ICYMI: Recent News Roundup

A panel from Chapter 3 of Bombshells United. Courtesy of DC Entertainment.

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!

A Vegetarian’s Guide to Dining in Little Tokyo: Going Vegan, Part 2

Rakkan’s vegan gyoza is very tasty and comes with a unique tomato salsa for extra flavor.
All photos by Sylvia Lopez.

Last week, we looked at some great choices for a filling vegan lunch in Little Tokyo. Today, we will explore vegan options in noodles and desserts!

Rakkan
359 East First Street

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.

The Bekko Ramen at Rakkan.

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.

PB&J or coconut? Which one to choose?!

Café Dulce
134 Japanese Village Plaza, Building E

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!

The vegan coconut donut pairs well with Café Dulce’s signature drinks.

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!

You can take a real-life vegetarian tour of Little Tokyo this Saturday, October 21, when our intrepid volunteer Roxane Lewis leads Edible Adventures: Vegetarian Little Tokyo. Purchase your tickets here.

A Vegetarian’s Guide to Dining in Little Tokyo: Going Vegan, Part 1

Tofu tacos topped with a vegan coleslaw, one of two bento options at Far Bar.
All photos by Sylvia Lopez.

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!

Sandwich Shop
123 Astronaut E S Onizuka Street, Suite 108

The vegan chicken banh mi from Sandwich Shop.

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.

Far Bar
347 East First Street

The Thai curry bento at Far Bar, my favorite of their two vegan bento offerings.

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!

Next week: ramen and desserts!

Did you enjoy these tips? Come take a real-life vegetarian tour of Little Tokyo on Saturday, October 21, when our intrepid volunteer Roxane Lewis leads Edible Adventures: Vegetarian Little Tokyo. Purchase your tickets here.

Mikado Hotel Preserves a Slice of Little Tokyo History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kouraku Japanese Restaurant
314 E. 2nd Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warren Sata Pays Tribute to Japanese American Photographers with Moss on the Mirror

J. T. Sata, Untitled (Portrait), 1928, gelatin silver print. Partial and promised gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family. Collection of the Japanese American National Museum.
J. T. Sata, Untitled (Portrait), 1928, gelatin
silver print. Partial and promised gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family. Collection of the Japanese American National Museum.

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.

J. T. Sata, Untitled (Ice Cream Cones), 1930, gelatin silver print. Partial and promised gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family. Collection of the Japanese American National Museum.
J. T. Sata, Untitled (Ice Cream Cones), 1930, gelatin silver print.
Partial and promised gift of Frank and Marian Sata and Family.
Collection of the Japanese American National Museum.

 

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.

Moss on the Mirror is free with museum admission, but RSVPs are recommended.

Roxana Lewis Has a Passion for Adventure

Roxana Lewis. All photos by Dr. T. Takasugi.
Roxana Lewis. All photos by Dr. T. Takasugi.

 

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.

At the sushi bar.
At the sushi bar.

 

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.

A friendly sushi chef.
A friendly sushi chef.

 

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.

Checking out the offerings at a local market.
Checking out the offerings at a local market.

 

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.

Roxana Lewis gives the group the inside scoop on Little Tokyo.
Roxana Lewis gives her group the inside scoop on Little Tokyo.

 

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).

You’re in luck—this Saturday, February 20, Roxana Lewis will lead Sweets and Street Art of Little Tokyo. Sample Asian sweets such as dango (rice dumplings), mochi ice cream, imagawayaki (filled pastry), and yokan (jellied dessert) while exploring the street art of Little Tokyo. Tickets are still available!

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!