LITTLE TOKYO

It’s hard to believe – especially with our national culinary obsession with sushi – but Little Tokyo is one of only three Japantowns left in the United States (the others are located in San Francisco and San Jose). So Angelenos should feel especially lucky that this ethnically Japanese-American neighborhood in downtown LA is still around to offer over 100 Japanese restaurants, beauty supply stores, mochi shops, and tea houses.

Little Tokyo was founded around 1905, but much of the population disappeared in the 1940s, when the Japanese living in Los Angeles were rounded up and sent to inland concentration camps. Japanese-Americans began returning to the area in the late 40s and early 50s, but they also began moving to surrounding neighborhoods like Boyle Heights. Today, unlike most ethnic enclaves in LA, not many Japanese-Americans actually LIVE in Little Tokyo anymore – it’s mostly just a hotspot for shopping, eating, and playing.

And shop and eat and play you will. Little Tokyo may only consist of about 5 city blocks, but it’s home to karaoke clubs, shabu-shabu restaurants, Japanese bookstores, shaved ice joints, speciality shoe stores, museums, art galleries, gardens, and SO. MUCH. MORE.

Stop 1: Demitasse Cafe

This trendy coffeehouse has an unparalleled list of signature drinks, and takes its dedication to caffeinated beverages very seriously. The cafe boasts a beautiful (and aromatic!) coffee bar – with daily selections on display in front of the friendly baristas pulling shots (each barista has his or her own signature drink too – ours was offering his Dark Chocolate Mocha with Sriracha).

We both ordered from the signature drink list: a Black Sesame Lemongrass Latte (with black sesame paste, lemongrass extract, and almond milk) and an Iced Minty Cubano (iced latte with muddled mint and raw sugar). The drinks were strange and delicious, and we ogled the pastry case with its kimchi spam musubi croissant and blueberry lemon cornmeal biscuit (all baked goods come from Sugarbloom Bakery). Perfection.

(135 S San Pedro Street, Los Angeles)

Stop 2: Little Tokyo Galleria

Walk inside the Little Tokyo Galleria, and you will easily feel transported to Japan – couples posing for multiple photos by the fountain, grandmothers sipping boba tea, families lining up for shabu-shabu. This shopping center is home to the famed all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ spot Manna, a bowling alley, vegan sushi, Daiso (a Japanese version of the dollar store, with fun items like origami paper, Disney socks, Japanese candy and paper lanterns), the notoriously delicious cream puffs at Beard Papa, and Home Mart.

If you don’t walk outta this place without at least ONE wacky, yummy, or funny item, you’re truly missing out.

(333 Alameda Street, Los Angeles)

Stop 3: Maruya Sushi

The debate over the best sushi joint in Little Tokyo could go on for hours, but we love Maruya Sushi for several important reasons: the sushi chefs are very generous with fish portions, the prices are reasonable, AND they are open for lunch (note: many of the sushi restaurants in Little Tokyo open after 5pm). We easily got a spot at the sushi bar after wandering in mid-afternoon on a Sunday, and ordered the hamachi (yellowtail) and salmon nigiri, as well as a salmon and avocado roll. The rice is especially good (key for a sushi restaurant!) and the fish melted in our mouths. Friendly service and a few extra servings of fish certainly don’t hurt, either!

(104 Japanese Plaza Mall, Los Angeles)

Stop 4: Maneki Neko Beauty Supply Store

The Japanese know a thing or two about skin care, so we decided to stop in Maneki Neko to peruse through its make-up and face products. Is your skin looking tired? There is a mask for that! Wrinkled? Mask for that, too! Breaking out? They’ve got a face mask for you! We each chose several after asking the salesgirl’s favorites, and then had some serious fun going through the kimonos and other novelty items.

The store has a huge selection of NYX products, as well as Essie nail polish for $6.99 (!) and every OPI color under the sun.

(111 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Los Angeles)

Stop 5: Mikawaya

A trip to Little Tokyo just wouldn’t be complete without some mochi ice cream! This small, round ball is made with sticky rice cake (mochi) and filled with ice cream on the inside. The popular Japanese dessert was actually invented by the former CEO of Mikawaya in the early 1990s, and has since become a huge hit around the world.

We ordered several: green tea, chocolate, and coffee (although red bean and plum wine also caught our eye!) Each was soft and chewy, and perfect for a hot, hot day. They also offer mochi gelato and regular ice cream.

(118 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Los Angeles)

Stop 6: Raggedy Threads

This vintage and consignment shop has a rustic, Americana vibe and some amazing finds. They have a large selection of flannel shirts, vintage t-shirts, dresses from the 60s and 70s, belts, shoes and some very sassy overalls. Prices are on the more-expensive side (think $130 for a dress and $50 for a vintage Dodgers tee), but materials and quality of items is worth it.

(330 E 2nd Street, Los Angeles)

Stop 7: Pop-Killer

Looking for a new set of nunchucks, a yoda coin purse, or a sleeping bag shaped like a fox? Welp, Popkiller has all that and more! This is a great stop if you’re looking to be endlessly entertained or are preparing for a party (birthday, bachelor and otherwise). The inflatable unicorn head was slightly terrifying, but we loved the french toast bread stamper and the rain boots toothbrush holder. Weird and wonderful.

(343 E 2nd Street, Los Angeles)

The Details:

Getting around Little Tokyo on foot is easy as pie: it’s only five city blocks, for the most part! On the Metro, stop at the Little Tokyo/Arts District station.

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