• Slideshows
  • Videos
 
MORE

Little Tokyo's Cheap Thrills

A broom of her own: Little Witch Parfait
Jessica Miller

The voyage to Little Tokyo so often begins with a craving for ramen and ends with (best-case scenario) a souvenir maneki nekko ear pick, or (worst-case scenario) an inflatable bug wrist bracelet that serves no other function than scaring the pets. You saw it. You knew you didn’t need it. But you definitely could not live without it. Anyone with several hours to kill, a craving for cheap and strange, and 20 to 30 bucks burning a hole in his pocket could do worse than Little Tokyo.

Jessica Miller

(Click to enlarge)

A broom of her own: Little Witch Parfait

Jessica Miller

(Click to enlarge)

Little Godzilla prepares to eat Little Tokyo.

Jessica Miller

(Click to enlarge)

Paws for effect: Warring happy cats at Bunkado

Jessica Miller

(Click to enlarge)

Entrails of a Virgin — a romantic comedy?

Sure, you could probably pay $11.99 someplace else for a Gi-Gi’s Original seat-belt cover that doubles as a refrigerator-handle cover and is shaped like a pig in a blanket — it’s even cheaper on eBay — but it wouldn’t be nearly the same as fishing your prize out of a sidewalk kiosk at Japanese Village Plaza, the heart of Little Tokyo, while the Caucasian guy across the way strums the opening bars of “Iron Man” on the shamisen.

When we used to travel from Manila to California, our flight would sometimes stop for refueling in Narita. We’d disembark and hustle into Tokyo for a few hours to eat and stretch our legs. These sojourns were always too quick and a little bewildering, a mere skimming off the top of the iceberg of cool weirdness that is Tokyo done properly. Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo is the local version of that experience.

Even on a hot, sunny day, there’s a moodiness about the place. Many feel that Little Tokyo is not so much a destination as someplace you stop on the way to your destination. It’s small, for one, with only four square blocks’ worth of shops, touristy places that all seem to specialize in the same three genres: cats with waving paws, shogun-inspired interior décor, and luggage. Then again, there are creatures here that defy categorization altogether. Into what phylum would one classify the furry brown carrot-shaped plush-toy Mothra larva, available for $14.95? Did you even know Mothra came in larva format? Other things are so bad they go all the way back around to good again, like the Entrails of a Virgin DVD I found while sifting through the Ninja Vixens video series (episodes include “Vixen Dropouts” and “Forbidden Paradise”) at Jungle in the hidden Little Tokyo Mall.

You could buy the $795 bronze tiger at Bunkado gift store, where, unless you are a handsome 3-year-old Scandinavian child, the grouchy old Japanese proprietress will not give you the time of day. Or for the same price, you could buy pretty much everything else in the shop: a profusion of $7.95 paper lanterns, darumas the size of quail eggs for $2.50 apiece, fistfuls of tiny fuzzy bears for 50 cents each.

Other items are not intrinsically weird but weird in context. Why, for instance, the small cardboard box of dusty vinyl records? For 600 yen (about $5.80), I could have taken home several copies of “Till I Memorize Your Smile,” words and music by Tetsuro Hoshino Yu Minazuki Masao Yoneyama.

A bilevel lacquer serving dish shaped like a boat for $37 had my serious consideration for a while. You know the kind. You’ve watched waitresses at Japanese restaurants whisk them out of the kitchen time and again, loaded down with sashimi. Just when you thought you couldn’t eat more, lifting up the first tray reveals a second surprise regiment of sashimi waiting in the ship’s cargo hold. The best item in the store was a $3 wind-up, miniature udon bowl that scurried across the table with its wobbly payload of plastic noodles as if possessed by the ghost of scallops past.

The Blooming Art Gallery’s most artful item is a cell-phone cleaner shaped like a cat paw that you swab across the monitor; it costs less than $5. The gallery’s samurai-sword letter opener for $18.95 is almost disappointingly classy. In the shop next to the Foot Land athletic-shoe store, an Air Spencer air-fragrance dispenser for $12 is worth buying just for the name.

The locals who wouldn’t be caught dead shopping at the tourist gift shops instead frequent the Yuki Discount Store, where everything is five for $4, four for $3 or three for $2. You’ll have to elbow your way past towers of plastic baskets and boxes, and the ladies solemnly trying out the back massagers, to get to the bin of “Snoopy and His Friends” photo albums, each $16.

 

Little Tokyo is home to the greatest concen-tration of plastic-replica tempura shrimps and acrylic toro this side of the Kappabashi. Small but fetching dioramas of them can be viewed for free in the windows of the restaurants, though, sadly, they aren’t for sale.


