Nothing Lost in Translation

Little Tokyo I  kod441_1You

Southpark, it’s not you.  You’re wonderful, really…it’s just that I’ve met a new neighborhood and I’m going to be spending more time there, but we can still be friends…right?

While downtown continues its mega-march toward urban greatness, and likely will as long as the promised retailers arrive to support an impressive number of newbies flocking to the city center – and only then if our hard-to-find Mayor finally addresses the city’s enormous homeless dilemma – there is one area of Los Angeles in which your pulse will immediately slow to a restful state.

I’m talking, of course, about the quieter, cleaner, more relaxed and, frankly, what feels like, more pride-filled area of downtown known as Little Tokyo.   Its attractiveness and flair are a league above most of the rest of downtown, not that those other #dtla areas appear to be in any grand pursuit of equaling Little Tokyo’s balance of urban comfort and style in the first place.

The noise, poor city services and random acts of madness that still plague much the new downtown – even as developer money pours in like a Brinks convention – seems to stop at the border of Little Tokyo.



Maybe it’s just that it feels like someone is paying real attention to what’s going on in this district – to keeping it vibrant, safe and a model for quality urban-ness.  That’s a good model for new downtown neighborhoods that are springing up faster than leases can be signed.

I haven’t got the answer, but the Zen feeling is palpable each time I arrive in this tidy Japangeles that’s squeezed (but in a pleasant, non-claustrophobic way) approximately between Union Station, City Hall and the Arts District – a connected hood that’s showing potential for real livability – even if you’ve never stretched a canvas.

The first thing you’ll realize is that the streets of Little Tokyo are noticeably, well, clean.  This is not the norm for downtown no matter how many civic boosters continue to extol the charms of uber-gentrification.  Head four or five blocks in nearly any direction away from the area, most visibly south, and you’ll discover dirty, pot-hole ridden, trash strewn streets that are reminiscent of NYC in the 80’s.  Here, in Little Tokyo they seem to be…washed.  Actually, the sidewalks are, usually by the store and restaurant owners who will scrub them themselves.  If they had to wait for city services it would look like hell.

Do we need to host another Olympics in Los Angeles for our city government to consistently keep the streets reasonably litter free?  Otherwise we have to hope for a visit downtown by Obama to get things looking nifty, but they usually keep POTUS west of Highland.


Little Tokyo’s charm is not just about sidewalk hygiene, however, it’s about attitude.  While certainly as busy as any other part of downtown, no one seems particularly on edge when they walk around Little Tokyo.  Maybe it’s the openness, the occasional potted cherry blossom tree, the Buddhist temples, the great food along 1st Street, or just thinking of the Far East – that causes the brain to relax  a bit.

There’s an urban ease in LT’s twenty or so blocks that eclipses much of the rest of downtown.  There also seems to be a sense of space here.  High-rises are around but not in the density of the Financial District or South Park, and this affords the area an openness and light that looks especially inspiring with the architectural gestalt in place.

Throw in a bookstore that has not one item I can read, a world class museum and theatre company, a space shuttle sculpture, some cool outdoor lanterns, a long line snaking out of a Udon noodle place that never has a table available, the kitschy cool rotating sushi bar at Kula and the bellmen that jump to attention the second a cab pulls up in front of the Miyako Hotel, and you’ve found a neighborhood that deserves attention.

It’s clearly got mine.

East West Players

Into sushi and conveyor belts?


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