Kagurazaka: French-Inspired Oasis in the Center of Tokyo
The area is a still-active hanamachi or "flower town"—euphemistically referring to a district designated for geisha houses. In more recent years, Kagurazaka has also become Tokyo's unofficial French quarter, with many businesses serving the sizable French community.
This soothing slice of Shinjuku City is served by both the Tokyo Metro Tozai Line and Toei Oedo Line. It is the area's strategic location close to Edo Castle's Ushigome-mon gate that has shaped its story.
Although Edo Castle no longer exists, Kagurazaka retains its privileged position. Several of the geisha houses that arrived in the late 19th century are still in business, while nearby university campuses and publishing houses add a youthful, intellectual edge to the area.
Infused with traditional Japanese aesthetics, the French community settled in the area due to the proximity of organizations such as Institut français de Tokyo. Because of this, Kagurazaka boasts the biggest cluster of all things French and delicious—bakeries, restaurants, and wine & cheese shops—in the capital.
Attracting Day-trippers and the Literary Elite for Centuries
This enigmatic mix of cultures and history attracts day-trippers to the neighborhood in search of romantic ambience, good food and old-fashioned eateries. The main thoroughfare is pedestrianized in the evenings and on Sundays and public holidays, with throngs of strolling couples and families.
Founded in the 1650s, Kagurazaka's main road was established as a route connecting Edo Castle to the residence of the high-ranking samurai Sakai Tadakatsu. At this point in the Edo period, the area was mainly a samurai quarter with a collection of temples and shrines. Relocated here in 1792 was Zenkoku-ji temple, whose lively annual festival helped turn Kagurazaka into an entertainment district. The addition of a theater only bolstered its decadent reputation.
In the Meiji era, business owners and government officials replaced high-ranking samurai and the area saw much development. Iidamachi train station opened nearby in 1895, helping to cement the entertainment district as one of Tokyo's largest. Though still a playground for the elite, shops sprung up along the hill and a night market opened for business. Naturally, these late-night antics attracted interesting characters, including prominent literary figures Ozaki Koyo and Natsume Souseki.
Luckily, Kagurazaka was largely spared the destruction of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Ginza, however, received heavy damage and many of its businesses moved addresses to the relatively undamaged Kagurazaka, earning the neighborhood the nickname "Ginza Yamate" ("Uptown Ginza"). It gradually developed a reputation for being a cultural district, especially for writers, and appeared in the novels of Hayashi Fumiko and Yada Tsuseko.
Disaster struck again less than 20 years later. The World War II air raids devastated swathes of Tokyo over the course of a few days, including Kagurazaka. The old, Edo-period buildings were ruined. Post-war reconstruction brought with it large urban development; nearby Shinjuku drew the crowds away from Kagurazaka, but the entertainment businesses survived, again having a resurgence in the 1950s and '60s.
The long and varied history of Kagurazaka has left a mark on its hilly streets. Start a journey here by tracing the district's Edo origins at the bottom of the hill (Sakashita) where the remains of the 17th-century Edo Castle's Ushigome-mon are located. From here, cross the Ushigome Bridge—retaining Edo's historic style though rebuilt in 1996—and head uphill into the glow of Kagurazaka. The district is best visited in the early evening, when it is alive with dinner-goers and strung with lanterns. But do not let the main street take all the attention: the winding back alleys buzz with excitement and call for exploration.
Kagurazaka is still a hanamachi. Currently, there are five restaurants and around 25 geisha who reside in these small alleyways. Belonging to the Tokyo Kagurazaka Association, these exclusive dining establishments still feature entertainment with shamisen, dancing and conversation. Edged by classic black-lacquered wooden walls, their atmosphere overflows into Kagurazaka's small cobbled side streets.
One of the most well-known of these streets is Hyogo ("Arsenal") Yokocho. Home to classy dining spots, this small street takes its name from a Sengoku-period (1467-1590) weapons merchant who lived here. Along the stone steps of Atami-Yu Kaidan, also known as "Geisha Alley," there is a collection of hidden restaurants and small bars to peer into. Nearby is the narrow Kenban Yokocho, where the office for geisha and the shamisen practice hall are still located. And then there's Kakurenbo Yokocho, which translates as "Hide-and-Seek Alley"—a maze of passages and dead ends.
In the middle of Kagurazaka's hill is the busy Zenkoku-ji temple. Originally built in 1595, the Nichiren Buddhist temple is part of the area's identity; it was from here that the night market and festivals sprung up and attracted much revelry. At the top of the hill is the quiet sanctuary of Akagi Shrine. This newly refurbished, glass-fronted shrine also incorporates an apartment complex, cafe and shop, but still provides a space for nature and reflection in the middle of the city. From up here, it is possible to glimpse glittering night views of Tokyo—particularly beautiful on a crisp spring evening—before heading back down into the warrens to find a warm spot for a cozy meal.
Several well-known ryotei (traditional restaurants) are tucked away in the back streets of Kagurazaka; these exclusive establishments serve refined multi-course kaiseki cuisine and can provide geisha-led entertainment. Happily, the district's gastronomic flair continues at many affordable eateries. One option is Kagurazaka Kado—a welcoming izakaya located inside a traditional wooden house, serving a reasonably priced menu of washoku (Japanese cuisine).
It may not be Montmartre in Tokyo, but Kagurazaka's combination of charm and tradition, cuisine and culture, give the district a classy je-ne-sais-quoi (French for I don't know what) coziness that lends itself to winter wandering.
*This article was originally published on "Metropolis" (January 27, 2022).