Kagurazaka: Roji and Geisha in Tokyo

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Students and instructor walking through a roji in Kagurazaka.  James Lloyd, 25 May 2013.

May 25, 2013
Author: Lakan Cole – Historic Preservation

Today we awoke at the crack of dawn excited for our first day in Tokyo. Some went head first into the day with a Japanese breakfast of rice and fish, while others opted to ease in with a “Western” style breakfast of bread, salad and cold egg. Whichever the choice, the meal provoked an interesting conversation about cultural differences that would continue throughout the day.

Our focus today was directed by Benika Morokuma, a graduate of Columbia University’s Historic Preservation program. We met Benika-sensei in the campus where we are staying (National Olympic Memorial Youth Center) where she gave a presentation on her thesis: “Preservation of an Urban Landscape: Case Study of Roji in Kagurazaka, Tokyo.” Kagurazaka was originally a residential quarter for the 17th century samurai, but later the large palace lots were subdivided into smaller roji, or narrow alleys, which has housed a famous Geisha entertainment district from the Meiji period to present. Unfortunately, the Geisha industry and the roji where they once thrived are under threat from development. Benika-sensei expressed her fear of losing such culturally significant properties and presented a preservation plan for their protection; including redevelopment guidelines, transferable development rights to the Tokyo Science University, and designating the Geisha as an intangible cultural property. Benika-sensei’s presentation filled us with anticipation to see the historic Kagurazaka district first hand; after a trip to the Edo museum Benika-sensei was kind enough to lead us on a tour through this historic district.

Kagurazaka indeed possessed a very distinct sense of place. The low scale and quiet atmosphere set the mood for our tour. We tread slowly down the narrow roji, sketching out the characteristics imparted to us by Benika-sensei: stone pavers in the shape of a Geisha’s fan, Sukiya style two-story buildings; high street walls; and vestibule gardens. We were awed and intrigued by the unique urban design, and we hoped for a glimpse of the famous kimono-clad courtesans (though none were forthcoming). Time flew by as we wound our way through the network of roji, taking photos and making sketches of the many hidden architectural features.

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Fan-pattern paving, roji of Kagurazaka. James Lloyd, 25 May 2013.

Around 6pm, our appetite was ripe. It was time to take off our shoes (in the Japanese custom for dining) and enjoy some delicious food. Jonathan-sensei took us to Shamokaku, a traditional Japanese restaurant for fresh chicken wing bird soup stew, fried chicken neck and skin, raw egg over minced meat and rice, and green tea ice cream. Everyone overcame whatever culinary trepidations they may have possessed had and tried each dish at least once with our friends and Japanese partners. It was a great end to our first day and we happily trekked back to our lodging with full bellies and heavy eyes as the jet lag finally got the best of us.

 

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