Let’s explore Arakicho, a feudal residence that became a gourmet town

If you are staying at the Tadaima Japan Shinjuku Ryokan, or if you are looking for a new neighbourhood to explore in the center of Tokyo, follow me on a walking tour that will show you the main sights of the area and give you more background on its history.

2018-09-05   Visit: Charming Towns, Arakicho, Tokyo,

Sugidaimon Dori Street

A good starting point for our tour of Arakicho is the Yotsuya-sanchome station on the Marunouchi line. Take exit 2 and head inside the Fire museum (closed Mondays), accessible via the basement. Entrance is free – you simply need to get a visitor’s badge from the front reception. Then head immediately to the observatory on the 10th floor to check out a view of Shinjuku city, the Tokyo Skytree, and if you are lucky, Mt Fuji. If you want to visit the museum – they have interesting exhibits on Tokyo’s history – head down to the 5th floor. Otherwise, take the elevator to the basement and cross over to exit 4. Once you are at street level, turn around and admire the Fire museum building that also houses the Yotsuya fire station.

The fire museum building makes a great landmark for the Arakicho area

From the top of exit 4, head straight along Shinjuku Dori Avenue, past the bakery cafe Antendo (they make excellent croissants), past the Family Mart, till you reach the second street on the left. This long, straight street is called Sugidaimon Dori 杉大門通り. “Sugi” stands for cedar and in earlier times this was a cedar tree-lined road. Now it is lined with ornamental lamp posts, giving the street its cosy night atmosphere. The slope beyond the end of the street (ending at Yasukuni Dori Avenue) used to be covered by a cedar forest and the trees were used as raw material for building ships. That area is called today Funamachi 船町 and could be translated as Ship Town. “Daimon” means Big Gate and although the street name doesn’t haven’t any specific meaning in Japanese one can imagine that it was used to transport the wood to the shipyards.  

This street map marks the start of the Sugidaimon Dori Street.

Let’s return to our end of the street for now. Check out the map on your left, showing all the restaurants and shops located on and near Sugidaimon Dori Street. Shinjuku avenue behind you acts almost as a ridgeline, with our road sloping downwards towards the valley. It seems made for pedestrians but cars will pass through occasionally, so be careful when walking. Start down the inclination, past Yachiyo on your right. This is a good place to experience making sushi with a real sushi chef if you are interested in trying your hand at Japan’s most famous dish.

No, she isn’t putting on lipstick but eating a piece of Yachiyo sushi!

Feel free to explore this interesting street to the very end. It is said that if you walk the entire length of the street you’ll be lucky in all your ventures because the street ends at Zenshoji temple 全勝寺 (“zensho” means complete victory). Actually, the temple is located a little beyond the end of Sugidaimon Doori Street, inside Funamachi.

It is said that walking the entire length of this street will bring you good luck!

Yanagishinmichi Dori Street

However for this tour, we will take the first street right and then soon afterwards, turn left down a long straight narrow street, called Yanagishinmichi Dori Street 柳新道 (“yanagi” means willow and “shinmichi” new path). This is pretty much as close to the heart of the bar and restaurant area of Arakicho as you can get. Notice another map on the right-hand side wall. A little further, also on the right, is the Science Bar incubator, a great place to experiment with a few cocktails. You may have noticed that the two previous streets heading to the right are both paved with flagstones. We’ll talk about these flagstones in more detail later.

One of the several flagstone paved streets in Arakicho

Today, Arakicho has many high quality restaurants and is mostly known as a gourmet town, or a place for food connoisseurs. However, during the later part of the Showa era about 50 years ago, it was more famous as a drinking area. People working at TV, newspaper and other media companies in the nearby neighborhoods of Yotsuya and Ichigaya would often unwind in Arakicho after work. Most of those companies have since moved to new locations but all these small bars and drinking spots still remain. Surprisingly, they are often full, even on weekday nights. I guess the saying  “old habits die hard” is true.

Exploring Yanagishinmichi Dori, one of Arakicho backstreets lined with bars and restaurants

Sharikimon Dori Street

Let’s continue with the tour. As before, we will leave the street before the end, but feel free to wander down to the end and back if you have time (there is no “good luck” associated with this one though). Don’t forget to glance up occasionally – Arakicho has few high rise buildings but some bars are hidden on the 2nd floor. After the magic bar Kakurenbo on the left (notice that the entrance is just a hole in the wall), take the very narrow alley to the right. You’ll emerge opposite the small Arakicho park on the S-shaped Sharikimon Dori Street 車力門通り. “Shariki” means a cart pulled by a person, and “mon” means gate.

Kakurenbo Magic bar is just another hole in the wall

At the start of the 18th century, the area that would eventually be known as Arakicho town (officially in 1872), was originally the residence of the Japanese feudal lord (“daimyo”) Matsudaira, and thus this road was used by carts bringing supplies to his home. An interesting fact is that Matsudaira happens to be the birth name of Tokugawa leyasu, who was the first to unify Japan in 1600 and the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Tokugawa was a name that he took in 1567 (when he was 24 years old) and which the successive shoguns used till the Meiji restoration in 1868. The other members of the clan continued to use the Matsudaira surname, and thus the Matsudaira family living in Arakicho were related to the first shogun of Japan (more about him later).

