Holiday Shopping in Little Tokyo!

Put together that shopping list, and let’s get going. It’s holiday season! This year, Go Little Tokyo—a community-led effort aimed at highlighting the unique cultural programs, community events, and dining and shopping experiences found in Little Tokyo—can help you knock out your shopping chores with its convenient Holiday Guide. You can download it from their website, or you can pick one up when you’re in theneighborhood—including at JANM. Items in the Holiday Guide were hand-selected by the team at Go Little Tokyo as standout products, things they’d love to receive themselves. With the guide as your guide, you’re sure to finish off a good portion of your list while visiting one of the most interesting and vibrant neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

Included is a stainless steel wallet, with custom embossing of the traditional Japanese asanoha (hemp) pattern, from the JANM Store. A JANM exclusive, this wallet is made of fabric incorporating eight-five percent post-consumer recycled stainless steel, which provides RFID blocking protection for credit cards. It has a silver ballistic nylon spine and is thin and lightweight—perfect for someone who delights in extraordinary accessories.

The guide features ideas at all price points from a plethora of JANM’sneighbors. And to make your Little Tokyo shopping even more enticing, Go LittleTokyo is holding a drawing in which you can win a gift basket filled with $250worth of great stuff from local businesses. To enter, purchase items at any little Tokyo shops or restaurants between now and January 31, 2019. Then take a photo of your receipt and email it to info@golittletokyo.com. (One entry per receipt from a Little Tokyo business.) Each gift you cross off your list in little Tokyo means you might take home a big gift for yourself!

Happy shopping!

Highlights from JANM Free Family Days: Superheroes!

Striking a heroic pose!

In celebration of real-life heroes as well as the fictional characters of our Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey through the World of Japanese Toys exhibition, JANM welcomed more than 1,100 visitors on November 11, 2018, for a free family day of fun.

Young and old alike designed their own masks.

Upon entering the museum, visitors were welcomed by our staff and many jumped right into the crafts offered. Inspired by o Kaiju vs Heroes, our hero and kaiju mask-making activity was very popular! Children delighted in keeping their heroic secret identities under wraps.

Sho Tokyo Kendo of LA Minobusan Beikoku Betsuin delivering a captivating demonstration.

Aratani Central Hall hosted some of the most impressive performances of the day. Children gathered around–and  a few were invited on stage–to experience kendo, a traditional Japanese martial art that uses swords and protective armor. It was a sight to behold as athletes from Sho Tokyo Kendo of LA Minobusan Beikoku Betsuin charged at each other, followed by the clash of their shinai (slats of bamboo tied together and used for practice, in place of a Japanese sword).

Kizuna Taiko, a group made up of children and adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities and their parents and siblings from the Japanese Speaking Parents Association of Children with Challenges (JSPACC).

Ukuleles for Little Tokyo playing their songs.

Kizuna Taiko filled Aratani Central Hall with its thunderous sounds. A physically demanding discipline, taiko is often described as a performance of dance as well as drumming. Kizuna Taiko’s incredible athleticism, driving rhythms, and meditative melodies left the audience inspired and energized. Earlier in the afternoon, families enjoyed traditional songs by Ukuleles for Little Tokyo. Their sounds were a festive addition to a fun-filled day of physical activities and crafts.

An artist from Taylor Entertainment creates a caricature.

Maya proudly displays her superhero cape.

Children sat attentively as an artist from Taylor Entertainment turned them into superheroes by drawing their caricatures. Many families also spent time perfecting a superhero cape with unique designs and color combinations. Kids enjoyed donning their creations and striking a pose.

Our friends from Terasaki Budokan playing some basketball.

On our plaza, families expended some energy by getting in some slam dunks and long distance shots at our temporary basketball courts.

Volunteers getting into the heroic spirit.

It was a truly joyful and memorable JANM Free Family Day, and we hope to see many of the same guests at our 2019 Oshogatsu Family Festival. On Sunday, January 6, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., ring in the New Year and celebrate the Year of the Boar with more fun arts and crafts, food, cultural activities, and exciting performances! There will be a traditional mochitsuki (Japanese rice pounding ritual) performance by Kodama Taiko, candy sculptures by Shan the Candyman, Fukubukuro (lucky grab bags) at the JANM Store, and so much more. Check our janm.org for more information about the Oshogatsu Family Festival and other upcoming events at JANM.

