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Friday, Jan. 30, 2004


Explore the past in cosmopolitan ways

Staff writer

A walk through Kagurazaka's many narrow winding alleys is like slipping away from reality. Just a step away from the lively main road, and quietude takes over. Gone is the incessant irritant of cell-phone chatter, the barrage of electronic sounds from game centers and the gunning car and motorbike engines. In fact almost the only sound is that of your footsteps.

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Just off Kagurazaka's main street, Edo Period alleys have surprises like this ryotei and ryokan round every turn.

What makes this all the more amazing is that Kagurazaka is in Shinkuku Ward, well inside the JR Yamanote Line loop round central Tokyo, and so ought to be about as downtown as you could get. It is, though, anything but.

"Kagurazaka sweeps me away from the real world," said Kagurazaka native Minami Hiramatsu, managing editor of the quarterly community magazine Kagurazaka Machi no Techo (Kagurazaka Town Diary). "I feel like I have been transported back in time."

However, in Kagurazaka -- whose name combines kagura (a shrine-dance to music) and saka (hill) -- his feelings are not just a well-worn cliche. Astonishingly for Tokyo, a comparison of the Edo Period street plan with today's shows that the narrow, stone-paved alleys deliberately laid out more than 300 years ago with twists and turns to help defend the city's northern margin are those still being trod to this day.

"In fact, you can walk around Kagurazaka using a map from the Edo Period," said Hiramatsu.

Parlor-room government

To prove his point, Hiramatsu unveiled an Edo Period map and led the way. Sure enough, using this alone we easily found our way, discovering small shops, restaurants and izakaya (bars) hidden round almost every turn.

"These alleys are one of the most appealing things about Kagurazaka," said Hiramatsu. "The anticipation of not knowing what you will find in these alleys is very exciting."

And standing quietly in one we happened upon Yukimoto, a ryotei restaurant.

Ryotei is a Japanese-style restaurant with a private room for each party. In these tatami rooms, geisha are beckoned to sing, dance, play music, serve food and drinks and talk with guests. These establishments are also infamous for their role in so-called o-zashiki (parlor-room) government, where politicians and others plot and do deals behind the closed doors.

"The world seems to have a bad image of the relation between ryotei and politicians," said Toshie Yamamoto, the second okami (proprietress) of Yukimoto, after inheriting it from her mother. "But these things happen anywhere, not just in ryotei."

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One of Kagurazaka's many old alleys (top); zori on display in Sukeroku.
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These days, though, fewer politicians seem to be using ryotei. "After [former Prime Minister] Morihiro Hosokawa announced [about 10 years ago] that hotels were OK, and ryotei were not, politicians stopped coming," said Ayumi Terada, Yamamoto's daughter and Yukimoto's third-generation okami. "I don't understand why he said that, though. Hotels are a lot more private than ryotei."

At its peak before World War II, there were said to be more than 70 ryotei in Kagurazaka, with hundreds of geisha gracing the area. Now, though, that number is down to just nine, according to Yamamoto.

"At one point, we even considered turning Yukimoto into a regular Japanese restaurant," said Yamamoto. "But the ryotei culture is too precious to end. It may be hard for my daughter's generation to keep it going, but I sincerely hope it will survive."

While the geisha culture flourished, so did shops like Sukeroku, which has been selling zori sandals and bags to go with kimono. For more than 90 years, Sukeroku has been handed down from father to son, all the while continuing to produce its traditional items.

"Although Western style has become standard nowadays, the beauty of Japanese culture is also being reconsidered," said Yokichi Ishii, the third-in-line owner of Sukeroku, whose shelves bedazzle with a beautiful assortment of colorful zori in pinks, greens and oranges that instantly conjures visions of the beautiful geisha who once crowded round searching for a perfect something to complete their outfit.

Sadly, though, just as geisha are now few in Kagurazaka, the traditional ambience of the area is slowly being eroded by other means, too. Kagurazaka Eins Tower, a 26-story apartment building was completed in 2002, despite howls of protest.

"Unfortunately, it is the law vs. morality," said Ishii. "The companies are not doing anything illegal and their right of ownership is protected by the Constitution."

Now, in the absence of any government initiative to change planning laws, more apartment buildings are going up every year -- a sight that greatly pains many residents, including Yoshio Takahashi, the second owner of the eel restaurant Tatsumiya.

"I am very disappointed that Kagurazaka is beginning to lose its uniqueness," said Takahashi.

Famous writers

Yet, Takahashi refuses to accept defeat. He's spent long hours training with his father-in-law to create the tastiest eel dishes in town. Since its establishment in 1948, Tatsumiya -- known for its original, soft and fluffy steamed eel dishes -- has been adored by many, including John Lennon.

"He came once a few months before his death [in December 1980], and I heard that it was the first time he had enjoyed eel," admitted Takahashi shyly. "We also have many writers coming too."

Kagurazaka, which is also a renowned literary area, has been the home to many famous writers, including Soseki Natsume and Koyo Ozaki. With major publishing companies like Shinchosha Co. and printing companies like Dai Nippon Printing Co. located there, this is unsurprising. There is even a ryokan (Japanese-style hotel) where writers and scriptwriters coop up to finish manuscripts.

Somaya, a stationery goods store which can be traced back to the middle of the Edo Period (1603-1867), displays copies of original manuscripts written on the company's famous genko yoshi (squared manuscript paper) by authors like Soseki, Ozaki and Hakushu Kitahara.

But although Somaya's owner Naoya Nagatsuma might be maintaining the tradition of producing the firm's renowned genko yoshi, he, too, has expressed concern over the recent changes in Kagurazaka.

"Maybe it is the same thing as with the neighbor's lawn," said Nagatsuma. "Kagurazaka may look better from the outside."

But looking on the bright side, not all the changes are bad. One hundred years ago, for instance, whoever could have imagined that Kagurazaka would soon develop a rich French culture, one that doesn't tarnish the traditional Japanese atmosphere. Since the establishment here of the Instiut Franco-Japonais de Tokyo in 1952, and the Lycee Franco-Japonais de Tokyo in 1967, more and more French people have gravitated to this area -- and with them French restaurants.

"The French have blended naturally into Kagurazaka," said Kaori Endo, spokesperson for the restaurant Le Bretagne, which specializes in cre^pe made from buckwheat. "And now, I think that French culture has become an integral part of Kagurazaka," she added, saying that 20 to 30 percent of their customers are now French.

"In Kagurazaka there is a certain warm feeling between people, unlike most areas in big cities like Tokyo," said Endo. "I think that the people here are doing a very good job of protecting the old, traditional areas -- and at the same time, continuing to cultivate the elegance of the town."

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