While the cool factor of Sawtelle Boulevard has been on the rise for years, it’s now a bona fide Hipster Heaven of pan-Asian culinary delights, quirky gift shops, trendy clothing stores, and karaoke bars. But armed with a little background, you can uncover the fascinating Japanese American history of Sawtelle while enjoying the eclectic pleasures it offers today.
Early Japanese immigrants arrived in the Sawtelle area in the 1910s, in part drawn by its proximity to the ocean and excellent soil and climate conditions for working close to nature. By the 1920s the community’s population had increased to several thousand, and the area was incorporated into Los Angeles in 1929.
World War II had a particularly profound impact on the neighborhood. Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, and by March of 1942 120,000 Japanese Americans, including the entire population on the West Coast, were ordered by the United States government to relocate to internment camps. Most of the men, women, and children were interned for about three-and-half years before being released to an uncertain future. *
Many Japanese American residents of the Sawtelle area returned after the war, and a few of their original businesses remain on the street today. Just last week, the city renamed the area Sawtelle Japantown – it had previously been called Little Osaka but the new name nods more respectfully to the specific Japanese American history of the community. Here are our suggestions below of what to see, do, and eat on Sawtelle:
Most of the businesses you’ll want to visit are located north of Olympic Boulevard up to La Grange Avenue. But so you don’t miss anything, try to park further north of Missouri (where there are usually more free meters) so you can pop into Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery (1905 Sawtelle). Yamaguchi is one of the three historic companies still on the main drag. They specialize in the Japanese art of bonsai, creating miniature living landscapes. Be sure to wander to the back to see their beautiful and comprehensive bonsai selection. Young children may enjoy scouting for pagoda sculptures that dot the grounds.
A bit further south is the lush Hashimoto Nursery (1935 Sawtelle), which has been on Sawtelle since 1929 and is another of the trio of originals on the street. It is still family owned and operated—now by a third generation of Hashimotos—and features an enormous variety of plants and a tremendously knowledgeable staff who can help you pick out something fun to take home and plant as a memento of your trip to Sawtelle.
Heading towards Olympic Boulevard, everyone will want to stop into Giant Robot (2015 Sawtelle), the store than opened in 2001 and is often cited as a key player in championing Asian pop culture in the United States. Check out their eclectic wares including Uglydolls, graphic t-shirts, Japanese comics, and toy figures. They also run a gallery across the street, GR2 (2062 Sawtelle), which features art of a similar aesthetic.
The third original business on the strip is Satsuma (2029 Sawtelle). Begun in 1939 as a fish market and a beauty shop by the aunt and uncle of current owner, Don Sakai, Satsuma is now a gift shop that features traditional Japanese products like ceramics, crafts, and Shiseido cosmetics. Veer left when you enter the store to see their lovely, colorful selection of vintage kimonos.
By now your kids will likely have a serious case of the “wanties”! Daiso to the rescue! Daiso (2130 Sawtelle) is Japan’s answer to our 99-cent store. Girder yourself for a serious assault of hot pink, then you can opt to let your little ones buy “one thing, whatever they want.” That’s because almost everything is $1.50, including candy-colored knick-knacks, toys, housewares, stickers … you get the picture.
In the same mini-mall as Daiso you will also find Nijiya Market (2130 Sawtelle), a bustling grocery store stocked with all kinds of Japanese snacks. It’s fun to stroll the aisles and explore shelf after shelf of tasty food items that you won’t likely find at your local supermarket.
For a musical adventure, pop next door into Max Karaoke Studio (2130 Sawtelle). Children are welcome (and those under 3 feet tall are free!), and from 1–8 pm the cost is just $4/hour per person. You and your gang can snag a private room and perform your own family edition of The Voice!
We bet you’ll be hungry by now—good thing Sawtelle it known for a wide array of excellent Asian eateries. In addition to great sushi and other Japanese delights Sawtelle also boasts excellent spots for Korean and Vietnamese cuisine, as well as two well-regarded burger joints (Plan Check at 1800 Sawtelle; Bachi Burger at 2030 Sawtelle).
But you are here for Japanese culture, and most kids love pasta, so we recommend noodles for your tummies. Tsujita (2057 Sawtelle) is the Los Angeles outpost of a famous artisan noodle chain from Tokyo. Noodles are served with a broth and optional condiments like egg, pork, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots. Note that there is usually a line, and ramen is only served during lunch at this locale. Fortunately Tsujita Annex (2050 Sawtelle) across the street serves ramen at dinnertime, too.
Children might prefer the noodle experience at Tatsu (2123 Sawtelle), where you place your order on an iPad at the entrance. For ramen newbies, Tatsu’s menu may be a little easier to decipher than Tsujita’s, and unlike Tsujita, vegetarian and vegan options (including for broth) are available.
If you still have room for dessert, mosey around the corner to Blockheads Shavery (11311 Mississippi) for a creamy, shaved ice treat with toppings a la yogurt shops. Sample distinctly Asian flavors of ice like green tea or black sesame, and toppings including egg pudding, grass jelly, red bean, or rice cake (in addition to more Western options like chocolate chips and rainbow sprinkles). More in the mood for pastry? Beard Papa’s (2130 Sawtelle) has been delivering the goods in the form of luscious cream puffs since they opened their first store in Osaka in 1999.
Now we’re full. If you’re NOT full yet, here is a recent LATimes article with more favorite spots to eat.
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*For an excellent survey of Japanese American history, visit the Japanese American National Museum in Downtown’s Little Tokyo. Their ongoing exhibition Common Ground: The Heart of Community includes hundreds of objects, documents, and photographs that chronicle 130 years of Japanese American history, beginning with the early days of the Issei pioneers through the World War II incarceration to the present.
Manzanar War Relocation Center in California was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were interned during World War II. Today it is the best preserved of the camps, and can be visited. It’s located about 226 miles from Los Angeles, near Lone Pine. Middle and high school-aged children might also appreciate reading Farewell to Manzanar. This memoir of young girls who was imprisoned with her family at Manzanar has been a curricular mainstay in schools since it was published in 1973.
Written by Stacey Ravel Abarbanel