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9th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest

Through The Opera Glasses

The California sun was bright as Erin strolled through the streets of Little Tokyo, too lost in worry to notice the sights around her. Ugh! She thought, trying to push the negative thoughts out of her head.

It’s my day off, and I’m going to enjoy it! I just need to relax and not worry about Grandma. 

Just then, Erin noticed a tiny, shabby store jammed between two modern buildings. Several Japanese symbols were written on a faded sign above the door with ‘Little Tokyo Antiques’ printed in tiny letters beneath. 

This place looks interesting. I never know what I might find in an antique shop. 

A small bell tinkled as Erin opened the door. A strong, yet delicately scented smoke filled the air inside the dimly lit shop.

“Hello?” Erin called. Something rustled at the back of the store. A moment later, an elderly Japanese man emerged from behind a display cabinet. The collar of his blue kimono was obscured by his long white beard.

Kon'nichiwa, dōsureba otetsudai dekimasu ka?” He asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“Oh... um, I mean, good afternoon, how may I help you?”

“Good afternoon! I’m not really looking for anything in particular - I’m just browsing.”

“Excellent, excellent. Please let me know if you need anything.” The elderly man bowed and shuffled away.

* * * * *

After a few minutes of looking around, Erin noticed something shimmering at the back of a shelf. When she picked it up, Erin realized it was a beautiful pair of mother of pearl opera glasses edged in gold. A small tag bearing a row of Japanese symbols dangled from the knob between the two lens barrels. These would be great for sightseeing. I wonder what these symbols mean?

“Sir?” Erin called.

“Just a minute,” The elderly man called back from the other side of the store. A moment later, he turned the corner. “How can I help you?”

“Could you please translate this tag for me?” Erin handed him the opera glasses. After examining the tag for a moment, the elderly man spoke.

“Fortune finds those who see the signs.”

“What does THAT mean?”

“That is for you to decide.” The elderly man smiled as he handed the opera glasses back to Erin.

“Okay...” Erin paused awkwardly for a moment. “How much are they?”

“For you? Ten dollars.”

“I’ll take them.” Erin eagerly pulled a $10 bill and some loose change from her large shoulder purse.

* * * * *

Back outside, Erin pulled the opera glasses out of her purse. Do these even work? She tried to use the opera glasses to zoom in on a nearby tree, but the focus knob seemed to be stuck.

Darn. They must be broken.

Just then, Erin saw something move, and a cat appeared from behind the tree. Its shiny white fur was spotted with black and orange, and its ears were bright red. The cat raised its right paw parallel to its body, with its palm facing away from her. Cocking its head, the cat grinned before it crossed the street and disappeared in the maze of legs in front of a café.

“Wait!” Erin exclaimed, quickly jamming the opera glasses back into her purse and running after the cat.

“Excuse me! Pardon me! Coming through!”

By the time she emerged on the other side of the crowd, the cat was gone. Quickly grabbing the opera glasses and looking through them, Erin saw the cat disappear around the corner. Still holding the opera glasses to her eyes, she turned onto East 1st Street and spotted the cat holding its right paw in the air as it sat in front of a stone building with a red striped awning. Erin was so focused on the cat that she tripped on a loose cobblestone and almost dropped the opera glasses. That was a close one!

After carefully sliding the opera glasses back in her purse, Erin looked up to see three bold Japanese symbols above a red striped awning with a small green sign underneath that read ‘Fugetsu-Do Confectionary: Since 1903.’ Yum - dessert! Just what I need.

Stepping inside the shop, Erin was dazzled by wall-to-wall cases bursting with tantalizing treats. “Wow!” She said aloud, gazing at the colorful sweets in every shape and size. Some were displayed in individual ruffled papers while others were packed together in boxes and trays.

The ruffled papers reminded Erin of the fancy paper wrappers she and her grandmother used when they baked cupcakes together. I really miss baking with Grandma. She’s declined so much since Grandpa died, she won’t even talk to me anymore.

“Hi! I’m Riho. This place is really cool, huh?” The voice of someone behind Erin brought her back to the present. She turned around to see a young Japanese girl wearing a red beanie.

“It is!” Erin agreed. “All these sweets are so beautiful - what are they?”

“They’re mochi!”

Mochi? I’ve eaten a lot of things, but I’ve never had mochi.”

