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Food Tours of Little Tokyo with Six Taste - An interview with Jeff Okita

Want to get the inside scoop on Little Tokyo? With a Six Taste tour, it’s likely to be mochi flavored gelato, but you’ll also enjoy tasty tidbits of history, culture and samples of Japanese cuisine along seven stops in a 3-1/2 hour walking adventure. The tours place the Japanese American National Museum (JANM)’s goals of understanding and appreciation of cultural and ethnic diversity on a path leading directly to the stomach. It’s one of the latest programs offered through JANM.

Jeff Okita (Left) and Alex Tao

Six Taste is the brainchild of Jeff Okita, a northern California native, and his business partner, Alex Tao, originally from West Virginia. According to Jeff, “this outside perspective gave me an appreciation of how great LA is, particularly how culinarily diverse the city is. I realized how intimidating going to some of these neighborhoods could be for someone who is not familiar with the area or the cuisine.”

The two recent USC grads launched their business in August 2009. The name, Six Taste, hints at the possible discovery of a new taste beyond sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory (umami). Starting with one tour a week, the concept proved popular and foodies now have more than a dozen weekly tours to choose from. Current destinations include Little Tokyo, New Chinatown in San Gabriel Valley, Thai Town, Dumpling tour in Arcadia, Downtown Los Angeles Financial District and Santa Monica.

But Six Taste tours aren’t all Asian, all the time. Downtown’s vibrant Financial District is the site of a very popular tour covering Latin, Thai, and American cuisine. There’s also a Santa Monica tour with samplings at a farmer’s market, a deli and additional stops for Spanish tapas, wine, and Belgian chocolates.

As a newcomer to LA six years ago, Jeff Okita enjoyed exploring different neighborhoods and restaurants including Little Tokyo, one of only three official “Japantowns” in the U.S. He chose the history-rich neighborhood for the initial Six Taste tour. Jeff admits, “the first tour was the hardest, trying to explain to restaurants the concept and how it can help them. There are not many food tour companies in the US, so restaurants were unfamiliar with the concept, and we had no proof that the tours would bring them more business.” Now, the increased foot traffic generated by regular weekend tours has won over a roster of local businesses. Some of the current stops on the Little Tokyo tour include Yamazaki Bakery, Wakasaya Restaurant, Fugetsu-Do Confectionery, Mitsuru Café, concluding with a scoop of mochi gelato at Mikawaya.

“The most surprising thing that I’ve learned about Little Tokyo is how accessible it is, yet how many people have never been there. It has such a deep history and a great neighborhood feel,” wrote Jeff. Word must be getting around. More than 80% of the tour-takers are locals, perhaps curious about unfamiliar areas and cultures but in need of a nudge from an expert guide. The camaraderie of fellow food explorers adds to the fun say many of the satisfied customers who posted online reviews.

Jeff takes note of the changing face of Little Tokyo. Along with new construction projects and storefront facelifts, there are increasing numbers of young people frequenting the restaurants and shops. Jeff observes, “this is a community that deeply cares about their neighborhood, and I’m excited to become part of it.” He estimates that since the inception of Six Taste, 1,500 customers on 130 tours have injected $20,000 into the area.

The multicultural flavor of Six Taste tours comes naturally to Jeff. On his father’s side, the Okita family, incarcerated in Tule Lake during World War II, owned a grocery store in Sacramento before and after the war. His mother is Filipino. As a 4th generation bi-racial Japanese American, Jeff has made it a point to stay connected to the cultures of both sides of his family. Not surprisingly, his favorite food picks are eclectic. His guilty pleasure is mac & cheese and his family has a longstanding tradition of making homemade tamales for the holidays. “What this business has done for me,” says Jeff, “is extended my knowledge of other cuisines. What’s fascinating to me is to see the similarities in dishes with all cuisines. For example, most Asian cultures have some form of dumpling.” Those cross-cultural connections can be fully explored in the diverse neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

Jeff wants to continue introducing people to unfamiliar cuisines. Looking to the future, he writes, “our hope is to add more tours, both in our existing locations and in other neighborhoods in Los Angeles. We see a tremendous demand for people who are interested in exploring Little Tokyo. We want to continue to direct people to the area and work with organizations in the community to promote Little Tokyo as much as possible.” Consequently, he sees promise in the partnership between Six Taste and JANM. “We want people to go to the museum after our food tours, to return back after our tours and become life-long supporters of the area. Luckily, from our reviews and feedback we get from our customers, we’re well on our way to do that.”

Find more information on every Six Taste tour at http://www.sixtaste.com/

**All photographs are courtesy of Jeff Okita.

© 2010 Japanese American National Museum

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