Bronzeville, Little Tokyo Takes Visitors Back to a Unique Era in Los Angeles History

A slim newspaper has been circulating as part of promotions for Visual Communications’ 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF), portions of which will be screened at JANM. Titled Bronzeville News, it mimics some of the humble broadsheets that may have circulated during the Bronzeville years of Little Tokyo, when, in the absence of Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated in remote camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, African Americans moved into the neighborhood and made it their own, nicknaming it after a historic black neighborhood in Chicago.

The newspaper evokes another era at the same time that it announces and serves as the program for Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, a free, two-day LAAPFF event that delves into this brief but fascinating period in Little Tokyo’s history. Over the weekend of April 29–30, visitors will be able to take in an interactive media installation, a 360⁰ virtual reality presentation, and a live jazz performance. Presented by FORM follows FUNCTION and Visual Communications, Bronzeville, Little Tokyo will take place at JANM’s own Historic Building and the Union Center for the Arts courtyard, two historic neighborhood sites.

“Wartime housing in Little Tokyo’s Bronzeville, 1943, Los Angeles, California.,” Densho Encyclopedia http://encyclopedia.densho.org/sources/en-denshopd-i227-00007-1/ (accessed Apr 19 2017).

Bronzeville was a nexus in time that brought together several significant strands of Southern California history. Following the evacuation of persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, Japanese enclaves quickly became ghost towns. Since Asians were legally barred from owning property at that time, this meant that a lot of white landlords found themselves without tenants. At the same time, African Americans from the Deep South started flooding into California to work in the war defense industry, which faced a labor shortage. The vacant buildings in places like Little Tokyo made for convenient housing for the laborers. The neighborhood soon became a hotbed for African American business, culture, and night life.

In addition to many intriguing vintage photographs and advertisements, the Bronzeville News contains a thoughtful essay by artist and project researcher/consultant Kathie Foley-Meyer, in which she considers the significance of Bronzeville in forging Los Angeles into the multicultural metropolis that it is today. Her quotation of a 1945 editorial on integration in California is eerily reminiscent of debates taking place today in the wake of new immigration policies from the current administration. Foley-Meyer runs her own creative project at projectbronzeville.com.

For more details on Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, including a schedule of events, click here or here. To read more about the history of Bronzeville, check out this Densho article or this Discover Nikkei piece. There is also a great archival website devoted to Bronzeville.

Kizuna Inspires and Trains the Next Generation of Japanese Americans

All photos courtesy of Kizuna.

Founded in 2011, Kizuna is a nonprofit organization based in Little Tokyo whose mission is “to build a future for our community through the education, empowerment, and engagement of the next generation.” Through a variety of workshops, projects, and initiatives, Kizuna teaches leadership and community service skills as well as Japanese American values and cultural practices to Nikkei youth of all ages.

At the 2017 Oshogatsu Family Festival, JANM hosted Kizuna’s story time reading and signing of their recently published children’s book, Thank You Very Mochi (available for purchase at the JANM Store). We will also be partnering with them to present our next JANM Free Family Day on Saturday, April 8. The event will celebrate Japanese American history and Kizuna staff will be on hand to lead craft activities, a spam musubi workshop, and story time readings.

This week, we sat down with Kizuna director Craig Ishii via email to find out more about the organization and what it does.

Kizuna celebrates the opening of their office.

JANM: You’ve been going strong now for six years. Please tell us the story of how and why Kizuna was founded.

Craig Ishii: Several of us had been working at different community-based nonprofits for some time—Little Tokyo Service Center, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Japanese American Citizens League, etc. During our tenures with those organizations, it became clear that the community was looking for involvement from the next generation, but there was a general lack of knowledge and practice on how to do this. So in 2011, we brought our heads together and created the organization. We were not experts in this arena, but we had the drive. We went through several names before we found the name “Kizuna.”