 

The Sights and Sounds of JANM Free Family Day

Ukuleles for Little Tokyo

On Saturday, November 10, join us for a JANM Free Family Day! The crafts, performances, and other activities will be inspired by real-life heroes and the fictional characters seen in our current exhibition, Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey through the World of Japanese Toys.

Our doors open at 11 a.m., and at 11:30 a.m. we’ll have a performance from Ukuleles for Little Tokyo. This organization engages Japanese and Japanese American seniors by providing free ukulele instruction in Japanese and English. Between 1885 and 1925, more than 200,000 Japanese had immigrated to Hawaii to work on sugarcane plantations. Many of these Japanese immigrants discovered the ukulele in Hawaii and adopted it as their own, making the instrument a common bond that helps hold together the culture of America, Hawaii, and Japan.

Draw a hero character!

After saying aloha to Ukuleles for Little Tokyo, join artist and art educator Sylvia Lopez for a superhero drawing workshop. From 12 p.m.–12:45 p.m. and 1:15 p.m.–2 p.m., create a hero character by first learning to quickly draw a basic human form. If drawing a hero character isn’t enough, from 12 p.m.–3 p.m. an artist from Taylor Entertainment will create a superhero caricatures of kid visitors!

You also don’t want to miss a demonstration from Sho Tokyo Kendo of LA Minobusan Beikoku Betsuin starting at 12:30 p.m. Experience a captivating exhibition of kendo, a traditional Japanese martial art that utilizes bamboo swords and protective armor. The practice of kendo stems from kenjutsu, a catch-all term used to describe all forms of Japanese swordsmanship. The formal kendo exercises known as kata (specific movements of a martial art) were developed several centuries ago as kenjutsu practice for warriors and are still studied today.

Members of Kizuna Taiko

Guaranteed to be inspiring is Kizuna Taiko, performing at 3 p.m. This group is made up of children and adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities, and their parents and siblings, from the Japanese Speaking Parents Association of Children with Challenges (JSPACC). Taiko is a traditional form of Japanese percussion using a variety of drums, some very large. Taiko playing is loud, hard, and fast, and involves choreographed movement that mirrors Japanese martial arts.

WizStars!

Wrapping up the day’s festivities is WizStars. A hip-hop dance ensemble featuring individuals with developmental or intellectual disabilities and their parents or siblings from the JSPACC, WizStar will perform from 3:30 p.m.–3:45 p.m. The museum will close at 5:00 p.m., so you will still have time after the day’s activities to check out the Kaiju vs Heroes exhibition and its amazing array of vintage and contemporary Japanese vinyl toys.

Please also set aside a few minutes during the day to write a letter of appreciation to a veteran, to be delivered by Operation Gratitude. Expressions of thanks make a lasting impression on those who have served in uniform.

JANM members get perks throughout the day, including reserved seating, so join or renew today! More information about the day is available on our website.

 

Get Ready for the 10th Annual Kokoro Craft Boutique

Fat Rabbit Farm at the 2017 Kokoro Craft Boutique

Organized by JANM volunteers, the 10th Annual Kokoro Craft Boutique is this Sunday, October 7 from 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Are you ready for it all? Dozens of vendors will be on hand with unique jewelry, kimono fabric fashions, cultural t-shirts, handbags, ceramics, origami, bronze and glass art, and much more! Also, there will be a taiko performance by Yuujou Daiko at 1 p.m. Make a purchase of $20 or more, and you’ll receive free same-day museum admission along with a 10% discount at local participating Little Tokyo eateries during the month of October (some restrictions apply). This event is aimed at helping small businesses with connections to Little Tokyo while a percentage of proceeds goes to benefit the museum’s education programs.

