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On ramen, Japanese gardeners and Hello Kitty

Novelist Naomi Hirahara on rock gardens and ramen noodles

The main character in many of Naomi Hirahara's mystery novels is a 70-something Japanese American gardener who sleuths about solving crimes in places like downtown Los Angeles' flower mart. The California section's Jason Song interrogated the author and former editor of Rafu Shimpo at the Mitsuru Grill on 1st Street. We later emailed a few questions and crunched the conversation into this:

Rafu Shimpo? Did that confuse people when you called?

I introduced myself as being from the Japanese American daily newspaper in L.A. Sometimes we got mail addressed to Mr. Shrimpo.

There weren't many skater shops or places called Ice Cream Lab or Popkiller in Little Tokyo when you were at the paper in the '90s. What do you miss?

Running into the old bachelors who lived in low-income hotels like the Chetwood that were sprinkled throughout Little Tokyo. These men always had good juicy stories to share and were like my outrageous, sweet uncles. The Japanese American places of worship and cultural/historic/social service centers are still there. The devoted community leaders and troublemakers, both old and young, are still very emotionally invested in Little Tokyo.

Better ramen: S.F. or L.A.?

L.A., definitely. I'm more of a Hakata Shin-Sen-Gumi fan for both its noodles and welcoming "irrashaimase" when you walk through the door. Old-school Kouraku has my go-to mabo ramen.

Raymond Chandler described a Japanese man starting a lawn "the way Jap gardeners do." What else don't you like about Los Angeles' iconic noir novelist?

That he was the lone white knight who was supposed to save us from the frightening "other." Look, I get it — the 1940s was a paranoid and uncertain time, politically speaking. But when people you know and love are on the other side of that paranoia, it smarts. That I can never forget.

Do you employ a Japanese American gardener?

Our complex has two wonderful older female Spanish-speaking gardeners. My own father was a gardener; his favorite celebrity customer was actor Robert Reed of the Brady Bunch. I definitely have a heart for gardeners — no matter their ethnicity. One day when I was walking the dog, I passed a Latino gardener with his adolescent daughter. I came close to saying to her, "Hey, I was you a long time ago," but I smiled instead. The girl said that she liked my dog.

Do you think Mas Arai, the gardener hero of one of your series, could spruce up downtown?

Mas has been into rock gardens lately, so I think that would be a nice addition to downtown.

Another of your protagonists is a bike cop. More lanes for cyclists?

Downtown L.A. has become very bike friendly. But gridlock, even on the weekends, or maybe especially then, has been hideous. We need more local buses and other parking alternatives.

Hello Kitty isn't a cat?

That's what we've been told by the Japanese American National Museum, and I think it may be true. A cat that doesn't open its mouth, and sits there without getting into the papers on your desk? That's no cat. That's why I have a dog.

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