When we were first getting off the ground, we had no office and no resources, but we had our networks, a clear vision, and nonprofit building skills. In addition to our years of working in nonprofits, several of us also held master’s degrees in nonprofit management; I really believe that the technical knowledge we acquired in those programs had a huge impact on the success and growth of Kizuna. In our first year, we launched our programming, held our first fundraiser, and seeded the funds to hire our first staff member. Since then, we’ve been able to continuously grow our budget, staff, and programs each year.

JANM: What does the name “Kizuna” mean?

CI: Kizuna doesn’t have a direct English translation. Eiko, the very wise receptionist at JACCC, described it best when she told me that kizuna is the depth of your relationship with someone. So the bond between myself and my parents, that is our kizuna; or the bond between best friends, that’s kizuna. We chose this name for a couple of reasons: we’re hoping to create a deep relationship between our students and the community, but we’re also hoping to build a tightly knit next generation that is connected and networked.

Kizuna staffers Sophie Wang and Michelle Yamashiro help
promote their children’s book, Thank You Very Mochi.

JANM: Tell us about the book, Thank You Very Mochi. What inspired you to get into publishing, and is this the first of more children’s books to come?

CI: Our program manager, Paul Matsushima, held a workshop a couple years back where he had to manage more than 60 kids for a mochitsuki (mochi pounding) workshop. He knew that having 60 kids pound and knead mochi at once would be impossible, so he split them into various activity stations. One of those was a storytelling station that revolved around a family mochitsuki. Afterwards, one of the parents said to him, “Hey, that story is a cute idea, you should turn it into a children’s book.” So Paul, Sophie Wang (Kizuna’s development coordinator), and I co-authored Thank You Very Mochi. It’s been a great way to get our mission out to the community here in Southern California and beyond. I think this book is everyone’s favorite accomplishment to date and yes, we would like to publish more!

JANM: What are some of your other favorite accomplishments?

CI: I’m pretty sure we have the largest network of Japanese American summer camp programs in the nation now. We manage six separate locations working with around 350 elementary to middle school students per year (and that number grows each year). It’s our largest program but also our most creative. It’s my personal favorite because it allows Kizuna to build the culture of the next generation. When we have a student who attends for more than a couple of years, we can impart important understanding and behaviors that will help them be successful and give back to our community as they age.

JANM: It’s amazing that you offer a full range of programs for ages seven through young adulthood. Do your kids tend to come back to take on more advanced programs?

CI: Yes, definitely, there’s a high retention rate. For me, working with kids is the clearest and most direct representation of impermanence. On one hand, you want the kids to grow up and everything that you do is about their growth and development. But then, of course, as they do grow up, they become smarter and wiser, and they really don’t need you as much. Then at that point, they become the teachers, instructors, and mentors. It’s great to watch this, but sometimes it feels like it happens a little too quickly. I’m sure folks in my parents’ generation say the same thing about us!

Join JANM and Kizuna for JANM Free Family Day: Celebrate Japanese American History on Saturday, April 8. Thank You Very Mochi is available for purchase at kizuna-la.org, janmstore.com, and in person at the JANM Store.

Mikado Hotel Preserves a Slice of Little Tokyo History

Guests mingle at the grand re-opening of the Mikado Hotel in Little Tokyo.

On Wednesday night, the Little Tokyo community was invited to a grand re-opening party for the Mikado Hotel, located on First Street in the historic heart of the neighborhood. This was no ordinary re-opening—the Mikado Hotel is a historic piece of architecture, built in 1914, and it has essentially lain dormant since the end of World War II. Capital Foresight finally purchased the building in 2014, and got to work on a restoration that would be faithful to the building’s history while updating it with contemporary touches. The result is quite remarkable.

