Akasaka-mitsuke: A quirky blend of old Edo and modern Tokyo

By Vicki L Beyer

Originally Akasaka-mitsuke ("Mitsuke" means "look-out" or "guard post") was the location in Tokyo of a gate in the outer wall of Edo Castle, with a moat along the foot of the wall. Remnants of the both the wall and the moat can still be seen, but most of it is long gone. In its place are major arterial roadways, office buildings, hotels, restaurants and shops. A day walking through this area is an exploration of historical tidbits, interesting buildings and gardens, religious sites, and various other quirky bits.

During the Edo Period, the area immediately outside the Akasaka Gate was occupied by the lower classes: low level retainers, warriors and servants. As Tokyo modernized during the Meiji Restoration and government buildings were established in nearby Nagatacho (technically inside the old castle walls), the area became a pleasure quarter, with geisha houses in the Tameike-sanno area and restaurants and bars closer to Akasaka-mitsuke subway station, which opened in 1938.

For this exploration, though, we'll start from Aoyama-itchome station and walk along Aoyama Dori in the direction of Akasaka-mitsuke. This road is the historic approach to Akasaka Gate. As you emerge from Exit 4, across the street you'll see the stone walls and greenery of the grounds of Akasaka Palace. Behind these walls are Togu Palace -- the official residence of the Crown Prince -- and the State Guest House. These are not on today's itinerary (but I knew you'd be curious to know what it was).

Instead, turn right. In about 200 meters you'll reach Japan Traditional Craft Aoyama Square (open daily, 11:00 to 19:00). This shop/gallery is a treasure trove of traditional crafts from across Japan, with free wi-fi and QRC codes linking to English explanations of the various items on display as well as to YouTube clips of how they were produced. Shop or just soak up information on Japan's ceramics, textiles and woodenware.

Next stop, just another 60 meters down the road, is Takahashikorekiyo Memorial Park. This is the site of the home of Takahashi Korekiyo, an early 20th century Japanese politician who was assassinated here during the attempted coup of February 26, 1936. The house has been removed to the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, but the garden is worth a quick stroll.

Back on Aoyama Dori, you'll soon pass the Sogetsu Building, home to the Sogetsu school of ikebana. The striking building was designed by Kenzo Tange in the 1970s. The building is only open 9:30-17:30, Monday-Friday and the 4th Saturday of the month, but if it's open, check out the ikebana displays in Sogetsu Plaza on the first floor and the Japanese room on the 5th floor.

If you're fond of motorsport or sports cars, just another 100 meters down the road, make a pit stop at the McLaren showroom. On display are a Formula One car driven by Ayrton Senna and a number of McLaren's new line of street cars.

At the next traffic light, cross the street to enter the grounds of Myogonji Temple and Toyokawa Inari Shrine, dedicated to all things fox. You've come in the "back" entrance so will soon encounter a multi-level dais covered in pairs of fox statues. As the name Inari indicates, these are the primary guardians here. But the place is bristling with gods and guardians, so you can also do a mini pilgrimage to statues of Japan's seven lucky gods and say quick prayers at the "migawari-jizo" who will alleviate your suffering, the "sanshin-den" which ensures satisfying relationships (I saw a bridal couple praying here on my last visit), the "toinari sonten" that averts evils, and the statue of the "kodakara" Kannon which grants women an easy childbirth. Something for everyone.

Leave by the main gate and continue down the hill. At the bottom, turn left and cross to the bridge over a small remnant of the outer moat of Edo Castle. This bridge, known as Benkei-bashi, leads to an area that, during the Edo Period, was a dedicated green space intended to serve as a firebreak to protect the castle from the destructive fires that plagued the largely wooden Edo. Although this is a modern bridge, its predecessors were lovely arched wooden bridges that have been memorialized in woodblock prints of the day.

On the other side of the bridge there is a boat house on the moat. Here you can rent a boat and fishing equipment if you'd care to put a line in. Or, keep going to the entrance to the Garden Tower of the Hotel New Otani. Take the lift to the 5th floor and follow the long corridor leading to the original, main wing, of the hotel.

Built in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, this has become one of Tokyo's classic hotels. James Bond fans may recognize the revolving restaurant at the top of the building as the office of Mr Osato, the evil industrialist in the 1967 movie, "You Only Live Twice." It was the tallest building in Tokyo at the time the movie was made.

The hotel was built on a site that had been the estate of the Fushimi-no-miya branch of the imperial family. The property was originally the Edo home of Kyushu daimyo Kato Kiyomasa. The estate's 400-year-old garden, originally constructed by Kato, is a central feature of the hotel today. The entrance to the garden is clearly marked and entry is free. It's well worth a leisurely stroll.

Many of the hotel's restaurants have views of the garden; the best view is from the 6F Garden Lounge.

Rather than going back the way you came, leave the hotel via the Arcade level (one floor below the Lobby level) of the main wing to reach the street; turn right. Cross at the light and turn right again to reach Shimizudani Park, another little green space on the site of a political assassination, this time Home Minister Toshimichi Okubo in 1878. Behind the large cenotaph honoring Okubo is a display of two large cubic stone structures that were part of the Edo Period water supply system that helped to fill the moats and provide water to the city.

