This article highlights the best things to do in Little Tokyo Los Angeles.
Living in a city as diverse as Los Angeles opens a world of opportunities. It is possible to get a glimpse of other cultures, customs, and traditions. There is a chance to try delightful dishes, observe varied art forms, and listen to music played with unique instruments.
I am grateful for that sense of opportunity every time I visit a place like Little Tokyo. This area of Downtown Los Angeles is peppered with Japanese restaurants, supermarkets, shops, and galleries. You can immerse yourself in all things Japan for hours.
It doesn’t matter if you are a resident or a visitor, I invite you to take a look at the best things to do in Little Tokyo.
Things to Do in Little Tokyo Los Angeles
This article concentrates on things to do in the Little Tokyo Historic District. I am not covering other parts of Downtown here.
You are going to notice a heavy focus on the gastronomic scene of the area. Food is one of the main draws of Little Tokyo.
Keep in mind this the largest of the official Japantowns in the United States (the other Japantowns are located in San Francisco and San Jose). Los Angeles has the second-largest Japanese population in the country (after Honolulu).
Stroll the Japanese Village Plaza
Start exploring Little Tokyo by heading to the Japanese Village Plaza. This open-air, shopping center pleases visitors with historic architecture, hanging paper lanterns, an abundance of trees, and sitting areas.
You can get a sensory overload while exploring the culinary offerings at the Plaza. For example, you will notice restaurants/shops selling macarons, yakitori, rice cakes filled with red bean paste, sushi, takoyaki (a ball-shaped Japanese snack made of wheat flour-based batter and filled with octopus, tempura scraps, pickled ginger, and green onions), ice cream and more.
In addition, there are stores selling cosmetics, clothing, shoes, accessories, and gifts. Of course, a lot of what is available for sale comes from Japanese brands.
Pick Some Goods at a Japanese Supermarket
In the Japanese Village Plaza, you will find Nijiya, an authentic Japanese supermarket (even though the chain is headquartered in the US).
I recommend visiting the market because they have fridge after fridge (an entire side of the store) filled with all sorts of goods you will find in Japanese convenience stores. They have rice plates, bento boxes, rolls, sashimi, salads, diced fruit, and soups.
Then, their baked goods selection is mind-blowing. They have bread, fluffy cakes, cookies, pancakes, and fruit rolls. You feel like grabbing everything.
You can continue walking the aisles to discover what they have in the fruit, vegetable, frozen goods, meat, and fish sections.
This is a great place to grab something to eat or to buy food to eat later at home.
Visit the Japanese American National Museum
The Japanese American National Museum documents over 130 years of Japanese American life, history, and culture.
One of the museum’s permanent exhibitions presents the hardships Japanese Americans experienced during World War II (this includes discrimination, unconstitutional privation of liberty, and removal of property). Through a written timeline, objects, documents, and photos, visitors are able to reflect on this obscure period in US history (which sometimes is not discussed in history classes).
Moreover, the museum arranges temporal exhibitions on topics such as Japanese toys, the Japanese diaspora in South America, and Japanese traditional tattoos.
The museum is closed Mondays and it is free every Thursday from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and all day every third Thursday of the month. Audio guides are available to complement the exhibitions (you can download a guide to your phone prior to visiting the museum).
Visit the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA
Next to the Japanese American National Museum, you will find The Geffen Contemporary, an exhibition space owned by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA, located on Grand Avenue).
This former warehouse, renovated by Frank Gehry, hosts a wide range of exhibitions from established and emerging artists. Admission is free but special exhibitions may involve a cost (but they are free on Thursday evenings).
In addition, the space has a bookstore, reading room, workspaces, coffee carts, and video installations.
Eat Ramen Till Your Burst
I have a confession to make. I am a bit addicted to ramen. And, this comes from a person who is not a fan of soups. However, I feel like ramen is in a league of its own.
The classic spot to eat ramen in Little Tokyo is Daikokuya. This small restaurant delights food lovers with its rich tonkotsu based broth. They offer spicy miso and vegan ramen varieties too. The appetizers, fried rice, yakisoba, and rice bowls list is longer than in other ramen restaurants. The only negative is that there is usually a long wait to eat at the restaurant.
Daikokuya is good but I prefer the ramen from Shin-Sen-Gumi. The ramen served is tonkotsu based but prepared in a Hakata (a district of Fukuoka) style (thin noodles are used). Even though the Hakata style calls for minimal toppings, you can customize your soup with over 40 toppings. There are suggested topping combinations to simplify things. I like to add pork belly and spareribs.
Another ramen shop I recommend is Men Oh Tokushima. The restaurant serves a regional variety of ramen and toppings include the classic pork slices and stir-fried pork belly.
Do Not Forget About Udon
Ramen is awesome but do not forget Udon is delicious too.
A restaurant called Marugame Monzo has achieved legendary status in Los Angeles because the noodles are prepared fresh in an open kitchen.
You can have hot udon (shrimp tempura, beef, curry, chicken, duck), cold udon, or one of the specialty dishes (miso carbonara, mentai squid butter, seafood tomato cream).
