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A Los Angeles Primer: Little Tokyo

Little Tokyo sold me on Los Angeles. My northern Californian childhood introduced the delights of San Francisco's Japantown, still one of my beloved areas, but every time I go there, it looks to have wearily endured yet another wave of exodus and surrendered to yet another degree of decrepitude. This, of course, makes for its own kind of charm; fallen places often seem to me the only ones worth visiting. Little Tokyo, too, feels fallen, and richly so, though with an accent of resilience I no longer sense in its San Franciscan predecessor. Whatever becomes of either of these neighborhoods -- whose residents will always describe them as more vibrant twenty, thirty, forty years ago -- I can't imagine them losing their core usefulness when you need to stock up on canned green tea, buy a genuine futon, burn an hour at the arcade, eat a heaping plateful of hayashi rice, or gaze upon the finest men's style magazines.

Free & Easy, for the record, ranks as the finest men's style magazine, at least for my sensibility and money (when I can bear to part with the price of an imported issue). But Japan, an incubator of unusually robust print and menswear cultures, produces dozens more, all meriting the serious dresser's attention. I read them, and occasionally purchase them, in Little Tokyo's branch of the Japanese bookstore chain Kinokuniya, whose Seattle location absorbed much of my adolescent allowance. In each session at their Free & Easy shelf, I practice my Japanese reading while beholding full-page photos of middle-aged graphic designers and record producers in bespoke suits and handsomely worn brogues, reclining on Eames chairs and vintage road bicycles. But I try not to think about why I have to stare so hard at these expensive foreign magazines in the first place. The city streets around me, alas, suffer from a near total-absence of living, breathing, three-dimensional dandies from whom to learn proper style. Nice try, Mike Davis, but nothing in "City of Quartz" indicts Los Angeles so thoroughly as our population of fifty-year-old men in hoodies.

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I also try not to think about the Kinokuniya in New York. Their new store, my East Coast friends reported when it opened, occupies no fewer than 24,000 square feet, each of which feels just like Japan. They then tell me I really should've seen the old one, in Rockefeller Center. How on Earth to explain the United States' eastern cultural capital, the one with such supposedly strong ties to Europe versus Los Angeles' heightened awareness of Asia, getting with such a massive Kinokuniya, let alone the first American stores from cutting-edge Japanese department store Muji and clothing retailer Uniqlo? "It's a different kind of connection," explained Japanese-American writer Roland Kelts, astute observer of the two countries' relationship, when I interviewed him on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. "On the West Coast, there's a much larger Asian population, and so there's a consciousness of Asia more deeply embedded. But New York is still the iconic American city, especially for Japanese. It's still the place where Japanese tourists feel a curious kinship with their homes, especially if they're from a city like Tokyo or Osaka."

Over a century into its existence, then -- and over the past decade, when the New Otani Hotel became the Kyoto Grand, which became the DoubleTree by Hilton -- how Japanese does Little Tokyo remain? Japanese enough to offer you flavorful, reasonably priced dinner and a few minutes of language practice (Suehiro, an open-until-3:00 a.m. institution of forty years' standing, provides my own homely venue of choice for both), not to mention a glancing exposure to the refined service culture America never developed. Yet I can't help but noticing that a seemingly disproportionate number of the highly skilled, native-Japanese-speaking waitresses with whom I chat have passed a certain age. The same tends to go for their eateries and the buildings in which they operate them. Little Tokyo -- like the city, like the state, like the country, like more or less everywhere -- could use a fresh infusion of Japanese people, especially those who can fill the ever more forlorn gaps in the neighborhood's retail landscape. Spare a thought for the poor Little Tokyo Galleria on 3rd and Alameda, an outsized mall (by downtown standards, anyway), anchored by a Korean grocery store, whose vacant spaces can stay that way for years.

Yet a walk through the Little Tokyo Galleria amounts to much more than an urban decay fetish trip. It might mean a visit to the Kuragami Plant Boutique, a persistent time capsule of a flower shop, or one to the Japan Arcade, perhaps the city's last surviving preserve of competently serviced coin-operated video games. More notably, it usually means a meal at Shojin, which daringly opened on the quiet mall's top floor to reinvent the flavors of Japanese cuisine for the meatless, dairyless vegan diet. The project of a restaurateur from Nagoya, Los Angeles' sister city, Shojin has made a surprising go of it, and its green shoot now reaches all the way to a second location in Culver City. But more sites of Little Tokyo promise grew from the efforts not of Japanese immigrants, and not even of Japanese-Americans, but to entrepreneurs with no apparent connection to the land of Big Tokyo. This goes especially for coffee: recent years have seen the appearance of both Café Demitasse in Weller Court (which also houses Joon Lee's jazz club and art gallery Blue Whale) and Café Dulcé in the blue-roofed Japanese Village Plaza, neither of which insist you drink your cappuccino out of a paper cup.

While I do frequent these slick new spaces (Shojin's restrooms alone repay the cost of a multi-course lunch there), I sometimes wonder if they've come into irreconcilable conflict with my existing conception of Little Tokyo as an endearing shambles. Part of me longs for a seedier time in the neighborhood's history when I might have sat all night at the Atomic Café amongst local punk rockers, flamboyantly Americanized yakuza, and passing-through Lower East Side icons like David Byrne and Debbie Harry. Though I can now get no closer to that experience than examining the Atomic Café's sign, moved whole to the Japanese American National Museum, I like to think that the gritty cultural spirit of the place lingers on, doing its part for the neighborhood's periodic small-scale waves of revitalization. It lets me and everyone else who makes a point of hanging out nearby to feel basically optimistic about the future of the Japanese-Angeleno hybrid experience, whatever forms it may take. Prosper, Little Tokyo. But not too much.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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