For a quick trip to Japan, look no further than Mexico City. Although the capital has a thriving Korean community, few know about its Little Tokyo district, tucked in the quiet Cuauhtémoc neighborhood directly north of Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s main artery. Contrary to popular belief, Japanese culture isn’t unfamiliar to CDMX. It all started four centuries ago, when a samurai sailed to Acapulco and became the first ambassador to New Spain. Another wave of Japanese people followed suit during World War II—laying the foundation for Little Tokyo by opening Asian groceries, teppanyaki restaurants, and a Japanese Embassy in the ‘70s.
One of those immigrants was the grandfather of Edo López, the man who has single-handedly transformed Little Tokyo. Born in Tijuana to Mexican parents, López adopted his Japanese roots—including his mother’s maiden name, Kobayashi—after learning about his maternal grandfather, who fled Japan in WWII to seek refuge in Mexico. He then pulled all his savings to debut the first high-end establishment in his empire of more than 10 sushi spots, izakayas, and sake bars across Mexico City.
Thanks to the efforts of Kobayashi and other entrepreneurial Japanese immigrants, Little Tokyo has garnered attention as a destination in the heart of CDMX (so much that the embassy and local businesses are lobbying for a formal designation). Today, the area’s leafy blocks are lined with yakitori eateries, ramen joints, and whisky watering holes.
Drop your bags at Ryo Kan, an upscale twist on a traditional Japanese inn. The year-old hotel—courtesy of architect Regina Galvanduque of GLVDK Studio—marries Japanese design with Mexican materials. The stark white exterior and origami-like façade lend the building a sense of Zen among Mexico City’s vibrant murals and frenetic atmosphere. The simple interiors are equally serene: there’s a peaceful courtyard centered around a koi pond and rock garden as well as 10 minimalist guest rooms with blond wood and terrazzostone furnishings, handwoven tatami mats, yukata robes, intricate tea sets, and low-slung beds bordered by fusuma sliding doors. The real wonder, however, is the rooftop’s four deep-soaking onsen tubs that overlook the skyline.
When you’re rested and ready to hit the ground running, turn right out of Ryo Kan and stroll down Rio Panuco, where you’ll discover the majority of new Japanese restaurants, bars, and shops. Pop in EXIT La Librería, Mexico’s first contemporary art bookstore, to browse the selection of architecture photo books and Spanish-language Japanese literature by Satori Press. Flip through the pages over tamago egg or pork katsu sandos(Japanese sandwiches) and carajillos (Mexican coffee cocktails) at Kobayashi’s Enomoto Coffee, a café inspired by kissaten, Japanese tearooms. If you stay until evening, the space turns into Le Tachinomi Desu, a tiny Tokyo-style standing bar that pours natural wines plus Japanese sake and whisky.
The Kobayashi tour continues next door at Hiyoko, a 14-seat yakitori-ya that grills skewered chicken, quail, wagyu beef, sea bass, and buttered corn. Hidden upstairs is Emília, a much-anticipated restaurant that launched in December. Chef Luis “Lucho” Martínez whips up a rotating tasting menu of nine to 12 seasonal Japanese-influenced dishes, such as smoked duck yuzu dashi soup and yellowtail sashimi. Once you’re done, head across the street to the late-night speakeasy, Tokyo Music Bar, where you can linger over cocktails and listen to eclectic vinyl records.
The final Kobayashi stop is not only his inaugural creation, but it may also be his best. The casual izakaya and sushi counter, Rokai, features a multi-course omakase menu of sashimi, maki, and nigiri caught off the coast of Baja California. Must-tries include: sea urchin and sunomono with octopus. Rokai’s adjacent ramen outpost is also worth a visit as it makes 20 broth, noodle, and ramen soups.