Dan Kwong is a veteran performanceartist, 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
The Little Tokyo Walking Tour is one of many public programs offered by the Japanese American National Museum. In conjunction with JANM’s latest exhibition,Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, visitors will soon be able to tour the Little Tokyo Historic District with an experienced Spanish-speaking docent. To gain more insight into this new offering, JANM Visitor Services Associate Sergio Holguin sat down with Monica Cruz, the docent who will lead the tour, for a brief discussion.
Author’s note: In this discussion, “Latino” is shorthand for a larger, mixed identity/ies. Both parties use the term to refer to persons of Mexican, Mexican-American, Latin American, and mixed Hispanic descent. The term is not used to describe those who significantly identify with specific indigenous identities or those who represent themselves as “Chicano.” “Latino” is used for the sake of brevity, and should not be misconstrued as a reductive gesture. If there are any questions or concerns, please feel free to comment below.
Sergio Holguin: Tell me about yourself and the work you do with JANM.
Monica Cruz: I’ve been a member of the museum for about five years, and a volunteer for three. I’ve worked in a variety of capacities: Visitor Services, when they need me; leading the Little Tokyo Walking Tour (I was trained as a docent); and now I’m a part of the group that helps out at the HNRC (Hirasaki National Resource Center).
SH: As a Mexican-American, I tend to get a lot of puzzled looks from folks coming in, even after seven years of working here. As a non-Japanese person like me, how did you get involved with the Japanese American community?
MC: To make the story short, my late husband was Japanese American, the first generation in his family to be born in the United States.
SH: So he was Shin-Nisei [a child of Japanese immigrants who arrived in the US after World War II]?
MC: Yes, we were both actually born in the US territory of Puerto Rico and moved to California for work. When he passed, I decided to stay close to the Japanese American community here, in celebration of his memory. I started volunteering with the different temples, and also got involved in Obon season, when they remember the dead—kind of like Día de los Muertos for us Latinos. I became a member of the museum because of all the programs they offer, and I saw the need for volunteers at that point, and I wanted to be a part of that as well.
SH: I like that you brought up Obon, because that’s actually how I was first drawn to visit Little Tokyo years ago. There’s a lot of overlap between cultures—not just Mexican, Latino, and Japanese culture, but other cultures as well. Remembering and honoring the dead, responsibility to family, and public service—those are very universal human traits. It’s important that we celebrate intersections of identity. What are some of your thoughts and hopes for the very first Little Tokyo Walking Tour en Español?
MC: I think that Transpacific Borderlands and this tour both provide opportunities to increase our knowledge and understanding overall, with a particular focus on the mix between cultures. We can each say that we have gone through similar changes—moving from a different country to here, learning new cultures, and learning new things as part of joining “the American Dream.” I think that opening doors of understanding for people who may not be comfortable with English, but are still an important part of the community, can help with that.
I would like others to discover and fall in love with Little Tokyo the way I did. I think if we offer the tours in Spanish and other languages as well, we can share our experience with others while growing as a group and bringing new stories and experiences into the museum.
SH: Absolutely, and that’s the museum’s mission: to share Japanese American stories to celebrate America’s cultural diversity and encourage others to share their own stories. If we’re able to talk with one another along those lines, the more rigid lines between communities start to melt away.
MC: I think that’s the part I enjoy the most: when people who begin the tour being quiet or shy actually open up and start sharing their life stories. Because even though this is the Japanese American National Museum, I think that the general idea of being an immigrant or coming from an immigrant background is something we share with others.
SH: It’s always fun to hear where people are from—whether it’s France, Osaka, or even El Sereno—and what brought them to Little Tokyo, because that in turn informs and becomes part of your experience.
MC: Yes. The stories that people tell me, I can sometimes include on my Little Tokyo tours. For example, someone once noted that the Brunswig Square building looks a lot like Los Angeles City Hall, so I did some research and found out they were designed by the same architect. Even if you have led the tour many times, the perspective of other people can still open new doors.
