Wedged between skyscrapers and the downtown business district, Little Tokyo is one of the most interesting pieces of the eclectic Los Angeles experience.
Industrial-looking buildings surround Little Tokyo, but some share stereotypical Asian architectural details such as tiled, sloping roofs. Little Tokyo itself is mostly comprised of restaurants, cafes, a few clothing stores, gift shops, gift shops and more gift shops.
To get there, you can cruise down Beverly Boulevard, which turns into First Street as you get downtown. First Street is lined with dingy, vintage brick buildings occupied by hole-in-the-wall gift shops and restaurants. Ironically, there are many Italian and Korean restaurants nearby.
You can start your trip by first stopping at the Little Tokyo Visitor Center, 307 E. First St., for information and maps of the area.
After you have maps in hand, check out the Japanese American National Museum. The historic brick complex at 369 E. First Street occupies the corner of Central Avenue. The museum’s design contrasts with other ultra modern and minimalist buildings across the street.Inside the museum are many different exhibits that represent the history of the Japanese living in America along with other art. General admission is $6, but students with identification get in for $3. Admission is free 5-8 p.m. every Thursday and all day on every third Thursday of the month. For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit their Web site at www.janm.org.
Another cool place to visit is Mitsuwa Yaohan Plaza at 333 S. Alameda St. It’s three stories of practically deserted gift stores, restaurants, a bookstore, an arcade and the Mitsuwa Market. In the gift stores you can find everything Sanrio, from Hello Kitty toothbrushes and stationery to the latest luggage and room decor.
The arcade is noisy and illuminated only by flickering screens and neon signs. It’s pretty small inside, but there are games to occupy everyone. There are guitars, keyboards and turntable games for musicians. There’s a dance game that’s cool. Too intimidating? Try the more traditional two-dimensional racing and shooting video games.
At the Mitsuwa Market, you can find every Japanese good on your grocery list. They sell the stuff that you’d find in a usual grocery store, but in the Japanese version. One cool part for women is the Christian Dior make up counter conveniently located in the market. For more information, call (213) 687-6699 or visit their Web site at www.mitsuwa.com.
After Mitsuwa Plaza, you can find the trendier folk hanging around the Japanese Village Plaza, 350 E. Second St. It’s wedged between San Pedro Street and Central Avenue. The restaurants and cafes here are filled with yuppies, business men and tourists. The gift stores carry mostly Japanese and American items, and Japanese items disguised as American items.
On the plaza, there’s a small Japanese grocery store, bookstore, jeweler, clothing, shoes, sushi bars and buffets. I recommend a scoop of green tea ice cream or red bean ice cream, for the more brave. A delicious scoop in a cone is only $1.25 at an ice cream shop located near the Little Tokyo Mall, 319 E. Second St.
The Little Tokyo Mall is a horrible place to do people watching, considering there are none. But avid discount shoppers can rummage through stores and find obscure Japanese movies in the video store.
For more information about Little Tokyo and Japanese life in Los Angeles, check out the Japanese American Network’s Web site at www.janet.org.