I ensure you will dream about this place for many months.
Mochi is a rice cake made by pounding a short-grain, glutinous type of rice into a paste. Once the consistency is correct, it is shaped into the desired shape. Other ingredients such as water, sugar, and cornstarch can be added to the paste.
Fugetsu-Do has been creating mochi sweets since 1903. They also prepare manju, a confection made with flour, and a red bean paste filling. The Little Tokyo store offers a wide variety of mochi flavors, shapes, and colors. They sell 6, 8, and 12 piece assorted boxes. Those are ideal for those wanting to taste different textures and flavors. They make wonderful gifts too.
Mikawaya, another must-visit establishment, specializes in mochi ice cream. In this case, the mochi dough covers a ball of ice cream. Flavors include green tea, black sesame, red bean, vanilla, plum wine, strawberry, mango, chocolate, and coffee. You can order individual pieces to eat the moment or buy by the box.
Learn About the World of Tea
Tea is the most popular drink in the world. For one reason or another, you may not be familiar with the varieties, preparations, or beneficial properties.
If you are interested in learning more about tea, Chado is the place for you. This specialty store sources over 300 hundred varieties of tea and herbal blends from all over the world. They pride in offering a high-quality product and outstanding service to customers.
One way to get immersed in the world of tea is by visiting the Chado Tea Room in Little Tokyo. You can order straight tea (green, black, white, oolong), flavored teas, house specialty teas, display teas (blooming flowers), wine-inspired tea, decaffeinated teas, and herbal blends. The staff is more than happy to help you with a selection.
An afternoon tea service, including a pot of tea, 4 half sandwiches, a scone, and a dessert, is offered.
You can choose to eat a meal at Chado since they have salads, soups, or sandwiches on the menu. Or, have an afternoon treat by ordering the lemon bundt, coconut or carrot cake.
Do Not Miss the Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki is one of my favorite Japanese dishes. This savory pancake can be prepared with ingredients such as green onions, shredded cabbage, octopus, squid, shrimp, pork belly, and egg. It is usually topped with bonito flakes and otafuku sauce). Other toppings like seaweed flakes, Japanese mayonnaise, and pickled ginger can be added.
In Little Tokyo, Chinchikurin is the place to have okonomiyaki. This restaurant serves a Hiroshima style (instead of the popular Osaka style) that consists of 11 layers of ingredients. I know it sounds crazy but this okonomiyaki comes with batter, dried fish powder, cabbage, tempura crisps, green onions, bean sprouts, pork, noodles, egg, sauce, and seaweed.
Part of the fun is watching the chefs preparing the dish. If you are eating with a group of friends, there are 6 or 7 more flavor combinations to try.
Experience Shabu Shabu
Shabu Shabu House is one of the oldest restaurants in the Japanese Village Plaza. The name says it all. The establishment specializes in shabu shabu, a hotpot dish where meat and vegetables are boiled in water and served with dipping sauces.
At Shabu Shabu House, each customer gets its own hot pot. You either order 10 or 15 slices of meat. The meat order comes with vegetables, noodles, and rice. You dip the food in ponzu or sesame sauce before eating. It sounds simple but it tastes out of this world.
They are packed most of the time. I recommend arriving at least half an hour before dinner time.
Eat Sushi to Your Heart’s Content
Having sushi in Little Tokyo is a no brainer. I should have started the article by providing sushi recommendations. The thing is that I tend to eat ramen and okonomiyaki when I visit the area. There are excellent sushi options in my neighborhood so, I am spoiled with choice.
However, my personal preference should not stop you from having sushi or sashimi in Little Tokyo.
Sushi Gen is one of the best-rated sushi joints in Los Angeles. It has been in business since 1980. That is not an easy feat in such a competitive place as LA. For lunch, you can have a sashimi plate, sushi combo, chirashi, tekkadon, or beef teriyaki combination for $20. Dinner prices oscillate between $24 and $40.
Oomasa is another good option. It has on the menu some of the dishes that you will find at Sushi Gen and prices are similar. Now, Oomasa has a lot of rolls, noodles, and tempura options on the menu. Choose this restaurant if you are more into these kinds of dishes.
My last recommendation is Sushi Enya, a restaurant with a decent variety of cut rolls, hand rolls, sushi pieces, sashimi, and rice bowls.
Visit the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center
The Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) is a space dedicated to promoting within the community Japanese and Japanese American arts and culture. They fulfill their objectives by offering culinary talks, digital programs, plays, dance performances, and visual arts/cultural exhibitions.
I have seen Japanese calligraphy, kimekomi dolls, sumie brush painting, samurai swords, samurai armors, and embroidery exhibitions at the center. Hands down, my favorite exhibition has been the one featuring ikebana (the art of flower arrangement). What I saw in there blow my mind (it was that amazing and beautiful).
Stop by a Japanese Garden
The cultural and community center has a small Japanese garden (James Irving). This is a quiet area where you can escape from the outside hustle and bustle.
There is another garden located inside the DoubleTree Hotel (Kyoto Garden). Ask a hotel employee if you can take a look at the garden (it is sometimes closed for special events.
