C’est magnifique!

By on November 4, 2008

Photo © Elena Derevstova

Head for the slopes and alleys of Kagurazaka for a French-flavoured outing, karukai style. 

 

The little enclave of narrow streets and bistros nestled on the slope might not quite be Montmartre but with its narrow alleyways from old Edo times combined with the abundance of French eateries, it is a real treasure for Francophiles. On a beautiful autumn afternoon, strolling around, you could easily be whisked away to the left bank. Bienvenue au Kagurazaka.

 

It’s usually an uphill battle trying to get the family out but taking them to this hill works every time. 

 

The name Kagurazaka is a combination of kagura (a shrine-dance to music) and saka (hill), and evokes the sites and the lay of the land of this exquisite part of Tokyo. 

 

The 17th century layout remains despite wartime devastation. On the slopes of Hanamachi, a labyrinth of corridors originally housing okiya (geisha houses) still weaves its way across the slope, holding  a magical sense of the past around every corner.

 

Kagurazaka has undergone many transformations through the Edo, Meiji, and Taisho eras. Most recently, well into the Showa era, the area became synonymous with the French in Tokyo. The Institut Franco-Japonais de Tokyo arrived in the area in the early ’50s, followed by the Lycee Franco-Japonais de Tokyo in the ’60s, attracting more and more French and creating a European flavour that complemented the arty ambience of this Shinjuku district.

 

Filled with backstreet parlours and brimming with little cafés and bistros, it is easy to picture this area in its heyday as a hot bed of creativity and political dealings. 

 

Artists, writers, and politicians congregating to plan their next masterpiece or manoeuvre whilst being entertained by their favourite geisha. 

 

Geisha culture features strongly in the legends of the area, famed for being the birthplace of geisha. Kagurazaka once was home to seven hundred geisha specially trained to entertain select customers of the ryotei (exclusive and highly expensive hotels), a handful of these still exist down darkened alleys, and it’s easy to imagine the goings-on behind the closed doors of these cobbled streets.

 

If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha) walking past on her way to greet the CEOs and company presidents of old who still find it hard to shake the habit. Politicians were forced to stop visiting a decade or so ago and the notion of parlour politics has become a thing of the past, or so we are to believe!

 

Mums and dads can enjoy the gastronomic delights of Kagurizaka; an amazing array of not only authentic French restaurants and bistros but superb Spanish and Italian eateries are dotted along the streets together with famed Japanese restaurants serving up sushi, eel, and sake. 

 

After, browse the traditional Japanese stores selling everything from geisha footwear to delightful teas and cheeses.

 

At the Institut Franco-Japonais de Tokyo, you can a grab croissant in their café, study the language in their garden, view exhibitions, and even take in a movie before paying your respects at the Bishamonten Temple (Zenkokuji Temple) guarded by its formidable tiger guardians.

 

After hearing you lament the old Japan, the kids will be rolling their eyes so best head down the hill, past more the familiar territory of the fast food restaurants feeding the students of Tokyo University, to the water’s edge. Here at the popular Canal Café, watch the fish come up for a feed and see the occasional cormorant. Let the kids take out their frustrations on the water as they race to the end of the basin. Let them go as you take a more leisurely row past the leafy banks and imagine being on the Seine.

 

In the adjoining basin, a few hundred metres away towards Ichigaya, are the fish ponds. This time, there is no allusion to Paris; this is very Tokyo. Pull up a bottle crate to sit on, pay for your a rod and bait and start hauling in your catch.

 

It can make a pleasant stop off (you’ll have to double back) on the way to Korakuen Amusement Park, the saviour of the day. Thankfully, this is not Euro Disney; no passport is necessary and the promise of a ride on the jet coaster or an hours bowling will buy you the time you need to fully explore Kagurazaka and sip your Beaujolais. À votre santé!

 

Getting there

Take the Sobu Line to Iidabashi Station and cross Ushigome Bridge over the Sotobori moat and walk up the short slope, up the hill from Kagurazaka-shita crossing.

 

Enter the Labyrinth

Wander the streets and black fenced lanes between Sakaue where Waseda Dori Avenue crosses with Okubo Dori Avenue, and Sakashita where Waseda Dori crosses with Sotobori Dori, and you’ll find these treasures of Tokyo.

 

Canal Café (pizzas, bagels, and row boats)
www.canalcafe.jp

 

El Pulpo  (Spanish seafood) (03) 3269-6088

 

Fishing (rental fishing tackle and fish!)
www.ichigaya-fc.com/fishing/

 

Fromagerie Alpage (cheese shop)
www.alpage.co.jp

 

Gojuban (famed for their manju-steamed buns) 

Look for the line

 

Kado (located in a Showa era house)
http://homepage3.nifty.com/cafemania/01cafe/kgrz_kado.html

 

Kinozen (Wagashi sweets restaurant)
www.sunnypages.jp/printouts/index/474

 

Korakuen (Euro Disney in minature)
www.tokyo-dome.co.jp/e/park

 

La Cabane (cheese bar)
www.wine-bourgogne.com

 

L’Institut Franco-Japonais de Tokyo 
www.institut.jp

 

Le Bretagne  (Breton crêperie)
www.le-bretagne.com

 

Lugdunman (Lyon cuisine) www.lyondelyon.com

 

Maison de la Bourgogne (bistro specializing in wines from  Burgundy region)
www.wine-bourgogne.com

 

Sukeroku (traditional sandal and bag  store)
www.bolanet.ne.jp/sukeroku/index.html

 

Yukimoto (ryotei restaurant)
www.kagurazaka-yukimoto.com


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