Seeing the Sights of Little Tokyo

The entrance to the Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple.

In 1884, a Japanese sailor named Hamanosuke Shigeta jumped ship in San Diego and eventually made his way to downtown Los Angeles, where he opened an American-style cafe. The opening of Kame Restaurant—the first known Japanese-owned business in Los Angeles, signaled the beginning of what is now known as Little Tokyo. Before World War II, Little Tokyo was thriving and grew to be the largest Japanese community in the United States. This area is steeped in history and every month JANM docents lead walking tours of the neighborhood to explore both popular and lesser-known gems of this bustling neighborhood.

One of the stops on the tour is the original Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, at 119 North Central Avenue. Built in 1925 by Japanese immigrants, and originally named the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, the building was the first structure in Los Angeles designed specifically to house a Buddhist place of worship. In 1942, the building was used as a gathering place for people of Japanese ancestry to board buses as they were forcibly removed to American concentration camps during World War II. Reverend Julius Goldwater, one of the first non-Japanese Buddhist ministers in America, did not face removal and allowed people in the community to store their belongings in the building while they were incarcerated.

With no congregation, the temple closed down. However, in 1944 the Providence Missionary Baptist Association converted part of the building into a Christian center and began offering sermons. The Association’s stay was only temporary, though. When the war ended in 1945 Goldwater notified the Baptist Association that their lease could not be renewed as he expected many of his congregation members to return home. The temple then reopened and served as a hostel for many of those returning from the camps who found that their homes had been lost. The building eventually fell into disrepair after the temple moved to a new location in 1969 and it was sold to the City of Los Angeles in 1973. Destined to be torn down for new development, the building was spared when the City of Los Angeles supported its use as a museum site. In 1992, the Japanese American National Museum opened in the renovated historic building.

People of Japanese ancestry board buses in front of Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple as they were forcibly removed to American concentration camps. 1942. Photo by Jack Iwata. Japanese American National Museum, gift of Jack and Peggy Iwata.

The architecture of the ornate building draws inspiration from a temple in Kyoto, Japan, and combines Japanese and Middle Eastern motifs in its striking façade. The Middle Eastern influence stems from the architectural movement called Egyptian Revival. This style of architecture first came to prominence in the late 18th century. But after the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, Egyptian influences saw a renewed wave of popularity around the world. Also, Egyptian themes had become an essential part of the Art Deco movement in the 1920s.

This building’s entrance is on the plaza across from the Japanese American National Museum’s Pavilion building. The cement canopy (karahafu) over the entrance replicates the imperial gateway of the associated Mother Temple in Kyoto, Japan. The characteristic shape is the undulating curve at the top of the entrance. This design is common in traditional Japanese architecture, including castles, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines. Kara means “noble” or “elegant” and this architectural element is often added to places that are considered important or grand.

The original Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple is only one of several stops on the JANM docent-led walking tours of Little Tokyo that engage visitors beyond the walls of the museum and introduce them to a unique and diverse community. Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong Los Angeles resident, you’ll learn surprising details about the people, historic architecture, and community spirit of this colorful neighborhood. Museum admission is included with the fee for the tour, so be sure to see JANM’s current exhibitions afterward.

Tours take place on the last Saturday of every month, weather permitting. Comfortable walking shoes are recommended. To sign up for our next walking tour please visit janm.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.