The bar sign on the left is from Bar C-Shell on the Sharikimon Dori street

The Pond of the Whip

On Sharikimon Dori Street, head left and walk past the bar C-shell, another great place for drinks in the evening. Take the next street right and you’ll see a descending staircase on the left. Before going down, glance over your shoulder and notice that the connecting alley is also paved with flagstones.The staircase curves first right then left – we are now entering what remains of the old garden that was part of the Matsudaira residence. At the bottom, you’ll find a shrine, Tsunokami Benzaiten (津の神弁財天), and a small pond, Muchinoike 策の池, or pond of the whip. According to the legend, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan’s first shogun, would go hawking in the garden grounds and would wash his horse whip in this pond. Historical maps show that the pond used to be much larger.
After the end of the feudal system in 1868, the residence was no longer inhabited by a daimyo, and the garden was opened up to the public. Around the edge of the pond many tea houses were built, and guests could be entertained by geisha. At its peak there were up to 200 geisha working in Arakicho, which was then called Arakicho Hanamachi 花街 (“hana” means flower), or geisha district. This period lasted until the middle of the 20th century. Eventually all the tea houses closed and small bars and restaurants opened in their place. Nowadays there are no more tea houses or geisha in Arakicho.

Cherry blossom time at the pond of the whip
Drawing from the end of the 19th century of the pond of the whip surrounded by tea houses.

The Tadaima Japan Shinjuku Ryokan

Take a few minutes to enjoy the peace and quiet of the the Muchinoike pond, the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku avenue now totally forgotten. Make a small prayer at the shrine, take a rest on the bench and observe the carp and tortoises in the pond. When you are ready to move on, take the curving street to the right of the staircase. Eventually, it will merge with another paved street coming from the left. However continue circling right. You will now arrive at the brand new Tadaima Japan Shinjuku Ryokan with its eye-catching yellow sunshades.

The sunshades double as a “noren” or traditional sign curtain

The Tadaima Japan ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn modelled on the old guest houses that used to exist on the ancient Japanese roadways. In fact, one such roadway, called the Koshu Kaido, used to run along Shinjuku avenue connecting Suwa lake in Nagano prefecture (featured in the “Your Name” movie), with Edo city (the old name for Tokyo). The area along Shinjuku park used to be a post town (called Naito Shinjuku), a place where people could rest and spend the night when travelling. This is was the last such post town before the final stop Nihonbashi bridge, ten minutes on foot from the current Tokyo station.

Pointing out the location of the Ryokan on the copy of a 19th century map of the area

Even if you aren’t spending the night, why not pop in and say hi? There is a copy of an old map of the Arakicho area in 1853 on the wall between the lobby and lounge areas. Try to find the pond and the way you have walked so far. After you’re done, return to the paved street outside. By the way, did you know that a tram used to run along Shinjuku avenue till the mid-seventies? In fact Yotsuya-sanchome was a tram station and the flagstones we are walking on now and that pave several other alleyways, come from the old Yotsuya-sanchome tram station.

The friendly and welcoming staff of the Tadaima Japan Shinjuku Ryokan

Suzushin Tonkatsu

Continue along the paved street that now ascends slowly while curving right and left. You will soon emerge back onto Sharikimon Dori Street. To your left, on the 2nd floor, you will find Vowz bar, a bar run by buddhists, and to your right, one of the area’s famous landmarks – Suzushin Tonkatsu, a family run business that has been making tonkatsu in Arakicho for the past 60 years. It’s a good place to take a break for lunch (11h30 to 13h30). Check out the Kanamaru shrine 金丸神社 next to it, in front of the Arakicho park. It was founded in 1643 for the guardian deity of the Matsudaira residence. After that, slowly climb the street back up to Shinjuku Dori Avenue, while checking some of the small side streets on the left.

To the left, Kanamaru Shrine and in the center Suzushin Tonkatsu

This is the end of the Arakicho Town tour. The total distance is less than one kilometer on foot and shouldn’t take longer than one hour (excluding lunch). You can head back to Yotsuya-sanchome station by turning right. The next walking tour article will take you to the Teramachi or Temple District on the other side of  Shinjuku Dori Avenue, which includes a visit to the famous Suga Shrine that was featured in the “Your Name” movie!

For another description of Arakicho Town (as well as the temple district), check this article by another of our writers: Many slopes, temples and shrines, and the maze-like back alleys of the gourmet area; Yotsuya Arakicho and temple district in Shinjuku.

Our Japanese writer interviewed Mr Suzuki from Suzushin Tonkatsu about the history of Arakicho (in Japanese only): 四谷荒木町・今昔散歩 ~荒木町の重鎮が語るとっておき秘話~ ①津の守芸者華やかなりし頃 

You can also check out a Live Stream of the Arakicho Town walking tour below:

Suzuki-san pointing out points of interest on a map of Arakicho he drew himself
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Writer / Translator

I’ve been in Japan for over 10 years although it feels shorter because I am constantly discovering new things and new places. Sometimes it can be hard to get the full Japanese experience because of cultural differences and linguistic barriers. For that reason, I want to share what I have learned in order to enhance your experience in Japan. Having said that, figuring out stuff on your own can also be fun. In any case, I hope you can find here whatever you need in order to make your stay a success.