Continue on toward Benkei-bashi and you'll soon see Tokyo Garden Terrace on your left. Opened at the end of July, this is Tokyo's newest multi-use high rise complex, with shops and restaurants on the lower levels, offices in the middle and the Akasaka Prince Hotel at the top, as well as a residence tower at the top of the hill. Walk along the outside of the building on the right-hand side, above the moat. After passing the modern sculptures, take the catwalk for closer views of the moat, as well as of one of the few remaining sections of the old castle wall, just near where the Akasaka Gate once stood.

Keep heading upwards to the top of the hill, and the top of Tokyo Garden Terrace. Here you will find what is now known as "The Classic House." Built in 1930 as the Tokyo residence of Korean Prince Yi Un (1897-1970), the building was originally known as Kitashirakawa Palace and became the Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka in 1955. It subsequently became an event venue and has now been fully restored to house a French restaurant, a bar, a cafe and banquet facilities. Alas, one can only gain entry by visiting one of these establishments.

Make your way back to Benkei-bashi through the main tower, stopping to check out the shops and restaurants. More shops and restaurants await you in the area around Akasaka-mitsuke station. But persevere, as we have one last stop to make.

From Akasaka-mitsuke station, cross Sotobori Dori to the pink and white Akasaka Excel Hotel Tokyu and turn right. Sotobori means outer moat and the road runs along where the moat once stood. Walk along Sotobori Dori until you reach the large stone torii marking the entrance to Hie Shrine. As the shrine is on the hill above you, climb the red torii-line stairs to reach it.

Hie Shrine was established in 1478, long before Tokugawa Ieyasu made Edo his seat of power, as the guardian shrine for this area. But it was Ieyasu's great-grandson, Ietsuna, 4th Shogun of the dynasty, who moved the shrine to its present location, where it could stand guard over Edo Castle. Although the current buildings are post-war, the cloisters contribute to a serene atmosphere. The people watching here is quite fun, too.

Leave the shrine cloisters by what looks like the true front entrance and walk through the Capital Tokyu Hotel as a shortcut to Tameike-sanno station. Or, go out the opposite side you came in and go down the escalators leading back to Sotobori Dori to Tameike-sanno station. Either way, it's interesting to note that this area, now just a busy intersection, was once a pond, a dammed up part of the moat for purposes of water supply. Yet another of those quirky bits of Tokyo.

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Yes, this is a nice part of Tokyo.

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The old Sanno Hotel, used after the war as a US military billet, was a well known Akasaka landmark back in the day, but no trace of it remains. The rebels used it as the headquarters during the Feb. 26, 1936 military uprising. Tokyo used to have an Akasaka-ku, but it was merged with Shiba-ku and Azabu-ku to form Minato-ku.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Love this area !

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I love this area, and always stay at one of the hotels while in Tokyo. Thank you for the informative piece on the district. So many things I didn't know!

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The Akasaka Mitsuke night life area (encompassing roughly between TBS to Akasaka-Mitsuke Station, and Hitotsugi-dori to Sotobori-dori) used to be one of Tokyo's trendiest, with nightclubs, live jazz clubs, salons (not of the pink variety) and the famous New Latin Quarter, a swanky basement nightclub with extravagant live shows that used to be about where Prudential Tower is today. During the "bubble" years, Akasaka acquired a reputation as a place for politicians, iffy real estate types and other wheeler-dealers to pad their expense accounts at exclusive Japanese eateries, and was known for the lines of "kuro-nuri" hired cars that would idle on the streets at night, waiting for their passengers to finish carousing and scheming. After the collapse of the bubble economy, in the late 1990s and early aughts, a wave of redevelopment, including the massive (and not particularly successful) Akasaka Sacas, brought a more egalitarian (and more cookie-cutter) atmosphere to the area. Starbucks and Dotour gained ground over Cafe Arabica with its 2,000-yen cups of Blue Mountain (it's still there, and the Blue Mountain coffee is still 2,000 yen), along with 100-yen sushi places, and, in the new millennium, a growing (though unofficial) Koreatown. Today, redevelopment continues, especially along Hitotsugi-dori, and the turnover among bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and retail stores is remarkable. Much of what made the area special has been lost to generic office buildings, second-tier hotels and the same chains you see elsewhere in Tokyo, but it was the first--and for a long time, the only--place I went bar-hopping in Tokyo, and despite the Asian masseuse rackets (they'll follow you for blocks if you aren't firm in your refusal), the pachinko parlors and the convenience stores proliferating like rabbits, it remains one of my favorite places to hang out. (I've been getting my hair cut there for almost 20 years, at a barber shop that's been in business since the Taisho era, when what is now a drug store across the street used to be an "okiya," or geisha lodgings.)

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I have a client in Akasaka, so we often go out for dinner and/or drinks in Akasaka-Mitsuke (and other areas). There are a lot of great restaurants in the area.

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While I've taken walks in this area over the past 30 years visiting Tokyo, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and informative article (with more good input from the Comments), which I'll save as a guide for a walk during an upcoming trip in November. About 25 years ago I had a guidebook to Tokyo, with an odd rectangular shape, which was arranged geographically such that one could walk along a street with each place of note listed (whether a shop or cafe or interesting whatever, using different colors for hotels, restaurants, etc.). It was perfect for taking walks with no set ideas. I lent it out one time too many and it apparently never was updated or republished.

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