Fire was a major threat in the villages of old Japan, so many of them had yaguras -- tall towers from which lookouts could warn the populace of an outbreak, ringing a gigantic bell. When a revitalization project was launched in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo in the late 1970s, designers of the Japanese Village Plaza decided to anchor the shopping enclave with one of these nostalgic symbols of the homeland. So a three-story covered tower was constructed on First Street and painted a deep red.
One little problem, though.
"There was some alarm when the tower was built," said Cameron Trowbridge, who led a recent L.A. Conservancy walking tour of the neighborhood. "Yaguras are commonplace in the villages of Japan, but to Japanese Americans it bore a chilling resemblance to the guard tower at the Manzanar camp."
It was yet another poignant tale of Little Tokyo. There are a lot of them in a community that has endured discrimination, injustice and disruption, yet has shown remarkable perseverance throughout.
Established in the late 1880s when the first Japanese immigrants came to California to farm, fish and build railroads, Little Tokyo faced the xenophobia of the early 1900s -- when people from Japan were not allowed to own land or become citizens -- and suffered through the appalling displacement and incarceration of World War II, when residents were rounded up and herded off to concentration camps farther inland, including Manzanar, at the foot of the
The neighborhood struggled to re-establish itself after that, as many returnees drifted off to the suburbs. And the district strains to maintain its viability today, as the boom in loft housing downtown threatens to alter the personality of the community.
"There is just a ton of market-rate housing going up," said Chris Komai, whose family has published the neighborhood's Japanese newspaper, Rafu Shimpo, for three generations. "It's going to change the dynamics of Little Tokyo. No one knows how it's going to turn out.
"No ethnic neighborhood has been able to be anything other than a tourist attraction in America -- the Little Italys, the Chinatowns."
Working in Little Tokyo's favor is the presence of some superb cultural institutions -- and the fact that Anglo visitors have proven keenly interested in Japanese dance, music, theater and history. Japanese cuisine has become much less mystifying, too, having found its way into supermarkets and suburban strip malls.
These factors could strengthen the viability of Little Tokyo, and thus keep traditional businesses and residents rooted here.
When your summer guests descend on you, this might be a lesser-known sliver of L.A. to introduce them to, an enchanting neighborhood on the eastern edge of downtown, with hidden gardens, historic buildings, public art, fine museums and, of course, wondrous scents and tastes.
The L.A. Conservancy walking tour, offered the second Saturday morning of each month, provides a nice overview. Trowbridge, our guide, used to work as a librarian at the Japanese American National Museum here. He probably spent more time than necessary on the unexceptional architecture of the area; we found the public art, the checkered history and the social traditions much more interesting.
A highlight was permission for the group to enter the Higashi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, whose distinctive roof lines and immaculate garden present an incongruous sight against the backdrop of L.A's skyscrapers. We stood hushed before the elaborate altar of the temple, our senses assaulted by burning incense.
The tour pokes briefly into the Japanese American National Museum, but every visitor to Little Tokyo should budget a couple of hours in this remarkable facility.
The museum stages world-class art exhibits -- recently the looped-wire sculpture of Ruth Asawa, for example -- but its true treasure is the ongoing "Common Ground: The Heart of Community," where the story of L.A.'s Japanese immigrants unfolds.
In the dark recesses of the exhibit, prepare to have your teeth set on edge. Here is a poster for the Japanese & Korean Exclusion League in 1906, agitating to keep Asian kids out of the public schools. (You can't help notice that all four signatories have Irish surnames; not exactly indigenous Americans.) There is also information about draconian immigration restrictions, and laws passed to deny Japanese immigrants land ownership and U.S. citizenship -- the latter wasn't repealed until 1952.
But the most heart-rending of all -- and it consumes most of the exhibit -- is the internment during World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt's executive order 9066 decreed that "all persons of Japanese ancestry" had five days to sell their belongings, pack up a few personal items and prepare for relocation to inland camps. Some 110,000 people along the West Coast were displaced, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens -- without due process, without anyone ever being charged with a crime.
One of the camp barracks from Heart Mountain, Wyo., was disassembled and moved here in 1994. Its rough-milled lumber is weathered by the harsh winters of 50 years, and scraps of tar paper -- a feeble barrier to the wind, dust and snow flurries -- still cover the cracks.
Most striking, however, are the photographs from the camps. Japanese Americans assemble for the morning raising of the American flag, and they're standing respectfully at attention. Kids who've joined the camp Boy Scout troop beam into the camera. There are also photos of young men who went off to war at the behest of the government that was interning their families.
Some of these themes are further explored across the alley from the museum, at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, a portion of which is housed in the 1925 Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple -- and is worth a visit if only to see the design flourishes of the interior.
The neighborhood is also home to the Geffen Contemporary, a warehouse exhibition space used by the Museum of Contemporary Art; the East West Players, an accomplished theater troupe that stages its productions in the 1922 Union Church; and the Japan America Theater, which presents traditional performing arts from Japan, including Grand Kabuki with Nakamura Ganjiro III (opens Thursday and runs through June 24).
But beyond these obvious cultural anchors, Little Tokyo is a place of little discoveries and surprises.
Seek out the serene, split-level garden of the New Otani Hotel, which spreads out on the roof of the third floor and provides a tranquil hideaway of waterfalls, ponds, bamboo and trees of gum, pine and Japanese maple. Non-guests can relax here for drinks and appetizers on summer evenings.
The James Irvine Garden is another quiet retreat, occupying a triangular plot next to the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. (It will be even more inviting when they fix the broken pump that operates the stream and waterfall.)
