Friday, August 19, 2011

Nisei Week - Big Celebration in Little Tokyo

When thinking of Nisei Week Japanese Festival (August 13-21 this year), some might first think of the Nisei Week Queen pageant. At least, everyone I told about the event did.

If you thought that was the extent of it, you'd have missed out on one of the best cultural events in LA. Nisei Week Japanese Festival is so much more than just the pageant (which incidentally, I have absolutely no interest in.  At all.)  The Nisei Week Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the Japanese and Japanese American heritage throughout southern California - and Nisei Week J Festival is one weeklong cultural celebration smack in the epicenter of Little Tokyo. 

The event is spread out over several complexes in the area, and last weekend I decided to start with the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, first getting the expected out of the way - a karate demo, a traditional tea ceremony demo with women in kimonos in a sample teahouse at the top of the JACCC.  Next I ventured over to the complex I actually know best in the area, Japanese Village Plaza.

On any given day, it's a treat to stroll through Japanese Village Plaza, a lovely collection of boutique shops and mostly mom & pop style restaurants centered around a Japanese market.  A diverting mix of classic and modern architecture, traditional, more refined goods like proper tea sets and bonsai trees strewn among the latest in anime dolls and quirky headwear, and even a sushi parlor slash dance hall - the complex is lots of fun to explore even on a regular day. 

During Nisei Week, vendors pile onto the aisles out into the sunny SoCal summer to promote their wares - and the energy and excitement of the crowds, who come to visit old friends or make new discoveries, is palpable.
And the visitors themselves become a point of interest - part of what I love bout this event is that it is as much for local Nisei, some of whom celebrate their heritage by turning up in beautiful kimonos, as tourists, or just Angelenos looking for a fun and unique outdoor activity. The event also provides an unwritten invite for fans of cosplay to show up in their most elaborate and creative costumes. 

The vibe is very much like a street fest - but one that has absolutely no rules, and makes you feel like you're on vacation because everywhere you look you're presented with something that you don't see every day. 
A few groups showed up in what looks like modern takes on regional garb - these were really in demand by other visitors for photo opps!
Another cause of whiplash is of course, the good eats spread throughout the event venues.  From stalls with drool-inducing street food like takoyaki (spherical savory pancake with grilled octopus inside) and yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) to dorayaki (red bean cake), I had no hope of leaving there without a massive midriff portrusion.

Wandering from Japanese Village Plaza to the Japanese American National Museum, I found a stage with rotating performances from traditional almost operatic sounding Japanese singers to J-pop star wannabes, to fashion shows by local designers.  In the back parking lot, there were a row of tents set up with more Japanese street food - and each was a great discovery.

I made a beeline for the Takoyaki Tanota booth after reading a tweet that said they had jalapeno mayo on their specialty grilled octopus balls (as in the dumplings, dirty!, not the gonads).  The fresh-off-the-grill dough balls with octopus center were a steal at $5 a tray of 7 pieces, topped with bonito flakes and jalapeno mayo.  Down the row were soba noodles, shaved ice and handmade, fresh mochi and yakimochi from Fugetsu-Do, whose booth touts its history in Little Tokyo dating back to 1903.
The entire back area behind Japanese American National Museum was in celebration of the Tanabata Festival - which as I learned from a pamphlet and a lady at the JANM booth who explained the festival to me - was inspired by the Chinese fable of star-crossed lovers who only get to meet but once a year.  Which fable in itself was inspired by ancient people gazing up into the night sky, and creating stories to explain what they see. 

As the fable goes (explaining two bright stars on either side of the Milky Way) Cow Herder, a mortal, falls in love with Weaver Girl on a unsanctioned visit from her heavenly home. They marry, have kids and settle in to a simple but loving life on earth - until Weaver Girl's mother, a Goddess, discovers her 'betrayal', and orders her back to heaven.  Cow Herder is left behind.  One day, his ox starts talking and tells him that if Cow Herder sacrifices him, takes his hide and wears it - he can ascend to heaven to see Weaver Girl once again.  Heartbroken, Cow Herder takes the ox up on his offer and makes his way to the sky with kids in tow - only for Goddess to be alerted to his plans.  To keep the lovers apart, Goddess takes a hairpin and draws a line between them - which forms the Milky Way - and forever separates the two.

Over the years, magpies take pity on the separated lovers, and once a year they form a bridge to allow the lovers to cross and spend a day together.  This happens on July 7th of the lunar calendar, and is the day that the Tanabata Festival is celebrated.
One of the traditions of the festival is for people to weave elaborate, giant decorative streaming ornaments called 'kazari' in remembrance of loved ones.  At the JANM event, the whole back area was strung with row upon row of beautiful kazari sponsored and created by local organizations.  The ornaments, fluttering in the wind, were festive and gorgeous.

Under these amazing ornaments, event organizers decided to host a samurai demonstration, with a group of about 13 samurai and ninjas gathering first for photos - then for a 'street fight' with guests. 

Watching tiny kids get the chance to engage 'ancient' samurai in a sword fight - and 'win' despite their initial fear - was adorable and definitely one of the highlights of the event.

The first weekend of Nisei Week closed out with the Grand Parade - which didn't have over-the-top floats like neighboring Pasadena famously does for its famous yearly event - but had again that perfect balance of tradition with modern day fun that is infused throughout Little Tokyo.  The parade started with marching flag-holders and band, followed by Japanese American heros who fought in WWII.  It was great to see both men and women veterans, some of whom may look elderly, but have definitely not lost their sense of fun - several 'grandpa' vets gave 'shaka' hand gestures and winked mischievously at ladies in the audience, and one actually pretended (in obvious jest) to machine gun the crowd from the back of a military Jeep, complete with verbal sound effects.  They were followed by a handful of floats with Taiko drummers, random interactive basketball one inviting guests to shoot hoops on the float, and of course the requisite Nisei Week pageantry float.

All in all, there was something for everyone and you are sure to be entertained, and might even learn something new in the process.  One of my favorite events of the year, and it was free!  To top it all off, the festivities are pretty much right across the street from Aburiya Toranoko (who were serving special skewers and SnoBar sno cones from a table on the patio) and Lazy Oz Canteen - so you can 'play' all day, then settle down for an awesome, full meal and a cocktail or two if so inclined.

Nisei Week continues through this weekend (August 21st) - so you still have a chance to check it out!  See website for full schedule.

[For more pics from Nisei Week, see my photo album on Facebook!]


Nisei Week Japanese Festival
August 13-21, 2011

Various locations, Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, CA (check website for details)

Parking:  $10 all day in lot next to Sakura Crossing

Event Website:

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...