5th Annual Haunted Little Tokyo Returns to Downtown Los Angeles
Eat, Drink and Be Scary With Three Frightfully Fun Events, Oct. 16-17 & Oct. 30
After taking a year on hiatus, Little Tokyo‘s 5th annual Haunted Little Tokyo is returning to downtown Los Angeles for 2021! This year’s Haunted Little Tokyo has with three events that are perfect for families of all ages:
Pumpkin Patch (October 16-17, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.). First up, The Pumpkin Patch is perfect for little ones to pick out pumpkins to take home, participate in a coloring contest and enjoy a themed photo opportunity. The Pumpkin Patch is free to the public and located in the Japanese Village Plaza.
Scavenger Hunt (October 30, 2 to 5 p.m.). Second, Explore Little Tokyo with the family-friendly Scavenger Hunt. Starting at Café Dulce (134 Japanese Village Plaza Mall), all participants will receive sweet treats and a special prize for visiting all locations on the map!
Block Party (October 30, 7 to 12 p.m.). Finally, there’s something for the older ghouls to enjoy too! The celebration continues for guests 21+ with a live DJ, drinks, food, and a costume contest, all taking place at a secret location that will be shared upon check-in at Brunswig Square (360 E. 2nd Street). RSVP for the block party here. Guests must prove proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.
Pumpkin Patch (Oct 16 & 17 from 11AM – 5PM)
The festivities kick off with a favorite Halloween tradition- the Haunted Little Tokyo Pumpkin Patch. Pumpkins are provided by Tanaka Farms. The Pumpkin Patch is open from Saturday, October 16 and Sunday October 17 from 11am to 5 pm.
Haunted Little Tokyo Scavenger Hunt (October 30 from 2-5PM)
Next, explore Little Tokyo with an outdoor Scavenger Hunt. Pick up a map at Café Dulce (134 Japanese Village Plaza Mall) in the Japanese Village Plaza to discover outdoor ‘treat’ locations around Little Tokyo. Visit all the locations for a special prize. Costumes are encouraged! The Scavenger Hunt is free while supplies last.
Haunted Little Tokyo “Block Party” (Oct 30 7PM-Midnight)
Guests 21+ are invited to indulge in devilish drinks and devilish with Haunted Little Tokyo “Block Party”. This year, the “Block Party” is moving to an outdoor secret location in Little Tokyo! The event will include DJs, drinks, food, and a costume contest. The location will be shared upon check-in at Brunswig Square (360 E. 2nd Street). Guests must be 21+ and provide proof of vaccination or negative Covid-19 test result within 72 hours.
Haunted Little Tokyo “Block Party” is free with preregistration for the event.
Check our 2021 Southern California Halloween event guide for more!
The History and making of Haunted Little Tokyo
With James Choy, owner of Cafe Dulce and member of the Little Tokyo Community Council, we’re exploring the roots that gave birth to Haunted Little Tokyo, an event that was created in a community, with community support, and partnership from the neighborhood, making it a living example of how community and partnerships can make an event.
Tickets are available online for Haunted Little Tokyo with an online reservation now! The Block Party starts Saturday, October 30 2021 at 7 pm and runs till midnight. During the day is their Trick or Treat scavenger event, which does not require a reservation, but make sure to check out the website for specific times, and what businesses are participating.
What Is Haunted Little Tokyo?
James: The block party usually happens on Second Street in between San Pedro and Central. We shut the entire street down. We have an outdoor fully liquid bar, and then we have a stage, and a costume competition, and food trucks and, also food tents where we encourage the different community restaurants to come out and host the tents.
Last year we didn’t have one at all, for obvious reasons, because of COVID-19. This year we were planning on doing a Second Street, but because of potential Delta and whatever else, we wanted to do something a little bit more controlled. So, this year, instead of doing a full street closure, we have a secret location within Little Tokyo where if you RSVP online we will reveal that location to you. We will have a full bar there as well, it’ll be 21 and over, there will also be a costume competition, and limited food trucks. So, we encourage people to eat in the community and then come over and party with us. It will be fully lit and lots of rentals, a lot of lights and cool things going on.
James Explains The History Of Haunted Little Tokyo
James: It’s really grassroots and small business driven, and the reason why that is, is because as a small business owner we opened in 2011 and starting a couple of years in, we always noticed that September and October were dead, super slow in the community. And so, we were thinking about different events and holidays to do things around, and then we realized,
Japanese horror movies or some of the scariest movies known to mankind. So, we said, Halloween lends itself perfectly to like a Haunted Little Tokyo, and that’s where that was born. So, this idea was thrown around for a couple of years, and then we were outside hanging out myself, Matthew and Michael from Wolf & Crane, and they love Halloween, they throw Halloween parties. They said, “dude, let’s do it.” And so, I said, “let’s try it on second street.”
