A Vegetarian’s Guide to Dining in Little Tokyo: The Scavenger Hunt Begins

Tofu Donburi from Teishokuya of Tokyo (TOT). All photos by Sylvia Lopez.
Tofu Donburi from Teishokuya of Tokyo (T.O.T.). All photos by Sylvia Lopez.

 

Working in Little Tokyo comes with plenty of perks, one being that it’s home to lots and lots of restaurants. As a vegetarian (vegan for the most part) however, I don’t get to eat at many of these places, since they tend to focus on classic Japanese dishes such as sushi and teriyaki. I have to be more aware of what I’m ordering, and so something as simple as lunch can turn into a scavenger hunt of sorts.

Luckily, once I did some exploring, I found there’s plenty to eat around here for those of us who are trying to follow an animal-friendly diet. Here are just a few of the places I’ve frequented lately.

Teishokuya of Tokyo (T.O.T.)
345 E. 2nd Street

T.O.T. does offer a good number of vegetarian options on their wide-ranging menu, so it’s a great Japanese restaurant for vegetarians and omnivores to enjoy together. I always end up ordering the same thing though, because it’s that good!

The Tofu Donburi is a hearty bowl of rice topped with tofu fried in a rice-flour based batter and seasoned with a savory and very mildly spicy sauce. A generous helping of sliced green onions adds a crisp and refreshing element to the dish. This dish is a great choice for vegans too. Pro tip: ask your server to leave out the complimentary miso soup, which is made with fish.

Café Dulce's Peanut Kale Salad.
Café Dulce’s Peanut Kale Salad.

 

Café Dulce
134 Japanese Village Plaza Mall

Café Dulce is the hip coffee place where many JANM staffers like to get fueled up. They offer a number of delicious pastries, sandwiches, and salads, with several vegetarian options. My favorite is the peanut kale salad. This is a light and fresh yet surprisingly filling green salad, with a hint of spice thanks to the inclusion of diced serrano peppers! Kale can be a tricky vegetable to work with raw, but Café Dulce dresses it just right; their peanut sauce tenderizes the kale so the texture isn’t tough at all. Pro tip: to make it vegan, ask them to hold the Parmigiano cheese.

A Falafel Street Cart Doner from Spitz.
A Falafel Street Cart Doner from Spitz.

 

Spitz
371 E. 2nd Street

I didn’t pay much attention to Turkish street food specialists Spitz at first, since they describe themselves as the “home of the doner kebab.” My bad for assuming kebab always has to mean meat! Now that I’ve familiarized myself with their menu, I know better and can order plenty. They even state that anything on their menu can be made vegan or vegetarian.

My favorite thing to grab from Spitz is the Falafel Street Cart Doner. Is it weird to say it’s “meaty?” Because it is! The vegetables are fresh and have loads of flavor. When you order it vegan, they bring you a side of hummus to dip it in. I normally don’t like falafel, but these are cooked nicely—lightly fried and not too heavy. Pro tip: vegans (and others) should try their crispy garbanzos, an addicting alternative to standard French fries.

Nijiya Market's handy and reliable inari sushi to go.
Nijiya Market’s handy and reliable inari sushi to go.

 

Nijiya Market
124 Japanese Village Plaza Mall

Let’s say you’re in more of a rush, or tightening your wallet a bit. No problem—Nijiya Market is close by and there are plenty of quick bites for a vegetarian or vegan at this Japanese convenience store. Just make sure you read the labels! Many items that may seem vegetarian contain things like bonito or fish broth. It’s those hidden surprises that keep us vegetarians on our toes.

While Nijiya carries lots of goodies like mochi, rice crackers, seasoned seaweed, sesame balls, and other things for munching on, one of my favorite items to pick up is the inari sushi, found in the pre-packaged foods aisle. Inari sushi is very simple, just fried tofu pockets stuffed with seasoned rice, but it hits the spot when you need a quick, tasty snack. This, and the kombu (seasoned kelp) onigiri are longtime favorites of mine, having grown up near a Nijiya. It’s nice to know I can get some of my favorite childhood snacks during my lunch break at work.

Sylvia Lopez works as Education and Public Programs Assistant at JANM.

Third Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest: Submission Deadline is January 31

imagine LT call 2016

“Kazuo embraced Mondays like no other, and that was because of its silence. Mondays were sweet, a sweep of semi-peace in the streets of Los Angeles. The typical street-crawlers were in school and the typical tourists at their nine to five jobs, and so Kazuo chose Monday to roam, map, conquer his neighborhoods unperturbed. Mondays were a convenience only when eighty five of your years had passed and your company along with it. It was nice timing for those who desired solace. The old man had fit this criteria to a tee.”
– Linda Toch, “Kazuo Alone”

The evocative words above constitute the opening paragraph of Linda Toch’s “Kazuo Alone,” the 2015 Youth Division winner of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest. Toch is a self-described “proud Cambodian American” who is now a freshman at Soka University of America. On a family outing in Little Tokyo, she found the neighborhood so positive and uplifting that she imagined a sad person’s spirits would be brightened there. She wrote “Kazuo Alone” as a response.

The Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest, created to raise awareness of the neighborhood, is now in its third year and it continues to grow. Last year’s expansion of the categories to include a Japanese-language division and a youth division (18 and younger) proved to be stimulating, attracting submissions from all over the country and the globe. The English-language winner for 2015 was Nathaniel J. Campbell of Fairfield, Iowa with “Fish Market in Little Tokyo,” while Miyuki Sato of Muroran, Hokkaido, Japan took the Japanese-language prize for “Mitate Club.”

The three winners all received cash prizes and were published in the print edition of the Rafu Shimpo, on the Little Tokyo Historical Society website, and on JANM’s own Discover Nikkei website. Stories by 11 other finalists were also published online. A public reception to announce the winners was held at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles.

If you feel inspired by Little Tokyo and have dreamed of seeing your name in print, you have until January 31 to submit your story for consideration in this year’s contest. The story must be fiction, and must be set in Little Tokyo. The cash prize in each category is $500. For complete details, click here.

Katsuya Terada Returns This Month to Complete His Live Drawing

Katsuya Terada at work in the JANM galleries. Photo by Carol Cheh.
Katsuya Terada at work in the JANM galleries. Photo by Carol Cheh.

 

Giant Robot Biennale 4 is a highly interactive show, with several features that invite viewer engagement on a more active level than usual. One of these features is the live, on-site creation of a major new work by Katsuya Terada.

Starting shortly before the exhibition opened in October, Terada spent several days working inside of a roped-off area in JANM’s lower-level galleries to create a new, two-part drawing from scratch. Visitors were able to watch him as he worked. The artist had to leave town before he could finish, but he plans to return later this month (after the 19th) to complete the piece in the gallery.

Katsuya Terada. Photo by Carol Cheh.
Katsuya Terada.
Photo by Carol Cheh.

The live drawing idea came from Eric Nakamura, curator of the show and founder of the Giant Robot empire. “Museums are typically filled with static objects,” he noted. “I wanted to present an interactive experience, where people could ask questions, and see what artists are like in person. It’s not everywhere that you can do this.” Nakamura gave Teraya no time limits, wanting him to produce a finished work that is suitable for framing.

So far the work is looking exquisitely finished right out of the gate. It does not yet have a title, but it does have a theme: masks. “I thought it would be interesting to draw a mask wearing a mask,” the artist says. Terada, who speaks very little English, spoke to me shortly before he left with the help of his friend and fellow exhibiting artist Yoskay Yamamoto, who served as translator.

I asked Terada to explain his process, which is organic rather than planned. “If I draw one line, that will tell me how to draw the next line,” he replied. “However, when I see the entire surface, and I start drawing one image, that will usually be the starting point, and from there I’m just trying to fill up the page without making mistakes—in composition, in choice of items to draw. I’m just making sure everything fits in the right way.”

Katsuya Terada. Photo by Carol Cheh.
Katsuya Terada. Photo by Carol Cheh.

 

Personally, I would find that process stressful. I asked him how he felt about that, and about having people watch him while he draws.

“It is stressful! But it’s like I’m challenging myself by being in that position,” Terada replied. “Having an audience can be a positive thing—it means that I have to work hard and I can’t slack off. But drawing itself is just enjoyable to me, with or without an audience.”

Terada will be back at JANM sometime after December 19th to complete his drawing. Keep your eyes on JANM’s Twitter feed and Facebook page to see when he’s in the gallery. Until then, you can come to the museum to view his progress to date.

Katsuya Terada's unfinished drawing, as he left it in October. The artist will return to JANM this month to complete the work. Photo by Carol Cheh.
Katsuya Terada’s unfinished drawing, as he left it in October. The artist will return to
JANM later this month to complete the work. Photo by Carol Cheh.

A Courtyard Kid Returns to JANM

Staci Yamanishi stands next to her Children's Courtyard engraving.
Staci Yamanishi stands next to her
Children’s Courtyard engraving.

When eighth-grade teacher Staci Yamanishi visits JANM with her students, she takes them through Common Ground: The Heart of Community, our ongoing exhibition on the Japanese American experience, and Fighting for Democracy, our appointment-only interactive exhibit on civil rights. Before they leave to return to their classroom however, the students receive one very special bonus assignment: find their teacher’s name engraved on the JANM courtyard.

Since JANM’s Pavilion building was opened in 1999, the museum has engraved the names of its youngest constituents in the Children’s Courtyard. For JANM, the Courtyard is a way to connect to each new generation, with the hope that being a part of the museum in this way will inspire a lifetime of sharing and discovery. As the young visitors grow into adults, we hope that they will continue to return to this institution and feel that they are a part of this community.

