A sweet spot in Little Tokyo


That’s the best word to describe traditional Japanese mochi, a treat derived from glutinous rice. Though most Benihana-eating, less educated folk know the treat as a round rice ball filled with ice cream or as a trendy pétite topping for frozen yogurt, mochi’s origins stem from customary offerings to the gods and are a fixture in Japanese New Year celebrations.

One of the legendary makers of these pillowy, sweet bean-filled wonders is in Los Angeles’s own Little Tokyo — bordered by Skid Row, Downtown and assorted freeways. Fugetsu-Do has been serving the city since 1903, with the same family behind its glass counters. The establishment has an air of old-fashioned sensibility, which can often be lost in the ever-continuing rush of a city’s redevelopment and changing demographics.

Upon entering the quaint shop, which features an exterior emblazoned with prominent Japanese characters and a frame of striped awning, one can’t help but feel like a child in a candy store. On the right, visitors can buy the Japanese sweets they may recognize from childhood lunches: oversized barrels of Meiji Yan Yan crackers, a dizzying assortment of Pocky Sticks and the crème de la crème, Hello Panda.

These flashily prepackaged treats, though thoroughly satisfying, are just the modern, mass-produced transformations of the sweets Fugetsu-Do seeks to share with Los Angeles.

But Fugetsu-Do still prides itself on its original products, the mochi: round cloud-like works of art that are the Asian pétits fours — tiny, plump edible sculptures in soft pastel colors.

From the ultra-sweet round Kiku with a decorative dot and white bean paste filling to the nutty, heather-green Uguisu with red bean filling, the different kinds of mochi seem too much for the feeble, pre-sugared mind to deal with.

Mochi can have green and pink and white stripes, or even a gelatin yellow strip on top that resembles a cross between the shrimp on shrimp sushi, or even have the ingredients reversed — deep maroon bean paste can coat a center ball of squishy, white rice cake.

Each little mochi creation looks like a soft, fat, tiny sea creature with an opaque cuticle covering. The charming colors, however, make them seem delightfully appealing and adorable, and when stuffed together in the stamped, white cardboard sampler box, the colors combined to make a “diabetic rainbow,” as observed by a fellow eater.

Each treat has its own merit, partly because it’s simply a dessert unknown to the Western palate and a perfectly pleasant way to get some grown-up cavities. But it can take some getting used to.

The confectionary’s crowning creation, however, is fittingly put above all the rest in its own Styrofoam and plastic containers, complete with a label featuring a hula-dancing peanut: the peanut butter mochi.

Though the treat resembles a putrid shade of Pepto-Bismol pink, the perfectly round mochi looks like a cross between an animal’s tongue and the concave structure of a red blood cell.

Biting into the mochi is like a strange, wonderful trip: Gummy, fruity rice cake gives way to a lovely, crunchy peanut butter core. The play between peanut bits, creamy peanut butter and viscous glutinous rice seems a strange syncretism between old and new.

Fugetsu-Do’s fragile balance of new, old and a little bit of both mirror what Little Tokyo is today — a cozy reminder of what was, a portrait of what is and a hesitant prediction of what may come.

Japanese immigrants aren’t new to Los Angeles, but they no longer are the largest or most influential minority group in the area.

Little Tokyo has not had the same growth as Koreatown in the past decade. Though the section of the city isn’t exactly dying, it’s quieter, shyer — maybe even a little less confident.

Though there are still plenty of Japanese establishments, the newest businesses reek of neoyuppie hunger: a trendy Mediterranean restaurant, Spitz; a chain of the popular frozen yogurt brand, Yogurtland; a resident-themed mall restaurant, Johnny Rocket’s; and a neon-heavy American Apparel store scream “gentrification!”

The neighborhood’s state, however, can be seen in one discrete Friday night encounter. During a casual dinner in Orochon Ramen, diners waited in anticipation for their oversized, steaming bowls of spicy broth and noodles.

Interrupting the comforting clamor of clicking chopsticks and slurping customers, a loud teenager strutted in, cowboy hat on his head and open Budweiser can in his hand, declaring that he was going for the “Extreme Orochon” challenge.

His gang of skinny jeans-wearing, ne’er-do-wells whooped in excitement as he tried to establish his manhood with a dangerously hot bowl of soup, a loaf of bread and some milk. Other diners rolled their eyes, recognizing the universal indicators of asinine behavior.

He didn’t make it, however, and his party got a stern scolding from the restaurant’s management.

Although one kid might have disrupted Little Tokyo for a short while, the neighborhood will need more than some chili paste to stop the young and obnoxious from upsetting the balance.

Clare Sayas is a junior majoring in public relations. Her column, “Lost & Found,” runs Thursdays.

1 reply
  1. japanophile
    japanophile says:

    kau ku ee!!! Yay, Little Tokyo is my favorite spot. I love Japanese food, culture, anime and everything Japanese. I want to be Japanese so bad!!!!!!!!!!1

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