Four Hours: Let Little Tokyo surprise you
One of the special things about L.A. is you can travel the world without ever getting on a plane. Little Ethiopia on Monday, Koreatown on Tuesday, Little Armenia on Wednesday, Olvera Street on Thursday, Thai Town on Friday … and Little Tokyo on Saturday. Not unlike its namesake city, this stylish downtown neighborhood is both sleek and flashy, futuristic and steeped in history. It’s also L.A., where a fine-dining restaurant and arcade sit side by side in a sleepy mall because of course they do. Little Tokyo is a place of unexpected juxtapositions, which makes for the exciting afternoon you didn’t even know you needed.
3 p.m. Cafe Demitasse at 135 San Pedro St. is a true L.A. relic: A coffee shop that satisfies both nerds and normies with a combination of specialty brews and zero snobbery. The cafe cycles through an impressive seasonal roster of craft beans and concoctions, but the real draw is its signature Kyoto iced coffee ($6.25). Made using a one-drop-at-a-time method, the result is like drinking summer — bright, sweet, with an effect that lingers long after it’s gone. A plus? The knowledgeable baristas won’t even shoot you the side-eye of shame when you ask for the Wi-Fi password. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends; 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
3:15 p.m. Across Weller Court on the second floor is Kinokuniya Los Angeles at 123 Astronaut E S Onizuka St. #205. It may seem like a too-obvious choice for a Little Tokyo tour, but there’s a reason this chain store is on the map. Along with its extensive selection of books and magazines in Japanese, plus English reads on Japanese culture like Leonard Koren’s classic “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers,” Kinokuniya is a cornucopia of imported, cutesy novelties. Items like furoshiki — a traditional Japanese cloth used to wrap and carry — are sold in clever designs, as well as Kayuragi Japanese incense in scents like ginger, aloeswood and mikan orange. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
3:45 p.m. Tokyo is famous for its fashion subcultures; and while Little Tokyo is no Harajuku, it also slings its share of unique clothing, namely vintage. Head east on 2nd Street until you hit Raggedy Threads at 330 E. 2nd St. Filled with Americana decor and the smoke of burning palo santo, its racks are home to a chambray skirt from the 1940s; a Japanese sukajan (or souvenir jacket) from the 1950s; and a Dodgers T-shirt from the 1980s. Open Monday through Saturday, noon to 7 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.
If ’90s nylon is more your speed, keep east on 2nd Street until you hit Popkiller Second at 343 E. 2nd St. Along with dresses, tees and tracksuits from decades past, the store carries caps and beanies embellished with lighthearted Japanese phrases like kawaii (cute), yabai (a slang word for awesome) or nikukyu (cat’s paw pad). Open 11 a.m. to 10:45 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
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No Little Tokyo vintage store inspires the Goldilocks effect more than Space City Vintage at 339 ½ E. 1st St. To get there, keep heading east on 2nd Street until you hit Central Avenue, turn left, then left again on 1st Street. On your right, up a narrow flight of stairs, is Space City’s sprawling space on the top floor of a vintage building. It’s stacked with the stuff of secondhand dreams, all in the midprice range. Owner Zac Vargas rents out the massive floor to other apparel vendors, such as Sister Kokoro, Delinquent Bros and Dunrite Leatherworks, and is adding a record shop to the newly opened space. “It’s a rock ‘n’ roll mall,” he said. Open noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
5:15 p.m. Make your way back to Central Avenue, turn right and walk south until you see Poketo on the corner of 374 E. 2nd St. Pop into the minimalist digs to browse beauty, home and style goods like the locally made Boy Smells candles or Noto Botanics’ “uni-sexy” gender-fluid cosmetics. Open noon to 7 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
5:30 p.m. Keep heading south on Central Avenue until you hit 3rd Street, turn left and you’ll see Little Tokyo Galleria on the right. Unassumingly located on the third floor of this mostly neglected mall is Shojin — a.k.a the reason the term “hidden gem” was invented. An open mind is necessary at this elegant Japanese eatery, which is 100% plant-based and organic and caters to those with food allergies. Shojin’s Dynamite Roll 2.1 ($16) is a bestseller for a reason. Smoky, savory and slightly sweet, it’s one of the countless creative sushi rolls the restaurant is famous for, minus the fish. The mood lighting and close quarters make Shojin the perfect place to treat a loved one, especially if it’s yourself. Reservations are highly recommended; make them at theshojin.com. Hours are 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday; 3 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
7 p.m. It’s not over until someone sings. Head back toward 2nd Street and find the entrance for Japanese Village Plaza. Where the plaza and Little Tokyo Mall meet, on the second floor, is the intimate and quirky karaoke bar Tokyo Beat at 319 E. 2nd St. #205. Singing in the main area is free with any purchase, so grab a Japanese whiskey or soft drink like Calpico and browse its massive binder of tunes. Lyrics on the monitor show up in both English and Japanese, naturally. And if you’re more of the sing-in-the-shower type, watching someone else at the bar belt out a soulful rendition of New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” is a cathartic experience all its own.