For Staci, the engraving was a gift from her grandparents. She remembers coming to the museum with her parents when she was young to look at her name, and she has returned many times over the years. She remembers visiting JANM on a school trip in the eighth grade and again when she was a student in UCLA’s Teacher Education Program.

Staci Yamanishi's eighth-grade students discover her name engraved on JANM's Children's Courtyard.
Staci Yamanishi’s eighth-grade students discover her name
engraved on JANM’s Children’s Courtyard.

 

Museum staff began getting to know Staci during her UCLA years, and soon after, she contributed a poem titled “I Come from Many Memories” to JANM’s experimental exhibition Xploration Lab 2012, which explored issues of identity. Staci has also served on an educator committee, which the museum’s Education Unit convenes on occasion to help brainstorm ways JANM can better serve teachers and students.

Now, in addition to occasional visits with her family, Staci returns every year on an eighth grade field trip—no longer as a student, but as a teacher. When asked why she brings her students to JANM, she replies that it’s important to her that the students understand her history—a unique history that is not found in their textbooks.

Staci and her students inside Common Ground.
Staci and her students inside Common Ground.

Much of Yamanishi’s knowledge of her history comes from conversations she had with her grandfather before he passed away. Having served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team while his wife (Staci’s grandmother) was incarcerated at Manzanar, he was an advocate of sharing the Japanese American World War II experience. He ingrained in Staci the importance of being proud of one’s history and passing it on to the next generation. Now, as a teacher herself, she encourages her students to explore their own stories through family history projects.

JANM is proud to know Staci and we are thankful for people like her, who share our mission to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience.

If you are interested in purchasing an engraving for a child or youth (21 and under) in your life, visit our Children’s Courtyard Engraving page for complete details.

Diary of a Nisei Week Princess, Part Four: The Trip to Japan!

The 2015 Nisei Week Court pays an official visit to Mitsukoshi department store.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court pays an official visit to Mitsukoshi department store.

It’s hard to believe that a little over a month ago, my fellow 2015 Nisei Week Court members and I (and many of our parents) were exploring Tokyo and Nagoya. It was a trip of a lifetime and unlike any other trip to Japan I’d experienced before. Even though I’d been to Japan a handful of times and studied abroad in Tokyo for one year, we still managed to do things I will probably never have the opportunity to do again.

After checking into the Hotel New Otani Tokyo at the crack of dawn on Tuesday, October 13, we wasted no time exploring the city, visiting the Tokyo Skytree restaurant and observation tower and the Ueno, Asakusa, Harajuku, and Shibuya districts all in one day. Three coffees and nearly 20,000 steps later, I thought my legs were going to fall off. The next day, we went to Tokyo DisneySea, a theme park located in Urayasu, Chiba, just outside the city. I couldn’t tell who was more excited (or who shopped more)—the parents or us. We all had a great time going on rides, shopping, and eating the specialty foods.

Enjoying some custard manju at Tokyo DisneySea.
Enjoying some custard manju at Tokyo DisneySea.

 

By Thursday it was already time to make our way to Nagoya—the main focus of our trip. Nagoya and Los Angeles have been sister cities since 1959—in fact, they are each other’s first sister cities, which makes for a special relationship. Nagoya’s biggest annual event is the Nagoya Matsuri, a festival held to spread Nagoya’s rich history and culture to the world—not unlike our own Nisei Week Japanese Festival back home. As official representatives of Nisei Week, our job was to spread goodwill and maintain strong relationships between the two physically distant communities.

We took the shinkansen (high-speed rail) from Tokyo Station to Nagoya Station and checked in to the Nagoya Creston Hotel. Our welcome dinner that night (which included geisha performances!) was hosted by Pyua O2, a Nagoya-based business association whose members would accompany us for much of the rest of our time there.

Taking in a tea ceremony, courtesy of Pyua 02.
Taking in a tea ceremony, courtesy of Pyua 02.

 

The next day we paid official visits to Matsuzakaya department store, Mitsukoshi department store, and Nagoya City Hall, where we met Mayor Takashi Kawamura and his staff. After these visits, Pyua O2 took us to the unique and world-famous Osu Shopping District, which has a 400-year history and is home to over 1,200 businesses. That evening, we attended the Sister City Reception, where we met representatives from Nagoya’s other sister cities and performed two Elvis songs, “Love Me Tender” and “Hound Dog”—the latter with the help of Mayor Kawamura, who was dressed as Elvis!

The Court sings Elvis tunes for the crowd, and gets a little help from Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura!
The Court sings Elvis tunes for the crowd, and gets a little help
from Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura.

 

Saturday was the start of the Nagoya Matsuri. During a special Sister City event, we had the pleasure of reprising our modern dance number from Coronation at a shopping mall called Oasis 21. That night, we had dinner at a restaurant owned by one of the Pyua O2 members and sang the night away with karaoke.

A fancy shabu shabu dinner with Nagoya city officials.
A fancy shabu shabu dinner with Nagoya city officials.