The building’s façade has been restored to look the way it did in 1932. Visitors must first walk down a long corridor to reach the stairs and elevator at the back of the building; the corridor is decorated with a collage work and text panels recounting the history of Little Tokyo. The second and third floors are where the guest rooms, now called “micro-suites,” are located. On the second floor is a beautiful new open-air courtyard; the builders created this space by reducing the sizes of the individual rooms. In the past, the rooms were larger, but the space between them was practically nonexistent. The micro-suites continue on the third floor.

A peek inside one of the Mikado Hotel’s new micro-suites.

The suites are indeed microscopic—each one is about the size of a small bedroom. However, care has been taken to furnish them with all the necessary conveniences, including a kitchenette, full private bathroom (the original hotel had shared bathrooms), and storage cupboards. The style is decidedly hip and modern. A total of 42 suites will be available to rent starting in a few weeks, with leases that can run from one day up to one year. The price range is expected to be $1,160 to $1,500 per month.

Also new and hip is a rooftop lounge, featuring two comfortable seating areas. Guests can look down on the courtyard and balconies from here. The original hotel was enclosed, so the open-air effect is a welcome new addition, adding vibrancy to a small space.

The Mikado’s ground-floor corridor features a long collage capturing the history of Little Tokyo.
The collage contains a mix of images from different periods in the neighborhood’s history.

The building was designed as a hotel by the California architect Alfred F. Priest. It is said to be typical of the commercial architecture that populated American main streets of the early 20th century, with its glazed white brick entrance and buff brick upper stories. Prior to World War II, it was known as the Mikado Hotel. While the Japanese American community was incarcerated, Little Tokyo became an African American enclave known as Bronzeville, and the Mikado morphed into the Shreveport Hotel, featuring a well-known soul food restaurant.

The ribbon cutting ceremony, viewed from the Mikado’s rooftop lounge.

Gentrification is a contentious subject throughout Los Angeles, and Little Tokyo has not been immune to its effects. Critics bemoan the appearance of soulless condominiums, constructed quickly in the interest of profits, with no regard for the area’s history. A project like the Mikado Hotel seems to strike the right balance, respecting the lineage of the property while making it appealing to new audiences.

Comedy InvAsian Serves Up Live APIA Talent

Promotional poster for Atsuko Okatsuka’s performance on February 11 at JANM.
Courtesy of Comedy InvAsian.

The 2017 Oscar nominations came out this week, and much was made about how diverse the nominees were. Out of the 20 acting nominees, seven are people of color; six of African descent and one of Indian descent. While this is encouraging, it is clear that much work still needs to be done to promote the visibility of Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) talent. As this blog has argued in the past, APIA talent is not in short supply, but opportunities for them often seem to be.

This February, JANM will host live tapings of a new series aimed at providing a platform for exciting APIA comedic talent. Comedy InvAsian presents six APIA actors and comedians doing one-hour standup sets in front of a live audience. Each set will be professionally filmed for later digital television broadcast.

The series will kick off on Friday evening, February 10, at 9 p.m. with a set from Paul “PK” Kim, a regular at Hollywood’s Laugh Factory and founder of the APIA networking group Kollaboration. It will end on Sunday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m. with a performance by Amy Hill, a longtime film and television actress known for her roles on 50 First Dates, Seinfeld, All-American Girl, King of the Hill, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Amazon Studio’s Just Add Magic, among many other credits. For a complete schedule, with links to purchase tickets, visit this page.

Comedy InvAsian was founded by writers/directors Quentin Lee and Koji Steven Sakai (the latter was also formerly JANM’s Vice President of Programs). As the two state on their website: “In our filmmaking career, we have met and become friends with so many talented comedians of color, from producing Dwayne Perkins in Take Note to directing Randall Park in The People I’ve Slept With to working with Paul Kim in the Comedy Ninja Film Festival to directing Amy Hill in White Frog and The Unbidden. Comedy InvAsian will celebrate the talent and comedy of a group of select and diverse Asian American comedians which should prove to be just the tip of the iceberg.”

