By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Sports Editor
More than 20 years after the pins fell for the last time, the sights and sounds of bowling have returned to Little Tokyo.
After a trial run that began May 17, X Lanes held a grand opening on June 6 to formally introduce their 24-lane, 50,000-square-foot bowling, arcade and entertainment center. It is located on the third floor of the Little Tokyo Galleria, occupying the same space as the former Little Tokyo Bowl, which began operating when the shopping mall opened as Yaohan Plaza in 1985.
With a reported development cost of around $6 million, the investors and operators of X Lanes hope it will provide a sorely-needed boost to the Little Tokyo Galleria, which has struggled to gain firm footing as far as attracting a steady flow of customers.
Many of the retail spaces in the mall, including the large area once occupied by a Japanese bookstore, remain vacant.
With the popularity of the Japanese cream puff shop Beard Papa, and the recent addition of a branch of the Korean cafe chain Tom N Toms, the opening of X Lanes reaffirms the focus on attracting younger patrons to a downtown night scene.
At the grand opening, X Lanes director of operations Jay Chun described the complete sports bar, the upscale Italian cuisine, billiard room and video arcade.
“We knew that a simple bowling alley wouldn’t be enough to attract people to this area, so we wanted to develop something really special that would make this a true entertainment destination,” Chun said.
Like many newer alleys, X Lanes has the look and feel of a Las Vegas style nightclub. Colorful, active lighting and thumping music fill the facility, video screens are mounted above all lanes, the customary bus station-style seating is supplanted by curved, plush leather benches and the central hub – known as the Homerun – is like a gigantic spool in the center of the room.
Bowling fees range from $4.50 to $6.50, depending on time and day, and Chun said it will be a 21-an-over spot on weekend nights. Shoe rental is $3 to $4.
The more than two years of development of the bowling alley began shortly after a group of Korean American investors bought the former Yaohan (later Mitsuwa Marketplace) property in 2008.
A market with an emphasis on Korean products has anchored the mall under several brand names, and while the retail tenants have struggled, several of the third-floor restaurants seem to be doing relatively well.
Mike Okamoto, chairman of the Little Tokyo Community Council, said that he welcomed any endeavor that would restore the past vitality of the mall and bring more business to the neighborhood.
“I am very pleased to have the Little Tokyo Galleria continue to be a place of success in our community, and I wish them all possible success,” Okamoto said.
The opening ceremony included remarks by Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar, who presented a certificate of congratulations to David Lee, representing the investment partners.
“Something like this can continue to bring together the citizens of Los Angeles,” Huizar commented. “It takes vision and confidence to build something like this for the community, and we applaud that.”
Investment partner Kevin Kang acknowledged the cultural shift Little Tokyo has seen in recent years, as Japanese Americans have gradually left the area and other ethnic groups, notably Koreans, have arrived.
“Historically, this area has not had many Koreans, but Koreans are moving in and we’re hoping for a prosperous relationship with the community,” Kang said. “This facility is for the whole Asian community, and for all of Los Angeles.”
While open for only around seven years, Little Tokyo Bowl quickly gained loyal patronage, hosting college students, families, the after-work crowd and more than 12 leagues. The idea for the facility came directly from the original developer of the mall, Al Taira, who believed any shopping plaza needed to offer entertainment and recreation in addition to retail.
Glenn Wada, who chairs the annual Nikkei Games bowling tournament and is president of the Sansei Trios league, used to bowl in events held at Little Tokyo Bowl. The news that a new bowling alley had opened in Little Tokyo came as a surprise to him.
“It’s good to hear there’s a new alley. Little Tokyo Bowl was nice,” Wada said, citing lugging his equipment up to the third floor as one of the problems of the old facility. He explained that following the closure of other mid-city alleys – such as Holiday Bowl on Crenshaw Boulevard – many Japanese American leagues took up residence at lanes in places like Montebello or Orange County.
Wada added that many older bowlers, rather than traveling to participate in leagues, simply quit bowling altogether.
“Hopefully, they’ll come back to it, now that there’s a nice new place close by,” he said.