OCHAZUKE: The Scene on First Street

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Trying to keep up with dancers of the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center at the Nisei Week Closing Ceremony. (Eric Hayashi)

By GWEN MURANAKA

Thank you to Meg Igarashi, Janet Otoide, Leslie Naritoku and the other dancers of East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center for letting me crash with their ondo group on Aug. 18 at the Nisei Week Closing Ceremony.

With Meg’s encouragement, after years of watching from the sidelines, I finally was out there on First Street decked out in a black happi coat with aqua blue trim. It’s different being a participant rather than a spectator at Nisei Week, although the closing ceremony is definitely a more relaxed event compared to the previous week’s parade.

Before the ondo begins, everybody gathered in the JANM courtyard on a thankfully cool late summer afternoon. The Elvises adjusted their wigs, the kids from JSPACC (Japanese-Speaking Parents Association of Children with Challenges) and their parents relaxed in their day-glo happis, the dance schools in matching yukata looked beautifully composed and serene.

Miles Hamada, in hachimaki and yukata, directed traffic and we waited for our group’s name to be called. Hitoshi Sameshima, dressed in the purple JANM happi, sat and rested before the dance. While we waited, I got to chat with fellow ESGVJCC dancers Bryce and his brother Byron Umemoto, who is an ondo regular. In typical JA fashion, everybody downplayed their ability, but once the music started, it was pretty clear to tell who knew their right zori from their left.

“You go right, I’ll go left!” I can’t recall who told me that, but once “Ichi Tasu Ichi (One Plus One)” started, I did indeed go right and did my best to keep up.  For “Asadoya Yunta,” a traditional Okinawan folk song, I circled slowly around, trying to imitate the grace of the surrounding dancers. And of course for “Tanko Bushi,” I was a complete mess, but did my best to shovel that coal and push that cart.

While we did this, Eric and the other husbands relaxed in Mitsuru Grill, tipping a few cold Kirins and popping out occasionally to snap photos and shoot video. Throughout the afternoon, dancers would walk in and out, giving the restaurant the feel of a bustling backstage of a theater on opening night.

The dancing of Madame Bando Mitsuhiro was my first introduction to this classical Japanese art. I used to watch her teach my cousin Karen who took lessons with her many years ago. Since at working The Rafu, I’ve gotten to meet many of these teachers, from Madame Fujima Kansuma to Sumako Azuma and Sanjo Kangiku. They are all beautiful, graceful and incredibly devoted to their craft. It’s wonderful that they are so generous to share their time and energy teaching these dances to an expanding, evolving community.

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I’m always a bit wistful at the closing of Nisei Week. This year, whenever I had a chance, I would glance at the scene on First Street and wonder how much will be different for next year’s festival. Weiland Brewery, a J-Town staple for 14 years, closed at the end of June and eventually Señor Fish and Spice Table will follow to make way for construction of the Regional Connector. None of these are Japanese establishments, but they added to the vibrancy and character of the neighborhood.

Part of mitigation talks with Metro has been that the transportation authority do its best to minimize disruptions during key events such as Nisei Week, but there will no doubt be disruptions, and the recent closure of the parking lot at Second and San Pedro streets has meant fewer spaces, even as Little Tokyo becomes more popular with the broader L.A. community.

One of the projects of the Little Tokyo Community Council has been encouraging more people to park in the Aiso Parking Lot located on Aiso Street across from East West Players. With the coming parking squeeze, this lot will become more and more important for J-Town visitors to find and make use of. Little Tokyo is a resilient place. It has weathered many crises and developers that have come into the neighborhood, and no doubt will emerge from this challenge as well.

Gwen Muranaka is the English editor of The Rafu Shimpo and can be reached at [email protected] Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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