16 places in L.A. that make you feel like you’ve transported to Tokyo
This summer, a friend brought me to Hitachiya, a Japanese kitchen supply store tucked in a strip mall in Torrance. While browsing the shelves of beautifully designed cookware, I heard a familiar sound — a bright, rhythmic whir. I turned around to see a man in the corner of the shop sharpening a chef’s knife by gliding it back and forth on a whetstone.
The sound took me back to my travels in Japan — I imagined myself walking through the damp pathways of famed fish market Tsukiji, where fishmongers would sharpen knives and call out orders over the early morning flurry. I thought about the outer-market shops, where rows of vendors sold everything from spices to preserved foods to hand-woven fabrics.
Back at Hitachiya, just a half-hour away from my home in L.A., I stood in awe as I watched the craft of professional sharpener Masa Hirota, who spent his childhood in Tokyo helping his father make small knives called takewari houcho using samurai swords. I decided to buy a chef’s knife of my own, one with a blue handle and textured finish. Today it holds a special place in my kitchen, reminding me of one of my favorite countries to visit.
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Los Angeles is home to a vibrant Japanese American community and large population of Japanese expats. As someone who writes about the influence of Japanese culture in L.A., I’ve visited many shops around the city that make me feel like I’ve briefly been transported back to Japan: a tea shop in downtown L.A., a home goods store in Mar Vista, a sandwich spot in Echo Park. If you are dreaming of your first or next trip to Tokyo, browse these spaces. And pick up some delicious and beautifully designed items while you’re there.
At Paper Plant, you can find washi tape adorned with illustrations of popular Asian snacks (tiny Yakult and Pocky — adorable!), Japanese rubber stamps featuring cats in mushroom hats and the ever-popular Le Pen pens in every color. I especially love the stationery sets that come with paper, envelopes and stickers. Those would always be my go-to gift to bring home from Japan.
While you’re there, be sure to order a coffee or tea drink from Thank You Coffee in the same space and check out Pearl River Deli for Cantonese food next door.
Hightide Store DTLA
Only the uguisu option comes unadorned, covered only in kinako, roasted soy bean powder. With one bite, you learn why for this delicate and delicious mochi, no extra décor is necessary.
Browsing the shop, you will find yourself asking, “What’s this? And this and this?” Arrive early and bring cash — you’ll want to buy boxes of mochi for your loved ones or bring them home for yourself.
The Good Liver
In the back of the shop, the in-house kitchen is set up for tea tastings featuring tea from Kettl, a Brooklyn-based company that sources tea directly from farms in Japan.
Tortoise General Store
Tortoise continues to stock iron animals produced in the Kamasada casting studio in Morioka city, which has been working with iron for three generations. More than 10 years ago, I bought a small iron bunny rabbit that has been our kitchen protector and mascot ever since.
More sustenance can be found at Katsu Sando in Chinatown. Don’t miss their sweet and savory honey walnut shrimp sando or katsu sandos made with chicken, pork or mushrooms. Check the fridge for fresh fruit and whip cream sandos too. The restaurant will expand this fall, opening a new konbini-style space in Alhambra.
At both spaces, each sake is served with a story about where it was brewed and the history of the brewery. Ask the staff for suggestions, whether you’re looking to try something brewed in traditional methods or something new and surprising. Kaplan, Ototo’s resident sake translator, might see what types of drinks you like. A few of her comparisons: If you like West Coast IPAs, try the Chiyonosono “Kumamoto Shinriki” Junmai Ginjo. If you like gin martinis try the Eiko Fuji “Honkara” Honjozo Karakuchi. If you like savory red wines, try the Shichida “75" Junmai. If you find something you love, you can buy a bottle to take home.
While you’re in Alhambra, be sure to head to Yang‘s Kitchen a few blocks away to try their Japanese-style breakfast.
Bonus: Meiji Tofu is down the street from Otafuku, a restaurant known for its signature Seiro white soba.
Mitchell, an artist for “Ren and Stimpy,” “The Powerpuff Girls” and other shows, curates the gallery with Japanese designer vinyl toys and art by many Japanese and Japanese American artists. Look for vibrant Naoshi sand paintings, extra-large prints by Konatsu and — my favorite — appearances by the Japanese toy Monchichi. After seeing the entire Sekiguchi section at Hakuhinkan Toy Park in Kiddy Land in Tokyo, it’s always a welcome sight to spot the adorable fuzzy monkey toys here in Los Angeles.
The Japanese confectionery offers both sweet and savory items that are available all year, along with special treats that celebrate the seasons and holidays. For the mid-autumn festival, the store offers bunny-shaped usagi cakes filled with white bean paste and yuzu and mooncakes filled with red bean and black sesame paste. My family loves the kasutera sponge cakes and extra crispy rice crackers that come in three flavors. Pick up an assortment box to try a bit of everything.
Kinokuniya is my go-to place to find issues of Japanese design magazine Casa and Brutus (I especially love their coffee-themed issues). Look for fashion magazines that are wrapped with items like tote bags and makeup pouches. The company also offers a Japanese magazine subscription service with more than 100 titles that can be picked up in store or sent to your home.
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