Thank God Kouraku isn’t closing.
My phone exploded with texts a couple weeks ago as a rumor circulated that the 3AM mainstay would be going away. We take the state of our businesses very seriously in Little Tokyo and there’s nowhere else to get fried rice covered in an omelette covered in gravy at 2 in the morning so this was an understandably big shock to the system.
I didn’t know that a week later the owner would publicly debunk the rumor and that Kouraku was there to stay. What I did know, however, was that I was scrolling through these text messages while grabbing a meditative last meal at bar/restaurant Oiwake, a favorite that had announced its closure for real.
For JTown regulars there is a rhythm to nightlife in Little Tokyo and Oiwake is a consistent part of that ecosystem. It’s an aesthetically strange spot, objectively. Though it takes up a huge part of the second floor of Japanese Village Plaza, the entrances are hidden behind a inconspicuous doorway and a garage-only stairwell. The booths are arranged in a dated family-restaurant formation that frames a small fenced banquet area/occasional dance floor. There is a karaoke machine on a small stage and patio-like seating towards the window. The bar is always crowded because there isn’t much space between the bar and the family restaurant seating. Oh and there’s a buffet. A glorious $10 buffet with teriyaki chicken salad and deep fried California rolls.
The walls are lined with lanterns and decorative sake containers. Antique posters spotlighting Japanese beer melt into dark brown molding, painted wooden beams reminiscent of some imagined Japanese pirate ship. If Disneyland had a Little Tokyo island, the central restaurant would look like this. It is not so makeshift that it feels like a mom and pop. It is not so detail-oriented that it looks Instagram chic. It’s the mug you snagged from home while on your way to college – not necessarily the coolest thing, but the warmth is in its functionality and the memories imbued.
The memories are plentiful. As one of the most lowkey restaurants in JTown, it plays host to meetings, last minute dinners, and last minute dinner parties. You hear elders singing karaoke in the backroom if you come at the right time of day. There are always a bunch of solo JA guys sitting at the bar watching the game with a beer.
And now it’s going away. Its last night is Wednesday, September 30th, 2015.
I arrived in Los Angeles in a time of rapid change and uncertainty. Little Tokyo had seen a huge decline in traffic over the decades, giving way to Skid Row and projecting an image that kept wary, suburban Japanese American family visitors at bay. Despite the obstacles, the Little Tokyo community of business owners, organization workers, residents, and friends, was organizing and working to rebuild this formerly vibrant neighborhood. The year 2000 saw the creation of the Little Tokyo Community Council, an organization of community leaders that work to maintain and responsibly build JTown culture. In 2003 this coalition successfully blocked the construction of a jail in the neighborhood. In 2005, the city approved a detailed set of guiding development rules written by the Little Tokyo community (later replaced in 2014 with the Community Design Overlay). Little Tokyo may not have seemed busy but there was much bubbling under the surface.
2007 saw the sale of Weller Court to 3D Investments and Japanese Village Plaza to American Commercial Equities (a company with strong ties to orange giant Public Storage), sales that raised huge concerns about redevelopment of these buildings and eviction of longstanding tenant businesses. The fears were not unfounded. Little Tokyo has seen its share of buyouts and development. This also came eights years after the passing of an Adaptive Reuse Ordinance that provided incentives to repurpose abandoned historic buildings in applicable districts, one being the historic core of Downtown Los Angeles. This ordinance would set fire to the DTLA nightlife and contribute to soaring housing prices.
In 2007 Little Tokyo was still not lively in the way it is now, but a year prior saw 128-unit market rate apartment building Hikari open in JTown center, along with apartment building Savoy on the Alameda perimeter and condo building Mura in the growing Arts District. Yogurtland opened its Little Tokyo location in 2008, attracting college students and 626 foodies swept up in the frozen yogurt craze. Young residents slowly started moving in, drawn by the new high buildings and emerging energy of what was slowly becoming the Little Tokyo/Arts District area.
It only grew from there. The rise of Yelp pointed digital LA towards Sushi Gen and Far Bar. The economic downturn empowered DIY chic, the main fuel for burgeoning Instagram culture that pointed trendsetters towards the still bohemian Arts District. The first mainstream generation to have been raised on a steady diet of Japanese food and Anime culture graduated college and became social media tastemakers, spending weekends in a Little Tokyo that was open increasingly late and offered any number of shareable subjects. The Gold Line opened a stop in 2009, the first major train stop in Little Tokyo since streetcar days. As the economy grew again, so did the housing market. With a livelier DTLA and a growing class of hip restaurants and shops in the Arts District, Little Tokyo became a lucrative place to live.