 

Sunday was our last and possibly most memorable day in Nagoya. We squeezed in a short tour of Nagoya Castle before we had to get ready to be in the parade! I couldn’t believe the number of people in attendance—thousands and thousands. The best part was seeing all the children smile as we waved at them. We finished the night eating wagyu shabu shabu with Nagoya city officials.

A view of Gero Onsen, an idyllic hot spring resort in Gifu Prefecture.
A view of Gero Onsen, an idyllic hot spring resort in Gifu Prefecture.

 

The next morning we went on an overnight trip to Gero Onsen, a hot spring resort, accompanied by Pyua O2. Along the way we stopped in Takayama and other spots in Gifu Prefecture. On Tuesday morning, we headed back to the Creston Hotel, and then it was time to say goodbye. Even our tour guide was crying! Our time in Nagoya wouldn’t have been nearly the same without the hospitality of Pyua O2 and Nagoya’s city officials.

Camryn and her parents in front of Nagoya Castle.
Camryn and her parents in
front of Nagoya Castle.
For the rest of the trip, everyone in the group went their separate ways. Some went back home to Los Angeles while others extended their stays with excursions to Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. I decided to go back to Tokyo on my own to spend time with friends I didn’t get to see earlier in the trip.

To say we all had a great time would be an understatement. It was such an honor to represent the Nisei Week Foundation and to continue the good relationship between Nagoya and Los Angeles. We had the best food anyone could possibly eat, met the nicest people, and created lasting memories with each other and our families. We’re all looking forward to seeing the members of Pyua O2 and Nagoya city representatives at next year’s Nisei Week Japanese Festival!

Camryn Sugita is blogging about her year as a Nisei Week Princess. If you missed previous entries, you can catch up here on part 1, part 2, and part 3.

A Show of Community Solidarity at Homeboy Industries’ 5K and Festival

JANM staffers and volunteers gather for Homeboy Industries' Every Angeleno Counts 5K and Festival. Photo by Richard Murakami.
JANM staffers and volunteers gather for Homeboy Industries’
Every Angeleno Counts 5K and Festival. Photo by Richard Murakami.

 

Last weekend, JANM volunteers, staff members, and friends of the museum participated in the “Every Angeleno Counts 5K and Festival” hosted by Homeboy Industries, a local organization dedicated to gang intervention, rehabilitation, and reentry. The event provided our museum with an opportunity to support a worthy cause. It also—in ways unexpected—prompted a meaningful display of solidarity by the JANM community.

JANM Events Assistant and Nisei Week Princess Camryn Sugita. Photo by Ben Furuta.
JANM Events Assistant and
Nisei Week Princess Camryn Sugita.
Photo by Ben Furuta.

It all started earlier this year. Upon being selected as a candidate for the Nisei Week Court, JANM Events Assistant Camryn Sugita was asked by the Queen’s Committee to pick an organization or cause to support throughout 2015. Camryn’s choice was Homeboy Industries.

Every October, Homeboy holds its 5K and Festival, which celebrates the worth of every Angeleno and the work of the organization. Leading up to this year’s event, Camryn urged JANM staff and volunteers to participate—by running the 5K, making a donation, and/or coming out to attend the festivities. Among those eagerly accepting Camryn’s challenge was longtime JANM docent and taiko workshop leader, Hal Keimi. Hal, who has volunteered for the museum with his wife Barbara since 1990, signed up to join Camryn in the 5K.

JANM staffers Sylvia Lopez, Kelly Kawata, and Vedette Philip participate in the 5K run. Photo by Richard Murakami.
JANM staffers Sylvia Lopez, Kelly Kawata, and Vedette Philip
participate in the 5K run. Photo by Richard Murakami.

 

Fate, however, took an unfortunate turn. Prior to the race, Hal had a serious fall while running near his home and suffered significant injuries. He was hospitalized and needed surgery on his jaw. Learning of Hal’s accident, JANM staff and volunteers were even more determined for the museum to have a strong presence at the 5K and Festival. They launched a campaign called “Help Hal to Help Camryn” to rally support for their two friends and Homeboy Industries.

JANM staffer Clement Hanami, volunteer Michael Okuda, and staffer Evan Kodani. Photo by Richard Murakami.
JANM staffer Clement Hanami, volunteer Michael Okuda,
and staffer Evan Kodani. Photo by Richard Murakami.

 

On the day of Every Angeleno Counts, members of the JANM community ran (and briskly walked) the 5K, cheered on participants, and staffed a vendor booth to spread the word about JANM and its mission. When all was said and done, Camryn had successfully raised nearly $2,300 for Homeboy Industries.

JANM volunteer Michael Okuda, staffer Sylvia Lopez, Hirotami Ogawa, and his wife, volunteer Kyoko Ogawa, at Every Angeleno Counts. Photo by Richard Murakami.
JANM volunteer Michael Okuda, staffer Sylvia Lopez, Hirotami Ogawa, and his wife, volunteer Kyoko Ogawa, at Every Angeleno Counts. Photo by Richard Murakami.

