I'm Christina Lyon, a coffee sipping, piano playing, beach loving, word-obsessed freelance writer and musician. I'm on fire for helping freelance writers get paid and small biz owners succeed online. When I'm not reading or writing, I play music and explore the beaches and wild trails along the California coast.

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What to do in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles

Christina Lyon

It’s no secret that Los Angeles is a cultural melting pot, which is a major reason why living here is so much fun. People travel from all over the world to catch a glimpse of vast and varied LA. As a blogger based in Redondo Beach, California, I’m itching to visit Japan. I don’t need an international flight just yet, because the heart and spirit of Japan are right downtown, filled with attractions, delicious food, and a spectrum of things to do in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.

Ethnic neighborhoods thrive in the city of angels where you’ll find dense areas bursting with centuries of history and tradition. The story is no different for Little Tokyo, home to North America’s largest population of Japanese Americans.

Not sure what to do in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles? Let’s break it down.

The entrance of Little Tokyo Village has a beautiful tall Japanese tower

In Little Tokyo there is old architecture, art, and hanging lanterns.

My digital pen pal from Instagram, and fellow travel blogger, Kay (follow on IG @theawkwardtraveller), stopped off in LA for a few days and I was delighted when she chose Little Tokyo as a fitting backdrop to bring together two travel bloggers. We met up in Little Tokyo Village and indulged in lunch specials and walked around the vibrant neighborhood, both with our Nikons in hand. We snapped a million photos and gained tokens of wisdom from a street-wise performer while bonding over blogging.

At the entrance of Little Tokyo Village, it’s easy to dote over all of the charms with the hanging lanterns and Japanese architecture. Little Tokyo Village spans four photogenic acres and is filled with history and symbolism, and restaurants galore. So where was our first stop? You guessed it: Food.

A Japanese lunch special in little Tokyo, Los Angeles, including fried veggies, a tofu bowl, sushi, miso soup and a fresh spring salad.

Eat Japanese Lunch Specials in Little Tokyo

Japanese food is savory, fresh, comforting and full of flavor. Little Tokyo Village is a small neighborhood that packs a punch in the food department. With several options to choose from, it’s hard to narrow down just one place to entice your pallet. Let me introduce the glorious Japanese Lunch Specials at Kagura Downtown. This large restaurant has a patio facing the village’s main plaza where you can sit, eat and drink in the ambiance all around. Pick from a variety of delectable dishes in either a two-item combo for $9.85, or three-item combo for $11.85.

Lunch specials also come with savory miso soup and a fresh spring salad. And as Kay eloquently highlighted, you’re basically losing money by choosing two items, so loosen your pants and pick three items to gorge on. Your taste buds will thank you. I chose the hot vegetable salad, spicy tofu bowl, and a vegetable sushi roll. Yes, this was way too much food for one person to consume at one meal. Yes, I ate it all with no regret.

What to do in Little Tokyo: Write out your wishes on strips of paper and tie them to the Little Tokyo Wishing Tree.

Make a wish at the Little Tokyo Wishing Tree

After you’ve stuffed your face cross the plaza from Kagura and feast your eyes on the colorful and inspiring Little Tokyo Wishing Tree. If novel and unique trademarks that tell a story are your jam then you’ll fall in love with this staple of little Tokyo Village. This beacon of hope is affixed as an extension in front of the arts and crafts store, Blooming Art.

The owner of the store, Naoko Ikeda, was struck by an idea to incorporate the Japanese tradition of writing wishes on scraps of paper, attaching them to a bamboo tree, throwing them in the river then setting them on fire to make the wishes come true, according to an article in the LA Times.

Ikeda set about putting a small bamboo tree in the store and selling paper strips for a sweet ritual of hope. It caught on so fast that now the tree out front is draped in colorful strips with hundreds of unique handwritten scribbles and drawings from unknown souls asking for help, prosperity, peace, and personal yearnings.

Dust your fingers through written notes where heartfelt pleas for miracles and humorous musings hang side by side. Purchase two strips of paper for $1 in the shop and plead your case to the Wishing Tree. You never know what might come true. And if you’re too cynical to believe in superstition or traditional acts of faith, write one anyway, because it’s fun!

One of the great things to do in Little Tokyo is hang your wish from the Wishing Tree in Little Tokyo Village.

The photo on the right may be the most accurate representation of what it’s like to be a creative person chasing their dreams in Los Angeles.

