Los Angeles's Little Tokyo is a vibrant neighborhood full of restaurants, markets, and shops all dedicated to selling goods from Japan. Whether you're looking to stock up on anime, try unique Japanese dishes (okonomiyaki, anyone?), or experience an authentic tea ceremony, you'll find it in Little Tokyo. While the neighborhood can seem overwhelming at first glance, come with a plan, and you'll quickly uncover one of the most diverse areas L.A. has to offer.
Try Some Unique Japanese Dishes
You know about sushi, ramen, and noodles, but have you ever eaten squid butter udon or tried savory okonomiyaki? You can find sushi restaurants in Little Tokyo, but this list focuses instead on specialty versions of the standards or lesser-known dishes.
For thick, freshly made udon noodles, go to Marugame Monzo. Their specialties include udon paired with sea urchin (uni) cream, squid butter, or clams. Try to get a seat at the Udon counter, where you can watch the chefs cut and roll the noodles by hand.
There's more to ramen than those cheap-but-bad-for-you packets from the grocery store, and the place to try authentic ramen is Daikokuya. Try their specialty Daikokuya Ramen in a rich, creamy tonkotsu broth. Be prepared to wait in a long line, and hit the ATM on the way there—it's cash only.
At first glance, Jist Cafe looks like just another breakfast joint. That is, until you zero in one individual menu item, the Chashu Hash Skillet, made with pork belly marinated in the Ishi family's secret sauce, served with two sous vide eggs and breakfast potatoes.
At Chinchkurin (Japanese Village), they make nine kinds of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. That's a layered dish built on a thin pancake that can combine up to 11 ingredients, including cabbage and grilled noodles. Go hungry and be prepared to share. Waitlist through Yelp to get in sooner.
Sample Street Snacks
You could go to Little Tokyo and spend all your time waiting in line for just one of the most popular restaurants or try grazing instead, so you can try multiple dishes during your visit. Try these spots in Japanese Village Plaza and finish at one of the places to satisfy your sweet tooth listed below.
At Mitsuru Cafe, order your snacks at the counter near the front door. They make takoyaki (bite-sized balls of grilled batter filled with octopus, dorayaki (small pancakes stuffed with red bean curd), and imagawayaki (Japanese red bean cake) that are prepared fresh.
Look for the takeout window near the door at Chinchikurin, where you can buy takoyaki, a ball-shaped snack made from wheat flour. Choose the traditional filling of diced octopus, pickled ginger, onions, and tempura crunchies. Or opt for one of their other combinations.
Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth
Fugetsu-Do Bakery Shop has been making sticky, dense mounds of mochi in L.A. for more than 100 years. You can't get it any fresher: The factory is right behind the shop. Look for Kuzumochi with traditional red bean filling (available only in July), traditional mochi filled with bean paste, or try a modern version filled with fruit, chocolate, or peanut butter.
Fugetsu-Do also makes manju, a confection made from flour, rice powder, and buckwheat and filled with a paste of adzuki beans and sugar.
You can also get your sugar rush at Mikawaya, where they wrap a piece of mochi around ice creams with flavors that include plum wine, black sesame, green tea, strawberry, and chocolate.
Buy Japanese Munchies to Take Home
Nijiya Market is in the middle of the village. Some of the items on the shelves may be unfamiliar, but the snack foods are easy and fun.
You'll find some familiar brands, but with a Japanese twist. Look for butter soy sauce Pringles, soy sauce Cheetos, green tea latte crispy Oreos, and Kitkats in so many flavors it might make your head spin.
Also, look for Kasugai Gummies, made with real juice in flavors that may include lychee, melon, or kiwi.
Beyond the recognizable name brands, pictures go a long way to help you figure out what's inside the package. And prices are low enough that you can afford to take a chance on anything that looks tasty.
You may have heard about matcha, made by stone-grinding dried tea leaves. But what about Hojicha? That's dried tea leaves, stems, stalks, and twigs roasted in a porcelain pot over charcoal. You can sample them both in Little Tokyo, get a tea-flavored dessert, or go for a more traditional afternoon tea.
Midori Matcha specializes in ceremonial grade matcha and hojicha. They excel at traditional presentation, mixing the green matcha tea powder into water with a bamboo brush. They also serve hojicha- and matcha-flavored soft serve ice cream.
Tea Master has a similar menu to Midori that includes cold-brewed matcha and traditional green tea, while Chado Tea Room, next to the Japanese American Museum, serves more than just green tea, with a menu that spans the globe. If you're feeling tired of Japanese flavors or prefer black tea over green, they serve a traditional, British-style afternoon tea.
On the 2nd Street side of the Village, you'll find Pop Little Tokyo. The small shop specializes in items designed by Los Angeles and Japanese independent artists, along with funny Japanese-themed graphic t-shirts packaged like vinyl records. Its nearby sister store Popkiller Second specializes in clothing, jewelry, accessories, toys, and novelty items like “bacon strip” band-aids.
At Japangeles, designers merge Japanese culture with the Los Angeles lifestyle in their graphic tees, hoodies, and logo hats. Nearby Anime Jungle is the largest anime retailer in Little Tokyo. Go there for graphic novels, souvenirs, t-shirts, wall art and more.
If you're looking for a Godzilla tote bag, a fish windsock, or a Daruma doll, Bunkado probably has it—and a dozen more things you didn't know you wanted until you saw them. Maneki Neko sells Japanese cosmetics, along with so many adorable things that you could get worn out just from saying the word "cute." For Japanese books, go to Kinokuniya.
Get Into Japanese Culture
The Japanese American National Museum covers more than 130 years of Japanese-American history, starting with the first generation of immigrants. Their ongoing exhibition titled Common Ground: The Heart of Community includes hundreds of objects, documents, and photographs. Check their other current exhibits on their website.
At the James Irvine Japanese American Cultural Center, you can see works of art and watch performances by Japanese artists. Take a little more time to enjoy their garden designed in the Zen tradition of Kyoto, or learn more about Japanese cuisine in their culinary cultural center.
Visit a Temple
You won't spot the Koyasan Buddhist Temple unless you're looking for it. And while it may not be the most ornate temple in Little Tokyo, it is the friendliest place for respectful visitors. If you ring the bell, a blue-robed priest will greet you. He will take you inside and lead an incense and prayer offering to the golden Buddha on the altar. Admission is free, but leave a donation in the offering box.
Take a Tour
You can wander around Little Tokyo on your own, but you'll get a lot more out of it on a guided tour. These tour companies can take you behind the scenes and into the culture.
To learn more bout the Japanese experience in America, take the Japanese American National Museum walking tour, which happens once a month.
For a more food-oriented tour, you can't beat Six Taste Food Tours. Their four-hour tour includes six to seven eateries, the local culinary scene, Little Tokyo history, and Japanese culture.
Go to a Festival
In July, Delicious Little Tokyo is a two-day event that gives you a chance to taste sake and Japanese foods. You can also enjoy cooking demos, tea ceremonies, and performances.
Anime Expo isn't in Little Tokyo but at convention center downtown. Held in July, it draws up to 100,000 anime enthusiasts. They offer convention-goers a shuttle to Little Tokyo.
During Nisei Week in August, you can enjoy a parade, watch the World Gyoza Eating Championship, or check out "Dekocars” sporting custom graphics based on anime, manga, or Japanese video game characters.