First time shutting off a city street, first time doing it, and we were able to pull it off year one when we said that we’re going to do it. And so that was the evolution of how Haunted Little Tokyo became, and instead of just doing one block party, which brings a lot of people surrounding neighborhoods to Little Tokyo for one night, let’s bring people to the community as much as possible. So, year one we bit off a lot more than we could chew. Yes, and we did pull it off, but it was just, everyone was dying.
So, we did a pumpkin patch every single weekend of October where, again, that was in partnership with Tanaka Farms, and there was pumpkin painting, and what have you. And then every single Friday, we also screened a different Japanese horror movie, or something related to the community. I think we did Prince of Darkness because that shot up the Union Church, which has been a staple community building, very historic to our neighborhood.
The other thing was, we started Haunted Little Tokyo, and then if there was anything else that was going on, we would also just help promote it as a part of the community. We said, ” we have the Haunted Little Tokyo, that’s the umbrella. If you’re doing ghost, horror, or anything related to Halloween, let us know, and we’ll put it on our calendar.”
Philip: If it’s something the Little Tokyo Historical Society is doing, and then you all just help promote it. So, it’s not necessarily billed as something that is a part of the Haunted Little Tokyo programming, but it is something that is related and therefore you promote it.
James: Yes. We work closely on what dates that they want to do it. Obviously, we need to know how they’re promoting it, and then we try and have all that feed into some sort of a, “Hey, come to Little Tokyo for Halloween, and we’ve got a block party coming up.”
Philip: Yes, and in 2020 you did a pumpkin patch for two days and you did some scavenger hunt and trick or treating.
James: We created these six-foot slides and decorated them so that we could slide candy from six feet away down the slide into somebodies candy bag. And if you visited all the different locations, then you got a chance to spin the wheel and get gift cards to restaurants in the neighborhood.
Philip: So, it sounds like the basic structure has stayed the same since 2017. And this is the fifth year, but the basic structure stayed the same, and you found a way to make the scavenger hunt work even during COVID, basically.
James: Yeah. Yeah. The only thing is we didn’t have a large block party last year for obvious reasons.
Why Is Haunted Little Tokyo Important?
Philip: In the 2018 article, you said the more people come to Little Tokyo, the better we’ll do, and the better the neighborhood will do all ships rise in a rising tide. Is that still the premise behind why you think the event is important?
James: The reason why I think Haunted Little Tokyo is so important, or any event that really brings people to the community is important is, I said this a lot, All boats rise in a rising tide. Everyone will do better, and everyone have a chance of doing better, if more people are in the area. You know, we’re competing with other neighborhoods for people to come and be in the neighborhood. So, the more reasons we give them to come to Little Tokyo, the better we’ll do. And the more reason we give people to come to Little Tokyo, the more incorporated it will be in somebody’s life. During the block party we see parents with kids that are dressed up and kids are dancing on the stage and what have you, hopefully that’s a memory that they have, and as they grow older, they’ll always want to come back to a place that they have fond memories.
I couldn’t tell you what the exact ROI is on my time spent on helping create these events, and it’s a ton of time that we put into these things. But the one thing that I do know is, if the community succeeds the better chance that we’ll have at succeeding. If nobody’s coming to the community, we have no chance of somebody walking through our door, that’s the driving, I guess it’s one of the more important driving factors of why we do events like this and why haunted is important to us.
How Are The Mixed Cultures of Little Tokyo Balanced With The Event?
James: So, having been in Little Tokyo for 10 years through Cafe Dulce, my experience with the different community members and the different businesses and other people that I talk to and get to interact with and have life with, Little Tokyo was never meant to be Disneyland of what Tokyo is in Japan, it’s never meant to be a smaller version of Tokyo in Japan. Me coming in as a non-Japanese American, I’m Korean American, all they cared about is that I care about the neighborhood and the community and my neighbor. Which is why they asked me to join the Little Tokyo Community Council, and I’ve been able to serve on that board for a better part of five, six years now.
When it comes to like preserving Little Tokyo, it’s not trying to preserve Japanese artifact and stuff like that, but really trying to preserve what’s made our community special, the legacy businesses within Little Tokyo that are special and specific to us, and the cultural institutions that are specific to Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Really, it’s like that, like walking through the neighborhood and saying hello to your neighbors and your fellow small business owner, and non-profit, people that work in the nonprofits, and others that work in the neighborhood too. In that sense, the Halloween thing, it just never felt culturally awkward to be doing Halloween and Little Tokyo. It’s like we’re very much an Asian American part of town.
