Monday, August 13, 2012

Trip to Little Tokyo

I took vacation this week (for reasons I am not permitted to broadcast), and I want to make the most of it! After resting all day yesterday, I decided to have some fun today and make a day trip up to Los Angeles, specifically to a district of downtown L.A. called Little Tokyo. I'd first heard of the area from a one-page article in Sunset magazine (a magazine devoted to the western US), which I later adapted for a Web Design 3 assignment. But today was my first time going there.

The last time I went to L.A. on the train was January 2011 for Anime Los Angeles. That time I took the Amtrak because I did not know any other way to get there. This time though I took the Metrolink, a commuter train line, because it was considerably cheaper ($15 each way as opposed to $27 each way on Amtrak). It turned out also that your Metrolink ticket also gets you free rides on the L.A. Metro and downtown bus lines all day (this is what I was told anyway; I never got a chance to find out for sure as they never checked my ticket on the Metro), which is great because it saved me the $5 I would've spent on a L.A. Metro day pass otherwise.

I admit I was somewhat disappointed by the place; a vibrant cultural enclave Little Tokyo is not. People at the train station where I had to switch trains on the way up (the downside to taking the Metrolink) warned me that there wasn't much culture there, and they were right in a sense. The same can be said of L.A.'s Chinatown (which I found myself in as well because I was given bad directions regarding what Metro line to take and ended up walking through Chinatown for a while before deciding walking to Little Tokyo from there didn't make much sense - they look close on the Metro map but they really aren't). Both are rather spread out areas, covering a couple streets apiece that don't look much different than your average downtown streets, except for the Chinese or Japanese signs. Chinatown was particularly uninteresting; along the main drag (Hill St.) there isn't much except for some restaurants (including one whose facade proudly proclaims it as a shooting location for the movie Rush Hour), tiny shops, a Chinese Methodist church, and a Best Western hotel. Most of the shops are in little alleys off the main street, like Chung King Road. I also found a nice bookstore there (Numing Book Co. - it's located on the edge of the main area a little way past Chung King Road), which has shelves and shelves of books in Chinese, as well as a small selection of books in English and a couple books in French. The prices are great too; I got a book of Chou En-lai's poems (in English) for $3.25.

If you do walk toward Chinatown from where I started (the Civic Center Metro Station, which has the tallest escalator I've ever seen), you do at least get to see Grant Park and the Pioneer Memorial (honoring Mormon pioneers who helped fight for the independence of the area). Also, the Cathedral of the City of the Angels is near the Civic Center station; I heard its bells as I crossed the street from the station. Supposedly the Walt Disney Concert Hall is nearby as well.

As for Little Tokyo, this is situated more in downtown (whereas Chinatown is kinda in the middle of nowhere), mostly around 1st Street (the historic center of Little Tokyo) and 2nd Street. The Metro Gold Line is the quickest way there; it's only one stop south of Union Station, the city's main public transport hub, and two stops south of the Chinatown station (located on N. Spring St). The Dash A bus also serves it. Just make sure you don't miss your stop going southbound, because otherwise you'll find yourself in East L.A., a neighborhood you don't really want to find yourself in (so I've heard). If you go too far north on the Gold Line, you'll end up in Pasadena, so watch that too. The Little Tokyo station also serves the Art District of L.A., by the way, if you want to go to an art museum like MOCA while you're there.

Right across from the Metro is one of Little Tokyo's main landmarks, the gargantuan Japanese-American National Museum. Unfortunately, it was closed today (museums like to be closed on Mondays, I guess; most of the Balboa Park museums are closed on Mondays too) so I didn't get to look around there. Across the street is a Buddhist temple, though it's so integrated into the Western-style architecture you could easily miss it.

Across the street is where the true district begins. If you get lost, pretty purple signs (topped with a fan and the words "Little Tokyo") will direct you to the main landmarks. I relied on these a lot. On the main street there are pretty much just small shops and LOTS of restaurants featuring Japanese food such as udon and sushi. Along this street you can find the anime DVD/manga/CD part of the famous Jungle Collectors' Shop (which at the moment is in three parts; they're going to be combining at the end of August, an occasion that will be marked by a Hatsune Miku-themed event) - whose selection of items is not bad, particularly of Studio Ghibli stuff (they also play anime openings on the TV there; I was delighted to hear/see the "xxxHolic" opening "19sai" play while I was there) - Fugetsu-do Sweet Shop (a long-standing establishment that sells Japanese sweets, including several flavors of mochi), the Visitor Center for the area, and the Koyasan Buddhist Temple (which turns 100 this year; I had trouble finding it without directions as it's not listed on the purple is accessible via an alley just past the Miyako Hotel - look for the obelisk that says "Koyasan Buddhist Temple" on its base). There are also little shops selling various things; I found some nice things at a store here called Bunka-do ("Bunka" means "culture" in Japanese, and true to its name, the shop has a lot of cultural stuff, including books on Japanese culture and on learning the Japanese language. I even saw the new Sailor Moon manga there, and a picture of Haruka and Michiru from one of the original Sailor Moon S DVD covers hung by the stairs leading upstairs).