“You’ve never had mochi?! Well, you’re in for a treat.” Riho turned toward the counter. “Korey, can my new friend have a sample? She’s never had mochi before!”

“No problem! I know exactly which flavor she should try,” A young man behind the counter said, reaching into a case.

“I’ve known Korey since we were kids. Our families go way back; my great-uncle used to work here years ago,” Riho explained, turning back to Erin.

“That must have been a long time ago,” Erin said.

“It was - this is the oldest Japanese-American owned business in the United States!” Riho exclaimed.

“Who knew?” Erin said.

“This is a traditional habutai, mochi filled with sweet red bean paste,” Korey said, reaching over the counter to hand Erin a white mochi in a ruffled paper.

“It’s really good!” Erin exclaimed, savoring the chewy exterior and smooth filling. “I’ve never had anything like this before. How do you make it?”

“We make our mochi dough by steaming, pounding and shaping a special type of sticky rice. It’s a difficult process that takes years to master,” Korey explained.

“That’s incredible! Who knew making dessert could be art? Thanks for the sample!” Erin exclaimed.

“Of course - I’m glad you liked it!” Korey said before he turned his attention to the people in line to check out.

“I can’t believe I’d never heard of mochi until today!” Erin said.

“Me neither! Wait, if you’d never heard of mochi before, what brought you to Fugetsu-Do?” Riho asked.

“I know it sounds crazy, but a cat led me here.”

“Really? What kind of cat?”

“It was white, with black and orange spots and bright red ears. The weird thing was that it raised the back of its right paw toward me like it was saluting or waving.”

“You must have seen a Maneki-Neko! I’ve only seen one once - when I was four years old. Mom took me shopping right here in Little Tokyo, and somehow I wound up getting lost. Then I saw a Maneki-Neko, and it led me back to my mom!”

“Can I ask a silly question? What is a man- man- mane-”

“Oh, you mean Maneki-Nekos? They’re legendary cats that are said to bring luck to anyone who sees one. Maneki-Nekos don’t salute or wave, though, like you thought - they beckon you. That motion is how we say ‘come here’.” Riho imitated the motion.

“But cats don’t do that, right?”

“No, but they wash their face, and that looks similar. That’s where the legend originated.”

“Oh, now I get it.” I wonder if it will bring me any luck.

* * * * *

Back outside, Erin gave Riho one last wave before carefully tucking a container full of mochi into her purse as she pulled out the opera glasses. Looking through the opera glasses, Erin followed the Maneki-Neko as it beckoned her further down East 1st Street, turned onto South Central Avenue, and stopped near the side of a nondescript building. Then, the cat beckoned her again and tilted its head upward.

I don’t get it. Erin put the opera glasses back in her purse. Maybe I’m supposed to look up. She craned her neck to search the sky. Nothing there.

Looking down again, Erin’s eyes fell on a stunningly colorful mural about 10 feet above the ground. Images including dancing people, a produce seller, a karate student, Japanese musicians, and a ‘HOME IS LITTLE TOKYO’ signpost framed the main image of an elderly woman lighting candles with two children. Another reminder of Grandma. I really hope we don’t have to move her to an assisted living facility.

CLICK! The snap of a camera shutter startled Erin.

“Did I scare you?” Someone asked. Turning around, Erin saw a young man with long hair pulled into dreadlocks and a camera hanging around his neck.

“A little,” Erin admitted.

“Sorry! I’m just taking some pictures of sights in Little Tokyo for my travel blog. This mural is considered to be one of Little Tokyo’s greatest treasures! I’m Cameron, by the way.”

As she was listening to Cameron, Erin realized that she had lost sight of the Maneki-Neko.

“Say, did you happen to see a cat around here? It was white, with black and orange spots and red ears.”

“No.” Cameron looked confused. “Should I have?”

That’s weird. Maybe I can only see it through the opera glasses? Now that I think of it, I’ve never seen the cat without them.

“One moment.” Erin pulled the opera glasses out of her purse and looked through them. Just as she had hoped, she could see the Maneki-Neko sitting in front of the mural. “Here. Try looking through these.”

“Okay...” Cameron dubiously raised the opera glasses to his eyes. “Um...I’m not really seeing any cats. Where is it supposed to be?”

“It’s right there!” Erin pointed to where she had last seen the cat.

“Call me crazy, but I just see you pointing to the wall under the mural.”