James Choy’s Journey To Little Tokyo And How It Changed Everything
Philip: Let’s talk a tiny bit now about you coming to the community, of course you run Cafe Dulce, your mother was the one that started and roped you in when she lost her original partner and didn’t know anything about it, but you applied your same dogma that you did to becoming a semi-pro golfing athlete to creating it. In 2013 she passed, and since then it’s been you, and then we can draw direct clear line between 2013 and then 2017 and the start of Haunted Little Tokyo.
James: I’m very impressed, that’s crazy. Where did you find all that stuff?
Philip: We do a lot of research. There’s transformation here at all these points. So, I want to know what do you see the Cafe as now?
James: Oh, I see. I guess going back, like I was brought on before we even opened the doors. So, the vision and all that happened with my mother, and she always leaned on me, I was much younger back then. So, she always leaned on me in terms of, ” hey, what’s trending? Like what should we do? What’s popular? What do the kids like?”
So, we started off, we were supposed to sell macaroons because macaroons are going crazy back then. And I was like, my accounting back then, I was like, “dude, this doesn’t make sense.” And she wanted it to be a Dee Dee Reese copycat. So, like ice cream sandwiches, like how many ice cream sandwich you gotta sell to make rent? That didn’t make sense.
So, we always knew we wanted to have a cool coffee program, we didn’t know what that meant back then, but that was the beginning of specialty coffee in Los Angeles. And so we said, “Hey, whatever it means, you want to have an excellent hot coffee program. We want to always work with great coffee roasters, and maybe one day get into roasting ourselves, but we really want to do what the specialty coffee people are doing.” And that’s really evolved and I’ve been able to learn a lot through that.
We consider ourselves a gateway to specialty coffee. Back in 2011, when we first opened, specialty coffee meant you didn’t serve sugar with your coffee, it was like never had a sweet drink. Then you fast forward to today, specialty coffee is pretty ubiquitous, so how many different ways can you do espresso, macchiato, frappe, latte, and cold brew.
So now every specialty coffee store has their own signature beverage, they have sweet ingredients, and other different signature beverages that highlight things. And we’ve done that since day one, because in order to give us the best chance of succeeding, we needed to appeal to a broader audience. So, we’ve always had a Hong Kong style milk tea or Vietnamese style iced coffee. We do our Dulce latte, which is a sweetened drink, not just a pure coffee and milk. So that’s always driven our identity within coffee.
And then when it comes to the pastries and stuff, we’d never meant to be a donut shop or anything else. We just want to make things that paired well with coffee, and our donuts became popular, cause we were doing, Asian donuts with a Western touch to them, if you will.
James Explains The Community Of Little Tokyo And What It Changed
James: But the thing that I think has changed, and I really credit this to Little Tokyo affecting my culture, and I always say this, I’m so happy that our first location landed in Little Tokyo, because it fundamentally changed the way I view how a small business should operate within a community or anything. And, I work with Kristen, to this day, she’s the managing director, I don’t know what her official title is, of Little Tokyo Community Council, the place that I serve on the board of, and her and three other friends came into our store one evening and was like, “Hey, welcome to the neighborhood, and we just want to see if there’s anything we could help with.” And I asked them what they do, and they had started a little nonprofit called LT Roots. Which, their whole goal was to bring as many people to Little Tokyo as possible. And as a small business owner looking around empty neighborhood, I was like, “that’s a cause I can get behind.”
My relationship started there. I was like, “whatever you guys need, let me know. I have leftover pastries every night. You guys need it for a bet. Take them off. You guys need coffee for a bit. We’ll make your coffee.” And my saying yes to small things there developed trust with the community, and then I trusted the community in terms of getting to know people and saying hi, and I saw them coming and patronizing our business and supporting us more.
Now, 10 years in, I can’t imagine running a business without being as involved in the community as we are in Little Tokyo, and it’s hard to do it at every single location. Little Tokyo is pretty special because so much of the community is right there, and it’s very dense, and everybody actively supports each other. But all of our other locations too, if they’re doing something and they want participation, or they want us to honor our promo or whatever else, we’re always saying yes, just so that we have a good relationship with the landlords and our neighboring partners and tenants and stuff like that.
That’s how I feel like it’s kinda changed us, and really, it’s not us when it’s the community and we’re impacting the community as much as they have impacted us and informed us on how we could be a good neighbor.
Philip: Your mom wanted you to find something that you could excel at by throwing yourself into it, do you think you found that with the community?