SH: Tell us more about what your tour en Español will be like.
MC: It depends on the needs of the group. Sometimes people are here for school, so certain kinds of information are more important for them. But I do want everyone to be familiar with the area so that even after the tour they are able to go and find their own adventure. We only have two hours to condense decades of living in Little Tokyo! As time moves forward, we get different types of people moving into the area. I don’t expect everyone to sit down and read up on all the history, but I do expect them to go and have an adventure!
Museum admission is included with the fee for the tour, so after lunch, I encourage people to come visit the museum. I feel that JANM is the spine of the whole Little Tokyo experience, not only because it’s the Japanese American National Museum, but because it tells you the story from the beginning, when the Japanese first began migrating to the United States.
Monica Cruz will be leading a tour of Little Tokyo in Spanish on February 10 at 10:15 a.m. You can purchase tickets for the tour here. Visitor Services staff at the front desk are always happy to answer questions about the tour or any of our other public programs.
Sergio Holguin is a Visitor Services Associate at JANM. Formerly a volunteer docent, Holguin strives to share his personal story as a means of encouraging discussions of contemporary identity within a shared American history. You can read about his journey on Discover Nikkei.
Many news items come across the desk of the editor here at the First and Central blog. As busy as we’ve been over the last few months with the opening of JANM’s major new exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, and various other developments, we haven’t had the chance to share as many of these as we’d like. Following, therefore, is a roundup of notable news items from the last few months. If you missed any of them, here’s your chance to catch up!
Little Tokyo Has Been Named a California Cultural District
Our own neighborhood of Little Tokyo was named one of 14 California Cultural Districts by the California Arts Council. A new initiative in its first year of operation, the Cultural District designation is designed to “grow and sustain authentic grassroots arts and cultural opportunities, increas[e] the visibility of local artists and community participation in local arts and culture, and promot[e] socioeconomic and ethnic diversity.” The districts are also intended to play a conscious role in tackling issues of artist displacement.
A Cultural District is defined as a “well-defined geographic area with a high concentration of cultural resources and activities.” The designation comes with benefits, such as technical assistance, peer-to-peer exchanges, and access to branding materials and promotional strategy. Per state legislation, each of the districts will hold the designation for five years.
We couldn’t be prouder of our district, which joins other vibrant cultural centers throughout California such as the Eureka Cultural Arts District and Balboa Park in San Diego. To see the complete list of 14 districts, click here. To read more about the initiative, click here.
Wonder Woman Confronts Japanese American Incarceration in New DC Comic
Wonder Woman is looming large in popular entertainment these days. The blockbuster action movie starring Gal Gadot was a huge hit earlier this year, and a sequel is in the works. A smaller film called Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which explores the origins of the classic comic book character, was just released last month.
The staff at JANM was thrilled, therefore, to learn that a new digital comic book has come out that imagines Wonder Woman fighting, and even helping to prevent, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The series, titled Bombshells United, is written by Marguerite Bennett and illustrated by Marguerite Sauvage. Bennett decided to write the story after noticing that her cousins’ American history textbooks failed to mention the incarceration. Angered by the erasure, she set about doing her research, reading books like Farewell to Manzanar and No-No Boy, and paying visits to JANM (!) and the Manzanar National Historic Site.
The resulting story focuses on a group of ordinary Japanese American girls who hatch a plan to halt one of the trains going to camp. Bennett chooses to make them the heroes of the story, with some help from Wonder Woman. Although the story is a fantasy, many of the details are historically accurate. Bennett plans to continue exploring a variety of WWII and postwar stories in this series, even looking at intergenerational struggles between the Issei and Nisei.
Read an interview with Marguerite Bennett here. Purchase the comic books here.
Another Exclusive Naomi Hirahara Serial Now on Discover Nikkei
Everyone’s favorite JA mystery writer is at it again. Our Discover Nikkei project, which has hosted several exclusive serials by Naomi Hirahara, is especially thrilled this time to serve as the publisher of Trouble on Temple Street, the third installment in the Ellie Rush detective series. This installment, which follows two published book installments, will be published as an online serial, with new chapters coming out monthly.
