When I was a lad, one of my favorite parts of L.A. to visit was Little Tokyo. I loved traveling downtown with my mom, walking around Japanese Village Plaza, grabbing an imagawayaki at the Mitsura Café, strolling through Japanese gardens at the New Otani Hotel or the Japanese/American Cultural Center, maybe popping into the warehouse-y MOCA Temporary Contemporary Museum.
It’s a love I’ve passed along to my own children. So when, on a Mother’s Day, we’re trying to decide where to go on an adventure and for lunch, it is not a surprise to hear Flynn suggest: “Let’s go to Little Tokyo!”
In recent years, Little Tokyo has become quite hip — and as a consequence fairly crowded. You can drive around circling the couple square blocks that constitute the neighborhood looking for a parking spot. This particular Mother’s Day, the Parking Gods smiled upon us (or perhaps it was my Lucky Parking Kitty I keep on the dash of my car, recognizing his home turf), and we got a spot just in front of a Buddhist temple under a shower of purple jacaranda flowers falling from the branches above.
“What do we do in Pinocchio, again?” asked Flynn’s little sister Willa, somewhat confused about our destination.
Besides a couple new izakaya and a new fountain, not much has changed in the Japanese Village Plaza since I was a kid — which looks remarkably similar to a scaled-down version of parts of the real Tokyo. Much to Flynn’s disappointment, the Mitsura Café was closed so there would be no imagawayaki that day. Instead, to beat the 90-degree heat, we chose from some 20+ flavors of mochi ice cream balls — the usual green tea, red bean, strawberry, etc., but also pistachio, creme brûlée, hazelnut and several other unique offerings.
A late lunch. We parked ourselves at an outside table at Sushi Teri, the same little restaurant we usually go to, and ate mediocre sushi rolls and tempura.
“Why do we eat here?” my wife wondered. “It’s always the same.”
I guess it was the al fresco dining in the middle of all the activity that always brought me back. Plus, even the worst Japanese food is typically better than your average Greek or Italian food. And they pour a good cup of genmaicha. (My downward-dogging yoga friends will recognize that term!)
In addition to the Parking Gods, the Mother’s Day Gods must’ve also been smiling upon us, for as a special treat on this particular holiday, we were serenaded by a familiar voice. Before I could even see him, I knew at once who it was — the tinny cymbal, out-of-tune guitar strumming, electro-keyboard wash and twangy Tokyo-cowboy yodel… A true Los Angeles oddity and institution, Arthur Nakane, One-Man Band! Arthur was a regular street performer on Venice Beach and Santa Monica’s trendy Third Street Promenade, but I’d never seen him in Little Tokyo before — where he actually seemed to make the most sense, at least in that weird-neon-anime-Tokyo-cool sense.
On our way out, I stopped into the Nijiya Market to consider options for dinner. But the day was warm, I didn’t want to drag raw fish across a sprawling city toward the sea. And anyway, we were tired and full. The kids would eat cereal for dinner, a light salad for my wife and I. But soon enough, Japanese food would be back on the table — properly prepared by my gaijin hands — with just enough mojo from the Little Tokyo Gods we always bring back with us.