Kagurazaka – Tokyo’s Little Paris & A Glimpse Into Edo Tokyo

by Jacob Harris
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Can’t decide on whether you want to take a trip to Paris or Tokyo? Why not see both and head on to Kagurazaka!

From being known to be on the outer edge of the Edo Castle in the eponymous Edo Period, to being on the outer edge of the Shinjuku Ward today, Kagurazaka brings together the nostalgic charm of the past and the exciting energy of the present.

It has everything—from temples, Michelin-starred restaurants, and shops, to authentic Geisha houses of old Edo—plus an added twist! Find a little slice of Paris here that’s so much like the real thing that you’ll forget you’re right in the middle of Tokyo.


Getting There

Kagurazaka is located in the Shinjuku area, which is most probably part of your itinerary already, so you won’t have a difficult time finding it or adding it to the list of places to see. If you’re coming from outside Shinjuku, it’s alight in the Kagurazaka Station (神楽坂駅, Kagurazaka-eki) of the Tokyo Metro Tozai Line and it’s a very short stroll to the Akagi Shrine. I recommend getting down on the Iidabashi Station (飯田橋駅 Iidabashi-eki), though, because it’s accessible through the Tokyo Metro, Toei Subway, and JR East Railway lines. This station is also near the bottom of the Kagurazaka slope and if you want to start your trip from the top going downwards, then the Ushigome-Kagurazaka Station (牛込神楽坂駅) of the Toei Ōedo Line.


Kagurazaka’s Short History

Kagurazaka (神楽坂) literally translates to ‘entertainment of the gods hill’. Doesn’t that make you wonder who comes up with the names of places like these and how they become official? Actually, I researched a bit on the meaning behind its name and I must say, it isn’t anything crazy or mythical at all. Kagura is basically an ancient theatrical Shinto dance form and the name Kagurazaka was most probably influenced by the nearby temples in the area that performed the said dance. Although the history behind its name isn’t the most exciting, the history behind Kagurazaka itself makes up for it.

Back in the Edo Period, Kagurazaka was in very close proximity to the Edo Castle, so this meant that it was in prime real estate. It was the go-to place for high officials, aristocrats, and samurai to enjoy and unwind. It was mainly popular then as a Geisha district. Geishas (芸者) are Japanese women trained in performance arts such as dancing, singing, and instrument playing. People often confuse them for prostitutes because they’re erroneously portrayed in the media in that way, but do know that they are performers of traditional art and are not known to offer such ‘services’. A lot has changed since then—the Edo Castle has downsized quite a bit and so has the Geisha district, but don’t fret because some Geisha houses are still operational to this day and Kagurazaka still maintains an air of high class, old-school charm.

No Way but Up

If you’re coming from the Iidabashi Station, Kagurazaka-shita will be your starting point. I personally think that this is the best way to go because you’re immediately greeted by the distinct character of the area from the moment you cross the Ushigome Bridge (牛込橋). This way, you’ll be working your way up from Kagurazaka-shita (神楽坂下; lower Kagurazaka) to Kagurazaka-ue (神楽坂上; upper Kagurazaka) because it is a sloped area going upwards may be more of a hike, but with everything going on around you, you’ll barely notice it.

Waseda Dori is lined with some of the best quality souvenirs that you can find in Tokyo. Shop art, handicrafts, ceramics, traditional cosmetics, kimonos, and even edible souvenirs like wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets), high quality green tea, and freshly-made Senbei (煎餅 rice crackers). If you’re planning on getting the latter, I suggest you buy additional packs because you might end up eating everything yourself and go home empty-handed to very angry friends who were expecting souvenirs.

Stroll along this quaint district and soak in the old-world vibes while shopping and dining in places that have a mix of both traditional and modern offerings. Complete your time traveling with a pre-automobile era experience from 12:00pm to 1:00pm daily and from 12:00pm to 7:00pm during Sundays and certain holidays because the main road is closed off and only allows pedestrian access during these times. They actually have a name for this and it’s called Hokōsha Tengoku (歩行者天国), which aptly translates to “pedestrian paradise”.