 

“Thank you to everyone who came out and donated to the Miss GEO 2015 team!” said Camryn, whose title reflects her pageant sponsor, the Gardena Evening Optimist (GEO) club. “It was a huge success! Despite Hal’s injuries and absence, he inspired us to go forth and do our best in the 5K. I wouldn’t have been able to reach my fundraising goal without him, and now I’m looking forward to organizing my next fundraising event for Homeboy Industries.”

JANM staff and volunteers at the museum's information booth. Photo by Ben Furuta.
JANM staff and volunteers at the museum’s information booth. Photo by Ben Furuta.

 

As for Hal, his condition is improving steadily. Barbara thanked all the individuals who came together to help Hal support Camryn and Homeboy.

Giant Robot Biennale 4 is now on view!

Having fun inside of kozyndan's custom vinyl mural, Heat Run Samadhi. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Having fun inside of kozyndan’s custom vinyl mural, Heat Run Samadhi.
Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.

 

Since 2007, JANM has partnered with Giant Robot founder Eric Nakamura to produce the Giant Robot Biennale, a recurring art exhibition dedicated to showcasing the diverse creative works brought together under the ethos of the popular brand. The latest edition, Giant Robot Biennale 4, examines the evolution of the Giant Robot aesthetic from its humble origins in drawing to its many celebrated manifestations in painting, installation, muralism, and photography.

This past Saturday night, GRB4 had its grand opening celebration. More than 2,000 guests gathered at the museum for a lively evening of art, music, food, and crafts. Enjoy the photos that follow!

Certificates of appreciation were given to curator Eric Nakamura and each of the GRB4 artists by Danielle Brazell of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Photo by Steve Fujimoto.
Certificates of appreciation were given to curator Eric Nakamura and each of the GRB4 artists by Danielle Brazell of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.
Photo by Steve Fujimoto.
Danielle Brazell of the Department of Cultural Affairs, right, presents curator Eric Nakamura with his certificate of appreciation. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Danielle Brazell of the Department of Cultural Affairs, right, presents curator Eric Nakamura with his certificate of appreciation. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
More than 2,000 people attended the opening night festivities. Photo by Richard Murakami.
More than 2,000 people attended the opening night festivities. Photo by Richard Murakami.
A popular activity of the evening was custom finishing a button using designs started by GRB4 artists. Photo by Ben Furuta.
A popular activity of the evening was custom finishing a button using
designs started by GRB4 artists. Photo by Ben Furuta.
A family makes buttons together. Photo by Ben Furuta.
A family makes buttons together. Photo by Ben Furuta.
Excited guests line up to have their designs pressed into buttons. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Excited guests line up to have their designs pressed into buttons. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Artist Audrey Kawasaki poses in front of her artwork. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Artist Audrey Kawasaki poses in front of her artwork. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Dublab spins some tunes to keep the party going. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Dublab spins some tunes to keep the party going. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Tasty bites were provided by Mama Musubi. Photo by Richard Murakami.
Tasty bites were provided by Mama Musubi. Photo by Richard Murakami.
Cafe Dulce also got in the spirit with special Giant Robot x JANM donuts. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Cafe Dulce also got in the spirit with special Giant Robot x JANM donuts.
Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Nerdbot's Photo Booth brought out the flair in everyone. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Nerdbot’s Photo Booth brought out the flair in everyone. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Eric Nakamura, right, and a few of the artists admire kozyndan's mural. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Eric Nakamura, right, and a few of the artists admire kozyndan’s mural.
Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Kozue and Dan Kitchens, aka kozyndan, pose in front of their work. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Kozue and Dan Kitchens, aka kozyndan, pose in front of their work.
Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
People couldn't get enough of kozyndan's mural! Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
People couldn’t get enough of kozyndan’s mural! Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
A guest tries his hand at drawing inside a replica of artist Edwin Ushiro's studio. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
A guest tries his hand at drawing inside a replica of artist Edwin Ushiro’s studio.
Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Curator Eric Nakamura, left, and artist Mike Lee check on a few last-minute details in the replica Giant Robot store. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Curator Eric Nakamura, left, and artist Mike Lee check on a few last-minute details
in the replica Giant Robot store. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Artist Mari Inukai in front of her painting. Photo by Richard Murakami.
Artist Mari Inukai in front of her painting. Photo by Richard Murakami.
Ray Potes of Hamburger Eyes poses in front of the collective's installation. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Ray Potes of Hamburger Eyes poses in front of the collective’s installation.
Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Katsuya Terada wows onlookers with his live drawing skills. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Katsuya Terada wows onlookers with his live drawing skills. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
A rapt crowd gathers to watch electronic musician Daedalus. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
A crowd gathers to watch electronic musician Daedalus. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Daedalus in action. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Daedalus in action. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
No opening at JANM is complete without a visit from the reigning Nisei Week Court! Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
No opening at JANM is complete without a visit from the reigning
Nisei Week Court! Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.
Curator Eric Nakamura, JANM President and CEO Greg Kimura, and artist Esao Andrews. Photo by Steve Fujimoto.
Curator Eric Nakamura, JANM President and CEO Greg Kimura, and artist Esao Andrews. Photo by Steve Fujimoto.