Little Tokyo has three major shopping areas: Weller Court (near 2nd Street), Japanese Village Plaza (near the entrance to the district), and Little Tokyo Mall (just behind Japanese Village Plaza). Weller Court is home primarily to restaurants (including a coffee place called Demitasse that boasts a sign saying "Friends don't let friends drink Starbucks," which is somewhat ironic as there is a Starbucks on the other side of Weller Court) but does boast a large market, Marukai Market (small grocery store-type "markets" seem to be popular here), a store called Marukai Kawaii (which mostly has Hello Kitty stuff) and a branch of the popular bookstore chain Kinokuniya, which has tons of books, mostly in Japanese, though their selection of English books is quite good too. Their manga selection is quite massive, featuring manga both in English and Japanese (the Japanese manga being arranged into sections by publisher - Kodansha, Shogakukan, etc - which is helpful for non-Japanese-speakers) as well as manga magazines and artbooks. Their kids' section is pretty decent too. Weller Court is also home to a monument honoring Ellison Onizuka, the first NASA astronaut of Japanese descent, who died in the Challenger disaster.

Japanese Village Plaza is like your typical outdoor mall, except mostly with restaurants serving everything from mochi ice cream to shabu-shabu (Japanese hot pot), as well as a small market (like I said, they're popular). It also has a Sanrio store (with a UFO Catcher machine outside) and a couple stores that felt like they were targeted to tourists IMO but which had a lot of interesting things like various Japanese cooking utensils, Hello Kitty stuff (also popular here), and some anime stuff. One of the stores, Maneki Neko, has some nice cultural stuff (including a number of figurines of the famous Japanese "lucky cat" the store is named for).

Little Tokyo Mall is right behind Japanese Village Plaza. It only has a few shops, as well as a fusion restaurant upstairs. Here is where you will find the other two thirds of Jungle Collectors Shop. One of them is right as you come in and boasts nothing but several purikura machines (fancy Japanese photobooths). For $5/person, you can rent cosplay outfits, wigs, and accessories such as headbands to wear while you pose in the photobooths (which cost $10 just by themselves); however, be warned - they only have size medium in the outfits. You might also need some help from the attendant with working the machines as they're in Japanese (translations are provided next to the screen for when you print out your stickers at the end, but I didn't find them very helpful). That being said, the machines are fun and feature many cute backgrounds (at least mine did). You can also add little hearts and stuff to the pics at the end. And even if you're like me and the provided costumes don't fit you, you can still cosplay! I rented a wig and a bow headband and did just fine.

The other third of the Jungle Collectors Shop is mostly figurines and knick-knacks like keychains, cell phone charms, pins, notebooks, etc., with both new and used items on sale. They also seem to be rather paranoid there; I wasn't allowed to hold on to anything I picked up to buy more than a few seconds before some guy came up and offered to hold it for me up front. I'm curious what Jungle will be like when the three separate stores get combined.

Another highlight of Little Tokyo is the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, located on San Pedro Street (near where Little Tokyo meets the Civic Center district). Nothing was going on there when I went there, but this place is also home to the James Irvine Japanese Garden, accessible from the center's basement level. It's a seiryu-en, or Japanese walking garden, and though small is very quiet and peaceful (amazing for being in the middle of downtown L.A.!). I also saw dragonflies there - and I don't think I've ever seen dragonflies in person before! (I tried to get a picture of one, but they were too fast).

In short, I spent a good ~5 hours in this place, which was plenty of time to look around (though if the museum had been open I might not have had as much time to do so). What the place lacks in culture it makes up for in shopping and restaurants; just be careful and don't spend TOO much money (which I ended up doing). Also keep some cash handy; stuff is pretty cheap here (except at Kinokuniya) but pretty much every shop has a $10 or $15 minimum for you to use your credit or debit card. Also get it out on the way; there aren't many ATMs in Little Tokyo, and the ones that are there have steep fees ($3!). Also, if you know some Japanese, use it; many of the shops, especially the smaller ones, are run by Japanese people. They will usually know English, but in one store I thanked the people in Japanese and they seemed delighted). And look into other places to go ( has a good list); the Little Tokyo branch of the L.A. city library is supposed to be great, for instance). Most of all, have fun. And try not to go on a really hot day (like I did; though you may not be able to control this). Oh and also, while you may want to snap a pic of everything you see in a store here, BE CAREFUL - most of the stores here (Kinokuniya included, unfortunately - I really wanted to take pictures in there) have "no photography" policies. You MAY be able to sneak a pic or two though, particularly if you use your iPod or phone, but if you do don't use a flash (which will give you away) and do it in a place where the employees are not as likely to see you. (I did this for one picture I took at Kinokuniya; I took it in the kids' section, which was pretty far from the register). Though it's probably best to just follow the rules and not take any pictures at all.

That's all I can think of to say. Despite my gripes, I did enjoy myself. I also apologize for the less subjective nature of this post - I didn't intend for it to sound like a school report or travel magazine article, but I wasn't sure how else to approach this. Will have pics up soon - both regular camera photos and Instagram ones. At least writing this post gave me something to do on the way home (my Blogger app is usable offline).

Good night!

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Misty said...

You're welcome Gopal!