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From Yotsuya To Shinjyuku 9

With teahouses, restaurants and geisha houses, Araki-cho, which is a short distance from Shinjuku 3-chōme, was a vibrant neighborhood during the mid-Showa era. There was a school for would-be geishas along with a kenban office, which was in charge of communication between the geisha and the teahouses. Earlier, in the Meiji era, it was a popular destination among Tokyoites for a day’s outing.

Even earlier in the Edo era, Araki-chō belonged to the Lord of Settsu Domain and his name, Tsu-no-mori, remains today in the name of Tsunomori-zaka Slope. The mansion of the Lord is long gone, but his beautiful garden has remained. The ancient gingko tree you see by the slope was from that time, as is the pond nearby.

The inari shrine that sits across it appears very old and yet seems to serve its function today as well, evidenced by fresh flowers and water in a cup. By the shrine is a small park-like space with trees and shrubs, and when I passed by there I saw a photographer at work with an actress. The ambiance here, with its memory of immediate past still alive, is perhaps something special.

The heart of Araki-chō lies at the bottom of a cone, as it were. To approach it from Shinjuku-dōri, you must descend many steps, or a long slope, down. Wondering if this fact has saved Araki-chō from being developed like other areas in Shinjuku, I walked around for a while, going up and down. Araki-chō is an interesting place to walk for half an hour or so while enjoying the ambiance of the days passed.

When I was trying to imagine old days of this neighborhood, I spotted a small van that belongs to an agency that provides elders with bathing services. Stopped in front of a small house, two men were trying to bring a small bathtub through a narrow entrance way and having a hard time. Once a colorful neighborhood, Araki-chō today is quiet with no more than a few restaurants here and there among houses and apartments.

Kagura-zaka is another Shinjuku neighborhood that retains its original flavor of its past vibrant days; it is an excellent choice for a leisurely stroll. Unlike Araki-chō, Kagurazaka in the late Edo era was a thoroughly urban enclave and, with Bishamon-ten (Vaisravana, a guardian) at its center, it had a pleasure quarter.

The neighborhood remained a popular spot during the late Meiji and Taisho era particularly among near by yamanote uptown residents. That the neighborhood was unharmed by the Great Kanto Earthquake helped, but it was a large military facility nearby that helped increase its popularity. Kagurazaka thus became a busy urban center like Ginza, with cafés and movie theaters that are popular among college students.
Here, too, are slopes, which are gentle and winding but are also narrow and paved paths, all of which make strolling here quite pleasant. A year or so ago, I took a stroll here a few times. I heard on those occasions the sound of shamisen along with low singing voices coming over dark-colored wooden fences.

There have been some changes in Kagurazaka. New trendy restaurants, many Italian, have taken over, and I see more middle-aged women having lunch with friends, or young couples dating. I even spotted a few chain stores, which were not seen in the area earlier. To my distress, furthermore, I spotted a multi-floor building housing such stores as those for teens and young women, also never seen there before. Kagurazaka, in other words, is in the process of becoming a shopping district similar to those you see everywhere in Tokyo. It is an urgent matter that you take a walk here before its original flavor is entirely gone.

Thinking of Kagurazaka’s future and feeling somewhat depressed, I crossed a bridge that goes over the track of JR lines and walked by Iidaashi Station till I see Kanda River. What I saw around me on the way were bland, new high-rise office buildings There was no sign here of people working or living in the vicinity. As the result of recent “re-development,” this neighborhood retained not a trace of old days. We will soon have fewer choices for Tokyo strolling.

[Editor’s Note]
This series introduces a historical view of various sites in Tokyo. The writer can be reached at ytanaka03@gmail.com.