“To err is human. To loaf is Parisian,” said the French writer Victor Hugo. Although seasoned in erring and loafing, I cannot attest that he nailed Paris. But loafing is tres a la mode in Kagurazaka, a shopping and dining area in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward that is famed for its touch of French culture.
As I sit here at Cafe Paul, a patisserie whose croissant aux amandes some people might trade for revealing state secrets, I look out at the passing flaneurs, waiting for the mysterious Megumi. She is an old friend who lives down the street, and just announced she is moving to Paris. The news intrigue: a rendezvous is in order. A Frenchman must be in the picture, no matter that Megumi is married. Or is she?
Kagurazaka is Tokyo at its best — uniquely atmospheric, a mix of old Japan and cosmopolitan chic. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), many samurai lived in the area, which bordered the outer moat of Edo Castle. In 1857, the Kagurazaka district, by then popular for its “floating world” entertainments, was declared by the government as hanamachi, an official geisha quarter.
A geisha school and management establishment is still open here, training modern-day graduates in how to pour sake and dance at Kagurazaka’s various ryotei — the expensive Japanese restaurants that require a personal introduction. After dark, you can see rows of black limousines parked at curbs like slumbering animals, waiting for Tokyo elites who dine out the old-fashioned way.
“Let’s get out of here.” Barely seated at Cafe Paul, Megumi is getting restless, her glasses slip down on her nose. “The paintings here look really fake French.”
“I like fake French, sort of,” I say. Next to me on the wall hangs a Rococo-style piece — a nymph dancing with feisty cherubs. “It feels manageable.”
Most urgently, Megumi needs to buy a map of Paris, so explanations about her move, even attractions like the scenic Akagi Shrine round the corner, have to wait. We step out into the December sun, en route to a French bookstore as we head down Kagurazaka-dori, the main slope that crosses the district and is closed to car traffic on Sundays.
Besides the cheese shops and eateries that are hidden in cobblestoned alleys, it is the tony Kagurazaka-dori that makes the area feel international. Slim trees line the sidewalk and accordion music sounds from arched lampposts, while strolling couples and single women consider couture and wines. It is here on this shopping street, under the spell of what the French call “depaysement” — the feeling of being in another country — where busy Tokyoites learn the art of loafing.
In a quiet street on the other side of Iidabashi Station, we find the bookstore Librairie Omeisha, which first opened in 1947 and is mostly visited by French expats.
Besides the smell of books, a sense of Old World sophistication pervades the small shop, from the pictures showing literary luminaries — Megumi points out Flaubert, Rimbaud and Proust — to the wooden shelves filled with French-language fiction and magazines.
As I skim “Un Amour Insense” by Junichiro Tanizaki, I am musing about the appreciation, the easy compatibility, that seems to exist between the French and the Japanese. It goes beyond their shared love of food and sense of aesthetics, but what that “more” is I cannot say.
“French people are often lively — more lively than Japanese,” says the shop clerk, a Francophile Japanese man whose favorite writer is Jules Verne. “French novels tend to be dark, though, especially those from the 18th century. They seldom have a happy ending.”
The French influence in Kagurazaka began in 1975, with the opening of the Lycee Franco-Japonais de Tokyo, a junior high and high school with instruction in French, which has since moved to another ward. Unlike Japanese parents in Tokyo, who send their toddlers on trains all over the city behemoth, the French mothers wanted to walk their children to school, which is why expat families settled in Kagurazaka.
When we leave the bookstore, Megumi has scored three street maps of Paris.
“So why do you need three?”
“One is for me, the others are for Gaston.”
Two maps of Paris — in Japanese — for a man named Gaston? The plot thickens.
I am dying to hear the story of Megumi’s new life, when she announces the next stop on our tour of Kagurazaka. We must visit the Atami-yu, an old-fashioned sento bathhouse in an alley off Kagurazaka-dori. Today is her final chance to soak in the famous public bath.
The Atami-yu, established in 1954 and one of the last traditional sento in Tokyo, is known as an old bathhouse for geisha and has been used as a backdrop for television. Attendance has been declining as people have their own baths at home, and only one third of the guests now are regulars, some of them French people living in the area.
Upon entering, Megumi asks the proprietor, a middle-aged man sitting at the entrance collecting fees, if the French guests have any trouble with sento etiquette — the numerous rules that make up the bathhouse experience.
“The French get it,” he says. “It’s the Japanese customers who leave the water taps running. Or they forget to return their towels.”
These days, geisha no longer attend. But there was a time when the white-faced ladies came twice a day, in the morning and late at night, taking their make-up off before getting into the water and then putting it back on before they left.
At most Japanese public baths, the entrance counter has a free view of both the men’s and the women’s section. Hearing the proprietor speak of bathing geisha, I regard him with new appreciation.
Inside, the two water pools, heated with charcoal and firewood, come with two different temperatures: hot and so hot that a chef would think twice about tossing a lobster into the water, fearful the fellow may disintegrate. Naturally, I make straight for the latter. In my experience, this pool will make for better conversations.
“Ah — beautiful Mount Fuji,” I address a pensioner in broken Japanese, pointing at the stunning mural that covers the rear of the room.
He mutters agreement and I venture on, with a nod at the painted wall that separates the men and the women. “This painting is beautiful, too. The beautiful sea, the beautiful snowy mountains. Indeed — a beautiful Japanese landscape.”
The oldster, clearly a regular, looks at the tiled partition, from behind which the chatting and showering of women can be heard. “That is Canada,” he says drily, then lowers his torso into the scalding water.
Hungry after the sento, we sit down at a French restaurant with red wine and boeuf bourguignon. It is now that I finally hear what happened to Megumi and her life in Tokyo, her job at a bank and her nonexistent husband, and why a Frenchman in Paris needs two street maps in Japanese. The details exceed the capability of a travelogue, but can be summarized with the words of Paul Valery, another famous French writer, who once happily declared: “L’amour c’est etre stupide ensemble.”
To be in love is to be stupid together. Good luck to you both, Gaston and Megumi!
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