July 25, 2024

Of all the things to love about Little Tokyo, downtown L.A.’s hub of Japanese culture, the most remarkable may be that it even exists. Established in the 1880s as a way for issei, or Japanese immigrants, to hold onto their culture in a new land, the neighborhood offered a safe, familiar place for Japanese Americans to work, gather, and build their new lives. Today, that history is reflected in the district’s alluring mix of cultural centers, clothing shops, restaurants, and bars.

But its fate wasn’t always so certain.

“In the 1980s, Little Tokyo was down and out,” says Rick Noguchi, the chief operating officer at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). “No one wanted to go there. There was a lot of crime and homelessness.” Around the end of that decade, things started to turn around. Community members banded together to revitalize the neighborhood, with a focus on preserving the history of its buildings and longtime residents. Slowly, Little Tokyo began to emerge as a destination — a place not just for local families, but tourists, too.

To get a sense of the history embedded in these streets, Noguchi points to the museum itself. One of its buildings, a former Buddhist temple, was used as a storage facility in the 1940s, when residents of Little Tokyo were forced to abandon their homes. The decree, known as Executive Order 9066, resulted in over 120,000 Japanese Americans across the U.S. being taken to detention facilities, where they faced often brutal living conditions. Nowhere was this more acutely felt than in Little Tokyo. Overnight, the character of the neighborhood was irrevocably changed.

Yuri Hasegawa/Courtesy of Discover Los Angeles

To see Little Tokyo today, you’d never guess the trials it has faced. Tourists spill out of cafes, teenagers gather over late-night ice cream, and cultural venues like JANM and East West Players are filling up their calendars for what promises to be a lively year.

“It’s exciting to see so many people here,” says Noguchi.

But L.A., home to one of the largest Japanese populations in the U.S., offers elements of Japanese culture spread throughout multiple neighborhoods. Whether you’re heading to a ryokan on the west side or enjoying a traditional Japanese garden in Pasadena, the city is ripe with options. Below, a few you can’t miss.

Tortoise General Store

Courtesy of Tortoise General Store

If you’ve got shopping on the brain while you’re in L.A., plan on budgeting at least an hour or two at Tortoise General Store. The shop, located on a quiet stretch of Venice Boulevard, is heaven for design lovers: You’ll get hypnotized just browsing the immaculate, hyper-curated shelves.

Founded by husband and wife Taku and Keiko Shinomoto, Tortoise essentially functions as a repository for beautiful, minimalist, and extremely useful homeware items like tenugui, or brightly printed tea towels, plus copper tea canisters, Kimura glass tumblers, and Muku wooden desk clocks, almost all of which are sourced directly from Japan.

The building is also a showroom for Hasami Porcelain, the acclaimed pottery line founded by co-owner Taku in 2012. With their rough, grainy texture and unadorned designs, Hasami mugs and bowls are instantly recognizable. The collection’s name comes from the town of Hasami, in Nagasaki Prefecture, which has a ceramic legacy dating back to the 17th century; the one-of-a-kind pieces are still handmade in the same place over 400 years later.

Kazu Sushi

This off-the-beaten-path restaurant, tucked between a nail salon and pet clinic in a strip mall in Studio City, isn’t flashy. Celebrities don’t come here to get photographed on their way out the door. And you won’t find much in the way of ambience (the bar has just 10 seats). But owner and chef Kazuharu Sogabe’s omakase-style menu (from $110 per person) is arguably one of the best in town.

A typical 14-piece meal comes with the usual — toro, kanpachi, and sweet shrimp — though chef Kazu is also fond of throwing in rarer cuts, like nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch), anago (saltwater eel), and ankimo (monkfish liver). The result is a symphony of flavors, delivered one mouthful at a time — not to mention the added thrill of never quite knowing what’s about to show up on your plate. Be warned: This is no place for sushi beginners. (A disclaimer on the menu states that those looking for spicy mayo or rolls with avocado will be disappointed.) Instead, come here for expert cuts of fish from a master who has been in the game for over 30 years.

Sawtelle Boulevard

Adrian Rudd/Travel + Leisure

Located near Santa Monica, this four-block strip has been a hub for Japanese-owned businesses since the early 1900s, and was even renamed Sawtelle Japantown in 2015. Today, the mix of restaurants has grown to include a wider array of Asian specialties, so in addition to udon and nigiri, you’ll also find a Filipino dessert bar, Taiwanese haute cuisine, and a Sichuan hot pot restaurant.