Tuesday Night Café Showcases Asian American Talent

Tuesday Night Café in the Aratani Courtyard of Union Center for the Arts. Photo: Fiona Potter for Discover Nikkei.
Tuesday Night Café in the Aratani Courtyard of Union Center
for the Arts. Photo: Fiona Potter for Discover Nikkei.

 

Recently a friend took me to experience Tuesday Night Café, an Asian American grassroots entertainment event held in the Aratani Courtyard of the Union Center for the Arts. I didn’t think I’d last through the three-hour-long evening of amateur and open mic acts, but much to my surprise, I found myself riveted to the very end by the event’s quality and variety. There were slam poets, folk singers, dancers, and even a female rap artist, and every one was excellent and had something unique to offer.

I was amazed that such a thing existed right under my nose here in Little Tokyo without my knowledge, so I did some research. Tuesday Night Café is actually the oldest currently running Asian American open mic event in the country. Launched in 1999, it is the flagship program of Tuesday Night Project, an Asian-American volunteer-based organization. Each Café begins with three open mic slots, followed by a curated program. TNC has been named to several Top Ten lists by such publications as USA Today and LA Weekly.

TNC is currently organized by Sean Miura, Producer and Lead Curator, and Quincy Surasmith, Communications Manager and Associate Producer. Quincy graciously agreed to answer a few questions via email so we could learn more about the project.

JANM: I was truly impressed by both the quantity and the quality of talent that I saw on display at the last TNC. How do you find so many amazing acts?

QS: I think it’s a mix of people (artists, organizers, and other community members) connecting folks to our space and us making sure we build the kind of space where these amazing performers feel encouraged and safe and have the opportunity to really shine. We also do our best to get out to other spaces and events in the city, such as Sunday Jump in Historic Filipinotown, Common Ground in Santa Ana, and Kollaboration, to name just a few—supporting them and building bridges with their organizers and artists.

Tuesday Night Café. Photo: Fiona Potter for Discover Nikkei.
Tuesday Night Café. Photo: Fiona Potter for Discover Nikkei.

 

JANM: When curating the Tuesday Night Café, what are the criteria that you use?

QS: We look at each show holistically; each program is a careful balance of people with different disciplines, experience levels, artistic content, and identities/backgrounds. We also want to set a tone that Tuesday Night Café isn’t just a handful of open mic slots nor an “established stars only” showcase, but a place where everyone can experience those beautiful fleeting moments of raw, outside-your-comfort-zone, heart-palpitatingly earnest connection with someone’s words, voice, movement, emotion, sound, and story. Creating a positive space for the performers helps both emerging and seasoned artists feel comfortable taking risks, trying new things, and using our space to grow.

JANM: I imagine many TNC performers go on to successful careers in show business. Any famous alumni you care to name?

QS: Artists like Connie Lim and Mista Cookie Jar continue to amaze audiences with their music, while folks like Dawen and David Tran aka Applesauce are sharing their music abroad (in Taiwan and Vietnam, respectively). Jenny Yang is a rising dynamo producing Disoriented Comedy shows and showing up all over the place (notably on Buzzfeed). Greg Watanabe of the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors is making his Broadway debut this fall in the musical Allegiance.

While those are a few of the successes we celebrate, it’s important to note that Tuesday Night Project is less about celebrity and more about artists in process, trying things, collaborating, and creating their own respective paths. We want to celebrate each career as each person finds their own understanding of success, famous or otherwise!

Priska Neely mesmerizes the audience with her funny, mellow songs. Photo: Audrey Chan.
Priska Neely mesmerizes the audience
with her funny, mellow songs.
Photo: Audrey Chan.

JANM: TNC is 17 years old this year. Can you reflect on some of the changes and accomplishments that have occurred over the years?

QS: I’ve only been in the space since 2009, but in that time, I’ve seen a noticeable shift from a word-of-mouth, come-because-you’re-connected-to-someone, heard-about-it-through-the-community-grapevine project to a known-entity, internet-searchable, come-for-the-opportunities-to-perform kind of audience and space. This means a lot more people are coming in fresh; a significant portion of the crowd are first-timers at each show! But it also means that people are coming who don’t yet understanding who we are and what we’re about, so it’s even more important that we’re really clear about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

JANM: What is your vision for TNC going forward?

