Shohei Ohtani’s star power lures Japanese tourists to Los Angeles

Josie Huang Jun 20, 2024
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Ohtani has drawn Japanese visitors to LA's Little Tokyo neighborhood, largely because it's not far from Dodger Stadium. Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Shohei Ohtani’s star power lures Japanese tourists to Los Angeles

Josie Huang Jun 20, 2024
Heard on:
Ohtani has drawn Japanese visitors to LA's Little Tokyo neighborhood, largely because it's not far from Dodger Stadium. Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images
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Across the U.S., cities are trying to reel in the international tourists they lost during the pandemic.  

In Los Angeles, a gift has come in the form of Shohei Ohtani, the hitting-and-pitching phenom for the Dodgers baseball team. Already a star in Japan when he came to the U.S. to play for the LA Angels, Ohtani unlocked international icon status last year by signing a record $700 million, 10-year deal with the Dodgers.

Now Japanese fans are coming by the thousands to see Ohtani play for his new team and dropping tourism dollars in places they wouldn’t normally go.

Near Dodger Stadium, tourists snapped photos of the new, 15-story mural of Ohtani that covers a wall of the Miyako Hotel. Inside, employees sold Japanese-style pastries shaped like blue Dodger helmets and getting to practice their Japanese. 

A mural of Ohtani covers one side of the Miyako Hotel.
A mural depicting Ohtani in a Dodgers uniform, created by artist Robert Vargas, on the Miyako Hotel in LA’s Little Tokyo neighborhood. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In the lobby, guest Megu Adachi was checking in at the front desk with several friends from Japan. They couldn’t wait to see the Dodgers play the Colorado Rockies, especially Ohtani — or, as Adachi fondly called him, “yakyu shonen”: a boy obsessed with baseball. 

“Baseball only,” Adachi emphasized in English.

Hotel manager Akira Yuhara said that when the Dodgers are playing at home, half of the 170-plus rooms are occupied by Japanese tourists who are in town to see Ohtani. Previously, he said, they had little reason to come to his hotel in the historic neighborhood of Little Tokyo. The district, which occupies a few city blocks in downtown Los Angeles, is seen by some as dangerous.

“And especially this area, they don’t want to come,” Yuhara added.

Yuhara said a sister hotel he manages, a half-hour drive south of L.A. in the beach city of Torrance, is typically more popular with Japanese travelers. SoCal’s Japanese American population center shifted from Little Tokyo to the South Bay after World War II. 

Scores of Japanese companies like Honda and All Nippon Airways have operations there, and it’s where many of their employees live, eat, bank and shop.

But hotel manager Yuhara said Ohtani has generated interest in parts of L.A. that haven’t been top tourism draws for the Japanese. “Even we don’t have a game today, they go Dodger Stadium and buy everything,” Yuhara said.

At the stadium, visitors can pick up a replica of Ohtani’s No. 17 jersey. Concession stands sell chicken katsu sandwiches and fried octopus

Signs in kanji characters dot the stadium, where tours are now given in Japanese several times a week. 

“We can refer to it as the Ohtani effect,” said Adam Burke, president and CEO of LA’s tourism board. “I don’t think it’s beyond the pale that we could be over 400,000 Japanese visitors.”

That would be a leap from 230,000 in 2023. Burke projects Japan could be in the top four international markets, along with the likes of China and the United Kingdom. 

Osuke Ishiguro manages the LA office of leading Japanese tour operator JTB. He said that even though the yen is weak right now, visitors from Japan are paying to attend not just one Dodgers game, “but, like, three games in a row they’re coming out to see.”

His agency is booking customers in and around Little Tokyo, like at the Miyako Hotel. Just outside the hotel on a recent day, Tadashi Onaka was taking photos of the Ohtani mural. He had planned a trip to Arizona to visit family, but took a detour to LA so he could go to a Dodgers game. He got to see Ohtani smack a single in the first inning. 

Now he found himself in Little Tokyo, a place he’s was surprised to learn has been around for 140 years. Speaking in Japanese, he described Little Tokyo as “very small.”

And very different from Japan. Rather, it’s its own thing that now legions of Ohtani fans are starting to discover.

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