Ellie, an LAPD bicycle cop who has been on the force for two years, finds herself in the middle of a Little Tokyo murder case that may potentially involve the people she loves most: her family. Will she be able to connect the dots before the killer harms her aunt, who is deputy chief of the LAPD? Where will Ellie’s allegiance fall—to the truth, or to family loyalty? The serial launched on September 4 and will continue through next August. Read the first two chapters now!
Rakkan Ramen is one of the newest restaurants to open up on First Street, just steps away from JANM, and they have some stiff competition. They are one of four ramen spots on that block alone! However, I think they give themselves a strong edge with their wide array of vegan-friendly options.
On the menu, you will find avocado sashimi, an avocado and tofu bowl (they had me at “avocado”), and a vegan gyoza, which is fried without being oily and has a delightful crispiness to it. In addition to all this, they also offer vegan ramen! Now, this is a big deal to me as ramen traditionally features broth made from pork or fish, and noodles made with eggs. As an amateur home cook, I know that you can get some of that umami flavor from kombu and dried shiitake, so it’s always great to see restaurants consider plant-based broths.
At Rakkan, they will even provide a laminated card listing their ingredients, allowing curious guests with food aversions to order with some peace of mind. For vegans, you can order the Pearl, Bekko, or Ruby ramen. I had the Bekko, which had a savory miso broth, chewy wheat-based noodles, slices of bamboo shoot and mushroom, cubes of tofu, and fresh chopped scallions. The only thing that left me baffled was the slice of tomato included as a topping, but I’m nitpicking at this point because overall, I was impressed! Ramen is such a comfort food to me and while many think that vegetarians should be content with a salad, Rakkan has demonstrated that variety and substance are possible.
Bonus Tips for Noodle Lovers
For people with wheat sensitivity, there are also gluten-free noodles available at Rakkan. Don’t forget to also try My Ramen Bar’s vegetarian ramen, which features spinach noodles. And if you’re in the mood for a thicker noodle, Kagura, located inside the Japanese Village Plaza, also offers vegan and vegetarian soups—my favorite is their veggie udon.
While I did talk about Café Dulce in my first Vegetarian Little Tokyo blog entry, I come back to it with important news: they now offer vegan donuts! I repeat, DONUTS! This is kind of a big deal considering the fact that I often walk into the JANM staff lounge and see a pink box full of donuts that I could never eat, and can only stare longingly at. When I found out Café Dulce was offering vegan donuts, I was immediately on the case.
Because a staff member at the café is vegan, the owners decided to introduce two new donuts that are made without eggs or butter: the peanut butter and jelly donut and the coconut donut. Both are delicious, flavorful, and sweet without tasting like pure sugar. The PB&J was surprisingly refined; I was expecting a slathering of conventional peanut butter, but instead, you get a raised donut sliced in half, sealed together with just the right amount of jelly, and topped with crushed peanuts. The coconut donut is also raised, topped with a generous amount of thinly sliced coconut shreds, and drizzled with chocolate and nuts. Pair one of these donuts with Café Dulce’s signature coffee or tea, and you’re set for a break time treat!
Bonus Tips for Sweet Tooths
Now let’s say you’re in the mood for something sweet, yet more representative of traditional Japanese culture. Head on over to Mitsuru Café, also located inside the Village Plaza. Here you can pick up a mitarashi dango—a sweet rice ball skewer topped with a warm, sugary soy glaze. You can also go to Fugetsu-Do (Little Tokyo’s oldest business!) on First Street, not too far from the plaza, and find a wide variety of mochi and manju that are crafted onsite.
Be sure to check out my other two blog posts (here and here) to learn more about vegetarian dining choices in Little Tokyo!
