As Los Angeles's downtown gets new energy, Little Tokyo is one of the few spots where history lives in harmony with hipsterdom: It's a boisterous blend of comic books and karaoke, tea rooms and gallery shows. This livable community nestled at the foot of mountainous skyscrapers was once home to one of the largest concentrated Japanese populations in the U.S., more than 30,000 at its height.
Although many Japanese Americans have moved to other neighbourhoods, there's plenty of cultural, architectural and (most important) gastronomical evidence still intact.
Today, Little Tokyo also hosts a burgeoning artist population - the adjacent Arts District occupies former warehouses and factories - and the two cultures mix better than you would imagine.
Traditional Japanese markets and sushi bars now share the streets with trendy lofts and cocktail lounges, and two cultures find common ground in good new restaurants. A new light-rail Metro stop makes the area more accessible than ever, signalling both a revitalized city and a nostalgic vibe with the clanging of each silver streamlined train.
Sweet! Wake up your taste buds at the Japanese candy store and bakery Fugetsu-Do, where bean paste, rice and sesame are transformed into jewel-like confections at one of the oldest businesses in L.A. The earlier the better too; it opens at 8 a.m. and by noon the shelves can be ravaged. 315 E. 1st St.; 213-625-8595; fugetsu-do.com
To get your bearings, tour the several Japanese pedestrian malls. Stroll the Japanese Village Plaza, an open-air mall featuring everything from Hello Kitty socks to traditional Japanese ceramics. Then head over to the Little Tokyo Shopping Center, which has a lively new supermarket as its anchor. Employees there dole out generous samples of Japanese and Korean foods, and street vendors with cheap snacks are tucked into the courtyard. 335 E. 2nd St.; 333 S. Alameda St.
Make your way to Noguchi Plaza to see To the Issei, two slabs of basalt dedicated to the first generation of Japanese who immigrated to America, by the legendary sculptor Isamu Noguchi. At one end of the plaza is a Japanese garden managed by the adjacent Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. 244 S. San Pedro St.
MOCA's Geffen Contemporary is the Frank Gehry-designed annex to the city's art museum, housed in a former police car warehouse. Next door, the Japanese American National Museum holds a blend of historical and pop-culture exhibitions, such as a show on Hawaiian-Japanese textiles that's up through May. The museum also organizes walking tours of the area. 152 N. Central Ave., 213-626-6222, moca.org; 369 E. 1st St., 213-625-0414, janm.org
A ramen pilgrimage If there's a crowd of people in front of Daikokuya, one of the neighbourhood's most popular noodle houses, you can be sure it's time for lunch. The service is efficient, so waits aren't unbearable, and, besides, you'll forget about any delays once you lean over your bowl of steaming, spicy, pork-flecked ramen. 327 E. 1st St.; 213-626-1680; daikoku-ten.com
Try to hold out as you pass the ubiquitous frozen yogurt establishments throughout the neighbourhood and save your treat budget for Mikawaya: their powdery pillows of mochi (sticky rice cake) stuffed with creamy gelato are worth waiting for, especially the tart plum-wine flavour. 333 S. Alameda St.; 213-624-1681; mikawayausa.com.
With an artist colony nearby, the cute, minute boutiques on this stretch of 2nd Street seem inevitable. Number A (374 E. 2nd St.; 213-626-6155; number-a.com) and kimski (369 E. 2nd St.; 213-626-0340; kimski.com) sell a mix of locally made frocks and international streetwear, while Popkiller (343 E. 2nd St.; 213 625-1372; popkiller.us) features graphic T's and vintage finds such as neon high heels. Even though it has locations all over the world, American Apparel (363 East 2nd St.; 213-617-7222; americanapparel.net) is about as local as you can get, with colourful knit basics made in a factory a few blocks away.
Strong as an ox
To rest weary shopping legs, mosey over to the Lazy Ox Canteen, where happy hour (house wines for $3) and a menu of small plates by Josef Centeno scrawled onto a chalkboard keep the locals sated. Try the blistered shishito peppers and bäco, a kind of pork belly taco. 241 S. San Pedro St.; 213-626-5299; lazyoxcanteen.com
As the sun sets, follow the crowds to Wurstkuche for gourmet sausages made with exotic meats such as rattlesnake (vegetarian options are available too) and topped with peppers, onions and kraut. Split a cone of truffle-oil-drizzled fries and pick from a dizzying number of dipping sauces, then ask the chatty bartenders to help recommend one of dozens of craft beers. 800 E. 3rd St.; 213-687-4444; wurstkucherestaurant.com
Far Bar is a laid-back, alley-situated bar draped in lights and soaked in history - Raymond Chandler supposedly drank here - located through the storefront marked with the bright CHOP SUEY neon sign. A nightcap here will take you back in time; if you listen carefully, you can almost hear the whispers of generations who drank here before. 347 E. 1st St.; 213-617-9990; www.farbarla.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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Arrive in style on L.A.'s new light-rail line, the Gold Line extension, which connects from Union Station and continues on to East Los Angeles. Rides are $1.25 or a day pass is $5; plan your trip to the Little Tokyo/Arts District station at metro.net.
Where to stay
Kyoto Grand Hotel and Gardens 120 S. Los Angeles St.; 213-629-1200; www.kyotograndhotel.com. From $110. A recently refurbished Japanese hotel at the heart of Little Tokyo. It also boasts one of the city's finest warm-weather drinking locations, the meticulously landscaped Pangea lounge, which hotel employees say should open for the summer season in April. Rooms are modern and comfortable.
Standard Downtown 550 S. Flower St.; 213-892-8080; www.standardhotels.com. From $154. Not too far from Little Tokyo is this outpost of Andre Balazs's mini-chain. On the rooftop, DJs spin on the weekend and slinky supermodels sip mojitos while lounging on bright red pod-like waterbeds. Rooms - should you ever find the urge to sleep - are utilitarian-chic.
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