Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Photo Essay: A Farewell to the Palace on Mount Yamashiro

[Update 7/31/16: Yamashiro reopened just as quickly as it closed, under its new ownership and management. Some changes have been made already, but more are to come with an imminent renovation.]

Over the last five years, there have been a few times when the sense of urgency to visit a particular place reaches a critical point because, for one reason or another, it might be my last chance.

The Proud Bird Restaurant, a bona fide planespotting institution over by LAX, was rumored to be closing in 2013. Although it managed to stay open for a while longer, it did eventually close—and now is being turned into a hipster food hall.

My first time at Tom Bergin's was also in 2013, on its closing night. Amidst the mayhem, the servers were literally giving away french fries, onion rings, and other bar food. The bartenders didn't bother to charge for every drink. Luke Perry got behind the stick and started serving. And then shortly thereafter, one of the bar's regulars bought and reopened it.

Bahooka wasn't so lucky.

But last night, I found myself saying goodbye to an LA landmark that I had my own personal history with—a place I'd started going to long before I even moved to LA, and one I can count among my favorites in Southern California.

In fact, Yamashiro may be one of my favorite places in the world.



It was here that an Angeleno first sat me down—I, a staunch New Yorker at the time—and explained to me that LA is a hidden city, and that to fully appreciate it as an outsider, I'd need some guidance from the inside.



He was one of the few people I knew in LA, so I was glad that he was willing to pick me up at my hotel in his Jeep and pilot our adventure.



When he showed me the Japanese gardens built into the side of a 600-foot Hollywood hill and the 600 year-old pagoda (the oldest structure in California), I just couldn't believe it.



It was just like a movie—but why hadn't I seen this side of LA in any movies?! It's probably because the Hollywood elite kept the former private mansion all to themselves, as the former headquarters of the "400 Club" in the 1920s. Or the fact that when Yamashiro did have a cameo in a film, it doubled as Japan and not LA.



This "mountain palace," I learned that first night, had been vandalized during World War II as a result of anti-Japanese sentiment—so much so that many of its Japanese features were stripped or covered up, and the estate was converted into a boys' military school.



In 1948, the property was purchased by a developer who planned to tear it down and build a hotel and apartments—that is, until he uncovered some of the carved wood and other ornate details that had been covered up. He changed his plans, restored the estate, and converted it into a sprawling restaurant and cocktail bar.



It's been operated by the same family for decades, but it was recently purchased—by Chinese developers—through a sale forced by squabbling members of the family who'd been playing a game of tug-of-war over it.



At first, the new owners vowed to preserve the site, but there was a catch: Yamashiro would have to pay monthly rent upwards of six figures (or more). Even considering the money made from the sale—and the fact that the same family also owns The Magic Castle next door—that monthly rent is just too damn high for Yamashiro to continue operating on the site.



So, the family that owns and operates the restaurant business—but no longer the historic property itself—is currently caught up in a legal battle of eviction notices and appeals. The longer they're tied up in court, the longer Yamashiro will stay open. But since nobody really knows how long it's got, or what will happen to it when the Chinese developers fully take over, I made my pilgrimage back so I could properly say goodbye.



When I returned to Yamashiro last night, I marveled that I'd never photographed the place, despite the handful of times I'd visited. Whether it was for Fourth of July fireworks (and the Thursday night farmer's market) or drinks with friends, I'd never bothered to document it.



I guess maybe I thought it would always be there. Or maybe I hadn't realized how attached to it I'd become.



So, upon my return—which quite possibly could be my final visit—I tried to soak it all in and memorize every detail.



It was a rare opportunity to catch it before nightfall, in the waning light of day...



...and to remind myself of why I love this place so much.



The mansion was originally built less as a residence and more as storage for a pair of German brothers who were silk traders and wanted to have somewhere to keep all of the Asian art, furniture, and antiques they'd collected (including that pagoda that's now six centuries old).



But during a few times in its history, some people actually did live here—while it was the military school and when it was split into apartments.



Imagine waking up to a Japanese garden inside your home!



Or tiny houseboats making their way through the canals of a miniature Japanese village!



Dining at Yamashiro, if nothing else, has always been an experience—but I never really went there for the food. It's neither authentic Japanese nor very upscale Hollywood. I remember it being somewhat more Polynesian than anything else during my prior visits.



But for this final dinner there, we splurged on the Himalayan Salt Plate, which cooks Wagyu steak on a block of salt that's been heated to 400 degrees and topped with potatoes and garlic.



And, of course, it was de rigeur to order one of their tiki-influenced drinks. I remember passing out in the bathroom after drinking two of their Zombies over 10 years ago, but this time I opted for just one Mai Tai.



And as I drove myself down Mount Yamashiro on my way home, I reminisced about my visit with Edith back in 2010—again, before I even lived here—when we were so desperate to go that we climbed up the dark, narrow, and winding road (with no sidewalk) on foot. But even then, a car service on its way pick somebody up at the top took pity on us, and gave us a free ride.

I guess Yamashiro has always been that place at the top of the hill that I've needed a little help getting to. But I've always managed to get that help when I've needed it.

For more of the story of the forced sale of Yamashiro, and a peek into some of its hidden nooks and crannies, you can watch this excellent short film from last year.


The Sale from Ben Strang on Vimeo.

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Photo Essay: The Japanese Garden That Almost Became a Freeway