We reached out to a few vendors who will be participating in this year’s event. We asked them about exciting products they will be offering this year, why they participate, and if they have any memorable events from past boutiques. Jason Ponggasam, co-founder of Fat Rabbit Farm, a company that creates apparel, art, accessories, and storybooks inspired by his rabbits, said, “It’s always such a pleasure and honor to be a part of LA’s Japanese American community. We always have a great time seeing familiar faces and of course new ones. I’m glad we can contribute to JANM.” He continued to say, “One memory that stands out (at Kokoro) is when George Takei came by to visit. I didn’t get the chance to speak with him but just seeing him smile with such positive energy was wonderful!”

Shoppers at the 2017 Kokoro Craft Boutique

Caitlin Reyna of Boy Cherie jewelry who specializes in making fashion jewelry using intricate techniques and quality materials to ensure each piece last for years is excited to debut a new collection at the event. Said Reyna, “I am working very hard on my holiday collection and can’t wait to debut the items at the craft boutique. The holidays are only a few months away, so I’m sure some visitors will be doing some early shopping! The majority of my pieces are designed to be both on-trend and timeless, so they make perfect gifts and are also great pieces to accessorize for the holiday festivities!”

Yasuko Ozawa who makes ceramics exclusively with high fire clays and glazes that create unique depth and colors has participated in many of the past Kokoro Boutiques. Ozawa said, “I love the venue at JANM. It’s always a fantastic turnout of people who are looking to shop for unique items. The volunteers are incredibly helpful, and the boutique always runs so smoothly. And of course, it’s an added bonus that a portion of my sales goes to supporting JANM.” She also creates special products for the event, “I sell handmade ceramicware and I offer the usual bowls, cups, utensil holders, planters, etc. Every year I glaze and decorate them differently to keep things more interesting. This year I started making goblet-styled stemmed cups (like for wine and beer), and I’m really excited to be selling those this year. So cheers! Kampai!”

Crafts for sale at the 2017 Kokoro Craft Boutique

We hope to see you this weekend in Little Tokyo! This event has become a staple of the community over the years with some considering it the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season. For more information and a list of participating vendors, visit janm.org/events or email kokorocraft@gmail.com.

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

Highlights from the Little Tokyo Sushi Graze

Edible Adventures at Sushi Go 55

Is it uncivilized to use soy sauce? Should extra wasabi be added? Recently, travel agent and food enthusiast Roxana Lewis led a “sushi graze” edition of our Edible Adventures walking tour series in Little Tokyo, this time starting with a “Sushi 101 class.” Lewis explained that adding wasabi or soy sauce depends on the restaurant and the chef. However, she stressed that when using soy sauce, one should lightly dip only the fish to avoid having the rice ball fall apart. Attendees also learned some surprising sushi history. Enthusiasts may find it hard to imagine sushi ever existing without rice. However, beginning in the fourth century in many parts of Asia, salted raw fish was wrapped in rice and held in storage for months. When the rice fermented, it acted as a preservative but was discarded before the fish was eaten.

Sushi was introduced to Japan in the ninth century. It became popular as Buddhism spread throughout the country; the Buddhist practice of refraining from eating meat meant that many Japanese began eating fish as a dietary staple. Vinegar was eventually used as a preservative instead of rice and this change led to the uniquely Japanese version of sushi that is eaten today.  A rice ball and a small portion of raw fish (known as nigiri sushi) need very little preparation, so by the 1800s, it was a popular choice with roadside vendors and a big hit with busy workers who didn’t have time to sit down for a meal.

After the short history lesson, attendees enjoyed a small feast at the restaurant Sushi Go 55. The sushi served at this restaurant reflects the same style that emerged as a favorite fast-food option in nineteenth century Japan. Made to order piece by piece, attendees watched as the chef’s hands moved in perfect rhythm as he assembled balls of rice and affixed fish to them with the exact amount of wasabi. In the past few centuries, not much has changed in the making of this style of food. While enjoying sushi at this restaurant, one could close their eyes and feel a direct connection to Japan and the past.

