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San Jose's Japantown Highlights Underground Scene With 'Photo Night'

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an artist puts photographs up on a studio wall before an exhibition
MadeByRila, a San Jose designer who co-owns Coldwater Clothing, helped set up last year's edition of 'A Photo Night in Japantown.' (Alex Knowbody)

San Jose’s Japantown is small but mighty — a few blocks’ stretch of small businesses that are often overlooked. But they never underdeliver.

Dating back to the early 20th century, the neighborhood has long been a hub of commerce and community for Japanese Americans. Over the years, the core of Japantown has also diversified. It’s become a notable intersection for San Jose’s richly vibrant food offerings while also incubating one of the South Bay’s best underground scenes.

Currently, there’s a tiki lounge, a hidden shop up a narrow flight of stairs that stashes hard-to-find anime DVDs, sushi bars, hot pot restaurants, a slick barbershop, a recording studio, streetwear boutiques, art galleries and more. There are young artists, veteran designers, amateur photographers and general creatives kicking it and cross-pollinating their ideas.

Two people wearing colorful clothing wave at the camera while posing in front of an art exhibit.
Shalomy The Homie (left) and Vicky Quach show love at Alex Knowbody’s photo exhibit, titled “La Lucha Sigue,” displayed inside Cukui during last year’s “A Photo Night in Japantown.” (Alex Knowbody)

Among them, Cukui has been an anchoring presence since 2008. Built from the post–dot com imagination of Silicon Valley millennials, the clothing shop has survived gentrification for nearly two decades and continues to amplify Shark City’s unique offerings with streetwear rooted in Latinx, Asian and Polynesian cultures and tattoo aesthetics.

This is the legendary OG shop where Alex Knowbody — a Mexican American documentarian from East Side San Jose — got his jumpstart as an intern.

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On Saturday, March 9, Knowbody will co-facilitate the second annual “A Photo Night in Japantown” at Cukui and seven other businesses on Jackson Street. The event will be an organic, interconnected affair, featuring photography that aims to shine a light on San Jose’s subcultures and bring people together.

Los Jefes de 408 perform a live outdoor set at last year’s inaugural event. (Alex Knowbody)

“It’s cool to see certain spots like Cukui where it feels like Silicon Valley [tech culture] hasn’t taken over,” Knowbody says of the streetwear brand, which hosts a range of collaborative projects with local culture-pushers from all over the South Bay, including rappers like Rey Resurreccion and LJames408, and the air-freshener maker Fúchila.

“Japantown is a big part of that,” he says. “There are big high-rise apartments around now, but we’re trying to keep the culture alive, not gentrified. We’re some like-minded folks with pure passion. I just want to get something going on in my city.”

In addition to Cukui, Empire Seven, Headliners, No Future Gallery, LNP Gallery, The Coterie Den, Paradox and Coldwater will also open their doors for Photo Night. The loosely themed exhibition will showcase the work of photographers like Knowbody and his main co-conspirators, Gooseneck and Abraham Menor. It originally started as a simple idea to display each other’s photos and grew into the informal collective’s first-ever showing in 2023.

A series of photos are displayed inside Coldwater, one of Japantown’s streetwear boutiques that is often at the center of the local arts community. (Alex Knowbody)

For his part, Knowbody will be setting up a live photo space inside Coldwater, a shop owned by three Filipino brothers known around town for inventing a Spam-and-garlic-tot burrito. Their custom-apparel clothing store will transform into a makeshift studio space with a backdrop where visitors can get professional portraits taken. Meanwhile, another exhibit next door will feature Gooseneck’s photographs of San Jose’s low riders.

“Last year, [Menor] called me and wanted to have a show and get the block activated, and he asked me If I was down,” recalls Knowbody. “I technically had my first-ever solo show at Cukui, so it made sense. Now I’m super stoked to be a part of this and see Japantown be culturally represented for the whole city.”

‘A Photo Night in Japantown’ will happen on Saturday, March 9, along Jackson Street in San Jose’s Japantown, from 4 to 7 p.m. Attendance is free.

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