QS: I’d love to sort through our archive footage and photos to reconnect with and share our history, build more partnerships, and strengthen our online presence. Ultimately though, it’s not about growing Tuesday Night Project into some huge expansive brand for its own sake. We share art to build and bridge communities; validate and highlight diverse Asian American voices and stories; create safe, positive space; and at our core (as our Director/Co-Founder traci kato-kiriyama will gladly remind us), cherish people as each others’ greatest resource. Everything we’ve done and continue to do is with constant mindful consideration of those intentions.

Tuesday Night Café runs from April through October each year, taking place on the first and third Tuesday nights from 7 to 10 p.m. The last two Cafés of 2015 will take place on October 6 and 20. If you can’t attend in person, you can watch their live feed.

Introducing Mark Robbins

JANM recently hired Mark Robbins as the museum’s new Community and Government Relations Officer. To help introduce Mark to the greater JANM community, we conducted the following brief interview.

New JANM staff member Mark Robbins, right, attends the Go For Broke National Education Center's 14th Annual Evening of Aloha Gala Dinner with his wife, Iryll Robbins-Umel, center. At left is keynote speaker and pioneering Asian American athlete Natalie Nakase.
New JANM staff member Mark Robbins, right, attends the Go For Broke National Education Center’s 14th Annual Evening of Aloha Gala Dinner with his wife, Iryll Robbins-Umel, center. At left is keynote speaker and pioneering Asian American athlete Natalie Nakase.

JANM: What led you to come to work for the museum?

Mark Robbins: The mission of the museum appealed to me greatly. I was impressed by how JANM aims to tell the full Japanese American story, in all its shades and complexities. As a hapa and a fourth-generation Japanese American, I saw joining the JANM staff as an opportunity to contribute to something important while learning more about my own family’s history. I was also excited about all of JANM’s programs—the performances, workshops, film screenings, panels, and so on. It’s a vibrant institution that offers so much to its visitors and tests the boundaries of what a museum can be.

JANM: How do you visualize your role at the museum?

MR: Right now, I have a lot to learn, both in terms of the history of Little Tokyo and the various efforts underway at JANM. I see my role, though, as helping the museum be an informed and valuable partner in the community. While we are a national museum, Little Tokyo is in our DNA. Helping to preserve the health and distinct character of Little Tokyo is critical to our mission and our future. I will also play a role in the museum’s government relations, identifying federal grant opportunities for the museum, and working with our Young Professionals Network.

JANM: Can you tell us about your education and work history prior to joining the museum?

MR: I studied Communication and Political Science as an undergraduate at Stanford and went to law school at UCLA. I worked in Washington, DC, for about seven years as a policy advisor in the offices of the late Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and former Governor of Alaska Sean Parnell. I then moved back to Los Angeles and held temporary positions as an attorney for Legal Aid in Compton before the opportunity with JANM came up.

JANM: You were born in Alaska. Can you tell us about your experience growing up there?

MR: I grew up on Kodiak Island, which is located in the Gulf of Alaska. In addition to its huge brown bears, Kodiak is known for its fishing. My father ran a commercial fishing boat for about 40 years there, catching cod, halibut, and salmon. That was our family business, and my older brother and I worked on the boat in the summers to earn money for school.

JANM: What have been your most memorable experiences so far at the museum?

MR: There have been many. Bringing my family (including my wife, young daughter, and mother) to the Natsumatsuri Family Festival in August was definitely a highlight. We had a large and energetic crowd on hand for the event and I was happy to have three generations of my family share the experience. I have also appreciated spending time with our volunteers, several of whom have committed their time and effort to the museum for decades. Their spirit and enthusiasm are inspiring and a constant reminder of why what we do here is so important. More recently, I’ve been getting to know our New Leadership Advisory Council. They are an impressive group and I’m excited about what we can accomplish together.

Diary of a Nisei Week Princess, Part 3: The Big Event!

Camryn Sugita, now officially a Princess of the 2015 Nisei Week Court, continues her account of her adventures. If you missed her earlier Princess Diary entries, you can still catch up on Part 1 and Part 2.

The 2015 Nisei Week Court at Coronation. Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court at Coronation. Photo by John Fujinami.

 

After we were officially announced as Nisei Week Queen Candidates, we still had a few more events, trainings, and dance rehearsals to attend before Coronation—our big night and the start of Nisei Week. The dress rehearsal the day before Coronation felt surreal; in less than 24 hours, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center’s (JACCC) Aratani Theatre would be filled with hundreds of people and only one of us would be crowned as Nisei Week Queen.

The Queen Candidates perform an odori dance in kimonos. Photo by John Fujinami.
The Queen Candidates perform an odori dance in kimonos. Photo by John Fujinami.

 

I could barely sleep that night because I was so worried that I might drop my fans during the odori dance, forget a line in my speech, fall down the steps during the modern dance, or choke on my Q&A. Surprisingly, I wasn’t that nervous for our private, one-on-one interviews with the judges, which took place before the public ceremony. Each of us spent five minutes with all of them, during which they could ask us anything. At this time, we also voted for Miss Tomodachi (the Nisei Week equivalent of Miss Congeniality).