A chef prepares sushi

While sushi is a pillar of Japanese cuisine, the history of the delicacy in the United States is an ever-evolving one. When first introduced, Americans had a difficult time warming up to the idea that raw fish could be something tasty. The creation of the California roll in the late 1960s helped change American perceptions. First created by a Japanese chef in Los Angeles (according to some), the California roll features crab, avocado, and cucumber, making it more suitable to the American palate. It’s often then rolled “inside out,” meaning the rice is on the outside. The next stop on the tour exemplified this American take on sushi. At the Ebisu Tavern, “caterpillar” and “spider” rolls which featured ingredients like battered soft-shell crab and spicy mayonnaise were served to showcase the evolution of westernized sushi.

The Edible Adventure offered more than just learning about sushi. Between stops Lewis recounted tidbits touching on the history of Little Tokyo. She pointed out Buddhist temples and explained their architecture, showed participants the former sites of trailblazing restaurants now gone and noted how the area has changed through the generations. The tour ended back at JANM. Museum admission was included with the tour and attendees then spent time taking in the current exhibitions. Don’t miss the next Edible Adventure—you can stay up to date on all of JANM’s events by visiting janm.org/events. You can also sign up to receive our monthly Exhibitions & Events email with all the latest information.

Lots to Do in Little Tokyo This Weekend!

JANM volunteers in the Nisei Week Grand Parade.

The 2018 Nisei Week Festival is in full swing! One of Los Angeles’ oldest ethnic festivals it offers the opportunity for people of all backgrounds to celebrate Japanese heritage and culture. Though named for second-generation Japanese Americans, Nisei Week is no longer specifically for Nisei, nor is this event contained within a single week. This year’s celebration actually started last weekend, but you can still check out some great events such as the Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship, the Rubik’s Cube Open, a car show, and the closing ceremony!

The theme for this year’s Festival is “Generations,” which pays tribute not only to the legacies of those who helped to build the local Japanese American community, but also to the contributions of Yonsei (fourth generation), Gosei (fifth generation), and all future generations. This theme also is a call for all generations to stand together and ensure that the success of Little Tokyo, Nisei Week, and the Japanese American community continues well into the future.

On Saturday, August 18, you can see the spectacle that is the 12th Annual Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship—the West Coast’s premiere eating competition. Major League Eating’s top competitors will once again try to devour as many gyoza as they can in 10 minutes. Last year, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut reclaimed his title, consuming 377 gyoza in competition. Geoffrey Esper took second place with 317, while Matt “The Megatoad” Stonie came in third with 291. Chestnut still holds the current world record, which he set in 2014 by eating 384 Day-Lee Foods gyoza in 10 minutes. Will this be the year a new world record is set?

JANM will also be joining the fun on Saturday, August 18, with our annual Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., the event is free and offers all kinds of fun for the whole family, including crafts, bubble making, taiko performances, tea ceremonies, live music, and so much more.

Our paper hats are a JANM tradition!

One of your first stops at the Natsumatsuri Family Festival should be at our crafts area. Our paper hats are a JANM tradition and we love seeing all the creative and unique ways visitors fashion their hats. You can also decorate some snazzy sunglasses to keep your eyes in the shade this summer. Then make your way to see our resident origami expert, Ruthie Kitagawa. Learn to fold a paper lantern, a colorful summer festival decoration!

When the little ones need a rest from all the festivities, they can go with mom or dad to check out our toddler roomDisney’s Big Hero 6 will be playing all day. Because we love Nisei Week, adults can receive half off general admission to the museum today, and all the rest of the days of Nisei Week. Just say “Nisei Week” when you arrive. But remember: Natsumatsuri Family Festival is free for everyone!

We hope to see you this weekend in Little Tokyo for all of the fun and traditions the neighborhood has to offer!

Learn more at Niseiweek.org and janm.org/Natsumatsuri2018

What to Expect at Natsumatsuri 2018

JANM is counting down the days to our Natsumatsuri Family Festival! Join us in celebrating the summer season on Saturday, August 18, for a full day of fun: crafts, bubble making, taiko performances, bon odori dances, tea ceremonies, live music, and so much more. Best of all, admission to this annual celebration and the museum will be free all day.

As in years past, we are excited to bring the Okinawan dango booth back to JANM. Always a crowd favorite, Okinawan dango (also known as saataa andaagii, which translates to “deep fried sugar”) are small Japanese donuts fried to crispy perfection on the outside with a deliciously fluffy inside. Popular at summer obon festivals in the West, these traditional treats will only be available while supplies last, so come early!