The toiletry section at Mitsuwa Market is a surrealistic cheap-amusements wonderland. Witness the Softymo oil-blotting paper “for men.” The plastic packets of Naïve cleanser that you’d swear were designed by the people who make IV fluid. The Estny Detocrush “warming effect gel with scrubs,” which promises to leave your skin satiny smooth. The five-packs of Nepia tissue in “salad,” “tampopo,” “mint,” “seaside” and “girlfriend” (a.k.a. pink) colors. The black Q-tip-esque cotton swabs by Heiwa Medic Co., which provide a velvety black background for improved earwax viewing, also offer a reminder that the nation that invented elegant silk kimonos and minimalist Zen sand gardens also gave us hats with attached toilet-paper dispensers. The packaging admonished, “Caution do not enter ear canal.”

We scratched our heads over some Meguri bath powder (product of China), in its very pretty box, which looked more expensive than $9.59, thrown off by the picture of two geishas swimming in a milky pee-yellow pond, until we figured out what it was.

Mitsuwa Market, by the way, is the center of the known Pocky universe. Strawberry, milk and almond-crush flavors of the cookie treat are sold here, as well as the bitter-chocolate version known as Men’s Pocky, and the rarer, fancy, gold-boxed Dessert Pocky, savory tomato biscuit Pretz and Giant Pocky in boxes the size of airplane pillows.

{==PAGE_BREAK==}

You may as well check out Mitsuwa’s small, cordoned-off electronics section. It’s a good place to buy a rice cooker or, for those who turn up their noses at ordinary kitchen appliances, the ill-conceived but splendid two-level mini Sanyo Toasty toaster with racks stacked like bunk beds, so that the juice of whatever you are cooking drips down onto its hapless neighbor below. (“Ill-conceived?” says L.A. Weekly restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. “Toasty is my favorite appliance. I’ve used it every day for 15 years.”) Meanwhile, can you decipher the settings on the electric fish roaster, on sale for $68? Octopus, swordfish, tuna ... and eggplant.

Jessica Miller

(Click to enlarge)

A giant robot in the Jungle

Jessica Miller

(Click to enlarge)

Gothic Lolita outfits, dark and dainty

Jessica Miller

(Click to enlarge)

Tea time until eternity: Bunkado's ceramic aisles

Kinokuniya Bookstore is all but mandatory. If not for the serial manga novels, and origami books and billions of inexpensive little notebooks, then for the Non-No schoolgirl fashion catalogs and Japanese airmail magazines that arrive three times a week, miraculously on the same day they’re released in Japan. Even the Japanese senior citizens, who shun the 45-cent mochi at Mikawaya in favor of $3 cups of Pinkberry, can be found roaming the aisles.

At night, the Japan Arcade is the only sign of life in the deserted Mitsuwa/Yaohan Shopping Plaza. Probably, the lone woman warbling a Chinese pop ballad in a room of her own next door at Max Karaoke has gone home by then. At $4 per person per hour, the only cheaper way than Max’s to learn the full lyrics to the Arctic Monkeys’ “Fluorescent Adolescent” is to sing along with it on your car radio.

It’s tricky to find the arcade: The mall’s lower-level doors close to the street in the evening, and the only way in is through the parking-structure bridge. The Initial-D driving game gets lots of action with the surly Asian kids who never travel in groups of less than three. One dollar buys you a few rounds at the taiko drumming game, where you beat on the skins with wooden sticks until your hands feel fit to break off at the wrists. The arcade offers a selection of imports you can otherwise find only in Japan. There’s not only House of the Dead but also its crazy, retarded sister game Typing of the Dead, where, instead of shooting the zombies, you type words at them to death. Unless you are lucky enough to read and type in hiragana, however, the zombies will always win. Like the wizened man behind the counter, who will break down your $20 bill without unhooking from his earphones, they are impervious to English.


Bunkado, 340 E. First St., (213) 625-1122. Blooming Art Gallery, 129 Japanese Village Plaza, (213) 628-8811. Mitsuwa Marketplace, 333 S. Alameda St., (213) 687-6699. Kinokuniya Bookstore, 123 Astronaut E.S. Onizuka St., No. 205, (213) 687-4480. Max Karaoke, 333 S. Alameda St., (213) 620-1030 or www.­maxkaraokestudio.com. Japan Arcade, 333 S. Alameda St., (213) 625-1486. Jungle, 325 E. First St., (213) 617-1661; 319 E. Second St., No. 103, Little Tokyo Mall, (213) 621-1661 (closed Tuesdays).

 

Also read "This is Not A Shrimp: Extreme Snacking, Japan Style" by Gendy Alimurung and Mark Mauer.


Sponsor Content