What To Do

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Zenkoku-ji Temple

Start off your day with a trip to this vermillion Kagurazaka landmark dedicated to Bishamonten (毘沙門天), one of the Shichifukujin (七福神; Seven deities of good luck), the protector of righteousness, and supposed granter of wishes. The temple has been through a lot since its construction in 1595, having been restored in 1674 after being damaged by a fire, and ultimately being relocated here after succeeding fires. You wouldn’t know it’s been through so much by just looking at it though because it is undoubtedly picturesque. It also has its fair share of stalls and is a great place to unwind and meditate against a scenic backdrop.

Akagi Shrine (赤城神社; Akagi Jinja)

If you thought that Akagi Shrine was just another old-fashioned shrine, then boy are you in for a surprise. Completely revamped in 2010 by acclaimed architect, Kengo Kuma, it is not only one of the three major shrines of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), but it is also one that embraces the shifting tides of modernity. It has glass panels, a steel roof, and its very own café! You really have to hand it to the architect, though, because it still looks very much like your traditional shrine, only with modern touches. They occasionally hold a food market on the shrine grounds too. This charming spot is a peaceful escape from the fast-paced energy of the main street.


Geisha-Shinmichi

Geishas are one of the most distinct symbols of Japanese culture and in this modern day and age, it’s sort of hard to believe that these almost fantastical cultural icons still continue to exist. Kagurazaka was once the center of Geisha entertainment and although the number of people who practice it professionally may have significantly reduced due to changing times, remnants of their splendid past have fortunately stood the test of time. It is one of the few places left in Tokyo where you can find an Okiya (置屋) or Geisha House and if you’re lucky, you might catch a Geisha rehearsing for her performance and hear some live shamisen (三味線; traditional Japanese string instrument) music playing from a distance. Be warned that this prized cultural heritage does come at a hefty price and you’re most likely better off keeping your eyes peeled for any Geishas walking in the area than booking an actual performance.

Tokyo’s Little Paris

We often hear about Chinatowns and Koreatowns, but have you ever heard of a Francetown? Well, Tokyo’s got one and it’s here! Kagurazaka is home to a sizable French community and the fact that two French schools, namely The Institut Franco-Japonais de Tokyo and the Lycée Franco-Japonais de Tokyo are both located here and plays a big role in it. Kagurazaka was also badly destroyed during WWII and its rehabilitation can be attributed to the Europeans (mainly French people) who inhabited the area. France is home to some of the best bread, pastries, and gourmet food in the world and Kagurazaka is filled with cafés and restaurants that cater to actual French people’s palettes. A popular café would be PAUL, which is in the Atre Yotsuya above the JR Yotsuya Station. Don’t skip out on their bread! Le Bretagne Crêperie, Japan’s first creperie, is another great place to grab a bite and they’re known for their buckwheat galettes. Read on below to find out more French dining options, as well as their other famous culinary export—Michelin stars!

Yokochos (横丁; Narrow Alleyways)

The roads paved with cobblestones will tell you that you’ve arrived at these little time capsules that reveal how Kagurazaka looked like during the Edo Period. Here are a couple of Yokochos worth strolling through.

Don’t let its kiddy-sounding name fool you because Kakurenbo Yokocho (隠れん坊横丁; Hide and Seek Alleyway) has quite a cheeky story behind why it’s named that way. Legend has it that anyone who would be following you on your way here—presumably to visit the Geisha district—would lose track of you in these meandering alleyways. Actually, Kagurazaka earned its reputation as a Hanamachi (花街; ‘flower town’) because of its sloping topography and location around the fringes of the Edo Castle’s moat. It was a challenging place to construct an organized community and the topsy-turvy layout made it easy to get lost in (and difficult to be found in). I must reiterate, though, that Kagurazawa is by no means a red light district. These days, you won’t be able to find too many Okiyas anymore and are most likely to find Izakayas (居酒屋) or casual traditional Japanese pubs… which isn’t a bad thing at all, if you ask me! Honta Yokocho is another one that also has a lot of dining options. These areas really do come alive at night and are great places to cap off the day of walking with a drink and some grilled skewers. Hyogo Yokocho is another alleyway that doesn’t really have an interesting backstory behind its name, but it is the oldest road in the Kagurazaka area and served as a key passageway in the olden times. Movies, commercials, and television shows are often filmed here because it already looks like a film set. It’s a nice place to take photos and also to just appreciate the sheer history that it holds. I mean, Samurais and feudal lords walked those paths.

