Since the late 19th century Little Tokyo has occupied a unique space in the evolution of Los Angeles. As one of only three official Japantowns in the U.S. (all of which happen to reside solely in California) it’s been distinguished from its very inception.
And for our purposes, the most important facet of the neighborhood as it exists today is that there is a lot to do there.
A thorough exploration of Little Tokyo will yield cultural landmarks, delightful shops, tasty restaurants, botanical gardens and amazing museums, all basically within walking distance of one another.
Forget just one day, you could spend an entire week strolling around and still not scratch the surface of all there is to do.
So… you ready for the quick tour?
Our journey begins (in no particular order) after the jump!
[NOTE: For this list we did not include to-dos for the nearby Arts District. We’ll come up with a separate list just for that!]
1. Visit The James Irvine Japanese Garden
Open to the public and free all year round, the James Irvine Japanese Garden located in the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) features a tranquil garden with a waterfall and 170 ft. stream, as well as blooming trees, flowers, handcrafted cedar bridges, a selection of stone lanterns and a hand washing fountain. The garden is designed to reflect the Zen tradition of the famous gardens of Kyoto. Visit the JACCC website for more information about viewing and hours.
2. Union Center For The Arts
The building houses three arts organizations: LA Artcore, East West Players and Visual Communications. Non-profit, LA Artcore aims to help advance the careers of visual artists from diverse backgrounds. Admission is free and exhibits change monthly. East West Players focuses on developing, fostering and expanding Asian Pacific performance. Visual Communications, is the first non-profit organization in the nation dedicated to the honest and accurate portrayals of Asian Pacific Americans and their heritage through the media arts.
3. Go Shopping At The Galleria
With the make over of The Galleria the space has been revived back into a lively shopping center with lots of specialty stores, fashion boutiques, bowling, arcade, restaurants and a Japanese market. One notable addition is Daiso a Japanese version of LA’s 99 cents stores except most items are $1.50. You can find just about anything at Daiso they have sections for household items, kitchen, office supplies, pets, storage, beauty and a sizable snack section stocked with Pocky, gummy snacks, green tea cookies and more.
4. Try Authentic Mochi & Ice Cream Mochi
Fugetsu-Do Mochi is the longest running mochi business in Little Tokyo. Family operated since 1903 they are famous for their variety of hand made Japanese confections from small sweet cakes to chocolate filled mochi. If you like the ice cream filled variety instead, stop by Mikawaya, the originator of Mochi Ice Cream. Made fresh, small balls of ice cream are wrapped in the sweet sticky rice dough with traditional flavors like green tea and vanilla to non traditional flavors like mint chip and guava.
5. Listen To Some Sweet Jazz At The Blue Whale
Located in Weller Court, near Marukai Market is The Blue Whale, one of the best jazz clubs in the city where the music comes first over everything. They have a decent food and drink menu too!
6. “Home is Little Tokyo” Mural
Sponsored and created by residents, non-profits, and local business owners in 2005, the mural depicts 100 years of Little Tokyo history. Muralists Tony Osumi, Sergio Diaz, and Jorge Diaz along with almost 500 residents helped to complete this historic work of public art.
7. Japanese American National Museum
Immerse yourself in all things Japanese American at The Japanese American National Museum the only U.S. museum dedicated to sharing the experiences of Americans of Japanese descent and the part they play as part of U.S. history. Stop by on a free day every Thursday from 5:00pm – 8:00pm and all day every third Thursday of the month.
8. Cook Your Own Food At Shabu Shabu House
Located in Little Tokyo this shabu shabu joint never ceases to be crowded. Folks flock here for the freshly sliced cuts of tender red meat, a perfect ponzu sauce and a chance to learn the art of simplicity that is Japanese Shabu Shabu. You get the option of 10 pieces or 15 pieces of sliced meat and your meal comes with raw veggies to cook, noodles to boil and a bowl of steamed rice. Once the soup is present, simply toss your veggies into the pot and dip your beef into the boiling soup. Lightly dip your cooked items in the ponzu sauce and consume with rice. Only go for dinner, at lunch time they only serve curry. No cell phone use while eating per a paper sign on the wall and it’s cash only.
9. Little Tokyo Koban and Visitor’s Center
If you find yourself in Little Tokyo without a plan or just plain lost, stop into the Koban Center on the corner of 1st Street. Known for being Little Tokyo’s information and community hub the Koban is a great spot to learn about local attractions, current events, festivals, locating a hotel, restaurant recommendations and more. When availble visitors can also sign up for a walking tour.
10. Get In Line And Eat The Best Ramen In Little Tokyo At Daikokuya
Many ramen joints have popped up in Little Tokyo but that hasn’t shortened the line at the OG of ramen, Daikokuya. Order the Daikoku ramen with their famous Tonkutsu soup served with Chijeri style egg noodles, Kurobuta pork belly, a marinated boiled egg and bamboo shoots. You can order your broth kotteri if you desire molten pork fat flavor in your ramen. Get the most out of your visit and order your ramen combination style,to add a side dish to your ramen like tempura or a shredded pork bowl. This place is cash only so plan accordingly.
11. Bowling At X-Lanes LA
Bowl like a rock star at XLanes LA, this state of the art bowling alley is not your regular bowling joint it hosts a dining spot, bar, VIP bowling room and has LED lit lanes. If thats not enough to impress, theres also an arcade with over 80 games, pool hall and Karaoke rooms.