James: It didn’t matter what I was doing, she wanted me to be the best at it or whatever. And, you know, I think that’s kind of cliche, everyone says, “oh, we want you to be the best at whatever,” but she really believed that I should be the best at anything that I was doing, always believed in me since I was a child. I think when it came to business too, she always thought we could be doing better, and surprisingly, I think fast forward, we’re doing better than I think she would have even thought that we would have done.
And yeah, I mean, for better or worse, I guess this is my calling in terms of running Cafe Dulce, or I consider myself in the hospitality industry now where we’re really serving people and developing relationships. That’s how I try to view anybody that we work with, including all of our staff and employees. I often, when I coached them in terms of trying to get better at things, I always say, “Hey, this isn’t just. For you to do a better job here while you’re an employee of Cafe Dulce, this applies to the rest of your life. Whatever other job you have, you’re going to be working with other people, this feedback that I’m giving you it’s applicable to anything else that you do.” And that’s how my mom always taught me.
There’s a funny, quick story. One of our managers, who’s a manager today, back then he was a new hire. He was stamping bags and really slow, seemingly really slow, but he argues that he was trying to make it really nice. But she walked up to him, and she goes, “if you stamp bags like that, how do you think you’re going to do anything else in life?” It’s ridiculous, but there’s a grain of truth to that too, how you do anything is how you do everything, and that’s something that I try to live my life by. It’s pretty hard, and it’s tiring, but that’s kinda how we try and operate in the community as well.
Philip: Despite you having a reservations when your mom first wanted to open the coffee shop after her chocolate shop.
James: Yeah, for sure. I was like, “do not do this.”
Building Community Trust Leads To Community Support Of Projects
James: Nancy Yap, who is one of the primary, organizers of Haunted Little Tokyo, she always talks about how, the reason why people like, even support us when we say we want to do outlandish things, like close down second street and throw a block party, is because we’ve said yes and followed through on so many things before. And so that trust, you know, going back to the conversation earlier, but like that trust is built, and trust doesn’t just magically appear overnight, it’s the little things that you said yes to when you followed through on, or said no to, and stood your ground on that too.
So yeah, all those things that we did earlier with different events and people understanding that, “Hey, you know, when James says he’s gonna come out with the dessert cart, he’ll do it. When he says he’s going to come up with an espresso machine, hey, he pulled it off.” And we got involved with a Little Tokyo before I was on the board. So all of these different things that we were able to prove that, [00:17:00] we can get organized and create a plan and actually execute on it. I think that’s definitely why, when we say we’re going to do this, even people that, you know, decided to help, you’re not going to help someone that you don’t think is going to actually follow through on what they say that they’re going to do, so all the help and the volunteers and the people that got involved, it was all because we had already done things together. Because we did Haunted Little Tokyo, we able to do community feeding community.
Philip: Community Feeding Community Program provides meals to in need hospitality and service workers. Your and Nancy’s nonprofit that you launched last year, right?
James: Yeah, and then we basically housed it under LTCC, and basically because we had worked on other things together, also with Kristin, that relationship was all already there. So, within a week we came up with an idea and we were able to create something and then start Community to Community. And that was because we didn’t have to build the relationships, and we didn’t have to build the trust of, “Hey, if you say you’re going to do X, then you’re going to actually do X.”
I think one of the coolest things we saw was, emotionally people were just grateful, and coming out and saying, hi. It was twice a week that people knew that this was going on. I don’t know, it was really quite a beautiful thing.
What Does The Future Hold For Haunted Little Tokyo?
James: So, one thing we’d like Haunted Little Tokyo to become is an event that’s well funded and sponsored by, I don’t know, organizations or larger companies. And the reason why we want to sponsor this so that we can create something that’s pretty large and amazing. Part of the big goal is to raise funds through Haunted Little Tokyo so that we can do other community things.
So, one thing that I would love to do is help fund Go Little Tokyo, which is a program run through Little Tokyo Community Council, born out of the relationship with Metro during construction and mitigation efforts. So, Go Little Tokyo’s funding is coming to an end, and so we’re really trying to see, how do we keep that going? Cause it was really vital to Little Tokyo during COVID-19, and also just even outside of COVID. What community has a marketing arm that’s as polished and as integrated and active in the community? So yeah, that’s the financial goals of Haunted Little Tokyo.
In terms of just from a pure event standpoint, we really wanted to create. Halloween event, that was just as big as the one that happens in West Hollywood, but this one is a little bit more family friendly, and a little more community oriented. We eventually want to see all of Second Street and First Street all shut down. Everything from JCCC, all the way up to Japanese American National Museum, just teaming with people in costume, and activations, and just a night full of fun. It’s a crazy lofty goal, but that’s something that I’d love to see happen.