The two already have a distributor, Viva Pictures, and are vying to get on a popular digital platform like Amazon, Hulu, or Netflix. The latter recently produced Ali Wong: Baby Cobra, which became an enormous hit for the longtime comedy writer and standup artist. Lee and Sakai hope that Comedy InvAsian will also become a hit, so that they can continue to spotlight the many great APIA comedians that they know. Come support them by attending a live taping at JANM in February!

JANM Hosts “Common Ground Conversations” Beginning This Week

The recent election has brought many social and political issues to the forefront of American consciousness. Stoked by sensationalistic news coverage, debates and statements have often been heated and not always productive. To counteract this phenomenon, we at the Japanese American National Museum thought we would try a different tactic. Thus, to begin this new year, we invite you to join us in connecting with other museum visitors in a search for “common ground.”

Beginning on January 12, JANM will present a four-week series of public conversations taking place in the galleries of our core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. Elements of the exhibition, which chronicles 130 years of Japanese American history through hundreds of objects, documents, and photographs, will serve as jumping-off points to start each week’s conversation. Sessions will take place on consecutive Thursday evenings from 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., and each one will focus on a different topic. Staff members from the museum’s education department will lead and facilitate the discussions.

Following are the topics for each conversation:

January 12: Compassion
January 19: Transparency
January 26: Speaking out
February 2: Solidarity

Our hope is that Common Ground Conversations will generate meaningful dialogue centered on each week’s topic, using Japanese American history to delve into contemporary issues and current concerns. No tickets or RSVPs are required. Common Ground Conversations coincide with JANM’s free admission on Thursdays starting at 5 p.m.

We hope you’ll join us!

Kagami Mochi Brings Good Luck, Health, and Prosperity in the New Year

Simple kagami mochi decorate this altar in Japan.
Photo by Tamaki Sono via Flickr Creative Commons.

A new year is here, and this Sunday, JANM will be celebrating Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year) along with the rest of Little Tokyo. Our free Oshogatsu Family Festival will welcome everyone with Year of the Rooster-themed activities, crafts, and performances.

Oshogatsu is widely considered the most important holiday in Japan, and there are many time-honored traditions that go with it. We’ve explored a few of those traditions on this blog: mochitsuki, Daruma dolls, and osechi-ryori. Today, in anticipation of Sunday’s festival, we will look at kagami mochi, a traditional Japanese New Year decoration. Among the many exciting things we have planned is a craft activity in which participants will be able to construct and take home their own replica of a kagami mochi.

Kagami mochi basically consists of a large round rice cake (mochi) topped with another, slightly smaller rice cake, which is then topped with a small bitter orange (daidai). The two rice cakes symbolize the year that just passed along with the year that is to come, while daidai is a homonym for the phrase “generation to generation.” Thus, the arrangement celebrates long life, the bonds of family, and the continuity of generations.

Hisako Hibi, New Year’s Mochi, 1943. Hisako Hibi Collection,
Japanese American National Museum.

An additional meaning harkens back to an ancient Japanese myth. The word kagami means mirror, and the round shape of the rice cakes is said to resemble the mirror of the sun goddess Amaterasu. According to legend, the earth went dark when Amaterasu retreated from the world and hid in a cave. She was eventually drawn out with a mirror, restoring light to the world. Thus, kagami mochi also symbolizes the renewal of light and energy that occurs at the start of a new year.

Each family decorates kagami mochi in their own way; variations include a sheet of kelp to symbolize pleasure and joy. It is recommended that several kagami mochi are placed in locations throughout the house, in order to please the various Shinto gods that are believed to dwell there.

An especially elaborate kagami mochi arrangement, made in Peru. Photo by the Japanese Peruvian Association (APJ) via DiscoverNikkei.org.

Kagami mochi are set out around the end of the year, and remain on display until kagami biraki day (kagami breaking day, or “the opening of the mirror”), which usually takes place on or around January 11. On that day, the kagami mochi are broken into pieces with a hammer—never cut, as that would symbolically sever family ties—and cooked and eaten, often as part of a traditional soup called ozoni. This is considered the first important Shinto ritual of the year.

