Nisei Festival

Each August, LA’s historic Little Tokyo hosts the Nisei Festival, which I got to attend for the first time this year. The annual festival includes, among other things, a pageant and parade, Japanese art and culture exhibits, food vendors, and music performances, including a taiko drum festival.  

Located in downtown LA, Little Tokyo is a Japanese American district and the cultural hub for Japanese Americans in Southern California. Here you’ll find two Japanese gardens, several public sculptures and artwork, the Japanese Public Museum, and a variety of Japanese restaurants and historic shops. But what makes Little Tokyo especially intriguing to me is the clash of modern and traditional architecture. There are modern structures capped with Japanese roof tiles, small buildings that have been transformed into kiosks, and a wide assortment of Japanese signage. I loved that the area was strung with bright red paper lanterns and how the streets were filled with people in a mash-up of clothing styles. I saw people in everything from hip, urban streetwear to traditional silk kimonos and yukatas, which are casual summer kimonos made of cotton. What was especially gratifying to see was the range of people wearing the kimonos and yukatas. They weren’t exclusively Japanese, but also Amerasian, American, and Hispanic. The overall effect left me feeling like I wasn’t in America or Japan, but in a dazzling multicultural city set sometime in the future.   

Our first stop at the festival was the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. Inside were kiosks selling Japanese products from brands like Eat, Work and Sleep and Uprising, food stalls, and musical performances. The music was mostly contemporary and rock and roll, with some performances by high school students. There was also a charming Japanese-style beer garden decked out with stools, traditional Japanese curtains, and paper lanterns.

Next, we checked out the ikebana exhibition. Presented by the Ikebana Teachers Association, it showcased a collection of stunning flower arrangements. I found the elegant arrangements fascinating because they were delicate and intricately detailed yet starkly minimalistic and Zen-like at the same time. Looking at the arrangements, which were a combination of strange and beautiful, felt meditative, and I couldn’t help but admire the immense artistry, time and effort that went into each of these unique creations.

Our next stop was at a demonstration of a Japanese tea ceremony, the highlight of the festival for me. Serving as the teahouse was a small, wooden hut that had been constructed for the ceremony. The host/speaker, a Japanese American woman in a kimono, was there to explain the ancient and highly ritualized ceremony to the festivalgoers.  Following a strict protocol, the tea ceremony is considered one of the classical Japanese arts of refinement. Preparation for each ceremony takes hours and follows a strict protocol. Careful consideration goes into the selection of everything from the utensils to the flower arrangements. The décor is minimal and low-key.

The host explained that there are usually two guests: the main guest, and a second guest. Before entering, guests must wash their hands to symbolically wash away the dirt of the outside world and must bow to the host as a sign of respect. The ceremony starts with the cleaning of the utensils. After inspecting the utensils, the host must ensure they are aesthetically set. Then the tea is prepared. The tea and water are carefully mixed together with a whisk in a bowl. When it’s ready, the host presents the bowl of prepared tea to the main guest. The guest admires the bowl before drinking the tea. Afterward, the main guest wipes the rim of the bowl and offers it to the next guest. Everyone is quiet and respectful throughout. It seemed to me the whole point of emphasizing these small, seemingly mundane tasks was to encourage a calm, meditative state where we are forced to be Zen-like and live in the moment.

After everyone is finished with his or her tea, the host cleans the bowl and utensils.

The guests then have to inspect the utensils as a sign of respect for the host.

Afterward, the guests admire anything else the host has on display, such as a flower arrangement or scroll. Guests respectfully bow at the host one last time before leaving. With that, the ceremony is complete. What a treat it was for me to learn about such a beautiful, ancient tradition.

After the tea ceremony, we walked around the James Irvine Japanese Garden for a bit. The garden is small but charming with a water feature and bridge. I saw quite a few people dressed in kimonos enjoying themselves in the Zen-like, peaceful space.

From there, we caught the Kimekomi Doll exhibition. These lovely traditional dolls are all hand-made, with hand-painted porcelain heads and dressed in gorgeous kimonos made of silk crepes, twills, brocades, and other luxury fabrics. Incidentally, if anyone is interested in learning this unique doll craft, there are classes for it in Gardena and Monterey Park.

Before leaving Little Tokyo, we took a quick jaunt through restaurant row. In addition to all the Japanese restaurants, there were street vendors selling all kinds of Japanese-inspired items, including knickknacks, chopsticks and Bonsai trees. We didn’t stay too long because it was very crowded but plan to return one day soon to try one of the many restaurants.

We ended our day at the Obon Festival at the Gardena Buddhist Church. An annual Japanese holiday, the festival commemorates deceased ancestors; it’s believed that spirits return during this time to visit living relatives. Paper lanterns called chochins are hung to guide the spirits and families who come together and visit the graves of their dead relatives.

At the festival, I was thrilled to catch a performance of the Bon-Odori dance. The dances usually take place around a raised platform called a yagura from which a person sings while musicians play traditional instruments. In addition to some pre-recorded music, there were a couple of lute players and a woman on a taiko drum. The dancers, who were from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, were clad in traditional Japanese costumes and performed the same steps simultaneously while moving in a large circle. There were even three men dancing in Elvis wigs. The festive, highly choreographed dance was a joy to watch. Afterward, we did a quick tour of the church, which is a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temple. The large, formal altar at the head of the church was painted in shades of gold and was very ornamental, giving the space an almost royal air.

All in all, it was a wonderful day, and I enjoyed both festivals immensely, with the Japanese tea ceremony at the Nisei Festival the true standout for me. If you’ve never been to either festival, I encourage you to check out one or both next year. Until then, there’s plenty to see and do in LA’s Little Tokyo, and you won’t have to wait until August to enjoy it.

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Amirah