Saturday, March 8, 2008

Tokyo Neighbourhoods: Akasaka

To sweeten violent noblemen, Louis the 14th created the Versailles Palace, and gathered there the greatest artists of his century. The lords of his kingdom went there to enjoy the latest fashion and art. Busy partying, they forgot to revolt. At the same time, Tokugawa shoguns chose a more radical way, by constraining Japanese noblemen to live every other year in the capital Edo, and leave their family as hostage when they were back home. Most of those provincial lords built their estate in the hills of southern Tokyo, called Yamanote (山の手).
We will take a walk today in one former noble neighbourhood, Akasaka (赤坂), or the “red slope”. We will start by late morning at the Yotsuya station (四谷駅) where The Chuo train line (中央線) and Marunouchi subway line (丸の内線) stop. In front of the station is rococo Akasaka Palace, built in the early 20th century, and surrounded by a great garden. It was the home of the crown prince, and is used since 1974 as a house for state guests. It is closed to the public most of the time. We will walk the street that goes to the left of the palace along the palace limit, and follow the elevated motorway and an old moat up to Akasaka Mitsuke (赤坂見付) crossroad.
North of Akasaka Mitsuke are two of the most famous Tokyo hotels, the “Akasaka Prince Hotel” and the “New Otani”. The famous triangle-shaped New Otani Hotel, one of the first modern Tokyo hotels was host to a famous “Blake et Mortimer” comic, and, more familiar to English speaking readers, a James Bond movie. The hotel garden, preserved from the time the land plot was an aristocratic estate, is worth a visit. If a suit is not compulsory, it is better to avoid too casual clothes in this quite “chic” hotel. The restaurant at the top of the new Tower, originally called “Top of the Tower” offers “all you can eat” meals, with a fantastic view on Tokyo and its gardens. Prices are very affordable, especially for lunch. Japanese people call “Viking” (バイキング) those “all you can eat”. The idea was introduced in the 50th in the Imperial Hotel, following a visit of the hotel manager to Denmark, where smoke fish “all you can eat” buffets were common. The Danish name, unpronounceable in Japanese, was quickly dropped, and replaced by “Viking”. An alternative to the buffet is the French “Brasserie” Aux Bacchanales, close to the new Otani entrance.
Akasaka lively streets are best visited after sunset, so I suggest a walk in nearby areas during the afternoon. Out of the New Otani, we will turn left at Akasaka Mitsuke, and walk along the elevated motorway. After a few minutes, we will be in Nagata-cho, the heart of Japan political life. It has few historical buildings, but the Japanese Supreme court, just in front of “Miyakezaka” (三宅坂) is certainly worth a look. This oppressive building was built in 1974 by architect Shinichi Okada. Then, we will turn the left, and walk along the palace moat to Hanzomon (半蔵門), one of the palace doors. The British Embassy, just facing the Imperial Palace is probably on the best location in town. Its address is No1, Ichiban Cho (Town No 1). The embassy was rebuilt after being destroyed by the Great 1923 Earthquake. Past the Embassy, it is possible to walk on the very pleasant road that crosses the Imperial Palace moat at Chidorigafuchi (千鳥ヶ淵). From there, it is a short walk to Kudanshita (九段下) station where the Hanzomon subway line (半蔵門線) will get you back to Akasaka Mitsuke in a few minutes (stop at Nagatacho (永田町) station).
Back in Akasaka Mitsuke, a large avenue called ‘Sotobori Dori’ (外堀通り) is leading to Toranomon. We will walk on the left side of the street, and after a few minutes, we will go past the ‘Prudential Tower’, built in 2001 on the site of the former « Hotel New Jaman », which diseappeared in the worst post-war fire in Japan, killing 32 people. The site was supposedly haunted, and so stayed as an empty ruin until 1995, although the land in the area was one of the most expensive in the world. A few minutes after the prudential towers, we reach the stairs leading to ‘Hie Jinja’, (日枝神社) which deserves a short visit.
Let’s now meet the true Akasaka. It was one of the liveliest areas of post-war Tokyo, the playground of the politicians. It was home to the greatest post war political scandal, where the American aircraft manufacturer Lockheed bribed major Japanese politicians to buy their planes, using a Japanese underworld ‘yakuza’ figure as a middleman. Copacabana, “New Latin Quarter” are now parts of Tokyo underworld legend. There are few direct reminders of the area, except maybe the “Chante” Love Hotel, a naïve copy of an European castle, where one of the most famous call girls of Tokyo was killed. The Hotel is closed from the Akasaka subway station (赤坂駅). From ‘Hie-jinja’, we will cross Sotobori Dori at Sanno Shita (山王下), and walk on Akasaka Dori (赤坂駅). The hotel is on the left after the second traffic light, close to the TBC tower, home to a major Japanese private television company.
Then, we will will go back to the brand new (Akasaka Biz tower), and go left through ‘Hitotugi Doori’ (一ツ木), that goes through Akasaka most lively area. The small sloppy streets on the left are surprisingly quiet for downtown Tokyo, and it is still possible to see a few traditional tea houses, where geishas enternatin their rich guests. Back to Hitotsugi doori, we will discover Akasaka by night. The liveliest place is between the ‘Sotobori Dori’ Street and ‘Hitotsugi dori’ avenue. There are many Korean Yakiniku, and Pachinkos. There are also many foreign food, cheap sushi, or Izakaya chain restaurants. We will certainly spend the night here in one of the many dining spots. After the meal, we may wish to drink a cocktail in the Akasaka Prince Hotel bar, with a wonderful view of Tokyo by night.

Hotel New Otani : 4-1 Kioi-Cho, Chiyoda-Ku, Tokyo T102-8578, 03-3265-1111, Buffet « Top of the Tower », Y5040 (30 Euros) per person for lunch, Y7875 (50 Euros) for dinner, reservations by phone: 03-3238-0023.

Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka : 1-2 Kioi-Cho, Chiyoda-Ku, Tokyo T102-8585 Tel: 03-3234-1111. Bar “Top of Akasaka”, open from 5pm to 1am.

Tokyo Underworld: The Fast times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan, ISBN 978-0375724893: un a very entertaining story of Tokyo postwar underworld, based on the memories of an American gangster in Japan.

I suggest looking for a restaurant on Yahoo Gourmet or Gunavi (Japanese language site). Restaurants go quickly out of fashion in Tokyo, so it is better to get updated regularly. Just in case, here are two easy to find stable addresses accessible to foreigners.

Umai Sushi-Kan (うまい鮨勘): close to Akasaka station on Akasakatodi. Akasaka 3-13-1, Minato Ku Tokyo T107-0052 東京都港区赤坂3丁目13-1: Tel 03-3560-6711. Sushi sets from Y1500 (9 Euros) to Y3000 (18 Euros) par person, open from 11am to 3am on week-days, from 11am to 11pm on week-end:

Kyushu Jangara (九州じゃんがら): between Prudential Tower and « Hié Jinja » sur la « sotobori dori ». NagataCho 2-12-8 Chiyoda-Ku Tokyo 〒100-0014 東京都千代田区永田町2-12-8. open from 10:45am. Closed at 1am on sunday, 3:30am on Friday and 2am on other days. Pork soup noodles « Ramen » from Y600 (3.5 Euros) to Y1000 (6 Euros) per person.

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