Come celebrate with us on Sunday, January 8, and increase your good fortune for 2017!

To learn more about kagami mochi and other Japanese New Year traditions, we recommend the following articles on our Discover Nikkei site: “Mochi Making Then and Now”; “Oshogatsu Traditions in the United States”; “Mochi Food of the Kami”; and “Happy New Year! Reminiscing about Oshogatsu with Mochi”.

Shop Handmade Arts and Crafts to Benefit JANM’s Education Programs

PrintThis Sunday, October 2, is the Eighth Annual Kokoro Craft Boutique, organized by JANM’s corps of volunteers. The boutique has become a staple of the community over the years, with many considering it the first stop on their holiday shopping journey. Dozens of vendors will be on hand to sell unique jewelry, kimono fabric fashions, Giant Robot merchandise, handbags, ceramics, origami and glass art, dog fashions, and more. A taiko performance by Yuujou Daiko will take place at 1 p.m., and all proceeds will benefit JANM’s education programs.

To learn more about the boutique and its origins, we sat down with Irene Nakagawa, one of the volunteers in charge of organizing the event.

JANM: How did Kokoro Craft Boutique come into being?

Irene Nakagawa: When Ernie Doizaki was Chair of JANM’s Board of Trustees, he approached Janet Maloney, who was chair of the Volunteer Leadership Council at the time, and asked, what can the volunteers do to help bring money into the museum? Janet had had experience organizing boutiques at her son’s high school, so she suggested doing a boutique for JANM. And Ernie said, well go for it! So then we asked all the volunteers who are shoppers to go out and visit different boutiques and get ideas and bring back information about the vendors. We also solicited advice from a few friends with experience running boutiques, like Carol Yuki, whose husband Tom is a current member of the Board of Trustees.

So that’s how we got started and over the last eight years, it has just grown. As of this year we have 55 vendors and a waiting list! Word spreads—friends have friends who can do arts and crafts. We also have people that are second generation now, as mothers have turned duties over to their daughters. The first year, we were mainly in Aratani Central Hall. This year we’re filling up Central Hall, Nerio Education Center, the Kagawa Lobby, the Weingart Foundation Garden Foyer, and the Inahara Gallery Foyer on the second floor.

Jewelry by Daliano Designs, on display at the 2015 Kokoro Craft Boutique. Daliano will be returning to this year's event.
Jewelry by Daliano Designs, on display at the 2015 Kokoro Craft Boutique.
Daliano will be returning to this year’s event.

 

JANM: How do you select the vendors?

IN: We want to get as many vendors as we can, just to showcase all the different arts and crafts that are out there, but everything has to be hand-made. It can’t be anything you can buy commercially.

JANM: Why did you choose to benefit JANM’s education program?

IN: Well, we’re all volunteers and we figured that was our goal—to educate the public. Every year at the Gala Dinner, JANM does a Bid for Education, started by the late Senator Daniel Inouye, a great friend to the museum. We thought, this is a way to supplement that effort, and give more schoolchildren a chance to come to the museum. To date, I think we’ve raised about $85,000 total for the museum. Every year the number goes up!

Happy Shirts display at the 2015 boutique. They will also be participating in this year's event.
Happy Shirts display at the 2015 boutique.
They will also be participating in this year’s event.

 

JANM: What is the arrangement with the vendors?

IN: After they rent their table spaces, they give 15% of their sales proceeds to the museum, plus they have to donate one item for the raffle, which brings in even more funding.

JANM: Can you give us some highlights of the cool items that will be available for purchase this year?