After you’ve enjoyed some snacks, we have two taiko performances for your entertainment. A cornerstone of Japanese American summer festivals, the taiko drum is a crowd-pleasing loud Japanese instrument. Use of this instrument during festivals dates back as far as the sixth century. Today, taiko refers to a broad range of instruments and ensembles in a practice that transcends cultural, stylistic, and geographical boundaries.

Two talented taiko groups will get hearts racing. San Fernando Valley Taiko takes the stage at 11:15 a.m. in Aratani Central Hall for a performance and interactive taiko demonstration. Founded by two collegiate taiko experts, San Fernando Valley Taiko offers weekly classes for every skill level at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center. If you miss that first taiko display, have no fear. At 4:15 p.m., on our Children’s Courtyard, Los Angeles’ very own TAIKOPROJECT will close the day’s festivities. A modern American taiko group, they put on powerful shows that combine traditional forms with innovative aesthetics. The group has appeared at the Academy Awards and the Grammy Awards, among others.

Taiko drummers perform at Natsumatsuri 2016. (Photo credit: Steve Fujimoto)

Between the taiko performances, Masayo Young will lead three traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, at 12:00 p.m., 1:30 p.m., and 2:30 p.m. Born and raised in Osaka, Young has practiced these ancient rituals for decades. The quiet performances require a focused and meditative sense of control that place value in the process of mindfully preparing and serving matcha tea. The number of participants for each ceremony will be limited, so sign up early to make sure you get a serving of tea with traditional sweets. Sign-up sheets will be available at the museum survey table.

 

At 2:45 p.m., say aloha to Kaulana Ka Hale Kula O Na Pua O Ka Aina in Aratani Central Hall. Since 1999, the group has preserved and shared Native Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures. With learning at the center of their practice, they teach many of their haumana (students) how to make their own implements, attire, and leis. Families are invited to hula alongside them during their set, so come ready to dance.

A group of dancers from Kaulana Ka Hale Kula O Na Pua O Ka Aina perform.

Natsumatsuri Family Festival 2018 will be fun for all ages, from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Free for everyone, JANM invites families to enjoy the entire day, with even more activities including origami workshops, jazz performances, and a scavenger hunt. JANM members get perks throughout the day, including reserved seating and express lines, so join or renew today! More information about all of our Natsumatsuri activities is available on our website.

Tell Your Tales of Little Tokyo

Artist Dan Kwong
Artist Dan Kwong

Dan Kwong is a veteran performance artist, director, writer, and native Angeleno, based at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. He is one of four artists who are currently part of the inaugural +Lab Artist Residency Program, sponsored by the Little Tokyo Service Center. The theme of the residency is Community Control and Self-Determination. The four artists are living in the historic Daimaru Hotel on First Street for three months while creating art projects that involve the Little Tokyo community and speak to this topic.

Dan’s project, Tales of Little Tokyo, involves collecting personal memories and stories about Little Tokyo from seniors (as well as some younger generation folks), and shaping that material into a theatrical piece.

“Little Tokyo is a precious and vibrant community with over 130 years of history,” says Dan. Our stories are at the heart of that history, and collectively they become the voice of our community. This project aspires to give that voice a hearing.”

Through the first week of July, Dan is conducting a series of informal “story-circle” gatherings at JANM. Story-circles happen every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, usually from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., and Wednesdays, usually from 1:45 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. Gatherings happen in JANM’s Araki Community Education Center.

Members of the JANM community share stories of Little Tokyo

In these story-circles, Dan asks various questions—it’s a bit like an interview—and people share their memories, stories, and anecdotes about Little Tokyo. These are recorded.

In early July, Dan will sort through and edit this material and write a theatrical piece that expresses the significance and value of preserving and sustaining Little Tokyo as a cultural community.

On the weekend of July 28-29, there will be a public presentation (most likely a staged reading) of the piece in JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum.