On the street’s west side, there’s Giant Robot, a novelty shop owned and operated by L.A.’s resident Japanese pop culture expert, Eric Nakamura. In addition to being featured in exhibits at the Japanese American National Museum, Nakamura is something of a curator himself: The long-running shop and its sister gallery, GR2, frequently feature works by Asian American and Pacific Islander artists, as well as all manner of irresistible trinkets, from Tokidoki figurines to notebooks and novelty erasers.

The best thing about Sawtelle? It’s great for people-watching. The neighborhood is just a few miles from UCLA campus, and as a result, it’s a popular hangout for students looking for a place to unwind. On a typical weeknight, you’ll see groups queueing up for fruit tea (boba) at Yi Fang or sitting down to feast at Tsujita, a beloved L.A. ramen institution. There’s even a karaoke bar, if you’re desperate to belt out your favorite top 40 hits.

Nobu Ryokan Malibu

Barbara Kraft/Courtesy of Nobu Ryokan Malibu

The closest you’ll come to sleeping in Japan — without actually flying the 13 hours to get there — is an overnight stay at Nobu Ryokan Malibu. The intimate, exclusive 16-room hotel is designed to look and feel just like a traditional Japanese ryokan, or inn.

Upon arrival, you’ll be welcomed with a steaming pot of green tea and matcha cake. The property has unforgettable views of the Pacific Ocean, but you won’t get blamed for wanting to spend the whole stay in your room, which is fitted with a teak soaking tub (the floors are designed to handle an overflow of water, so be sure to fill it to the top) and custom-made linen yukatas, or robes. As if all that wasn’t enough, there’s original Japanese artwork on the walls and vases with custom ikebana flower arrangements.

Tip: When booking, ask for the Zen Room, a hidden oasis in the property’s rear that comes with a private meditation garden and tatami mats. It offers an idea of what it would be like to live in a Zen Buddhist monastery, if monasteries came with 24-hour room service and 2,000-thread count sheets.

Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden

Courtesy of Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden

One of Pasadena’s most underrated attractions, this masterpiece of a garden dates back to 1935 and is hidden behind a private residence on Arlington Drive. It’s the work of Kinzuchi Fujii, a Japanese landscaper who immigrated to California in 1903.

Fujii was obsessed with the idea of creating a “real, uncompromising Japanese garden in the U.S.” and spared no expense to bring his vision to life. Centering his garden around a large koi pond with a waterfall, he included natural elements like rocks and local shrubbery and even had a teahouse shipped in from Japan, resulting in a spectacular oasis that surely gave his patrons something to boast about.

However, Fujii was unable to witness the completion of his efforts. In 1942, like thousands of other Japanese Americans, he was forced to leave Pasadena and enter an internment camp for the duration of World War II. Today, the faithfully restored garden stands as a testament to his work and offers visitors a chance to contemplate a dark chapter of U.S. history against a backdrop of splendid black pine trees and lilypads.

Japanese Village

Courtesy of American Commercial Equities Malibu

You haven’t gotten to know L.A.’s Japanese heritage without strolling the five-block stretch in downtown known as Little Tokyo. One of just three historic Japantowns remaining in the U.S. (all of them in California), Little Tokyo is not only one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, it also marks the spot where the first community of Japanese immigrants established themselves in the late 1800s. Today, it’s designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Perhaps the best part of Little Tokyo is the way it celebrates the old and the new. On the north side of East 1st Street, you’ll still find legacy restaurants like Daikokuya, Suehiro and Fugetsu-Do, a Japanese sweets shop that has been operating since 1903 (their mochi recipe hasn’t changed in over a century). Around the corner is the Japanese American National Museum, which has focused on telling the history of Japanese Americans since it opened in 1992.

If it’s a taste of modern-day Little Tokyo you’re after, consider starting at Japanese Village Plaza. The pedestrian-friendly zone, though tiny, is like a main artery for the eclectic mix of local families, fashion influencers, and tourists who show up in Little Tokyo every day. Grab a milk tea at Cafe Dulce. Browse Hello Kitty backpacks at Sanrio Japanese Village. Pick up a bento box at Nijiya market. And whatever you do, don’t rush. The plaza is a refreshing break from the blare of city life, and it’s meant to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace.


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