Haunted Little Tokyo: Scaring Up a New J-Town

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From left: Mariko Lochridge, Kristin Fukushima, Michael Francesconi, Matthew Glaser, James Choi, Tetsu Shiota, Kisa Ito and Sophia Kunito Cole are part of the team organizing Haunted Little Tokyo. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

In Haunted Little Tokyo, a new generation of Little Tokyo business owners puts down roots.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Edito

This Saturday night there will be cosplayers, ghouls and ghosts lurking on the streets of J-Town for the second annual Haunted Little Tokyo Block Party.

Second Street will be closed for the party that will feature music, entertainment, a costume contest, food trucks, and activities from anime vendors and local organizations.

Haunted Little Tokyo is the brainchild of a new generation of Little Tokyo merchants. Like their predecessors, the driving impetus is the same: bring folks back to Little Tokyo.

Two years ago, Matthew Glaser and Michael Francesconi of Wolf and Crane Bar, along with James Choi of Café Dulce, envisioned turning Little Tokyo into a Halloween destination.

“We have this great small-business community and the coolest thing to do would be to own that holiday and have a big block party,” explained Francesconi.

“Our future version for it is the craziest costume party on the West Coast, taking over First and Second Street. We have an ambitious vision for what it can be with community support,” he said.

The businessmen received support from Councilmember Jose Huizar and the Little Tokyo Community Council, as well as Metro Los Angeles, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Go Little Tokyo and the Japanese American National Museum.

“It made a lot of sense because it is an event that supports small businesses and it was a group of small businesses that wanted to put this together,” said Kristin Fukushima, LTCC managing director. “Any opportunity to bring more people to Little Tokyo is something the council supports.”

At last year’s Haunted Little Tokyo events, participants heard about efforts to preserve historic First Street North. This year, Fukushima said the message is about changes in the neighborhood and supporting local small businesses.

“It’s a chance to tell them about Little Tokyo and its history and what makes it special,” Fukushima said.

After World War II, the local merchants restarted Nisei Week in 1949 as a way to bring people back to Little Tokyo. The festival’s renewal and the continued existence of Little Tokyo is a testament to the resilience of the downtown neighborhood and the Japanese American community.

Today, the neighborhood and its demographics are changing, but there is still a core of small businesses and anchor institutions.

Choi, who opened Café Dulce in Japanese Village Plaza in 2011, said Haunted Little Tokyo is another event that will bring people to the neighborhood.

“For me, the genesis of it was when we were a new business we found there was a sharp drop off after Nisei Week when all the summer energy was gone,” Choi said. “So I was thinking what are some other things can we do for surrounding holidays.”

Tetsu Shiota, owner of Anime Jungle, is helping the effort, calling his many contacts in the anime community. Three anime companies will have booths at the block party, as well as an anime deejay.

When Shiota first started his business in 1999, he asked anime clubs at UCLA, USC and UC Irvine where they liked to go and they all replied, “Little Tokyo.”

“They said they have ramen, they have Kinokuniya Bookstore. They can go eat ramen, go to Japanese supermarket and eat Pocky. So here is like Japan, that’s the reason they choose this town,” Shiota said. “There was no animation at this time so that’s why I decide to open here.”

Decorating a pumpkin at the Little Tokyo Pumpkin Patch in Japanese Village Plaza. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

The merchants said being in Little Tokyo has meant a higher level of community involvement. Choi, Glaser and Shiota serve on the LTCC board, and Glaser is also second vice president of the Historic Cultural Neighborhood Council.

“We like to think of ourselves as a neighborhood bar, and a bar has to be part of the community,” Glaser explained.

Choi said he is grateful that he opened his first store in Little Tokyo. He was first introduced to the community when Fukushima, Janet Hiroshima and Jessie Kikuchi walked into his store to introduce their new nonprofit, LT Roots.

“They said our goal is to bring as many people to Little Tokyo, and I thought that’s a goal I can get behind. Because the more people come to Little Tokyo, the better we’ll do and the better the neighborhood will do. All ships rise in a rising tide,” Choi said.

Haunted Night in Little Tokyo: The Block Party takes place on Saturday from 6 p.m. to midnight on Second Street between Central Avenue and San Pedro Street. For a full schedule, visit www.golittletokyo.com/haunted.

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