Chef Akira Hirose, formerly of Maison Akira, and his family have been a Little Tokyo fixture for decades. When it was announced that they would be shuttering their Pasadena restaurant, a French Japanese fusion cuisine concept. and moving west to Little Tokyo sadness was immediately replaced by excitement. With a legacy of serving everyone from the Emperor of Japan to your JA aunties and uncles Chef Akira’s Azay, will serve Japanese and French dishes on the same menu but not the same plate.
What does that look like?
Well, that means you can enjoy a traditional Japanese breakfast of hiayko/tofu, miso soup, rice and grilled fish OR a cafe au lait and a croissant for breakfast.
Meet (again) Chef Akira Hirose!
Q: When did you get your start in Little Tokyo?
Akira Hirose: The first time I was ever in Little Tokyo was 1981 after eight years in France. I was working in Hollywood and I visited Little Tokyo to eat at Kouraku. In 1981 Kouraku was already there. Then a few years later I actually donated to the JACCC (Japanese American Cultural and Community Center) from Japan. In ’83 I had a restaurant in Kyoto which was always called Azay or the official name was Azay Le Rideau named after a French castle in France where I had spent some time. So anyway I was in Japan but my then fiancee Jo Ann Maehara was here in Little Tokyo. Through her the JACCC asked if I could donate from Kyoto to Los Angeles. So I donated two dinners and a couple at the JACCC event knew that they were going to Kyoto so they bought the donation and that was in ’84 or ’85, something like that. So actually someone had dinner in Azay number one in ’84 or ’85. (Editor’s Note: For those counting this Little Tokyo location is Azay number three. )
Q: What is your most memorable experience in Little Tokyo?
AH: When my kids Philip and Michelle were little they used take part in this event called Chibi-K. Do you know this event? Chibi-K was organized in Little Tokyo for 4 or 5 years old to 10 and 11 years old and they did like running groups or races for different ages. So Michelle and Phillip were also doing this, starting from San Pedro in front of the JACCC and then for some small kids it was a short run but for older kids it was a couple of blocks, I think the route was San Pedro to 1st and turn to 2nd from Central and turn and then make a U-Turn. That longer route is for the older kids but these kids don’t know how to control their pace so they were just rushing from the beginning. They had this this event for a number of years and one time I even had more than ten nephews and nieces plus Philip and Michelle all taking part in Chibi-K at this annual event. The kids were enjoying it and the parents were enjoying watching our kids run around Little Tokyo. I have a good memory of that.
Q: If someone was coming to Little Tokyo for their first time to visit and they didn’t have much time to spend in the neighborhood what do you recommend they do?
AH: I am always thinking that tourists, especially from Japan, should visit JANM (the Japanese American National Museum). I think that this is very important. Tourists or even those planning to stay in Los Angeles I’d say please go to JANM first and study Japanese American history. Learn about why we are here, all the information is there to learn. When I go to JANM I study their exhibits and learn that just by being Japanese a long time ago, before and even after the war, this meant that they couldn’t buy a house, a car or land and they even had to leave their homes suddenly. Everything at JANM is explaining this history. So now you have money and you come as a tourist or visitor, and you can go everywhere, you can buy everything including a house and land because Japanese and Japanese American people and others worked so hard to change things. So study first and appreciate why we are here.
Q: What makes Little Tokyo different from other neighborhoods?
AH: First is the name, Little Tokyo. And also, do you know about the artwork on the wall above Gazen restaurant on Central? In Japanese on this mural it says ‘Little Tokyo wa watashtachi no kokoro no furusato’. And that’s why they call this the ‘Home is Little Tokyo’ mural. The value in this Japanese saying meaning ‘Little Tokyo is the home sweet home of our hearts’, is more significant now than before because now people leave Little Tokyo more and go out to other areas. Then they come back and find that they feel more comfortable here. If they live here and don’t ever leave, they don’t feel that way. Everything is here inside the neighborhood and even though places like Torrance have more Japanese restaurants it is widespread compared to Little Tokyo which is just within three blocks. So you can walk around and have restaurants, shops and more but in Torrance you have to drive to go to the next stop. So here it is more like a local neighborhood.
Q: What do you think is Azay’s role in this changing Little Tokyo community?
AH: Our restaurant itself is Japanese cuisine and French cuisine and I want to make sure that every dish has a story to share. Even little things like my dashi maki tamago, a rolled egg, this is a Kyoto style cuisine from my hometown. And then I have a hitsumaboshi which is unagi donburi, barbequed unagi, and it’s from Nagoya which is where my parents from. My parents are from Aichi prefecture and my mom went to high school in Nagoya so that’s why I have that item on the menu. People know that I am from Kyoto and ask me why I serve hitsumaboshi which is regional to Nagoya and that is because my mom went to Nagoya high school and so that’s another story for our menu that I like to share with guests. So every dish represents a different part of my life, different decades, different periods of time. And as we stay here I will make more dishes to share parts of the Little Tokyo community.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
226 East First Street.
Los Angeles, California 90012
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
Go Little Tokyo is a Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) project developed and produced by Community Arts Resources (CARS) and made possible with support from Metro. For more information about Go Little Tokyo, email email@example.com .