Where to Eat

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Kinozen (紀の善)

When people talk about Kagurazaka, this kanmidokoro (甘味所) or traditional confectionery that’s over 70 years old always comes to mind. Get into the Matcha craze and try out Kinozen’s best-selling Matcha Bavarois. Bavarois, also known as Bavarian Cream, is basically a dessert that’s made with a mixture of milk that’s thickened with eggs and gelatin, and then whipped cream is folded into it. It has a pudding-like consistency and is unexpectedly light. They serve a lot of other traditional Japanese desserts, as well. All of their items are crafted with choice seasonal ingredients and are best paired with their high quality Kyoto tea. Take things to the next level at the second floor where they have a Zashiki (座敷) or traditional Japanese room covered with Tatami (畳) straw mats, but you can also get your order to-go if you want to enjoy it elsewhere. If you’re up for an actual meal, they’ve also got you covered! Their Kamameshi (釜飯; a rice dish cooked in a small iron pot, along with vegetable and meat) made with seasonal produce is said to be worth a taste.

Kagurazaka Gojuban (神楽坂 五十番 本店)

They’ve been whipping up delicious steamed buns for over 60 years and they’ve got both savory and sweet red bean-filled buns, among a wide assortment of other options. Their hand-made, fluffy, steaming buns are made with fresh local ingredients and do not contain any artificial preservatives. The nikuman or pork bun has been made with the same ingredients as it always has and at 393 yen a piece, the price just can’t be beat! It’s a quick and substantial snack to get you through the day. Try visiting during an off time to avoid the long lines and get to the buns asap!

Canal Café

Fancy eating Italian food on a terrace overlooking a canal? Then the Canal Café is the place for you. Its spectacular ambiance that’s beautiful in every season makes it a popular spot for tourists, lovers on a date, and bookworms alike. You can also rent a rowboat for 30 minutes and have a relaxing boat ride down the Iidabashi Canal. If you’re here from mid-March to November, you just might be able to catch their seasonal barbecue event. The café is pretty easy to get to, as it is conveniently located near the Iidabashi Station.

Muminbekariandokafe

Moomin fans, kids, and kids at heart, can hang out with (large stuffed animal versions of) the characters from the beloved Swedish fairy tale over some delicious snacks and pastries. There are definitely no lonely people in this cozy, cute, and charming café!

Kojimachi Café

In Tokyo, it can be quite challenging for vegans and vegetarians to find good dining options, but if you’re in Kagurazaka, then you should definitely try the Kojimachi Café. Although they also serve meat dishes, they have a wide array of entrées for every type of diet. No plain and boring salads here! They’re also known for their cozy ambiance and efficient service, which is always a plus.

Uwotoko

Uwotoko goes way back to the 1920’s and actually started out as a Ryōtei (料亭), which was traditionally a highly-exclusive type of restaurant that operates on a referral or invitation-only basis. Ryōteis were also known to feature Geisha performances and because Kagurazawa was a renowned Geisha district, the entertainment must have been top caliber. Nowadays, Uwotoko is fortunately open to anyone, but making a reservation beforehand would still be your safest bet. What sets them apart is that you can order items à la carte (individually) as opposed to a set meal and this can be particularly useful if you want to try seasonal menu items, are allergic to certain foods, or want a little more of something you’ve already ordered. They serve 100% traditional, time-honored Japanese cuisine. No frills, no gimmicks, just a Michelin star.