All the while, the Little Tokyo community continued to evolve. A fresh crop of leadership came into the major non-profits and younger staffers took jobs in these organizations. Annual events like the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Fest grew in size and the creation of Facebook events and Yelp reviews spurred word-of-mouth in ways that flyers, phone calls, and list servs could not before. The Community Redevelopment Agency, a catalyst for projects like the community design guidelines and the Japanese American National Museum's residency at the former Nishi Hongwanji Temple, closed in 2012 and gave way to an even more active Little Tokyo Community Council with new initiatives and projects. Traffic grew, eyes were on JTown, and behind it all was a strong network of leaders working to ensure that Little Tokyo had a good relationship with the city and was able to get ahead of icebergs in the way.
But some things are not as easily mitigated. Like many neighborhoods in Los Angeles, JTown is a business improvement district (Little Tokyo BID) which asks a fee of all businesses in the area to cover area security, marketing, etc. While most BIDs are comprised of landowners (landlords, etc.), the Little Tokyo BID is comprised of business owners such as restaurant and shops. This means that the businesses, hypothetically, have more impact on what decisions are being made to improve their areas.
This also means that landowners are largely removed from the conversation and don't necessarily have a strong connection to the day-to-day of Little Tokyo life, if any connection at all. Japanese Village Plaza is not being mismanaged by an evil man with a cape, a mustache, and a top hat (though that would be hilarious/awful). The owners have updated signage, redesigned dated design elements, brought in art and entertainment, and even replaced the termite-ridden yagura with an iron replica. I am wary of business-driven change in Little Tokyo, but I will admit that from a public-facing perspective the plaza does look much nicer.
But that’s just from the outside. The inside story is much more bleak when contextualized in a long term timeline. There have been DL conversations about skyrocketing rent since the plaza was first purchased in 2007. Little Tokyo and JVP provide so much for the Los Angeles community and have flourished because of the work put in by generations of community organizers and business owners who have fought for sustainability, but at the end of the day business is business. When a corporation buys land in a flourishing neighborhood it is to take economic advantage of the community that exists, not to reward, acknowledge, or fuel it.
So Oiwake, a 26-year tenant of JVP, is closing. Rent is raising and this aesthetically strange and energetically warm restaurant imbued with memories can’t afford to keep up as the growing popularity of Little Tokyo pushes market rates higher and higher with landowners willfully unconcerned or unaware of the impact their choices have on the neighborhood and the workers in these businesses.
So in the end the community that supports Little Tokyo is forced to reckon with these shifts.
We will find other places, perhaps, but they will not be the same. They will not be the same divey pitstop after signature events at the Aratani Theater. They will not come with the ritual of rushing to get happy hour orders in on time. They will not be where we’ve snuck into film screening afterparties and joked about the awful karaoke happening on the other side of the walkway. They will not be where we’ve hung out to commiserate after other spots are forced out of Little Tokyo, stumbling to sleep in our cars before driving home in the morning. They will not be where we’ve said goodbye to friends who find jobs elsewhere in the city, or where we’ve said goodbye to friends leaving town. They will not be where we’ve met new friends and new family time and time again over pitchers of beer in the dim 10PM glow that sets in as the seats between casual beer-and-sports guests begin to fill with the evening rush.
I e-mailed Oiwake owner James Ota to ask what he would miss the most. "It was just a great feeling to see these interactions and relationships being made," he responded. His e-mail ended with "JTown cheers."
For once I'd like to not have to think about the wave of gentrification that has already hit our shores, though that's a tough desire to entertain. This time I want, and am trying, to keep it close and personal -- I want to remember these moments for what they were without anger or fear that comes naturally when examining the context. When I look back at all the other spots I've seen close and the absence of replacements there have been to cover the voids left by Senor Fish where I had my 25th birthday or Aoi where I went to eat comfort food when I got sick, it reminds me that the passage of time comes with fluctuations that are not objectively positive or negative. Things are just different.
JTown will evolve, shift, and change as it always has. The community has never been complacent and continues to grows its voice with young initiatives like Sustainable Little Tokyo, Little Tokyo Vibes, Little Tokyo Roots, and Metro's Go Little Tokyo. Oiwake is not the first close-to-heart restaurant to close in the history of Little Tokyo, nor will it be the last. In considering what will not or will not exist, our charge as community organizers is to build towards the world we want to see and work/fight for that future.
Come Wednesday evening, Sapporo in hand, I will drink to the loss and history of Oiwake and celebrate the memories to be made from here.