Living in a city as diverse as Los Angeles, we have the blessing of having a cultural festival in the area virtually every weekend.
This fact opens a world of opportunities. It is possible to get a glimpse of other cultures, customs and traditions without going outside the city or the country. What is more, these festivals offer the chance to try delightful dishes, observe different art forms and listen to music played with unique instruments.
To be honest, I don’t visit these types of festivals that often. But this is about to change.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Little Tokyo during the Nisei Week festivities. This Japanese Festival is a nine-day event first held in 1934, and is recognized today as one of the longest running ethnic festivals in the United States.
The festival is run by a non-profit organization with a mission is to promote Japanese and Japanese American (which are called Nisei) heritage and traditions while bringing together the diverse communities of Southern California through arts and cultural education.
The variety of offerings at the festival left me impressed. I can say I got an intensive course in Japanese culture in one day. There were things I haven’t seen or tasted before.
Here I am recounting some of the highlights of my day in Little Tokyo.
We started by admiring the beautifully hand-crafted Tanabata Kazari (paper ornament streamers). This festival of Chinese origins celebrates the meeting of two deities.
In present-day Japan, people generally celebrate this day by writing wishes, sometimes in the form of poetry, small pieces of paper, and hanging them on bamboo, sometimes with other decorations.
The most famous Tanabata festival is celebrated in Sendai, Japan (we had a display of the Sendai golden medal winners in Los Angeles).
For the Little Tokyo festival, local associations and businesses prepare their streamers with words, advertisement, photos, stickers and popular figures (example, hello kitty). Visitors are asked to vote for their favorite ornament. This is not an easy task since you can choose from more than a hundred representations.
Japanese Village Plaza
After casting our votes, it was time to find something to eat at the Japanese Village Plaza across the street. Because of the festival, there were cooking demonstrations and food displays in front of the stores. I got a sensory overload while browsing thru the pastries, yakitori, rice cakes filled with red bean, sushi and takoyaki (ball-shaped Japanese snack made of a wheat flour-based batter and filled with octopus, tempura scraps, picked ginger and green onion).
We decided to start with a snack. I order an okonomiyaki (savory pancake containing a variety of ingredients. Mine was filled with fish, green onions, pork belly and topped with dry, smoked tuna). My husband ordered a freshly made plate of yakisoba.
After finishing our snacks (not that we wanted to stuff ourselves crazy), we sat down at a Korean restaurant (they offer Japanese food too) to have a proper lunch. My husband ordered a big roll and I had the Korean style chicken plate. It is the first time I receive this type of dish served over cabbage and on a sizzling pan. I had to wait for the smoke to disappear before digging in.
Since we wanted to take some Asian products home, we browsed briefly thru a local supermarket. This is wrong to say but my mouth water while taking a look at their pastry variety (even after lunch). I tried a weird tasting barley based nutritional supplement. Let’s just say I am not going to be one of the millions of people who consume it daily.
I just stayed near the prepared food and sweets area.
Japanese American Cultural and Community Center
After browsing thru the district’s eclectic stores (think Godzilla costumes for adults, manga stores and store attendants with white wigs), we took a look at the exhibits at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
The center had exhibits on Japanese calligraphy, kimekomi dolls, sumie brush painting, embroidery and more.
My favorite exhibition was the ikebana (the art of flower arrangement). What I saw in there blow my mind (it was that amazing and beautiful).
And of course, I couldn’t leave the center without ascending to the third floor and taking a look at the samurai swords and armor. This was super cool too. I had no idea of how involved were their weapons and protective covering.
The cultural and community center has a small Japanese garden. This is a quiet area where you can escape from the outside hustle and bustle.
Japanese American National Museum
Because of the festivities, entrance to the Japanese American National Museum was free of charge. The museum contains over 130 years of Japanese American history and documents the life and culture of Japanese Americans.
I was interested in getting more knowledge about the years when Japanese concentration camps were operating in the United States. With all the people walking around, it was difficult to read and follow the timeline. Therefore, we decided to leave and call it a day. However, this is a place I am interested in visiting in the future.
As we were boarding the train to get back home, I started to browse thru the photos taken during the day. It was hard to believe all the experiences that got packed on that day. I got the desire to learn more about other people living around me in the big city. I have some research to do since I am sure a cultural festival will take place close very soon.
What is your favorite cultural festival?