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Little Tokyo's U-Space: Come for the Coffee, Stay for the Ukulele

Tucked away in a corner of the historic, one-acre, Isamu Noguchi plaza in Little Tokyo, at the Japanese American Cultural Community Center (JACCC), is U-Space, a combination coffee and ukulele shop. The shop, which opened its doors earlier this year in February, was born out of a collaborative effort between Brad Ranola and Cary Hitsman of Anacapa Ukulele in Ventura County, blues-ukulele artist and educator, Jason Arimoto, six-time grammy award-winner, Daniel Ho, and the JACCC.

Within the compact space, dozens of ukuleles hang on the walls and a coffee cart in the shape of an vintage VW Beetle sits in the corner of the store. Ranola is a coffee connoisseur and makes sure that the cart is always filled with quality java. Large glass windows encompass the store front creating a feeling of openness. But the space was not always so welcoming.

"We shocked a lot of people," says Ranola. "This space hasn't been active, it was kind of dormant before we moved in. It was an art gallery and all the windows were dry walled. When there wasn't a short art exhibit it remained vacant or was used as storage.

Just a few months after officially opening U-space is bustling on the weekends, with a diverse group of people taking ukulele lessons, and during the week the shop sees
a steady flow of customers as well.

"It's a pretty diverse crowd," says Arimoto. "There are a lot of seniors that come in because of our proximity to the Tokyo Towers and the Miyako Gardens, which are retirement living facilities. And then the ukulele crowd is again a very diverse group of people. So you have the Hawaiian expats that are coming in. We have people coming in from Silver Lake, and all those more hipster, trendy areas, and also from the Arts District. So you're getting a younger ukulele crowd and also an older ukulele crowd."

The eclectic patrons that U-space attracts is no mistake; in fact Arimoto says that it is exactly what they had hoped for. "The way we have set up this space is all under the idea that we want to represent the JACCC, which is a community place," says Arimoto. "We want U-space to be a vehicle for the community, for the JACCC, so that we can attract new people, a diverse group of people, but also have this place where they can come and hang out."

The ukulele is a traditional Hawaiian instrument, but the connection between the ukulele and Japanese culture is much more tightly knit than one might suspect. "There is a statistic that the largest ukulele market outside Hawaii is Japan," says Leslie A. Ito, the president and CEO of the JACCC. "You know, it makes sense because there is such a shortage of space in Japan and it's a small instrument, it's fun, and uplifting. There are great makers of the ukulele based in Japan."

The large population of Hawaiians with Japanese heritage has helped to solidify the instrument's popularity in Japan. Arimoto, who was born in Hawaii, but is of Japanese heritage, says that there is also a steady flow of Japanese tourists to the islands, due to its location in the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese tourist often bring the instrument home with them after their vacations.

The accessibility offered by the ukulele is what made it the right instrument for U-space. "We like to call the ukulele the great equalizer," Arimoto says. "It's not like the violin, where there is a highbrow thing attached to it. No one looks at a ukulele and says that it looks hard to play or I'm afraid of it. Where you might have that feeling when you look at a guitar because it was six strings, but a ukulele has four strings, it's 20 inches long, not that intimidating."

Arimoto explains that because the ukulele is a less complicated instrument it can and often does inspire all different kinds of people to have a 'kanikapila,' which is the Hawaiian term for jam session.

Ranola, who is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, remembers witnessing the ukulele's synergetic pull a few years ago before opening up his ukulele store in Ventura County.

"I had found out about a ukulele jam session that had been happening for about eight years on Wednesday nights in Ventura at this coffee shop," Ranola remembers. "I kind of peeked my head in and saw a bunch of seniors playing and thought it was really fun, I even sat in at some point."

Leslie A. Ito, CEO of JACCC

Brad Ranola

Later that same day Ranola was at street fair when he noticed something that caught his attention. "I saw this group of high school kids and they were just walking around, there might have been 10 of them, but two of them were playing the ukulele while they were walking," Ranola says. "They weren't bothering anybody, they weren't drawing attention to themselves, they were just playing. And I was just kind of like this is a weird phenomenon that these high school kids were not worried about what people were thinking or trying to draw attention to themselves, but really just enjoying playing an instrument and they can do it while they are doing something else."

That afternoon he called his now business partner, Cary Hitsman with the idea of opening a ukulele shop in Ventura County.

Recently the ukulele has seen quite a bit of a revival outside of senior citizen jam sessions and high school kids stringing a few chords; it's starting to become a staple in some public school districts.

"As a parent of young kids I've started to see the ukulele pop up a lot more in arts education and music classes," Iko says. "So, when I talk about it in the community I say it's like this next generation recorder, but it sounds so much better than a recorder. The schools are using it to teach concepts and music theory to kids in ways that in our generation the recorder was being used. Torrance Unified School District is using it, and in our school district in South Pasadena all the fifth graders are learning the ukulele."

U-space hopes to use the growing popularity of the ukulele and bring its sound to others in the downtown Los Angeles area. "We would like to see it [ukulele] used as a vehicle to bring multiple parts of downtown L.A. and the JACCC together, with the ukulele program at the center of that," Arimoto says.

On June 28 the JACCC and U-space will take their community outreach one step further with the Ukulele Expo, where they will attempt to break the Guiness World Record for the largest ukulele ensemble.

Photos by Danielle Tarasiuk

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