Thursday, December 27, 2007


Kagurazaka is an area of Tokyo lesser-known to foreign visitors to Japan's capital. It's located within the Yamanote loop, to the north-west of the Imperial Palace. Until the Second World War, the area thrived as a place for geisha. Today we still see the reminiscences of those days: narrow cobbled streets lined with Japanese traditional-style restaurants. In addition, French restaurants are scattered around (partly because there is a French language school nearby), and back streets maintain the atmosphere of Tokyo's residential areas until the 1970s, a rarity in the ever-changing central Tokyo.

Yoo-chan, one of my college mates, and I have lunch at Torijaya Honten. It's a udon-suki restaurant dating back from 50 years ago, facing Kagurazaka Street opposite to Bishamonten Shrine (4-2 Kagurazaka Shinjuku-ku: 03 3260 6661). We take off our shoes and sit down at a table with a gas cooker at the center. (There is a hole below the table so you don't need to let your legs folded.) A waitress brings a large pan topped with chicken, seafoods, quail's eggs, vegetables (17 kinds of food in total), and udon noodle soaked in kelp-and-bonito soup stock. (See a photo by JUN / LDK.) As the pan heats up, foods are getting cooked, and we are ready to start eating. The soup stock is so superb (light-tasted but very rich in taste) we don't need to dip foods into anything. The udon noodle is unusually so thick by Japanese standards (see another photo by JUN / LDK) it never becomes too soft by being soaked in boiling soup until the very end of the meal.

The lunch is very filling and one of the best meals I have had in my life, and we pay only 1,400 yen (about 9 euro) for each of us. This is Tokyo.
Torijaya Hoten's signboard at night

We then stroll around the area, the first time for both of us: Tokyoites often keep going to the same areas of Tokyo, never attempting to explore different areas within the city. We only find restaurants, bars, and cafes in Kagurazaka though almost all of these look stylish in a traditional way (i.e. not showy). Perhaps you should come to this area only when you are hungry and thirsty.

Going up Kagurazaka Street, there is Akagi Shrine, inside which the Akagi Cafe has been open since April of 2006. Although, unlike Christian churches and Islamic mosques, Japanese shrines and temples often have food stalls on their yard, a Western-style cafe inside the shrine is quite unusual.

The Cafe's atmosphere is quite nostalgic: each piece of furniture seems to date back to the early and middle 20th century, placed in a way that the cafe looks stylish as a whole. Revealing to me as I haven't seen such a place before. Each piece is old and uninspiring, but once properly placed they look pleasantly cool.

It's not just the interior, though. A piece of home-made raspberry pound cake and a cup of Toarco Toraja coffee offer me a pleasant feeling. (Toarco Toraja is an Indonesian coffee bean. After the Dutch left Indonesia, the production of beans became stagnant. Then Key Coffee, a Japanese coffee company, got involved in the restoration of coffee prodution in Indonesia, and it names the beans Toarco Toraja.)

It's very unfortunate that the Akagi Cafe will close down in March next year. If you are lucky enough to visit Tokyo before that, do try to visit the Cafe.

On a more personal note, talking to Yoo-chan reminds me of my inclination to only use words that properly reflect my ideas and feelings. Ever since I moved to London five years ago, I was forced to abandon such a habit because my English vocabulary was not wide enough. By the standard I had until five years ago, sentences in this post, for example, are a complete compromise. Especially when it comes to words describing foods and taste, the English language is very poor. Maybe reading great English novels help me develop such vocabulary. But I probably never understand the way the authors of such novels feel about their experiences, deep in my heart, because I'm not a Westerner. As long as I keep writing and speaking in English, compromise is probably inevitable. In a way, it's sad, unacceptable. In another way, that's how people live in a foreign culture.

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