One of only three such districts in the United States, the Little Tokyo community in Downtown Los Angeles beckons visitors with its vibrant culture, rich history and delicious Japanese restaurants. From Buddhist temples and Japanese gardens to a cavernous arcade full of hard-to-find video games, there’s something here for everyone—and that’s just the kind of inclusivity Little Tokyo is proud of. Take the Metro or park your car once and enjoy a day of attractions in the pedestrian-friendly neighborhood full of some of the best shops, mochi and karaoke.
RECOMMENDED: Little Tokyo neighborhood guide
Even with no prior interest in the subject, you'll be drawn in to the story of Japanese immigration by the perfectly pitched displays, such as a reassembled interment barrack from the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming, where approximately 10,000 Japanese Americans were held. Aside from the permanent exhibition, the museum stages an engaging roster of temporary documentary and art shows. To cap it all off, there's a lovely gift shop at the end to explore that's full of quirky keepsakes and cultural curios. Continue the conversation with a group tour at the JANM’s adjacent National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, an educational institute aimed at preserving and promoting democracy in the US.
This tranquil garden is one of Little Tokyo’s best-kept secrets as the urban oasis isn’t accessible from the street. To reach the space, enter the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, check in at the information window on the left, take the elevator down to level B and zigzag to your right through an unembellished hallway. Food and drinks aren’t allowed, but it’s still an ideal setting to while away a few minutes far from the hustle and bustle of the city. According to the community center, gardens carry great importance in Japanese culture—caring for the grounds is a form of art and spending time among the flora encourages harmony with nature—so walk the outer path for a complete view of the garden’s foliage, babbling stream and cascading waterfall.
You won’t spot this Buddhist temple from First Street—it sits at the end of an unmarked alleyway. The religious organization’s roots date back to 1912, when its first alter was in a rented home in Elysian Heights, but the temple has attracted followers of the renowned monk Kobo Daishi since it settled in its Little Tokyo location in 1940. If attendance at Sunday services isn’t in the cards, take a peek inside through the office door to the right of the main entrance. Ring the bell to announce your arrival and a blue-robed priest will greet you, guide you inside and lead an incense and prayer offering to the golden Buddha on the alter. Admission is free, but consider paying your respects with a donation in the large wooden offering box.
On the top floor of the unassuming Weller Court shopping center hides the Blue Whale, a jazz club known for its intimate performance space and steady calendar of shows. Owner Joon Lee, who performs at the club himself every now and again, books local and international talent and keeps his space focused on the music: The house and bar are lit low to keep the artists center stage, while audience members lounge on short, blue cubes that allow a good view of the show no matter your vantage point. Considering this is one of the best venues in the city for jazz, the $5 to $15 show tickets are incredibly affordable.
Take a stroll through the picturesque garden outside of this temple, attend a Shinshu Otani—a sect of Shin Buddhism—service or stop by during a community event. In the weeks leading up to July’s Obon Festival, the temple also organizes biweekly Bon Odori practices to teach traditional celebratory Japanese dances to festival performers.
Since its inception, this outdoor, cherry blossom-lined mall has brimmed with shops and eateries—don't leave without sampling a few street snacks. Join the constant line at the Mitsuru Café’s sidewalk window for a taste of imagawayki (freshly griddled red bean cakes) or freshly made mochi across the way at Mikawaya. After filling up on sweet treats, head out for a day of shopping alongside the iconic yagura (tower) and wood-accented buildings inspired by architecture common in rural villages in Japan.
The colorful Home is Little Tokyo mural, finished in 2005, acts as a visual metaphor of Little Tokyo’s history: A little girl stands in the forefront holding a mallet, banging mochi and a guard tower from WWII internment camps, as Charlie Parker (representing the arrival of African-American culture to the in area in the '40s) plays the saxophone beside taiko drummers. Ideas for the mural came directly from community members who later painted alongside muralists Tony Osumi, Sergio Diaz and Jorge Diaz.
Tucked back from the corner of Alameda and Temple Streets sits the semicircular Go For Broke monument, a tribute to the Japanese-American soldiers who served in the US Army during WWII—the first memorial of its kind in the US. The black granite sculpture, designed by LA architect Roger Yanagita, bears the names of over 16,000 veterans including the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the almost entirely Japanese-American and highly decorated group that fought with the motto, “Go for broke.”
The Union Center for the Arts building, which has served the community since the ‘20s, houses three community arts organizations worth visiting: LA Artcore, East West Players and Visual Communications. LA Artcore exhibits contemporary and traditional techniques from various cultures and underrepresented groups with free admission Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5pm. The East West Players stage musicals and plays that include original works written by members of the troupe, reproductions of classics—Sweeney Todd and The Tempest—and Japanese spin-offs of well-known stories such as The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back. Finally, Visual Communications promotes intercultural understanding through workshops and training sessions dedicated to portraying Asian-Americans honestly and accurately through film and photography.
A typical karaoke experience in Japan involves friends belting out verses in a private karaoke room—how else would the tonally challenged feel comfortable singing their hearts out? Of course, there’s no need to fly to the Land of the Rising when Little Tokyo has quite a few karaoke bars, each one boasting binders thick with songs old and new. If you don’t require a glamorous atmosphere, the Little Tokyo branch of Max Karaoke Studio is a fan favorite. A long, blue hallway links a collection of private karaoke rooms equipped with the necessary gear—and a funky couch or two—for a night of good vocal work. Bring your own food and drinks for a nominal fee, as there’s no kitchen here. For an all-inclusive experience, there’s also Tokyo Beat, a full restaurant and bar with a main stage and two private karaoke rooms available.