Please let Dan know if you are interested in sharing your tales of Little Tokyo. He would love to hear from you! Dan can be reached at dkbb12@aol.com. A maximum of 10 people can share per session so contact Dan in advance to ensure your spot and confirm the time for the day you want to participate. You can also just drop by one of the story-circle sessions if you’d like to listen in; you might still want to contact Dan to confirm the time. Paid admission to JANM is not required, but there are great exhibitions now on view so you may want to take full advantage of being here. Admission is only $12 for adults and $6 for seniors.

For more information about the +Lab Artist Residency Program, check out the LTSC’s press release announcing the inaugural artists.

A Visit to Otomisan, the Last Japanese Restaurant in Boyle Heights

Owner Yayoi Watanabe greets customers at the counter.

The history of Otomisan Restaurant in Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood is well documented in the press. It was first opened in 1956 as Otomi Café, by a couple who are remembered today only as Mr. and Mrs. Seto. At that time, Boyle Heights was a melting pot of diverse, working-class immigrant groups that included Jews, Russians, Armenians, Japanese, and Mexicans. The Japanese had begun spilling over from nearby Little Tokyo in the 1920s, at the same time that a critical mass of Jewish migration turned the neighborhood into the largest Jewish enclave west of Chicago. In its early years, Otomi Café was just one of many Japanese establishments in the multiethnic community.

A Los Angeles Times profile from 2007 offers this account of the restaurant’s bustling business during its first decade: “During the weekends, Japanese people from the neighborhood and throughout LA would have prefectural meetings during picnics at places like Griffith Park and Elysian Park. The restaurant would make bento box lunches, hundreds of them, for the meetings.” The clientele was mostly Japanese then, and there was often a wait to get into the tiny eatery.

Inside Otomisan, shortly after the lunch rush.

In the early 1970s, the Setos sold the restaurant to a Mr. and Mrs. Seino, who changed its name to Otomisan. By that time, the neighborhood’s demographics were beginning to shift. Many of the various immigrant groups had moved on, and Boyle Heights began to emerge as a predominantly Mexican American community. Then, in the early 2000s, Mr. Seino passed away, and Otomisan closed down for six months. In addition to being the owner, he had been the sole cook. His widow seemed to be on the verge of giving up the place.

Yayoi Watanabe, the owner of a nearby dry cleaner, had other ideas. She felt it was important to maintain a Japanese presence, keep up a Japanese tradition, in the neighborhood. She convinced Mrs. Seino to sell the restaurant to her, and she has been running it ever since.

Just a few of the objects that decorate the walls and counters.

A group of JANM staffers recently paid a visit to this historic restaurant. It still sits in its original location on First Street near Soto. The place is remarkably small; there are only three booths and a handful of stools at a short bar. Walking into it does feel like going back in time; the furnishings look original, and vintage pictures and knickknacks are pleasantly cluttered everywhere. Watanabe was working behind the counter, as she always does. Behind her in the small kitchen, a lone cook filled all the orders.

We ordered from the menu of classic Japanese comfort dishes: tempura, beef cutlet, chirashi bowl, oyakodon, croquettes, soba noodles. The amiable Watanabe confirmed that the offerings had not changed much since the 1950s; the most recent addition was probably the curry, and that happened in the 1970s. She wanted to stay as close to the original offerings as possible. When our entrees came, we all marveled at how good the food was and how home-cooked it tasted. It felt like we were hanging out in our grandmother’s kitchen—the most nourishing of places. A steady flow of people came in and out of the place while we were there, some looking like they were regulars. The clientele was diverse: Mexican, Japanese, Caucasian.

A combo platter with their famous tempura and a tasty beef cutlet.

When asked if she had any news for our readers, Watanabe thought of her impending hire of a second cook, which is indeed significant given the restaurant’s long history of operating with just one. Perhaps the real news here, however, is simply that Otomisan still stands, serving comforting and authentic Japanese diner food to a diverse clientele much as it always has, even as the world around it continues to change.

Otomisan is located at 2506-1/2 East 1st Street in Boyle Heights.

To learn more about the history of this neighborhood, be sure to visit the archival site for JANM’s 2002 exhibition, The Power of Place: Boyle Heights Project.

Until next time!