12. Far East Lounge
What was once a senior community center focused on educating the elderly on technology is now a learning center for all ages! Come to take arts & crafts lessons, take a yoga or tai chi class, learn to speak another language like Japanese! or keep your mind active by learning mahjong, sewing, flute playing and other activities. Like they say at the lounge “We’re never too old to learn something new!”
13. Visit The Double Tree’s Kyoto Gardens
Located on the roof top of The Double Tree is Kyoto Gardens a half-acre of meticulously up kept trees, flowers and greenery with cascading waterfalls, tranquil ponds and stunning views of DTLA. This rooftop oasis is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. The best part? It’s totally free.
14. Get Some Delicious Sushi
Little Tokyo would not be complete without great sushi.
Here are our top three favorite spots for fresh fish and a vegan option as well:
This establishment has been serving fantastic rolls and nigiri for over 30 years now. If you can stomach the wait in line you will be rewarded with unaltered fish, impressive sashimi platters and even monk fish liver. While dinner can get expensive (the omakese is the way to go if you are willing to shell out the money) lunch on the other hand is shockingly cheap.
This lovely little hole in the wall in Little Tokyo is affordable for the high quality of fish they serve. We love the warning sign at the door stating “No tempura, no teriyaki, no noodles, only sushi and sashimi” -you know these guys mean business. People really love their hand rolls, albacore sashimi and sweet shrimp. If you are a adventurous type try the fresh uni and mackerel for a change.
Komasa has been opened for two decades and serves traditional sushi, so don’t bother trying to order a Philadelphia roll. You won’t get charged an arm and a leg for sushi here either, that might explain the constant line outside this tiny eatery in Little Tokyo. Do you like spicy tuna rolls? This is the place to get one! Do you like sweet shrimp? This place makes it fresh and they even fry the heads!
Vegan Sushi At Shojin
Shojin gives vegans, vegetarians and general sushi lovers a unique take on utilizing vegetables and special grains in replacement of fish. The Japanese vegan and macrobiotic menu of fish-less sushi rolls include ingredients like barbecue seitan, enoki mushroom, lotus root and burdock. With a focus on “organic and natural” cuisine Shojin’s inventive interpretations are a delight to omnivore and carnivores alike. Instead of wheat-based faux meats, the restaurant chooses the healthier option of utilizing tofu and tempeh as meat substitutions. Highlights include the spicy “tuna” on crispy rice made with spicy tofu, dynamite roll and a buttery eggplant dish on a asparagus carrot roll.
15. Explore Japanese Village Plaza
The Japanese Village Plaza is Little Tokyo’s most popular destination for dining, shopping and exploring. Places like Hama (sushi), Shabu Shabu House, Mikawaya (mochi) and Cafe Dulce (try the bacon donut holes and lattes!) are all located inside the village. Find unique fashion at Hob Nob or Pop Killer and stop by Sanrio for an extra does of cuteness if you have kids or am just a Hello Kitty Fan.
16. Visit The Go For Broke Monument
This monument commemorates the heroism of Japanese American soldiers in World War II. Designed by Roger M. Yanagita and built in 1999 the monument is a sobering reminder of patriotism and courage.
17. Visit The MOCA Geffen
MOCA is the only museum in Los Angeles devoted exclusively to contemporary art. There are three MOCA museums to enjoy; MOCA Grand Avenue, MOCA Pacific Design Center and The Geffen Contemporary located in Little Tokyo. The museum’s focus is on challenging works of art created since 1940. Matthew Barney and Mike Kelley were given shows here while the ground breaking street art exhibit “Art In The Streets” drawing large crowds of people to The Geffen was probably one of the most popular exhibits in recent times. There is also free admission every Thursday evening from 5:00pm – 8:00pm.
Sing your heart out and record your masterpiece too at Max Karaoke! Rent out a private (it’s not pricey) and grab a few of your closes friends, BYOB is just a $1 charge AND you can bring your own food. There’s also a karaoke happy hour 1:00pm – 8:00pm.
19. Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple
Interested in viewing a beautiful example of Japanese architecture and landscaping? Pay a visit to The Higashi Hongashi Temple located on East 3rd Street in Little Tokyo. The temple promotes the teachings of Jodo Shinshu and is also a popular events space.
20. Watch Your Food Get Grilled Yakitori Style
Honda Ya Izakaya offers traditional Japanese dishes like sushi, udon, soba, tempura, and more. But the main attraction is the Yakitori, select from a long list of mini skewer options like chicken skin, liver, beef balls, bacon wrapped enoki mushrooms and beef tongue, it’s grilled over a fire and served to you piping hot and it’s delicious.
21. Annual Festivals
LA Art Book Fair Open to the public and free, The Geffen Contemporary gets converted into a art book heaven filled with books, zines, artist and more. Outside, music and food trucks fill the streets of Little Tokyo.
Los Angeles International Tea Festival is an educational and entertaining tea event, the festival hosts tea exhibitors and tea related classes over the span of two days annually.
Oshogatsu (A New Years Day Celebration) at the JACCC Traditional activities include pounding mochi, viewing the first sunrise of the New Year and visiting the temple to pray for good health and happiness.
Nisei Week (Summer) Nisei Week Festival and Grand Parade takes place every summer. Floats, performances and activities will take over Little Tokyo for an entire week.
Obon (Summer) A celebration honoring ancestors with fun summertime activities. Enjoy festival dancing at dusk at Little Tokyo temples each Obon festival also features food, games, shopping and entertainment for every age group.
Ok, so that’s a ton to do! But what are your favorite things to do in Little Tokyo? Let us know in the comments below!