IN: Oh, everything is cool! But as far as highlights—this year we have Janis Kato, a younger fashion designer who is popular among the Sansei; Michele Yamaguma, who does unique Asian collages; Kathy Yoshihara, who does interesting pottery pieces that incorporate gourds; Adrienne Lee, a former JANM staffer, who makes purses; Jamie Totsubo, who makes dog collars and dog sweaters; Cynthia Ishii, who makes handbags out of beautiful Asian fabrics; and some excellent jewelry makers. These are just a few examples that I’m pulling off the top of my head.

We will also have great food vendors, like Marimix, who makes delicious cookies and rice cracker snack mixes; and Sheri Miyamoto, who will donate 100% of the proceeds from her baked goods in honor of her parents, who were major donors to JANM. Our food truck this year is Slammin’ Sliders, who is coming out from San Gabriel Valley.

We will also have Yuujou Daiko performing taiko on the plaza—one of their members is also a volunteer here.

Kokoro Craft Boutique, 2014
Kokoro Craft Boutique, 2014

 

JANM: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

IN: Be sure to tell everyone we have air conditioning! And that by coming out to support us, you support the museum.

Kokoro Craft Boutique takes place this Sunday, October 2, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission to the boutique is free; admission to JANM is “Pay What You Wish.” Make a boutique purchase of $10 or more and receive a 10% discount at participating Little Tokyo restaurants. For more information, email kokorocraft@gmail.com. Presented by Friends of the Museum.

A JANM Intern’s Meditation on Changing Little Tokyo

JANM’s three 2016 Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Interns worked hard at the museum this past summer, taking on a variety of responsibilities and gaining invaluable experience in exhibitions, design production, and media arts. They also made time in their packed schedules to contribute to this blog—Alyssa Melville, exhibitions intern, wrote an introduction to the traditional Samoan ‘ava ceremony, while Michael Chang, design production intern, interviewed the Korean American rapper Dumbfoundead.

Minjae Kang, media arts intern, was intrigued by the major construction work currently taking place in Little Tokyo, as the neighborhood gets ready to welcome a new Metro Regional Connector station, projected to open in 2020. He decided to create a short, impressionistic film that chronicles the work. The exercise was also an opportunity for him to practice some new skills. Following is his statement:

During my first week as an intern, I made this video of the ongoing construction of the Metro Regional Connector Project in Little Tokyo. The laborious but enjoyable process definitely helped me to sharpen my technical skills.

First, I had to request permission from the workers to enter restricted areas, which was granted. Then I shot my footage with a Canon 5D Mark III. I did the editing with Final Cut Pro X, and the grading with DaVinci Resolve. I always edited with Premiere in the past, but I learned more tools and techniques in Final Cut. I also learned about several free music sites, such as SoundCloud, Free Music Archive, and ccMixter.

I’ve had a lot of fun with this project. I was able to really explore Little Tokyo and discover various places to eat and hang out. I look forward to the new station providing convenient transportation options for everyone, so that I can bring my family and friends to Little Tokyo.

 

Minjae Kang majors in film and video at California Institute of the Arts.

Diary of a Nisei Week Princess, Part 7: Endings and Beginnings

Japan Night at Dodger Stadium, July 26, 2016.
Japan Night at Dodger Stadium, July 26, 2016.

 

It’s hard to believe that my year as a Nisei Week Princess is coming to an end. It seems like just yesterday that the seven of us were on stage at the 2015 Opening Ceremony, saying our introductions for the first time. It’s been an amazing year to say the least—from the trips to Japan, Hawai‘i, and San Francisco, to attending numerous community events. I’m lucky to have met so many people who truly care about the community and inspire me to continue giving back and sharing the Japanese American story.

In my speech from Coronation last year, I discussed how my birth mother named me Sora, which means “sky” in Japanese. The sky is something that connects everyone in this world, so giving me that name meant that she would always be connected to me. One of my greatest takeaways from my year as a Nisei Week Princess were all the connections I made with people from Little Tokyo and around the world.