On the north side of First Street is a row of brick buildings that predate World War II and provide a sense of Little Tokyo in its infancy. One establishment, the Chop Suey Cafe, has a bar that opens onto a narrow, brick-walled patio strung with tiny colored lights -- an inviting place to unwind after a night on the town. Another business, Fugetsu-Do, a confectionery that has been here since 1903, is renowned for its mochi -- glutinous rice cakes, some stuffed with sweet red-bean paste.
Elsewhere in Little Tokyo, you might happen upon a morning tai chi class in the Noguchi Plaza, survey the names on the polished black war memorial in front of the community center or browse in the Japanese Village Plaza -- where one shop bridges the cultures with a sign that reads "kimono, tuxedo, wedding dress."
Or pause to contemplate any of a half-dozen public art installations. Perhaps the fiberglass sculpture by Shinkichi Tajiri at the corner of Second and San Pedro streets. It's called "Friendship Knot."
What an encouraging sentiment that is after all that has transpired here.
IF YOU GO:
WHERE: Little Tokyo lies directly east of downtown L.A., bordered roughly by Los Angeles Street on the west, Temple Street on the north, Alameda Street on the east and Third Street on the south. Parking can be a chancy proposition -- as parking lots have been converted to high-rise housing developments in recent years. Try the Japanese Village Plaza lot off Central Avenue.
CHOP SUEY CAFE: 347 E. First St., (213) 617-9990, www.chopsueycafe.com.
EAST WEST PLAYERS: 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., (213) 625-7000, www.eastwestplayers.org.
FUGETSU-DO: 315 E. First St., (213) 625-8595, www.fugetsu-do.com.
GEFFEN CONTEMPORARY: 152 N. Central Ave., (213) 626-6222, www.moca.org.
JAMES IRVINE GARDEN: At the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, 244 S. San Pedro St., (213) 628-2725, www.jaccc.org.
JAPANESE AMERICAN NATIONAL MUSEUM: 369 E. First St. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (to 8 p.m. on Thursdays). Adult admission, $8. www.janm.org, (213) 625-0414.
JAPANESE VILLAGE PLAZA: In the pocket formed by First Street, Central Avenue and Second Street.
L.A. CONSERVANCY WALKING TOUR: Offered the second Saturday of each month. Tour begins at 10 a.m. and usually lasts two-plus hours. Cost is $5 for conservancy members, $10 for nonmembers. Reservations required: (213) 623-2489, www.laconservancy.org.
NATIONAL CENTER/PRESERVATION DEMOCRACY: 111 N. Central Ave. Open Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (213) 830-1880, www.ncdemocracy.org.SEEKING OUT THE TASTY TREATS OF LITTLE TOKYO
Lunch becomes an impulse buy at the Frying Fish, a fun little Japanese restaurant in Little Tokyo's Japanese Village Plaza.
This is one of those sushi bars that employs the gimmick of a conveyor belt at its horseshoe-shaped counter. The sushi chefs place fresh creations on little plates, the kitchen staff sets out hot items, and everything passes slowly by, sorely tempting patrons.
To cut down on confusion -- and reduce the number of questions fired at the busy chefs -- plates are color-coded according to price, and a legend on the wall lets you know, for example, that California roll on the white plate is $2.85, the yellowtail on the silver-blue plate is $3, and the spicy tuna roll on the wood-grain plate is $3.50.
We enjoyed each of those, as well as ahi, halibut, big Philadelphia rolls, pork dumplings and miso soup, all washed down with cold bottles of Asahi beer.
The Frying Fish's conveyor-belt parade seemed particularly popular with the young Japanese American kids sitting next to us, because they got to make the decisions on what would comprise their lunch.
The dishes have plastic covers for sanitary purposes, and sometimes it's difficult to ascertain what exactly a particular plate holds. But a fun strategy is simply to pull off something that looks good, try it, then flag down one of the chefs to ask what exactly it is.
With its proximity to the office buildings of downtown L.A., Little Tokyo has a wealth of these enjoyable lunch spots. They also provide diverse options for folks summoned to jury duty at the nearby county courthouse complex.
Another hit with us was the bustling T.O.T. (which stands for Teishokuya of Tokyo). Its lunch bowls brim with savory concoctions -- spicy chicken and slippery udon noodles ($10.50), for example, or tuna and avocado with rice ($8.50).
The setting is pleasant, too, with wood floors, wood screens, bamboo lanterns and bamboo screens covering light fixtures.
For fine dining in the evening, perhaps the best Japanese restaurant in the downtown region is R23, which occupies former warehouse space in the fast-recovering Artists' District just east of Little Tokyo.
The raw-bar items are of extraordinary quality, but the entrees are their equal -- clearly crafted with sashimi-grade fish and shellfish.
We opted for all-raw starter courses: a delectable four-piece portion of yellowtail sashimi ($10) -- amazing flavor and texture -- with two-piece servings of halibut and albacore sushi ($5 each).
Then it was on to lightly fried and succulent jumbo shrimp tempura with vegetables ($22) and sauteed scallops with shitake mushrooms and asparagus ($27). The scallops were sliced into medallions for more even cooking and served with a light cream sauce.
Getting here is an adventure. R23 is down an alley from which train tracks still protrude. You ascend the loading dock to enter (in this neighborhood, valet parking is probably a good idea), and step into a world you'd never imagine from the exterior. Candles are everywhere, art on the walls brings to mind Gaugin's work in the South Pacific, and there are cardboard chairs (yes, that's right) designed by Frank Gehry. The walls are bare brick, and there is a pleasing view of the L.A. skyline out the west-facing windows.
The only drawbacks we encountered were service that was a bit rushed and the entire entree menu -- 21 Chef's Specials -- printed without a single price, so you feel like a Philistine inquiring about each one.
-- Eric Noland