Being vegetarian in Little Tokyo is getting easier than ever. Being vegan—which means eliminating all animal-related products from one’s diet and lifestyle—still offers a bit of challenge, especially when you have lunch meetings with coworkers and you don’t want to inconvenience them. While I will gladly take one for the team and just go with a salad on a lunch outing, I’m happy to report that there are some great vegan gems to be found in Little Tokyo—some recently added! In fact, I have so many tips to share that this blog post will have to be divided into two parts.
So if you’re thinking about taking more steps toward a plant-based lifestyle, or just want to try something different, read on for my suggestions, and don’t forget to check back next week for Part 2!
Located next to the Marukai Market in Weller Court is an inconspicuous little place: The Sandwich Shop. Their name says it all—they have sandwiches! I was excited to see that they actually have a vegan offering, and a hearty one at that. The vegan chicken banh mi includes pickled vegetables, jalapeño peppers, cilantro, and vegan mayo, all on a crisp baguette. The “chicken” is soy-based and marinated in a ginger sauce, giving it a delicious flavor that blends well with the other components.
This one made me nervous the first time I tried it because it was a little too much like the real thing. But if faux meat is your thing, or if you are an omnivore looking to add more plant-based meals to the mix, this is a great option that always hits the spot, especially when I’m on the verge of being “hangry.” They offer a variety of chips to choose from, so grab a bag along with your sandwich for the perfect lunchtime recharge.
Just steps from JANM is Far Bar, a hip fusion restaurant specializing in craft beer, spirits, and enticing food. Its location in the historic Far East Building gives it a chic vintage vibe, making it a great spot to unwind after a long day. While their dinner menu includes a number of vegan specialties, I’m going to focus on their lunch offerings, which feature not one but two vegan bento plates: the Thai curry and the tofu tacos. Each bento comes with a vegan mushroom soup, edamame, a grain salad, rice, and fresh fruit, all for just $10.
My favorite, the Thai curry, has a variety of squash, carrots, and potatoes in a creamy broth with a hint of coconut and spice. The mushroom soup is light yet robust in flavor, and the grain salad is a nice, refreshing complement to the meal. The tofu tacos are tasty and a great example of Japanese-Mexican fusion, which this vegan Chicana working in Little Tokyo can really appreciate! Make sure you ask for hot sauce though as these tacos are very mild in flavor. I only wish you could order these bentos for dinner as well as lunch!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
This Saturday, May 7, at 2 p.m., JANM will present a dramatic reading of Moss on the Mirror, a fictional play inspired by the life and work of renowned photographer Toyo Miyatake. Taking place in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district in the late 1920s and early 1930s, where Miyatake’s practice flourished before World War II, the play examines the creativity, hope, and optimism, as well as the struggles and challenges, of the Japanese immigrant photographers community.
Although not a literal retelling of actual events, the piece seeks to transport audiences to the feelings and circumstances of those times. Moss on the Mirror was written by Warren Sata, whose paternal grandfather was J.T. Sata (1896–1975), a featured photographer (along with Miyatake) in the current exhibition Making Waves: Japanese American Photography, 1920–1940. To learn more about the play, we conducted a brief interview with Sata via email.
JANM: What does the title Moss on the Mirror refer to?
Warren Sata: The title refers to the notion that we understand ourselves and our communities through reflection, or looking in the mirror. The moss evokes a clouded mirror, alluding to the influence of outside circumstances like poverty and racism.
JANM: What inspired you to write this play?
WS: The story of Los Angeles’ Issei photographers has fascinated me and inspired my imagination since I learned about them from my father some years ago. A conversation with actor/director Chris Tashima, who serves as the play’s director, helped me to recognize the importance of Toyo Miyatake’s journey toward becoming a pillar of the community. I began to understand the value of artistry and responsibility in a different way, which led me to take an interest in sketching the story of Japanese Americans photographers and their interests and practices prior to the WWII incarceration.
JANM: What is your favorite image by a Japanese American photographer, and why?
