Sunday, August 10, 2008

Little Tokyo

Los Angeles' Little Tokyo District is located downtown, just south of the Civic Center and north of the bustling Toy District, east of the trainyards and the Los Angeles River. A two to three block stretch of 19th century buildings on 1st Street looks almost as it did in the 1920s, when Japanese shops thrived here. During that period, Japanese farmers were significant players in the West Coast produce markets, which lined Central Avenue to the south of here. At one time, over 30,000 people of Japanese descent lived in Little Tokyo.

I first learned of Japan in the sixth grade, in a small Illinois town. Mr. Woods was passionate about Japan. It was exotic enough to have a male elementary school teacher in those days, and the tastes of Japanese culture he brought to our lessons further shook our bland world view. For art class we learned about ikebana. For geography we studied Asia and the Pacific, and learned how Japanese houses were built, and how people dressed. He brought samples of rice-paper candy and passed it out in class.

Mr. Woods would have loved these colorful mochi sweets. They can be found at the Fugetsu-Do Sweet Shop, doing business in the same storefront since 1903, making it the longest still-operating food establishment in L.A.

The Japanese American National Museum, on 1st Street at Central, has an exhibit showing the history of the Japanese immigrant community in the US, and it's worth a visit. If you have opinions about immigration policy, it will provide a sobering view of how one immigrant community was treated, and make you listen to current rhetoric with an historical perspective.

The Little Tokyo community was dissolved when Japanese Americans were interned during the Second World War, but when the war ended, people returned. A wave of overseas investment by Japanese corporations in the 1970s brought redevelopment to the area, as new hotels and shopping plazas replaced older buildings.

This replica of a yagura, or fire tower, dominates the streetscape at the Japanese Village Plaza.

Arts and cultural centers grew as well, including the celebrated East West Players theatre group, the museum, and the nearby Japanese American Cultural Community Center. Monuments celebrate the contribution of Japanese American citizens like astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka, and the Nissei men who served in the US military during the Second World War. The sidewalk on the north side of 1st street is inset with historical information and quotations. The area is home to several Buddhist temples.

This August, explore Little Tokyo during Nisei Week, which celebrates the Japanese immigrant experience in Los Angeles.

You can find lots of gift stores and restaurants in the Japanese Village complex built between 1st and 2nd Streets.

Given his age and the times, Mr. Woods' experience of Japan was likely gained during the post-war Occupation. Japanese technology had not yet challenged American industry, and the idea that Japan's affluence would shape American culture would have been laughable. While some of the shops in Japanese Village reflect today's global Asian influence, with manga and anime toys and robots offered in stores flanked by Korean-style frozen yogurt stores and Boba-shops, there are older shops that feel rooted in the days when "Japanese import" meant something cheap and made of bamboo.

The Plaza Gift Center is just such a shop - yes, it sells electronics and battery-operated toys and robots - but instead of being a slick modern shop with displays, it's a crowded dark jumble of items, like a Japanese Five & Dime. You can find packages of paper parasols for cocktails; tea sets, packages of origami paper; paper lanterns, fancy chopsticks and embroidered coin purses. You can find rice steamers, kitchen utensils, dolls and packages of fake food intended for restaurant displays. It's a rich jumble of stuff, with a smell of packaged incense, wood, paper, plastic foam and packaged tea.

Take a break at a courtyard restaurant for a noodle bowl, or a bento box, or an Asian-fusion style seared tuna salad. Or stop by the Mitsuru Cafe for a sweet red bean pastry. Try a cream puff at a modern Japanese French bakery, or have omakase at an old-school sushi bar, where California rolls are not to be seen. Go try yakitori or shabu-shabu. Or graze on hot or cold snacks in a new Izakaya pub, while sipping a glass of cold sake.

There are other shopping complexes in Little Tokyo, including one huge echoing multi-story mall that seems strangely empty at times - except it's home to fantastic Izakaya pub we enjoyed on another occasion. There's a large complex with an Office Depot and a Subway - one wonders who'd choose to dine at Subway with all these other choices, but...each to his own.

Here's another established store on 1st Street. I bet this neon fan sign looks fantastic at night! A slick new glass-and-chrome hotels rises just beside it, underscoring the diverse aspects of this neighborhood.

I didn't learn much math in sixth grade, but I still value Mr. Woods' teaching. It was the first time I can remember being exposed to how people in other cultures lived. Thanks, Mr. Woods, for giving me such a wonderful gift.


Katie said...

Hi! I enjoyed my tour of Little Tokyo, I'll have a huge platter of sushi and some sake please! I see you visited my blog - thank you for stopping by! Never a dull moment around out place that's for sure! Do come again!

JCK said...

Mr. Woods sounds like a wonderful teacher. And you...I'm telling you, you've got a "How to See LA" book.

Vallen said...

I had a friend who lived in a loft just around the corner from JapanTown. We used to love the Temporary Contemporary (when it was thought to be only temporary) and a terrific noodle place that was open late - kind of across and kitty corner from that first photo. There is always so much to do and see and EAT in L.A. That is one thing I really miss.