Ishikawa (石かわ)

Ishikawa, named after the chef and owner, Hideki Ishikawa, specializes in Kaiseki (懐石) cuisine, which pertains to a multi-course meal with a series of smaller intricately-designed dishes. They can only seat around 25 people at a time and so you’ll need to make some reservations if you plan on trying this place out. The food borders on being art and some of the tableware actually is art, hand-picked by chef Ishikawa himself from galleries and modern Japanese artists. The dishes are deceptively simple, but are said to have depth and leave a lasting impression. Score the best seats in the house by the counter so you get to be in the middle of all the action. A dinner course will cost you 29,000 yen though, but did I mention that they have THREE MICHELIN STARS?

Kohaku

Kohaku’s owner and chef, Koji Koizumi, trained under culinary master Hideki Ishikawa (mentioned above), and has since become the youngest Japanese chef to have 3 Michelin stars under his belt. Kohaku serves traditional Japanese dishes that borrow flavors and influences from all over the world while staying quintessentially Japanese. Chef Koizumi constantly travels across Japan to learn more about regional cooking techniques and forms of hospitality and this shows in his ever-evolving menu. Innovation does come at a price though, and here, it’s around 26,000 yen.

If you can’t help but compare Ishikawa and Kohaku because of the association between their chef owners and you can’t decide which restaurant to give all your money to, it all boils down to what you’re looking for. If you’re going for Japanese cuisine with an unexpected twist, then Kohaku is for you, but if you want something more traditional, then Ishikawa won’t let you down. Regardless of which one you go to, though, you’re in for some courteous and friendly service from the chef and staff.

Rito Kitchen (離島キッチン)

What started off as a tourism project to promote Ama-chō (海士町) cuisine in a mobile kitchen, Rito Kitchen was made into a full-fledged restaurant in 2014. The interior has a boat house feel, incorporating reclaimed wood and iron sheets that create an ambiance that is both modern and nostalgic. Their menu is updated monthly to feature the local dishes of a particular remote island in Japan, hence their name, which stands for ‘Remote Island Kitchen’. If you’re worrying about the freshness of the seafood because they’re sourced from far away, they use some high tech sorcery called ‘Cells Alive System’, which supposedly preserves food much better than traditional freezing can. Needless to say, you probably won’t find the stuff you find here anywhere else because they come from islands in Japan that are barely inhabited by locals themselves, let alone by foreign tourists. They’ve also got a good selection of regional drinks (Beer, Sake, and Tea). A lot of research and heart goes into Rito Kitchen’s menu and adventurous foodies just have to come here for a truly one of a kind culinary experience. Lunch sets cost 2,000 yen (tax excluded).

Lugdunum Bouchon Lyonnais

This Bouchon or Lyonnaise restaurant with a Michelin star does not, I repeat, does not come with a Michelin star price. Owner, Chef Christophe Paucod replicates the warm, laid back, and welcoming atmosphere of Bouchons in the hopes that people leave wanting to visit Lyon. You know the food is good when French people themselves vouch for it. For the best deals, come during the weekdays for their Le Menu Express (1,850 yen) or during lunch for their Le Menu du Déjeuner (2,850 yen). Who would’ve thought that a Michelin-starred French restaurant could be so accessible?

La Tourelle

La Tourelle is another Michelin-starred restaurant that specializes in fusion cuisine, incorporating Japanese flavors into well-loved French dishes. They also have a wide repertoire of red, white, and rose wines that you can pair with their creative offerings that make use of fresh, seasonal ingredients. The impeccable presentation makes the food look too pretty to eat! Courses range from 5,700 to 20,000 yen depending on the time (lunch or dinner) and day (weekday or weekend), so it’s best to reserve this experience for extra special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, or a New Year’s Eve dinner.


A Taste Of Old

Old meets new, East meets West, and fun meets you in Kagurazaka, the place that’s a fusion in every sense of the word!

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