I only lived in Los Angeles for a few years, but as anyone who lives there can tell you, it has something for everyone.
The glitzy scenery of Hollywood, the movie studios of Burbank and the shopping paradise of Melrose were just a few of the places that I liked to walk at night, watching passersby and hoping to discover hidden secrets.
When it came to the holidays, shopping in L.A. was always fun but overwhelming. So many things to choose from! So many malls! So many options! It was on one of these late November days that I rushed down to Munky King, the premier designer vinyl collectible store on Melrose, in hopes of scoring a limited item for a friend.
Unfortunately, I missed out on what was a very limited supply, and so I wandered down the street back in the direction of my car trying not to let my feet drag with disappointment. And, lucky for me, instead of staying on Melrose, I decided to turn down a side street and take a shortcut.
Seeing Japan LA for the first time was the kind of thing that makes a Japanese culture addict stop in her tracks. Or at least, I stopped in mine. Cold.
Dubbed a "Pop Culture Shop," I could tell from the happy sign decorated with flowers and kitten faces and the window that boldly proclaimed "Cute!" that I had accidentally stumbled upon my version of heaven on earth. I had no idea this shop existed until that moment, and not one of my friends with similar otaku interests ever breathed a word about it, so I assumed it was one of those well-kept secrets that you could only find by being a dedicated explorer.
If I thought the outside of Japan LA was the stuff dreams are made of, I was not ready for the inside.
A small, charming boutique with only one room, the owners made magic with the space they had. Adorable items were on display from ceiling to floor. Hello Kitty had her own dedicated section. One wall was covered with all manner of tokidoki handbags. A cool turquoise leather couch was set up for lounging or for boyfriends to catch up on their texting while their girlfriends emitted high-pitched sounds of delight.
From geeky couture to unique jewelry, art from artists such as Camilla d'Errico, Japanese plushes, and more, what really stuck out to me about Japan LA was that it was clearly run by people who were passionate about Japan and cute culture just as much as I was. These buyers knew what to choose in order to create a wonderland for a fan like me, and I was a fan for life from the moment I placed my hand on the doorknob and opened that shiny red door.
Since my first visit, Japan LA has moved onto Melrose itself, where I suspect many curious wanderers have discovered it with relative ease. However, their cheerful selection of clothing, bags, collectibles and more has always remained playful in tone, making it a joy to shop there every time I make my way back to Los Angeles.
If you don't live in the area and your tongue is hanging out at the idea of such a little spot of paradise, you can save yourself some plane fare by shopping at the website, which carries hundreds of items in a range of reasonable prices. If you do live there, you may want to keep an eye on their blog for the parties they throw, which usually include cute prizes, costumes, and in the best case scenario, a little of both.
Other havens for Japanese treasures in California include J-Style in Costa Mesa, which offers clothing and other cute collectibles and Himawari in Torrance, which stocks a variety of cute fashions. If you're looking for a wider range of options, San Diego has you covered with the excellent Mitsuwa marketplace, where you can get everything from gift sets to household goods and even appliances. And if you really want to get a full dose of Japanese culture, you can't beat a visit to San Francisco's Little Tokyo, which has everything from gift shops to bakeries that carry yummy delights such as melon pan, the gently flavored bread that girls bring to school in many popular anime series.
If you're not on the West Coast, the hands-down choice is the Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya, in New York City, which offers two full floors of books, music, toys and just about everything else you could want under the (rising) sun.
While Japan LA is surely not the only boutique of its kind, seeing it succeed year after year by selling items that are the beloved icons of a niche culture can only mean one thing: the cute culture movement is very much here to stay.