Little Tokyo / Occidental Weekly

[Oxy Weekly] Riding the Gold Line: Guide to Little Tokyo

Companion piece to An Oxy Student’s Guide to the Metro Gold Line Extension.”

*Unpublished

By Daina Beth Solomon

February 27, 2010

For students who want the perfect one stop destination via the Gold Line, Little Tokyo is for you.  You could spend days and days discovering the wonders of this Japanese neighborhood.  Food, shopping, culture and more is all here…and within walking distance!

Eating, Eating and, Did We Say, Eating?

Fans of Calbi BBQ say this food truck cooks up better Korean-Mexican fusion than Kogi and without the lines.  Most evenings and weekends the scent of its kimchi quesadillas wafts over to the Metro Station from its Central Ave and 2nd St. parking spot. But be warned! On Friday afternoons, a block away on Alameda between 2nd and 3rd, you may find the Alameda/Traction Truck Lot where gourmet food trucks serve not only Asian-Mexican, but also Peruvian-Japanese, Bombay frankies and architecturally-shaped ice cream sandwiches. If you prefer eating under a roof head across the street to the Honda Plaza on 2nd and Central, where Hawaiian, Vietnamese, Japanese pub, steakhouse, sushi and shabu-shabu restaurants will beckon, as well as a French bakery/café.  Have you tried Japanese-Mexican fusion yet? Walk a block north on 1st Street toL.A. Chicken where you may find Mayor Villaraigosa who’s crossed over from City Hall for lunch. Surely you’re familiar with Spitz: Home of the Doner Kebab, serving up the same Mediterranean sandwiches as the Eagle Rock location but in a glammed-up décor at 371 E 2nd St. The Oxy grads behind Spitz cater to a college-age crowd who regularly spill out to the patio and Sangria pitchers assure that it’s always happy hour.  A recent USC grad is behind the exotic sausage emporium Wurstküche (“vurst-kookah”), at 800 E. 3rd St in the Arts District. Students, downtown workers, beer drinkers and foodies of all stripes line up for grilled sausage sandwiches served with light-as-air Belgian fries and imported beers. Wurstküche is open late – until midnight – but other Little Tokyo and Arts District locales are open as late as 1:30, 2 or 3 am.  You also haveFrozen Yogurt options. Hand-pick your yogurt and toppings at Yogurtland, steps from the station on Central.  Enjoy the people-watching from Céfiore at Japanese Village Plaza off of 2nd St.  Everyone’s classic favorite – Pinkberry is just across the street on 2nd St.  You can also visit Cherry on Top in theLittle Tokyo Marketplace on 3rd and Alameda, also home to the ultimate in cream puffs, Beard Papa.“Freshness” takes on a new meaning as you watch cream injected into a puff just for you.

Art galore

Amazingly, Little Tokyo has more than just food. The Japanese American Natural Museum at 369 E. First St. is gorgeous and you don’t have to be Japanese to appreciate exhibits such as the recent one featuring Giant Robot. There’s also a terrific gift shop and lovely tea room.  A few steps away on Central Ave. is the MOCA Geffen Contemporary Art Museum. Designed by Los Angeles “starchitect” Frank Gehry, the museum’s exterior is as intriguing as it’s exhibitions of artists like Murakami.  Adjacent to MOCA is the Go for BrokeMonument commemorating the many Japanese Americans who served in the United States Army during World War II.  In the plaza at the Japan American Community and Cultural Center at 244 S. San Pedro St. you can see “To the Issei,” a rock sculpture by the renowned Isamu Noguchi.  In the same plaza, a lonegrapefruit tree dates back to a time when the area was a citrus orchard.  But you can still find flora at theGarden of the Clear Stream, an intricate, traditional Japanese garden adjacent to the plaza.  Located in a busy area but set away from the street, it is one of LA’s most placid and lovely locations.  The plaza is also home to the Japan America Theater with its diverse performance schedule including sushi competitions, kabuki theater, taiko drumming, Asian films and more.  A few blocks away, you can find another secret garden atop the Kyoto Grand Hotel.  Another of the city’s most tranquil locations, this one features a dazzling view of the L.A. skyline.  Step out from the hotel to adjacent Weller Court at 123 Astronaut E S Onizuka St. where the walls are covered with stunning graphics by Tokyo-based pop artist Heisuke Kitazawa. True to its name, the Arts District is home to many artist lofts, but its visible art features are the unusual murals and graffiti art that you can see from the street.  But don’t miss a peek into the Southern California School of Architecture at 960 E. 3rd St. The school has a gallery open to the public but some of the most impressive work, by students, line the hallways of a long and narrow former freight depot.

Don’t leave without your “I ❤ Little Tokyo” shirt

Little Tokyo is a mecca for those enchanted by unusual, hip and random products and want to experience the joys of shopping in Japan.  Sure, there’s Sanrio, countless “beckoning cat” figures and kitschy souvenir shops. Still, most shoppers prowling the three malls (Weller CourtJapanese Village Plaza and Little Tokyo Marketplace) and adjacent streets will return to Oxy with bags of gadgets, books, Tokyo chic-ware, shoes, groceries, pastries, candy and more, all meticulously wrapped in vibrant Japanese-style packaging.  Popkillerat 343 E. 2nd St. puts nearby American Apparel to shame. This funky, Japanese t-shirt and accessories shop has weird and cool stuff for everyone.  Across the street at 326 E. 2nd St is Rafu Bussan, listed by Los Angeles Magazine as one of LA’s Best Stores both for the variety of its imported items and inexpensive prices.  You might leave with a Jubako stacking box for storing food or jewelry, an origami craft set, peanut rice candy or a glass sake pitcher with two cups. Kinokuniya Bookstore will steal your hearts and wallets with its to-die-for cute stationary and also an impressive selection of art and design books.

Something Completely Different

Then, there’s Skid Row. Students seeking a better understanding of LA’s homeless might walk two blocks west from the Metro Station to San Pedro St. or one block further to Los Angeles St. and then head south.  Of course, it’s not an actual “row,” but a grouping of blocks surrounding various missions and homeless services.  The area also includes the Flower and Toy Districts, as well as rows of historic Single Room Occupancy dwellings and hotels, still proclaiming their names in exquisite neon.  There are also many shops that do not sell flowers or toys at all, but a vast range of cheap products.  Although the homeless individuals you will encounter – some struggling with mental illness and drug addiction – may be unpredictable, it’s a relatively safe walk owing to the ongoing street bustle and LAPD officers monitoring the area in cars, bikes and horseback.

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