23 May 3 Hours at Terasaki Budokan
By Tenaya Senzaki, LTSC Marketing & Communications Manager
I started working at Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) in 2017. We were in the throes of Terasaki Budokan’s capital campaign–a final fundraising push culminating 30 years of community blood, sweat and tears to bring the recreational facility to life. Over its decades-long journey, the project survived a couple potential deaths and now we were just shy of closing our funding gap. It was an all hands on deck situation, but with mission-driven grit and inspiring leadership from our Executive Director, Dean Matsubayashi, we got the job done.
Skip forward a few years to mid-2020, deep into the pandemic. We joyously completed construction and finally got the keys, but City health mandates prevented us from opening to the public. A beautiful, highly anticipated, brand new facility sat anxiously awaiting its grand opening. With slim options for rental revenue, I remember colleagues holding their breath, crunching numbers and finding creative solutions to ensure we wouldn’t have to close before we ever had the chance to really open.
Fast forward three more years to present day, May 2023. I packed up my camera and drove to Budokan on a late Saturday morning. It’d been a while since I’d dropped by the facility, and there was an AAPI Heritage Month event going on that day. I figured I’d cover the event and grab some fresh photos for our website. To my surprise, I spent the afternoon fully immersed in what felt like a Budokan utopia.
11:05 AM: I arrive in Little Tokyo and park at the LTSC office. Budokan’s underground garage is already full, with cars circling and waiting for spots. As I walk across Los Angeles Street, I can hear the thundering of taiko drums.
11:15 AM: I walk through Budokan’s front gate into a taiko tournament on the plaza. I sneak through the crowd and glimpse Walter Nishinaka emceeing the production. Walter co-leads the taiko program at Budokan (J-Town Taiko) and brought this taiko showcase (Taiko Taikai) to Little Tokyo. I hear him introduce a performer from Ohio and soon feel the drumming vibration reverberate through my body. I walk past vendor booths selling Japanese drinks and snacks, and glance at a posted schedule. J-Town Taiko is listed to perform later that evening. I catch Walter’s gaze across the crowd of proud parents and intrigued spectators, and we wave hello.
11:45 AM: I make my way into the gym and trade the sound of taiko drumming for the sound of bouncing volleyballs. Two courts are being used by a group of young adults. They wrap up their game and I approach one of the women. Turns out this group of friends found out about Budokan through open gym hours and loved it so much they started renting court time on the weekends. She tells me they love the facility for its easy parking, cleanliness and friendly staff, and despite not otherwise being affiliated with Little Tokyo, they like that their rental helps support the community. Most of the group is local, but some travel from OC and Riverside. And as much as they love volleyball as a way to stay active and social, they admit their favorite part is going out to eat in Little Tokyo after the game. In my head, I hear Terasaki Budokan Director Ryan Lee’s common refrain, ‘We want our visitors to eat, shop and play in Little Tokyo and create memories that bond them to the community’. Seems like this group of friends is doing just that.
12:00 PM: I bump into a former colleague in the lobby. He now works for the LA Kings and, in partnership with LA Galaxy, helped organize today’s AAPI Heritage Month event for local youth. He introduces me to an LA Galaxy representative, a woman with Japanese heritage, and we get into a conversation about the taiko tournament outside as we shuffle into the gym for the event.
12:15 PM: It’s here, among the bleachers, that I meet Brandon Tsay, the hero that disarmed the gunman in Monterey Park earlier this year. The Kings and Galaxy invited him to talk to the kids about mental health and the importance of community–a conversation that’s being facilitated by LTSC’s Changing Tides Program Coordinator, Matthew Yonemura. I must admit, Brandon wasn’t what I thought he’d be like. Because of the media whirlwind that ensued after his act of bravery, I assumed he’d be easily confident speaking to crowds. But Brandon seemed anxious, pacing the gym floor, eager to participate and wholly polite, but palpably pushing himself outside his comfort zone. Trying to break the ice, I quipped, “So, do speaking events like this ever get easier?” He said no, but that all he can do is try his best and speak from an honest place. His talk went really well, and I was left feeling hopeful. It’s refreshing that someone so down to earth and egoless is being recognized as a hero. It proves that anyone (and everyone) can make a difference in the community, if their heart is in the right place.
1:00 PM: Kid chaos ensues. The Kings and Galaxy organize ball hockey scrimmages and soccer drills for the youth in attendance, most of whom are local residents in LTSC buildings. I recognize a brother-sister pair from our after school program (Mi CASA) hamming it up with the Galaxy staff. I get a high-five from the Kings mascot, dodge a soccer ball, and pause to tune in to the sound of laughter and clashing hockey sticks.
1:30 PM: I stop by the office to grab some water and see two people perusing the various flyers and brochures at the front desk. I’m about to ask them if they have any questions, but Ryan beats me to it. I overhear them saying it’s their first time at Budokan and Ryan offers them a quick tour of the facility.
2:00 PM: I’m headed up to the terrace to check out an art workshop, when a father and daughter stop me in the lobby. They’re actually looking for the same workshop that I’m headed to, so I tell them to follow me and gesture them into the elevator. Up on the terrace, we’re greeted by Carey, an LTSC resident and comic artist extraordinaire. Carey’s workshop is the first in a series featuring artists that live in LTSC buildings, which is being organized by a group of residents that also live in LTSC buildings. I spot Bibi, a LTSC resident and Board Member, and chat with her before the workshop starts.
2:30 PM: I pack up my stuff and walk back to my car to the sound of distant drumming and applause. As I accelerate onto the 110 to head home towards Pasadena, I catch myself smiling. When I started working at LTSC, I was fairly new to the Little Tokyo community. I didn’t know a lot of people and I wasn’t familiar with the local organizations and businesses. But since Budokan’s grand opening in 2022, my community connections have multiplied–something I hadn’t realized until this afternoon. Budokan has become a central hub; a place where the community can rub shoulders. Where friends gather to play volleyball and then patronize small businesses for lunch. Where an LA Galaxy staff member of Japanese heritage organizes a youth event and ends up seeing taiko for the first time. Where a local resident helps a nonprofit board member add facial expressions to her sketches to make them ‘kawaii’. As I drove home, feeling connected and fulfilled, I couldn’t help but think back to that empty facility in 2020 versus what I had just experienced this afternoon. After 30 years of community perseverance, I believe Terasaki Budokan is truly a dream realized.