There are thousands of hanging strips with drawings, wishes, dreams, pleas for dreams to come true and hardships to get better. It's a beautiful sight to see and great thing to do in Little Tokyo Village.

Shop around

Japanese trinkets abound in Little Tokyo, from paper lanterns to unique arts and crafts, popping in and out of the many little shops is part of the appeal of visiting Little Tokyo. From beauty products to an entire store devoted to Hello Kitty’s, you’ll find all sorts of novel Japanese American keepsakes and souvenirs. There are also several grocery stores filled with Japanese goods to take home and incorporate into your cooking.

Find Japanese trinkets and crafts at the many arts and crafts stores in Little Tokyo, including Blooming Art.

Visit the Japanese American National Museum

Learn about the history of Japanese American decedents to fully grasp the heart of this resilient community. JANM hosts exhibitions, events and educational courses to enlighten and honor a community of people who endured oppression and slavery, yet brought a beloved and popular art and heritage to the US.

The exhibits serve to shed light on social issues while provoking conversation about Japanese American culture in the United States. No matter what corner you turn down, this theme is a sturdy thread made visible within the fabric of this community. And there’s no better spot to fully comprehend it than by visiting the Japanese American National Museum.

To plan your visit, click here for all hours and pricing.

Visit the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo for things to do in Los Angeles

Pay respects at the Go For Broke Monument

Like relations with many countries in the world, US-Japan history involves contention and polarization. While it’s easy to reflect on war and hardship, many might not realize that during World War II thousands of Japanese Americans joined the U.S. Army to fight for their country. They endured racism, doubt and deprivation of constitutional rights. Yet, even in spite of these circumstances, they fought to prove their loyalty to the states.

The “Go For Broke” Monument recognizes the patriotism and loyal spirit of Japanese American veterans, and was erected in 1999 to pay tribute to their acts of bravery and commitment.

The Go For Broke Monument is located at 355 E 1st St Suite 200, Los Angeles, CA 90012.

Escape the concrete jungle at the Little Tokyo Japanese Garden

The hustle and bustle of constantly honking horns and busybodies shuffling through downtown Los Angeles can certainly be overwhelming. While the concrete jungle may feel miles away from any sign of nature, the James Irvine Japanese Garden is the “hidden gem” of downtown. Take a break from the chaos and stroll through these tranquil gardens adorned with exotic flowers and trees along elegant cedar bridges to connect with nature in one of the most unlikely of places: the heart of Los Angeles.

Plan your visit and find pricing, hours and parking here. 

What to do in Little Tokyo, visit the Moon Beholders Mural behind the Japanese American National Museum

Admire the “Moon Beholders” Mural

Little Tokyo encapsulates the traditions brought from Japan and united with the modern social struggles of Japanese Americans. To me, the place that best epitomizes this theme is the striking mural painted on the Japanese American National Museum, “Moon Beholders” by artist Katie Yamasaki.

This colorful, metallic mural features scenes depicting the struggles, both past and present, of the Japanese American people. It’s a beautiful depiction of honor, hope, and a community of resilient people who against all odds, managed to endure social injustice and bring life to a neighborhood that now draws people from all corners of the world to get an intimate look at the heart of Japanese American communities.

The “Moon Beholders” mural is located behind the Japanese American National Museum. From 1st Street, walk down the open corridor alongside the museum and toward the parking lot, the mural is painted on the building on the left-hand side.

The entrance of Little Tokyo Village in downtown is just off of Central Avenue

Know before you go

Parking in DTLA is expensive. You can take the metro in from neighboring cities but most people in LA drive. I parked at the first garage I found and it was $16 a day. As I walked toward the entrance of Little Tokyo Village at the corner of 1st and Central, I saw a sign out front of a parking lot that said $7 a day.

I should’ve taken a picture but I didn’t, and fares change frequently so the lesson I’m offering here is to not settle on the first garage you find! Drive around the block once to find the best maximum daily price. Or, if you really want to keep it simple, take an Uber.

Soak up some more of California with my Catalina island weekend getaway! 

 Lanterns hang all throughout Little Tokyo, and right before sunset the lanterns come on.

There you have it, Little Tokyo is vibrant and full of heart, and there’s plenty of exciting things to do, see and of course, eat! Will you visit Little Tokyo next time you’re in LA?

P.S. Cost of living in California got you down? I got you! Read my guide for living in California on a budget.

March 14, 2018


*This post may contain affiliate links, and I may receive a commission on purchases made through provided links (at no extra cost to you).

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