Six members of the 2015 Nisei Week Court join hands with Terry Hara, past president of the Nisei Week Foundation, and his wife Gayle. The matching watches were a gift to the court from the couple.
Six members of the 2015 Nisei Week Court join hands with Terry Hara, past president of the Nisei Week Foundation, and his wife Gayle. The matching watches were a gift to the court from the couple.

 

I’m grateful for my six new sisters—Sara, Veronica, Karen, Michelle, Kelsey, and Tamara—who I’ve gotten to know inside and out. Through thick and thin, I know I can count on each of them. The seven of us all possess unique qualities and strengths, which makes us an unstoppable team when we work together. I can’t thank them enough for their friendship and love.

Sara was our fearless and humble leader, setting the bar high for future Nisei Week Queens and showing us what it takes be a great leader. Veronica did everything with a smile, stepping up when needed with grace and confidence. Karen looked out for each of us—we could always count on her to be there when we needed her. Michelle made us look good all year—whether through her graphic design or people-to-people interactions, she was a great representation of our court. Kelsey always kept us laughing and her love and dedication to the community outside of Nisei Week was beautiful to see. And Tam’s positive energy, her thoughtfulness and creativity, were always appreciated, especially during tough times.

Camryn delivers a speech at JANM as part of a ceremony for new US citizens.
Camryn delivers a speech at JANM as part of a ceremony for new US citizens.

 

I was also able to meet and listen to countless leaders in the Japanese and Japanese American communities through the Nisei Week Foundation, our sister organizations, the festival hospitality committees, and other helpful organizations. I learned so much from them, and look forward to learning more.

My year as a member of the court gave me more than I could imagine. I gained many new skills that I will carry for the rest of my life. Before starting this journey, I hated public speaking and would get extremely nervous before speaking in front of a large crowd. Now, I can confidently give speeches. This same confidence is also reflected in one-on-one conversations I have with community members and business leaders.

1955 Nisei Week Queen Stella Nakadate departs for Hawaii from LAX. Photo by Toyo Miyatake Studio. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of the Alan Miyatake Family.
1955 Nisei Week Queen Stella Nakadate departs for Hawaii from LAX. Photo by Toyo Miyatake Studio. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of the Alan Miyatake Family.

My hope for the soon-to-be 2016 Nisei Week Queen and Court is that they will cherish the experiences and connections they will make in the next year. They have many opportunities ahead of them to carry on the Nisei Week Foundation’s legacy, and to nurture the many relationships that have been established since the first festival was held in 1934. I have faith that each of these women will represent the community well in the next year. If I had to give them one piece of advice though, it would be to always keep red lipstick and a spare pack of bobby pins in their crown box.

I will miss seeing my court every week and constantly having a full schedule, but I look forward to attending many of the events we went to in the last year for years to come. I don’t know what’s in store for me next, but I know my experience as a Nisei Week Princess helped me to become a stronger and more confident individual.

The 2016 Nisei Week Japanese Festival kicks into high gear this weekend. On Saturday evening, August 13, a new queen will be crowned at the Coronation Ball. Then on Sunday afternoon, August 14, Little Tokyo welcomes the public to its Grand Parade. The festival will end on Sunday, August 21, with a community Ondo Dance. For more information including complete event schedules, visit niseiweek.org.

JANM will be joining the fun on Saturday, August 13, with our annual Natsumatsuri Family Festival, held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. This popular event offers all kinds of fun for the whole family, including musical performances, a taiko workshop, crafts for the kids, temporary tattoos, free food samples, and more. Make a day of it in Little Tokyo!

A Vegetarian’s Guide to Dining in Little Tokyo: Continuing the Search

JANM’s Education and Public Programs Assistant, Sylvia Lopez, is vegan. In February, she launched an occasional column to explore vegan and vegetarian dining options in Little Tokyo. Her adventures continue this week as she shares more of her animal-friendly food finds.