Try Unique Flavored Donuts
I cannot talk about things to do in Little Tokyo without mentioning Donatsu.
I am partial to sugar-coated or glazed donuts. Sometimes, I find other flavor combinations too sweet. Or, a lot of attention is placed on the toppings and the actual donut ends up being dry and dense.
Well, the flavor combinations in Donatsu surpassed my expectations. Listen to this, the have a Samoa donut! And, a Creme Brulee too! Those taste so delicious!
If you are a donut fan, remember to stop by this shop.
Join a Food Tour
If you are feeling a little bit overwhelmed with the gastronomic offerings of Little Tokyo, joining a food tour may be a way to taste as much as possible and leave the planning in the hands of experts.
I have taken a tour of Little Tokyo with a company called Six Taste.
Six Taste was launched in 2009 by two young USC grads. The company grew fast and became one of the most innovative places to work in Southern California. Eventually, the business was sold to the Tiongco Family.
The tour was great (and I have done a lot of food tours). I learned a lot of interesting facts, met new people, and tasted some fresh flavors. Our guide Betsy was phenomenal. She was funny, approachable, and very knowledgeable.
We tried the following:
- Pork and curried chicken buns from Yamazaki Bakery
- Tea from Chado. We smelled and tasted about six types of tea. My favorite was Podrea (black tea). Buy Evening Comfort if you suffer allergies (eucalyptus based) and Mauritius if you want to avoid coffee (high in caffeine). In this store, you buy by the ounce and the staff writes in the bags the brewing time.
- A sushi platter from Mitsuru Sushi and Grill. We learned all about the beginnings of the famous California Roll. By the way, it was invented in Little Tokyo. Apparently, fish sellers used to throw away the bottom part of the tuna (belly or toro). Some sushi chefs looking to make a profit from cheap eats started to ask for the unwanted parts. They created tuna rolls with them. They were a big hit at that time. Later, the price of the tuna belly started to increase (no more freebies). As a consequence, chefs started to think about creating another cheap roll. They put together cheap crab (or imitation) and avocado (to resemble the tuna fattiness). Whammm. The California Roll rose to fame.
- Pork ramen and gyoza from My Ramen Bar
- Fresh mochi from Fugetsu-Do
- Imagawayaki, flat rice bun filled with red bean paste, from Mitsuru Cafe
- Mochi ice cream and mochilato (mochi plus gelato) from Mikawaya
I enjoyed the tour since little walking is involved, the information is presented in a fun way, the tasting is varied, and you get tons of recommendations from the tour guide.
Will I join another Six Taste in the future? Definitely. I have to say I enjoyed my first food tour experience to the maximum.
Shop for Japanese Goods and Brands
When it comes to shopping, visitors are blessed with options in Little Tokyo. Shopping centers include the Japanese Village Plaza, Little Tokyo Mall, Little Tokyo Galleria, and Weller Court.
In terms of stores, recommendations include Kimono Ya, Bunkado (gifts and home goods), Ginza (gifts and music), Sanrio Japanese Village (good featuring popular characters like Hello Kitty, Chococat and Keroppi), Shinyodo Kimono, Popkiller (Japanese and LA themed clothes and accessories), Kinokuniya Bookstore and Daiso.
Attend a Local Event
Local events offer the opportunity to get to know a local community and mingle with locals. Since Little Tokyo is one of the oldest and most well-known ethnic communities in Los Angeles, events celebrated here are a big deal.
Here are some of the events worth visiting:
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. You can take an intensive course in Japanese culture in one day.
The beautifully hand-crafted Tanabata Kazari (paper ornament streamers) are showcased during this festival. 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.
For the Little Tokyo festival, local associations and businesses prepared their streamers with words, advertisement messages, photos, stickers, and popular characters (for 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. The festival usually coincides with Nisei Week.
Things to Do in Little Tokyo: Location and Parking
Little Tokyo is located in the northern part of Downtown Los Angeles. You can access the are by train using the Little Tokyo / Arts District Station.
Little Tokyo comprises a compact area. You can park and walk easily around the area.
The Japanese Village Plaza, Little Tokyo Mall, and the Japanese American National Museum have ample parking lots. There is metered parking on the streets but it is difficult to find a spot. Businesses located east of Central Avenue (for example, Honda Plaza) have their own parking lots.
More of Downtown Los Angeles
Downtown Los Angeles is a big place. If you have a desire to explore the area (one of the most vibrant of Los Angeles), I have an article with 4 one-day itineraries.
Also, I have a more general article describing things to do in the Civic Center and Bunker Hill, two of the areas of Downtown Los Angeles with more attraction.
Last but not least, I have an entire article with suggestions on what to do in Chinatown.
More of Japan in Los Angeles
I realize there are a lot of things to do in Little Tokyo but if you have an interest in exploring other Japanese enclaves in Los Angeles, I recommend taking a look at my Sawtelle (West LA) and Torrance articles. These areas may make more sense to visit based on where you live or are staying.
What things to do in Little Tokyo do you recommend?