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Two Worlds: One City


The beginning of May is a time for celebration. No argument here, especially if you had seen the crowd surging through Fiesta Broadway, the annual Cinco de Mayo street fair that filled blocks of downtown Los Angeles last weekend.

But three blocks east of Broadway, the celebration took a different form. May 5 is a holiday in Japan too. It's boys' day, when families honor male children, display carp banners and warrior dolls, prepare special foods and welcome spring. The flower of the celebration and of the month of May is the iris--ayame in Japanese.

It made for a perfect Los Angeles weekend: two completely different cultures celebrating shoulder to shoulder.

The iris was the theme of a coolly serene kaiseki luncheon at the New Otani Hotel in Little Tokyo on Sunday. Irises lined the entry to the dining room, stood in the center of each table and decorated the stage, where a dancer clad as a geisha carried a single purple blossom. Two slim iris leaves lay at the edge of a plate of sashimi, and a sheet of rice paper printed with a painting of irises was placed under the desserts.

This delicately ritualized luncheon honored boys' day with chimaki sushi--rice edged with a strip of fish, wrapped in a leaf and tied with red and white string. It's a traditional food for the holiday.

At the fiesta at 1st Street and Broadway, the Banda Limon blared out pop hits in the sweaty heat of the afternoon. In the Otani, guests relaxed to the gentle sound of water trickling over stones--a fountain had been set up in the center of each table--and sampled food prepared as art, a surprise with each plate. A moss-covered stone turned out to be mashed potato coated with seaweed. Ginger was carved into the shape of a bird. Somen noodles tied into a bow floated in a bowl of light broth. Tiny bits of braised duck appeared in an expensive kutani-ware bowl. Chef Tatsuo Kato, who came from Tokyo to prepare the banquet, had shopped not only for food but for the containers that he thought would set off each course.

Outside, vendors sold bottled water to help fiesta crowds cope with the heat. At the luncheon, guests drank cold sake from wine glasses and finished with green tea ice cream in little bowls alongside cinnamon-flavored yatsuhashi pastries.

Both celebrations drew big crowds, each in its own way. Fiesta Broadway drew an estimated 500,000 people over the weekend. The turnout for the 10-course kaiseki luncheon was much more modest, but the event sold out at $120 a plate.

On Broadway, kids shrieked happily as they jumped about at game booths. As the luncheon ended, an enthusiastic guest cried out, "Saiko, saiko, saiko"--high praise indeed because saiko in Japanese means the best of the best.

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