Over the last few months, I paid visits to three Japanese American restaurants. There were hits and misses, but overall, I feel that the vegetarian scene here in Little Tokyo really is showing some growth. Read on for my thoughts on an older establishment offering up more options for vegetarians and two newer ones serving up hearty, plant-based meals to satisfy the stomach.

Picture of my bowl from Snociety, taken mid-meal. I was so hungry that I dug in before photographing it!
Picture of my bowl from Snociety, taken mid-meal.
I was so hungry that I dug in before photographing it!

 

Snociety Urban Eatery
330 E. 2nd Street, Suite C
Near the JACCC Plaza

Let’s start with Snociety, a spot that specializes in poke bowls. I know, I know—“What is a vegan doing at a seafood place?” Hear me out though—this place turns out to have the most veggie options of any restaurant I’ve encountered near JANM. The ingredients are fresh and there are a lot of toppings and signature flavors to choose from.

I opted for the tofu bowl with brown rice and aloha sauce, and sweet ginger, jalapeno, seaweed, and edamame for my toppings. The great thing is that I can go back multiple times and still have lots of different topping and sauce combinations to choose from, so the experience will be different each time.

The only thing to be aware of is that the tofu option is priced the same as the fresh fish options. So it’s $13 for a vegan bowl, which might feel expensive to some customers.

The tofu salad at Kouraku.
The tofu salad at Kouraku.

 

Kouraku Japanese Restaurant
314 E. 2nd Street

A few of my co-workers frequent Kouraku, which is a much older establishment. Recently, one of them tipped me off that they had a new “Vegan Menu.” Of course, I had to check it out for myself.

As I was getting ready to order, however, I noticed that all of the “vegan” items featured ramen noodles. I asked the waiter what the noodles were made from since traditional ramen noodles contain egg. He said they did in fact contain egg. I told him they should change their menu to read “vegetarian” instead of “vegan,” as “vegan” refers to dishes that contain absolutely no animal-derived products.

While I understand that some people are still unfamiliar with the distinction between vegan and vegetarian, this innocent inaccuracy could pose a problem for a customer with an allergy, so I do hope they change the menu soon.

I then perused the rest of the menu and found two things I could order that were actually vegan: tofu salad or umeboshi onigiri (rice balls with pickled plum). As umeboshi is a bit too tart for my liking, I opted for the salad. I was hoping for more though!

I still want to commend Kouraku on trying to expand their offerings for vegetarians. I encourage any vegetarian to try it out some time as the restaurant offers a lot of different Japanese dishes and could be a good spot to go with a group of friends with various tastes and preferences. Plus, it’s open late!

The vegetarian ramen at My Ramen Bar. All photos by Sylvia Lopez.
The vegetarian ramen at My Ramen Bar.
All photos by Sylvia Lopez.
My Ramen Bar (formerly Manichi Ramen)
321¼ E. 1st Street

My Ramen Bar only offers one vegetarian meal on their menu, but man, did they get that item right! The vegetarian ramen (which turns out to be vegan when you don’t add an egg) has quickly become my favorite comfort food meal after a long day of work.

This hearty bowl of ramen costs $12 and is served in a creamy vegan-friendly soup that is savory with the right amount of saltiness. The noodles are made from spinach and have a slight green color to them, with a texture that is perfectly chewy. Topping off the bowl are crisp bean sprouts, green onions, and woodear mushrooms. The mushrooms add a unique texture to the dish, as they are slightly rubbery and pork-like—I did a double take the first time I ordered it!

My Ramen Bar was originally called Manichi Ramen. They recently transitioned to the new brand because they feel the name is easier to remember. I hope they keep this vegetarian ramen on their menu, because it’s one of my favorites!

You can take a real-life vegetarian tour of Little Tokyo on Sunday, August 7, when our intrepid volunteer Roxane Lewis leads Edible Adventures: Vegetarian Little Tokyo. Purchase your tickets here.