japanese) inside a soft fritter. I get mine topped with a sauce of fish roe. The textural contrast between the fritter (almost molten inside) and the chewy octopus is delightful, and I look forward to coming back for their other flavors.
The Nijiya Market is Little Tokyo’s easiest Japanese market to access. It is fairly small, but full of both Japanese favorites like Pocky to things I had never tried before. My favorite treat was the soft rice cakes (almost a marshmallow texture) filled with lychee jelly. I load up a bag of fun things to taste to take home.
The Little Tokyo Mall is connected to Japanese Village Plaza, and is worth walking through. Jungle has hundreds, if not thousands, of action figures and other collectibles from Japanese pop culture, spread across two stores in the mall. Another storefront sells vintage video games. It is fun to peek around, though I don’t buy anything.
Finally, it is time for something sweet. I pop into Yamazaki Bakery for a matcha (green tea) tiramisu, though for lovers of more traditional Japanese desserts, sweet red bean rolls are also available. The selection is solid, and my choice is a bit more to my palate’s liking.
A visit to Little Tokyo is an authentic Japanese-American experience, if not a true Japanese one. It is a celebration of a remarkable people, and a remembrance of what this area once was before terrible policies forced the removal of its inhabitants. Add in awesome food, some dynamite cultural spots, and you have the recipe for a perfect day out!
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