#332, Visit an ethnic district
When I attended the Japanese American Museum earlier this week I decided that I would return with my son, Joseph, because he loves everything Japanese — from sushi to manga to Godzilla to anime.
I was also interested in learning more about Little Tokyo, the Japanese-American cultural district in downtown Los Angeles which surrounds the museum.
We registered for a two hour tour of Little Tokyo that was arranged through the museum. We were to scheduled to meet our guide at 10am.
We arrived a little early so we decided to check out a Japanese bakery called Yamazaki.
We saw a few things in the case which were intriguing so we bought a Curry Doughnut, Sugar Toast, and a Green Tea cake to go. We hustled back to the museum and shared tastes with our fellow waiting tourists.
The Curry Doughnut had a savory curry filling which made it substantial enough to serve as a good, cheap lunch for a strapped student.
The Sugar Toast, was a thick slice of white bread dipped in melted butter and coated with sugar. I know how it sounds… like a carb counters nightmare. Let me just say, if it sounds good to you- never, ever try it. I’m not crazy for sweets and I could have polished off a whole loaf. I don’t know why it was so good. But it was. It really, really was.
Our tour guide, Robert Moriguchi, met us outside the museum and he showed us the borders of Little Tokyo on a map to orient us.
We moved down the museum steps to our first stop (not in map order).
Our guide told us that the camera sculpture honors first-generation Japanese American photographer Toyo Miyatake who opened his photography studio in Little Tokyo in 1923, and spent the rest of his life documenting his community’s life on film.
When Miyatake, his family, and 120,000 Japanese Americans were unjustly incarcerated by the U.S. government during World War II, Miyatake bravely smuggled a camera lens and a film plate, considered contraband, into the Manzanar concentration camp in California. Using a secretly-constructed camera, he captured everyday life in Manzanar.
Some of those photographs are currently on display in the museum.
The bronze replica of Miyatake’s camera was created by Artist Nobuho Nagasawa. The sculpture (3x larger that Miyatake’s actual camera) projects slides of Miyatake’s work onto a window of the Japanese American National museum each evening.
Our guide said that Little Tokyo is one of only three “Japan towns” in the United States. The other two are in Sacramento and San Jose. In 1995, Little Tokyo was classified as a National Historic District, a move that saved historic architecture, monuments, and landmarks.
Robert also described The Private Arts Development Fee program. He said that the city requires that each owner of a private development project, valued at $500,000 or more, pay an arts fee based on the square footage of the building or one-percent of the project’s Building and Safety permit valuation, whichever is lower. During the tour he showed us several sculptures which were funded by those arts fees.
The purchase of this “Friendship Knot” sculpture by Shinkichi Tajiri is just one example.
This bronze and stone monument by Louis Quaintance and Eugene Daub sits in Toriumi Plaza. The text on the monument reads,
“From the late 1800s Japantowns began to emerge in California’s port towns and agricultural areas where Japanese immigrants helped build the state’s economy through fishing, farming and other businesses. By the 1930s, as many as forty Japantowns existed throughout the state. The forced evacuation of Japanese Americans during World War II, and later, urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s, greatly impacted the fate of these unique historic districts. This common landmark resides in three of the remaining Japantowns in San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles. It pays tribute to the contributions of Californians of Japanese ancestry and is dedicated to Japantowns that today exist only in memories.”
The “Home is Little Tokyo” mural depicts present-day life in Little Tokyo. The brightly-colored mural spans 40-feet along the wall fronting Central and is 16-feet tall. Artists Tony Osumi, Sergio Diaz and Jorge Diaz involved community members in the mural design process through open meetings to discuss and collect ideas. Each image in the mural has significance to the community and its residents. The 1970’s was a time when many third generation “Sansei” returned to Little Tokyo to serve their community. This is depicted in the upper-right hand corner by a Sansei carrying a first generation Issei at a community health fair. Connecting us back to Toyo Miyatake’s images of Manzanar, look for the older woman lighting a candle with two children. This picture was taken from a 1983 Day of Remembrance poster but also represents the community’s candlelight vigil that followed 9/11 in support of Muslim and Arab Americans. The image of Mt. Fuji and cherry blossoms were requested by post-World War II immigrants in memory of their homeland. The Latino restaurant worker stands for the community’s diversity. The dancers and lanterns are symbols of Nisei Day parades. The mural also honors African Americans who moved into Little Tokyo after the Japanese were sent to the camps. They found work in Little Tokyo, and often lived in the spaces that the Japanese had left. The area was referred to as Bronzeville during this time and nearly 80,000 residents thrived here.
After the war, work was scarce. The African Americans began to move out and many Japanese people returned. (For more information about the history of Little Tokyo, go here.)
On 1st Street between Judge John Aiso Street and Alameda are historic buildings and shops with unique architecture. One of these buildings in Fugetsu-Do, a candy shop that also makes mochi.
We then visited the “Go For Broke” monument. “Go For Broke” was the motto of the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. The team, consisting of nearly all Nisei men, became the most decorated unit in US history for its size and length of service, with more than 18,000 individual awards shared among them.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many Japanese Americans responded with resounding demonstrations of national allegiance. For many Nisei men, they chose to join the Allied fight. More than 30,000 Japanese Americans served in the military. These included volunteers from incarceration centers, where their families remained behind barbed wire fences.
This photograph from the National War Department, shows a few of these soldiers sharing a happy moment.
Our guide brought us to Honda Plaza where this building stood. We learned that Honda Plaza is named for its Issei developer, Bob Honda, and opened in 1981. The art piece is named Sen Bana No Saki, which translates to “Thousand Blossoms.”
The circular images you see in the collage are family crests. The decorative crests date back over 1,000 years when they were used in Japan as emblems for warring aristocratic families. They are still used today as identification for families, businesses, places, community groups, and for special ceremonies. They have also remained in use as a design element and art form.
Our guide, Robert, showed us his family crest which was represented here.
It was such a hot and muggy morning, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we spotted this beautiful hidden gem of a Japanese garden at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center.
It is known as Seiryu-en or “Garden of the Clear Stream”. It is open to the public, and free of charge, all year round. This intimate green space was designed in the Zen tradition of the famous gardens of Kyoto. The garden features a 170’ cascading stream, a wide variety of plants, flowers and trees, handcrafted cedar bridges, a selection of stone lanterns and a hand washing fountain.
We knocked back a few more monuments and other places of interest and completed our tour at the Japanese Village Plaza.
Joseph and I wandered the Japanese shops looking at Godzillas, Yu-Gi-Oh cards, and other items.
After that we headed across the street to have lunch at Daikokuya.
There was a bit of a wait, but it was worth it. This cute couple canoodled while they waited.
I loved the look of the place
and the look of the chef behind the counter.
The pork belly rice bowl was out of this world.
The Daikokuya Ramen lived up to it’s famous reputation.
Entrees were served with miso soup and cole slaw.
Even the green tea was a revelation.
If you go to Little Tokyo, don’t be put off by the line at Daikokuya. It moves quickly and it is a perfect place to digest everything you’ve learned about this historic district in Los Angeles.
But before you say sayonara to Little Tokyo, drive past the longest street name in Los Angeles
named for the Japanese American Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka killed in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. (The city chose to allow the sign to exceed the city’s 16-letter limit including spaces).
Joseph and I headed back to the car, stomachs and minds full of Little Tokyo, but hungry for the sights and sounds of a bigger Tokyo some 5400 miles away.
246 days to go!