At the big event, we were introduced by our Mistress and Master of Ceremonies, Tamlyn Tomita and David Ono. We all walked onto the stage in our kimonos to perform the opening odori dance with folding fans. Hearing the loud cheers helped calm my nerves and I couldn’t help but crack a smile. I am glad to say that I did not drop my fans.

Camryn gives her speech. Photo by John Fujinami.
Camryn gives her speech.
Photo by John Fujinami.
Next it was time for Verbal Communication Skills; each of us had to give a two-minute speech on a topic of our choice. I chose to talk about being adopted as a baby from Toda, Saitama, Japan by a loving Japanese American family and then growing up in Torrance. While I was in college, I studied abroad for a year in Tokyo, where I was able to learn about my roots firsthand. This speech was the first time I openly shared my adoption story, and I couldn’t have been happier to do it on stage in front of my friends, family, and community.

After our speeches were over, we had to change into our modern dance costumes while Kyodo Taiko performed and the judges and visiting dignitaries were introduced. We performed an elaborate choreographed routine to “Sparkling Diamonds” from Moulin Rouge—and that wasn’t all! We were joined on stage by special guests that included 2015 Nisei Week Foundation President Terry Hara, JACCC Director of Marketing and Development Helen Ota, and 2004 Nisei Week Queen Nikki Kodama, to name just a few, and we all closed out the sequence by dancing to Pitbull’s “Celebrate” from Penguins of Madagascar. It was definitely a performance to remember.

"75 Years Strong" production number performed by the 2015 Queen Candidates. Photo by John Fujinami.
“75 Years Strong” production number performed by the 2015 Queen Candidates.
Photo by John Fujinami.
"75 Years Strong." Photo by John Fujinami.
“75 Years Strong.” Photo by John Fujinami.

 

After the intermission, it was time to get down to serious business—the evening gown walk, followed by the question and answer session. Each candidate was interviewed individually while the others were swept away into a soundproof room. David and Tamlyn warmed us up with random funny questions before posing the same serious question to each of us, which I will paraphrase here: “The Nisei generation made its mark in significant ways. In the future, what do you think your generation will be known for?” In my answer, I paid respect to the contributions of the Nisei and then I challenged the audience to join with me in sharing their stories and giving back to the Japanese American community.

The 2014 Nisei Week Court bids a fond farewell. Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2014 Nisei Week Court bids a fond farewell. Photo by John Fujinami.

 

After the 2014 Nisei Week Queen and Court came on stage to bid their final, official farewell, it was time to announce the outcome of the evening’s competition. The first person to be named was our Miss Tomodachi, Karen Mizoguchi. Next was the First Princess, Veronica Ota. And finally, Sara Hutter was named as Queen! Michelle Hanabusa, Kelsey Kwong, Tamara Teragawa, and I were crowned as Princesses. I am so honored to be given the opportunity to represent the community, and proud of myself for taking on this challenge.

Karen Mizoguchi is named Miss Tomodatchi. Photo by John Fujinami.
Karen Mizoguchi is named Miss Tomodatchi. Photo by John Fujinami.
Veronica Ota is announced as First Princess. Photo by John Fujinami.
Veronica Ota is announced as First Princess. Photo by John Fujinami.
Sara Hutter is crowned as Queen. Photo by John Fujinami.
Sara Hutter is crowned as Queen. Photo by John Fujinami.

 

But Coronation was just the beginning for us! After such a whirlwind day, we had to be up bright and early the next morning to begin our official visits as a court to establishments in Little Tokyo and elsewhere in downtown Los Angeles. Throughout the week we stayed at the DoubleTree Hotel and paid visits to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors office, Sushi Gen, Southern California Flower Market, Keiro Senior HealthCare, and of course, the Japanese American National Museum, among other places. We also met with community leaders and posed for many photos—every day was jam-packed!

One of my favorite visits was to Little Tokyo Nutrition Services, where we ate lunch with some of the senior citizens who live in Little Tokyo Towers. I love being able to learn more about this community and meet some of the many people who keep its spirit alive.

The 2015 Nisei Week Court rides in the Grand Parade. Photo by Richard Watanabe.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court rides in the Grand Parade. Photo by Richard Watanabe.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court participates in the Ondo dance and Closing Ceremony. Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court participates in the Ondo dance and Closing Ceremony.
Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court, with 2015 Nisei Week Foundation President Terry Hara and a community member, poses in front of the 2015 Nebuta float, designed especially for this year's parade by master Nebuta float artist Hiroo Takenami. Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court, with 2015 Nisei Week Foundation President Terry Hara and a community member, poses in front of the 2015 Nebuta float, designed especially for this year’s parade by master Nebuta float artist Hiroo Takenami. Photo by John Fujinami.
Photo by Richard Watanabe.
Photo by Richard Watanabe.

 

Stay tuned to First & Central for more Nisei Week Princess adventures in the months to come, including an exciting trip to Japan!