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Los Angeles Little Tokyo

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Picture of stone sign for Koyasan Temple Photograph of a sushi restaurant sign Picture of Japanese umbrellas Kimonos for sale in Little Tokyo Picture of Ellison Onizuka monument in Little Tokyo Friendship Knot in Little Tokyo

Japanese immigrants began settling in what is now Downtown Los Angeles at the end of the nineteenth century. The community expanded rapidly at the beginning of the twentieth century— and acquired the nickname “Little Tokyo”— with the influx of Japanese immigrant workers hired to build the Pacific Electric Railway, Southern California’s primary transportation before the automobile replaced it. At its peak, Little Tokyo had a population of 30,000 and occupied over 2.5 square kilometers.

The forced evacuation of Japanese and Japanese-Americans into “internment” camps during World War II emptied Little Tokyo. But this shameful hysteria in the name of “Wartime security” merely finished what had started in the 1920s as nisei, the children of the original immigrants, left Downtown in search of greater opportunity. The ongoing redevelopment of Downtown that began in the 1950s obliterated most of the original Little Tokyo.

The remaining 27-hectare National Historic Landmark District is not just a museum or tourist attraction (although there is a Japanese-American museum). It’s a living enclave of Japanese culture. After the war, most of the Japanese-Americans returning from the camps settled in other parts of the Los Angeles area, where more land was available. But many of them and their descendants still “commute” Downtown to worship in Little Tokyo’s Buddhist temples, and to join Japanese business travelers and tourists from around the world in frequenting the Japanese shops and restaurants.

Japanese Village Plaza, a pedestrian mall, is one of Little Tokyo’s most popular tourist attractions. It includes an assortment of Japanese restaurants, along with shops offering Japanese foods, toys, and such traditional items as kimonos and umbrellas.

An alley adjoining the Weller Court shopping mall is named for Ellison Onizuka, the first Japanese-American astronaut. Onizuka was one of the seven astronauts who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion. The Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial features Isao Hirai’s fiberglass one-tenth scale model of the shuttle, atop a black granite pedestal with a biographical plaque.

Also on Onizuka Street is Friendship Knot, by Los Angeles-born sculptor Shinkichi Tajiri. When Tajiri created the fiberglass sculpture in 1972, he originally gave it the prosaic but accurately descriptive name Square Knot. When the work was installed in its current location in 1981, Tajiri renamed it Friendship Knot as a symbol of “unity between two cultures.”
Picture of Higashi Honganji Temple garden Photograph of lantern and garden at Higashi Honganji Temple

Alongside the tourist-oriented modern development in Little Tokyo are historic places offering transplanted glimpses of Japan. The Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple represents the Shinshu Otani-ha sect of Jodo (“Pure Land”) Shin Buddhism, the largest of the eight distinct schools of Japanese Buddhism. The temple was originally founded in 1904. The current building dates from 1926, and has a compact garden with meticulously-trimmed trees and bronze lanterns.

Another Buddhist temple is serenely tucked away at the end of an alley next to the bustling Japanese Village Plaza. The Koyasan Temple belongs to the “esoteric” Shingon school. In front of the temple is a collection of enigmatic stone statues dressed with bright red bibs. Picture of Jizo statue at Koyasan Temple

Shingon Buddhism is known for secret meditative practices, passed down to initiates through oral tradition and an ancient Sanskrit script. But the statues are actually anything but esoteric. They’re called Jizo, and they’re ubiquitous in Japan. Understanding what they are requires a lengthier explanation than I would normally include in a travel photo essay. I’ve enjoyed discovering the story behind these statues, and I hope you will too. (I do apologize to Buddhists for the necessary omissions and over-simplification.) Picture of flowers at the base of a Jizo at Koyasan Temple

Buddhists believe that Siddhartha Gautama, a nobleman who lived in northern India in the sixth century BCE, discovered how to escape samsara, the endless cycle of suffering and rebirth to which all beings are ordinarily condemned. That discovery was the result of an arduous journey that led to his Awakening (or Enlightenment) as the first Buddha, the “Awakened One.” Gautama then taught his disciples how to become Awakened. Anyone who assiduously follows those teachings (dharma) can become a Buddha and enter Nirvana, a ideal blissful state of being that transcends samsara. Some Buddhas, moved by the compassion they perfected through their Awakening, forsake or defer Nirvana to become a Bodhisattva, devoted to helping others become Awakened.

Buddhists generally do not consider Gautama Buddha a god. In fact, he taught that belief in gods is irrelevant to the path of Awakening. But as Buddhism spread from India throughout Asia— and split into diverse schools and sects along the way— it inevitably assimilated a host of deities. They became Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, who serve as role models. Veneration and offerings to them can also help smooth the way to Awakening. Photo of Jizo statue at Koyasan Temple

Ksitigarbha might have been one of those assimilated deities (the Sanskrit name means either “Womb of the Earth” or “Treasury of the Earth”). As a Bodhisattva, he vowed to forgo Nirvana until Naraka is empty. Naraka, one of six “desire realms” into which beings in samsara can be reborn, is a place of penance somewhat analogous to the Christian Hell or Purgatory. In Chinese, Ksitigarbha is known as Dizang, a literal translation of his Sanskrit name. The Chinese characters that spell Dizang are pronounced Jizo in Japanese.