“That’s weird. I guess it’s just me.” Erin remembered the words of the elderly man in the antique shop. Fortune finds those who see the signs. “Thanks for looking anyway.”

“ problem.” Cameron awkwardly handed the opera glasses back to Erin. “Listen, I’d love to chat more, but I have to get moving. I have several more locations to photograph before I post this article. Bye!”

“Good luck with your blogging!” Erin waved to Cameron. Time to check on the cat! Through the opera glasses, Erin spotted something small sitting in front of the Japanese American National Museum across the intersection. After crossing the street, she took another look through the opera glasses and realized that the object was the Maneki-Neko, beckoning her toward the JANM parking lot!

Didn’t I park there? Is the cat trying to take me home?

When Erin approached the cat, it dashed off again, stopping in front of a giant tree growing out of a hole in the parking lot concrete. A plaque in front of the tree identified it as the Aoyama Tree, Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #920. Curious, Erin put the opera glasses away and took out her phone to search for information online.

“The Aoyama Tree is a 60- by 70- foot Moreton Bay Fig tree that marks the former location of the Koyasan Daishi Mission, one of the oldest and largest Buddhist temples in the city. Though the Aoyama Tree lacks an irrigation system and graffiti and asphalt cover portions of its roots, the tree has survived for over 100 years,” Erin read.

It’s amazing that this tree has held on despite all its hardships. Even though Grandma has gone through a lot of hard times, maybe if she focuses more on the positive, she’ll be happier.

Erin contemplated this for a few moments before her thoughts turned back to the Maneki-Neko. It’s probably gone by now. Then again, maybe it’s still here... Erin decided to take one last look through the opera glasses - just in case. She could still see the Maneki-Neko, and it seemed to be pawing the dirt around the tree. A moment later, it vanished. That was weird. What was it doing? As Erin approached the trunk, she noticed something written in the dirt.


Am I dreaming all of this? Should I really leave the opera glasses behind?

Erin made her decision and reached under the chains surrounding the tree to place the opera glasses in the dirt. Taking a deep breath, Erin took one last look at the opera glasses, then turned to walk toward her car. After she took a few steps, Erin’s phone rang.

“Hello?” Erin said.

“Erin, you won’t believe this,” Erin’s dad said on the other end of the line. “Mom called me just now, and she was the happiest I’d heard her since Dad died! She went on and on about how excited she was to start baking and sewing again. I could hardly get her to hang up!”

“That’s amazing! Why do you think she’s feeling so much better?”

“She said she had a vision that inspired her to be more grateful for the good things in her life. I’m not sure what she means, but whatever happened, it’s certainly been a blessing.”

Erin smiled.

“Well, you know what they say, Dad: ‘Fortune finds those who see the signs.’”

* * * * *

Juan sighed and pushed open the doors of the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA and began to walk toward his car in the JANM parking lot. He couldn’t believe he’d lost his job after so many years. As he trudged toward his car, something pulled him toward the Aoyama Tree that had always given him welcome shade during his break times. As he approached the tree, he noticed something glimmering in the dirt. He reached down and picked up a beautiful pair of mother of pearl opera glasses edged in gold. Out of curiosity, he lifted them to his eyes. At that moment, a white cat with orange and black spots and bright red ears stepped out from behind the Aoyama Tree. Looking straight at Juan, it raised its right paw, beckoning him forward...


*This story received honorable mention in the English Youth category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 9th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.


© 2022 Madeline Thach

fiction Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story contest Little Tokyo

Sobre esta série

Each year, the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest heightens awareness of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo by challenging both new and experienced writers to write a story that captures the spirit and essence of Little Tokyo and the people in it.  Writers from three categories, Adult, Youth, and Japanese language, weave fictional stories set in the past, present, or future. On May 26, 2022 in a virtual celebration moderated by Derek Mio, noted actors, Keiko Agena, Helen Ota, and Megumi Anjo performed dramatic readings of each winning entry.


  • Adult Category: “Tori” by Xueyou Wang 
      Honorable mentions 
  • Youth Category: “Time Capsule” by Hailey Hua
      Honorable mentions
  • Japanese Language Category: “教えて” (Tell Me) by Nao Mutsuki
      Honorable mentions
    • 回春” (Spring is coming over) by Miyuki Kokubu (Japanese only)

*Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

1st Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
2nd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
3rd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
4th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
5th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
6th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
7th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>