When I mentioned to someone that we’d visited Kagurazaka, they merely asked me ‘why?’. True enough, it isn’t one of the most well-known areas of Tokyo to international tourists, and although located within Shinjuku City, there are more renowned areas to visit, explaining why most people overlook it. There aren’t any grand landmarks, fashion hubs, or world famous sights, and there are also far fewer guest houses or hostels in the area, meaning fewer tourists use it as a hub. But this latter point, for me, was one of the draws, and the small, nostalgic alleyways, plus its history as a Geisha district make it a wonderful place for a pleasant stroll away from the hustle and bustle of typical Tokyo life.
From Koishikawa Korakuen, Kagurazaka was only a fifteen minute walk, and as soon as we hit the main road we darted into the side streets to explore. Taking a step into these yokocho (back alleys) is like taking a step back in time to old Edo (1603 – 1857), with narrow, cobble-stoned streets and traditional, pre-war buildings housing restaurants, tea houses, and residential dwellings. Walking these yokocho, I’m always reminded of how well the Japanese incorporate nature into their lives in the city, with each house we walked past sporting an abundance of verdant plants outside the front facades, peeking through wooden fences, or over the edge of balconies.
We wandered the alleyways for nearly half an hour and barely saw a soul. At one point, we stumbled upon Atami-yu Kaidan, also known as Geisha Alley, due to being the location of a geisha and shamisen practice hall, but at midday, it was highly unlikely that we’d spy one.
Kagurazaka was once a prominent entertainment hub located at the edge of Edo castle, with bars, ryotei (luxurious traditional Japanese restaurants), and geisha houses, some of which remain to this day. And while it is known for prolific culinary, its days as a Tokyo’s main entertainment hub are, like the cobbled streets, a thing of the past.
Ryotei would be way beyond our budget, so we decided to have simple lunch in an izakaya. The menu was entirely Japanese, and though we could read some of it, we were not adept at understanding kanji, and relied on the pictures to aid our ordering. Jen ordered a chirashii bowl, and I decided on a bowl of rice and various katsu and tempura, using as much Japanese as we could remember. The waitress seemed to understand.
The man behind the counter fired up the stoves for his first order of the day, and as sizzle of oil and smell of fried batter filled the air, relieved to give our feet a break. We were the only customers in the restaurant, and when our food arrived we ate leisurely, refuelling from all that morning’s walking.
Fifteen minutes later, the wave of Tokyo’s salarymen began to burst through the doors, and we found ourselves in a full restaurant, rubbing elbows with groups of besuited men, who shed their jackets in the humid restaurant, eager to grab a quick bite before returning to the office to fuel Japans well-oiled corporate engine. We stood out like a sore thumb, the only people not in suits, and Jen: the only women (other than the young waitress). When I asked for the bill, I think I asked too formally for the setting, and felt the eyes of the men at the next table on my left as settled the tab.
We returned to the main high street, and were swept along by the current down the gentle slope, stopping here and there to peek into the fashion boutiques and shops selling traditional Japanese cookware and cutlery. Half way down the hill, Jen noticed the flashing lights of an arcade, which drew her inside. Traditional arcades are rarer, and more expensive, back in England, but still thrive in Japan. During my last trip, I spent a fair amount of time (and money) on the game cabinets, excited by the novelty of playing Street Fighter in its most authentic form. Then, of course, their is the wide array of only-in-Japan gaming experiences, such as the mega popular rhythm games, of ones with sleek anime graphics. There are even gambling options, such as Sega-made horse racing sim called StarHorse, a common sight in the back of arcades. CG horse races are broadcast on giant screens that put most bookies to shame, and players sit in large chairs with screens in front of them, checking data and placing bets with digital medals paid for with real cash. It’s a little intimidating: sectioned off, with a darker, more serious atmosphere than the rest of room, which is full of vibrance and J-Pop. The few patrons here at this time sat low in their chairs, some wearing sickness-masks, the scent of smoke on their jackets.
Jen was drawn to the array of crane games – a low-stakes form of gambling – and slipped a few 100 yen coins into the machine with the biggest, cuddliest prizes.
“What will we do if you actually win one of those?”, I asked, reminding her that we’d only brought a couple of carry-on suitcase to Japan.
“We’ll deal with that if it happens. It’s just so cute!
She looked through the glass case with child-like hope and anticipation… which turned to frustration as the claw couldn’t contain the plushie’s rotund and fluffy body. Thank heavens – the thought of having to carry a toy bigger than our bags around with us as we changed cities and hostels would have been more trouble than it’s worth.
We both tried again for some smaller toys – I wanted a Slime from the Dragon Quest series – but we both came away with nothing.
That was perfectly fine. The memories of our pleasant stroll through Kagurazaka were enough.