Born and raised in the city of Los Angeles, Darin Maki has returned to the U.S. after over a decade in Asia to open his store CRFT by Maki on historic First Street in Little Tokyo.
As Downtown L.A. develops at a breakneck pace, the former pro basketball player (he played for a pro team in Japan) is excited to open his store just months ahead of the Terasaki Budokan community gymnasium opening its doors a few blocks away. Inspired by the legacy of his own family members who once had shops in the area, Darin is excited to be a part of the new wave of young Japanese American entrepreneurs returning to the neighborhood.
Meet Darin Maki, Founder of CRFT by Maki
How did you get your start in Little Tokyo?
Darin Maki (DM): I initially started my brand online and then Mariko Lochridge at the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) reached out. We had both been in Japan at the same time and we knew of each other. She told me about the small business assistance program that [LTSC] had and I ended up going to the entrepreneurial training program workshops that they organized.
Then through LTSC they launched a [small business] incubator pop-up program in Little Tokyo and I jumped at the opportunity. From there it went really well for myself and my business. I am really appreciative for that program. When the space where we had the incubator pop-up became available for lease, I jumped at the opportunity.
What is one of your most memorable experiences in Little Tokyo?
DM: I have a lot of great memories of Little Tokyo. Nisei Week was always big for me. When I was at Junior Young Buddhist Association at Nishi, after our Sunday meetings we’d all come into Little Tokyo to eat and that was always fun. I always looked forward to that.
In high school one of our friends owned a restaurant called Yagura Ichiban, which is empty right now, and there was a karaoke room in the back. After hours he’d open it up for us and we’d go and hang out there every weekend. Late nights in Little Tokyo, that was always fun.
What is your favorite place to visit in Little Tokyo or where would you recommend if someone was visiting and only had a few hours in the neighborhood?
DM: One place that’s always been like there and where you’d always be able to go late at night after being out was Kouraku. That’s kind of a go-to for after hours. Suehiro as well is one of my favorites that I’ve always been going to. So I would say just enjoy the food out here. Oh, and Kinokuniya too, because there’s a lot of magazines and books from Japan that you can’t really get anywhere else. So for me to stay updated, I just go there and I just flip through the magazines.
What do you think it is that makes Little Tokyo unique or different from all the other neighborhoods that exist in Los Angeles?
DM: The main thing would really be the history, how old this place is and how it’s still being preserved by good people at the Little Tokyo Service Center and all the other great organizations.
You’re a new business in the neighborhood and still figuring things out, but have you thought about your own legacy in Little Tokyo and your hopes for the future of this community?
DM: I just hope that Japanese Americans who are all spread out throughout L.A. would bring back whatever business they do to Little Tokyo. Even if you’re not a business owner, just give your support to these local businesses. I hope that it will be a bustling city for Japanese Americans again.
What is CRFT by Maki’s role in the future of Little Tokyo?
DM: That’s a good question. I just want to be like, “Hey, I’m just another cog in the wheel that’s trying to rebuild this place with Japanese owned small businesses,” and hopefully encourage others to follow suit.
This interview has been translated, edited and condensed for clarity.
Owner of CRFT by Maki
341 E. First St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012