Lovers of Japanese culture don’t have to fly across the Pacific to experience the joys of Nihonmachi. While established neighborhoods thrive across the continent (and into Hawaii as well), there are only four cities that contain official “Japantowns”. Vancouver, San Jose, and San Francisco host smaller areas, but Little Tokyo in Los Angeles contains the largest and most vibrant home of the North American Japanese diaspora.
If you’re visiting from other parts of Los Angeles, taking the Metro Gold Line to the Little Tokyo/Arts District station will save you money – parking is expensive in DTLA – and time. From here, the attractions are easily walkable, and you’ll see a lot more of the area on your feet than you would from the window of a car. When you exit the train, you’ll be right by the Japanese American National Museum. This architecturally beautiful building hosts permanent and changing exhibits, allowing visitors to learn the history of Japanese immigration to the United States and experience different aspects of Japanese culture in depth. Past exhibits include detailed looks at origami, photography, and kawaii culture; a current show focuses on the life and work of luminary George Takei, running through August. The museum includes a gift shop. The entry fee is nine dollars for adults, but it’s free on the third Thursday of every month and from five to eight pm on all other Thursdays.
There are a few Japanese gardens in Little Tokyo, but the James Irvine Japanese Garden at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center is one of the best. The garden includes a hand-washing station, various strolling paths, a selection of Japanese lanterns, and a stream. Enter through the JACCC building, check in, and follow the directions to reach this assemblage of plants and hardscape. The garden is closed on Mondays, and open from 10-5 during the rest of the week, closing an hour earlier on weekends.
When you’re ready to shop and eat, you have many choices. Wander over to Japanese Village Plaza, where the cherry tree lined paths pass stores that sell cosmetics, trinkets, gifts, clothing, and shoes. Dining choices here include restaurants that specialize in shabu-shabu, sushi,, Korean barbecue, and fine dining, as well as stops for snacks. If you’re lucky, you’ll also find entertainment on one of the stages!
Nearby Weller Court has myriad shops as well, but three of them stand out in particular. Enjoy tasty noodles at Orochon Ramen – there’s usually a line, and it’s always worth the wait! Visit Kinokuniya Bookstore for its pan-Asian selection of books and magazines, as well as a mammoth range of manga in both Japanese and English, and an incredible assortment of stationary, stickers, and office supplies. The Blue Whale offers serious jazz for serious listeners – this is one of the best clubs in the Los Angeles area.
Disclaimer: I am not associated with any of the above places, and have received no compensation for this review.
Japanese American National Museum, 369 E First Street, Los Angeles. (800) 461- 5266. Janm.org.
James Irvine Japanese Garden, 244 San Pedro, Los Angeles. (213) 628-2725 to confirm hours.
Japanese Village Plaza, 335 E Second Street, Los Angeles.
Weller Court, 123 Astronaut E S Onizaka Street, Los Angeles.
Orochan Ramen (in Weller Court) (213) 617 – 1766.
Kinokuniya Bookstore (in Weller Court), (213) 687 – 4480.
The Blue Whale (in Weller Court) (213) 620 – 0908 www.bluewhalemusic.com