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Nisei Week turns 75: The Japanese festival's history, how to get there and 7 things to see

Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles will celebrate everything Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-American, the next two weekends: August 15, 16, 22 and 23. Street dancing, opera and a Gyoza-eating contest are just a few things to look forward to. Here’s what you need to know. 

What’s Nisei Week?

The Nisei Week Japanese Festival first lit up the streets of Little Tokyo in the midst of the Great Depression in 1934. The goal was to attract Niseis to the hub’s mostly immigrant-owned businesses. The downtown L.A. enclave has hosted the festival since then, save for six years during World War II, when about 117,000 people of Japanese descent in the U.S. were sent to internment camps. 

“[My grandfather] had to stop his business in Little Tokyo,” said Alan Miyatake, who now owns Toyo Miyatake Studios, the photography studio that has been documenting Nisei Week since it started. 

His daughter Sydney now shoots the festival. “It’s our way of supporting the Japanese-American community and Little Tokyo,” said Miyatake.

Nisei Week will celebrate its 75th festival this year. Events originally spanned seven days but have since been expanded to a month, with major attractions scheduled over two weekends in mid-August.

Alan Miyatake's grandfather, Toyo, as Grand Marshal at Nisei Week in 1978. During World War II, his family was relocated to an internment camp in Manzanar, where he smuggled a lens and created his own camera. He later became the camp's in-house photographer. Miyatake continued shooting Nisei Week upon his return to Los Angeles. (Photo: Toyo Miyatake Studios)

How to get there

If you’re taking the Metro, the Little Tokyo/Arts District Station is at the intersection of First and Alameda streets. Driving? Get there early for street and lot parking.

Most events are scheduled to take place at the Japanese American National Museum and the plaza, garden and theater at the Japanese American Culture and Community Center. Street dances and parades will be held on First, Second and San Pedro streets. 

7 things to see

There will be giant mascots, a Rubik’s Cube contest, a pageant coronation and lots of food and sake. Nisei Week's website has a complete list of the events, but here are seven to check out. 

1. Tohoku Festival

In 2011, a tsunami devastated Tohoku, Japan, including its fishing and agricultural businesses. But one industry’s recovery is helping the region bounce back: travel. “They had to recover tourism first so that people can go visit,” said Nisei Week board member Mike Okamato. To attract travelers, a rotating group of musicians and dancers representing the six prefectures destroyed by the tsunami has been staging performances in Japan and around the world. For the first time, they’ll make a stop at the Nisei Week festival in Little Tokyo. 

When: 10:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. on Aug. 15; 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Aug. 16 

Where: Tanabata Stage at the Japanese American National Museum and the plaza at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center

2. Nisei Week Book Fair

The usually serene Japanese garden at the JACCC is open to the public all year, but this weekend it will host award-winning authors of various genres from folklore to mystery to illustration. There will be performances and book signings at JACCC's plaza as well. The lineup includes Valerie Matsumoto, who wrote “City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles,” a book about the Japanese-American clubs that proliferated in the city from the 1920s to the 1950s. 

When: 11 a.m to 6 p.m. on Aug. 15 and 16

Where: James Irvine Japanese Garden and the plaza at the JACCC

3. Nebuta float

The Nebuta float at the 2007 Nisei Week Grand Parade. (Photo: Toyo Miyatake Studios)

Shaped like a Samurai and traditionally displayed in one of Japan’s largest annual parade, a Nebuta float will conclude the festivities this Sunday. The parts — wood, paper and hundreds of LED lights — were flown from Japan and assembled here with help from locals. Here’s a map of the parade route.

When: Dusk, Aug. 16

Where:  First, Second and San Pedro streets

4. Art

The JANM and JACCC will showcase Japanese and Japanese-American art through several exhibits and demonstrations, including a samurai and armor display, a tea ceremony and a Japanese needlecraft tutorial. 

When and Where: Aug. 15, 16, 22 and 23, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at JANM and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at JACCC

5. World Gyoza Eating Championship

The Gyoza Eating Championship in 2014. (Photo: Toyo Miyatake Studios)

The ninth annual Gyoza Eating Championship will pit professional and amateur contestants to beat champion Joey Chestnut, who guzzled down 384 gyozas in 10 minutes in 2014. This year’s Nathan’s Hotdog Eating Champion will challenge him, as well as local competitive eaters. Get there early to catch the gyoza eat-off between the LAPD and LAFD before the main competition.

When: 1 p.m. on Aug. 22

Where: JACCC plaza

6. "Kaguya-Hime (Princess Kaguya)" Opera

A performance of "Kaguya-Hime." (Photo: Yasu Tanano)

Celebrated conductor Hideaki Hirai will bring to the stage the ancient Japanese folktale about a princess who lands from the moon in a piece of glowing bamboo and is raised by bamboo cutters. Local and Japanese singers and orchestra players will perform. Tickets are available here.  

When: 7 p.m. on Aug. 22

Where: The Aratani Theatre at JACCC

Price: $30+

7. Ondo street dancing

Missed the free Ondo classes Nisei Week offered earlier this summer? No matter. Dancers and amateurs alike are invited to help keep the art of Japanese dancing alive and partake in this street dancing ritual that will close the festival. 

When: 4 p.m. Aug. 23

Where: First Street