WS: I am drawn to an abstract self-portrait created by my grandfather, J.T. Sata, which is currently on display in Making Waves. It utilizes triangles and a photographic image of his face. The interplay between a realistic portrait and an abstract prepared background fascinates me; it seems to suggest a doorway between the real world and subjective experience. This allows for a dialogue between these worlds and gives value to the notion of participating in both. I enjoy this because it pushes me to understand the Issei experience and what that might have felt like.
JANM: What do you hope audiences will get out of the dramatic reading?
WS: I hope that audience members will be motivated to honor the contributions of the Issei photographic pioneers, but also to consider what their experiences were like in the 1920s and ’30s—their creativity, their principles, their aesthetics, and the culture and context of the times.
Since 2011, travel agent and food enthusiast Roxana Lewis has been leading Edible Adventures, food-themed walking tours of the Little Tokyo neighborhood, for JANM. Recent adventures have included Little Tokyo Sushi Graze; A Noodling Walk through Little Tokyo; and Little Tokyo Markets, Then and Now. Lewis’s tours are always packed, and participants always come away with a happy belly and increased knowledge of our neighborhood and our culture.
We recently sat down with Lewis to find out more about her background and what drives her to lead Edible Adventures.
JANM: Tell us about yourself and your professional background.
Roxana Lewis: I am a Sansei, born in Boyle Heights. My father was born in San Francisco, my mother in Salt Lake City. I am a travel industry veteran, having started as a ticket agent with Western Airlines in 1968. I worked in corporate travel for a Washington, D.C., think tank before starting my own travel agency, Chartwell Travel Services, in 1977. I named it after Winston Churchill’s home in Kent, England; I was in my Anglophile phase, and I also liked the play on words. In 2007, Chartwell merged with Protravel International, Beverly Hills.
My specialties are customized travel arrangements to the backroads of Italy, which I’ve done since 1985, and off-the-beaten-path tours of Japan, which I’ve organized since 1999. I travel annually to keep my knowledge current, exploring different villages and towns, new hotels, unique hiking routes, unusual Zen gardens, special crafts people. I also excel in adventure travel, both soft- and hardcore; I have led some serious mountaineering expeditions, including ascents of Mount Fuji, Mount Rainier, Denali, and Mont Blanc. And, I have a major marathon habit; I have run 244 to date, the last three on a round-the-world trip, from which I just returned last week.
JANM: You obviously have a serious, lifelong love of both travel and food. Can you say a little bit about where this passion comes from?
RL: As a veteran travel agent, I am professionally predisposed to “the road.” Food and culture are twins in any country; where there are people, there is food. To embrace the people, you must embrace their food.
JANM: How did you first come into contact with JANM?
RL: I met [former longtime JANM staff member] Nancy Araki at a National Geographic presentation of photographs by Hong Kong explorer and photojournalist How Man Wong. I told her I was looking for a volunteer project. In 1989, when the museum was still in its early formative stages, I began helping out by doing outreach from its warehouse on Fifth Street downtown.
When JANM opened its first public space in the Historic Building in 1992, I served on every committee invented. I spearheaded the first Volunteer Speakers Bureau, served on the President’s Council, and did a lot of work with Community Outreach.
JANM: What inspired you to launch Edible Adventures?
RL: I had been doing a “Graze Little Tokyo” walking tour for the Sierra Club since the 1990s. By the late 2000s, my JANM volunteer time had become occasional, and my guilt forced me to ask [Vice President of Programs] Koji Sakai if I could develop a food-centric series of tours. He said yes and Edible Adventures was born.
JANM: What are the goals you have in mind when you lead a tour?
RL: My primary goal is to introduce a new audience to the museum, using food as my carrot on a stick, so to speak. I also look for ways to create interest in the Little Tokyo community and then naturally, the Japanese American story.
JANM: What is your own favorite Asian food?
RL: I have a sweet tooth, so I love any dessert, from Japanese manjū (rice cake with bean paste or other filling) to Filipino halo-halo (shaved ice dessert with milk, jello, fruits, sweet beans, and other ingredients) to Chinese dàn tà (egg custard tart).