In Japanese tradition, children who die before their parents are reborn in Naraka, because of the grief they caused their parents. Beings in Naraka can redeem themselves by diligently piling up stones into monuments that attract the notice of Buddha, whose compassion effects their rebirth into a more pleasant realm. Unfortunately, Naraka abounds with demons who delight in demolishing those monuments. Jizo, as the Bodhisattva of Naraka, repels the demons and recites mantras— sounds, words, or phrases that promote transformation— to facilitate and hasten the children’s redemption. Picture of dressed Jizo at Koyasan Temple

As the guardian of children on Earth as well as in Naraka, Jizo is a much-revered figure in Japan. (The phonetic resemblance of Jizo to the English pronunciation of Jesus is purely coincidental.) Jizo statues usually depict him as a baby-faced Buddhist monk, carrying a staff in his right hand and the Bodhisattva’s Cintamani, a wish-fulfilling jewel, in his left. He is often surrounded with little children, and ensconced on a lotus pedestal that symbolizes his Bodhisattva status. Jizo may also be depicted as a small child.

Mothers who have suffered miscarriage, stillbirth, or the death of their children— and recently, women who have had abortions— dress Jizo in red bibs and bonnets to invoke his protection of their children’s spirits in Naraka. They may put stones, toys, or flowers on Jizo’s pedestal. Parents might also dress or make offerings to Jizo after a child recovers from serious illness, as might pregnant women seeking Jizo’s aid in delivering a healthy baby. Because Jizo also protects travelers of all ages, his statues are found in roadside shrines throughout Japan, as well as in temples and cemeteries.

Picture of Little Tokyo DoubleTree garden Photograph of bridge, Little Tokyo DoubleTree garden Picture of pond and lantern, Little Tokyo DoubleTree garden

Photo of waterfall, Little Tokyo DoubleTree garden Photo of waterfall, Little Tokyo DoubleTree garden
Picture of stone lantern, Little Tokyo DoubleTree garden

The formal Japanese garden had an ancient origin as a purified and sanctified place for kami, spirit-deities that permeate every aspect of nature and life in the indigenous Shinto religion that coexists with Buddhism in Japan. Beautiful gardens are still found in temples and Buddhist monasteries in Japan. But over the centuries gardens evolved into secular places of aesthetic delight, mainly enjoyed by occupants of the upper tiers in the Japanese feudal hierarchy.

The DoubleTree Hotel in Little Tokyo has an authentic 2,000-square-meter Japanese garden on a rooftop terrace. The hotel opened in 1977 as the New Otani. It was the sole American property of the Tokyo-based New Otani Company, which owns hotels throughout Japan. New Otani sold the hotel in 2007 to a Los Angeles real estate firm, which renamed it the Kyoto Grand Hotel. That company went bankrupt in 2010. A franchisee of the Hilton DoubleTree brand then bought the property in 2011; they completed a renovation and officially renamed it in June 2012. I recount this history because you might still see guidebooks, brochures, and Web sites that refer to the hotel as the New Otani or the Kyoto Grand.

For many years, redevelopment projects in Downtown Los Angeles were required to include public art. The hotel’s rooftop “Garden in the Sky” was the New Otani Company’s fulfillment of that requirement. Designed by the Japanese landscape architect Sentaro Iwaki, it’s a scaled-down version of the 16th-century four-hectare garden on the grounds of the flagship New Otani hotel in Tokyo. The sign on the building now says “Kyoto Gardens,” but that name does not appear in the description of the garden on the hotel’s Web site.

The DoubleTree’s garden is a kaiyushiki teien, a “stroll garden” that invites visitors to experience continually-changing views as they walk along a defined path. More specifically, it’s a shuyu, a stroll garden with water as a central element. It includes a pond, a stream, stone lanterns, and two waterfalls that also provide a calming soundscape (at least to the extent allowed by local traffic). Picture of umbrella light fixtures in the lobby of the Little Tokyo DoubleTree Hotel

But those traditional elements have been appropriately adapted: Instead of the traditional “traffic calming” rough stones on the garden path that remind visitors to let the garden slowly reveal itself, the path here is mostly asphalt pavement (presumably on the advice of American lawyers and insurance underwriters). And in keeping with the principle of shakkei— the “borrowed scenery” into which a Japanese garden organically integrates— the garden simultaneously harmonizes and contrasts with the surrounding view of glass and steel skyscrapers.

The DoubleTree retains other Japanese touches from its previous incarnations, including light fixtures in the lobby that suggest umbrellas or flowers.


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