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What does Udagawacho mean?

In Japanese History on February 15, 2020 at 11:37 pm

宇田川町
Udagawa-chō
(Uda River Town)

center street

Good luck getting a photo like this lololol

.Since we’re heading back to 渋谷区 Shibuya-ku Shibuya Ward for the first time since 2013, I’d like to begin this this article by quoting a poem by the late, great 鈴木度助兵衛 Suzuki Dosukebe[i]:

Oh, Shibuya! Thy crazy intersection is overrun by tourists
Taking the same goddamn video everyone else taketh.
Thy streets, once home to
gyaru[ii] and AV scouts,
Now littered with rats and cockroaches,
Descended from the rats and cockroaches of yore
Beckon all to Udagawa-chō.

Chances are, even if you’ve only been to Shibuya once in your life, this is probably the part of town you came to. As soon as you walk out of the overcrowded and annoying ハチ公出口 Hachikō Deguchi Hachikō Exit, you enter 宇田川町 Udagawachō Udagawachō. Since the 1970’s, the neighborhood has become increasingly commercial, made up mostly of shops, restaurants, clubs, and businesses. In fact, the largest landholders in the area are 渋谷区役所 Shibuya Kuyakusho Shibuya Ward Office, 西武百貨店 Seibu Hyakkuten Seibu Department Store, パルコ PARCO Parco Department Store, LINE CUBE SHIBUYA (a concert venue), and 渋谷区立神南小学校 Shibuya Kuritsu Jinnan Shōgakkō Jinnan Elementary School. It’s also home to the infamous 渋谷スクランブル Shibuya Sukuranburu Shibuya Crossing (“Shibuya Scramble”), often touted as the busiest intersection in the world[iii]. If you’ve ever walked out of the Hachikō Exit and crossed that insanity, chances are you also walked down 渋谷センター街 Shibuya Sentā Gai Shibuya Center Street[iv]. If you’re a fan of the movie Lost in Translation, the karaoke scene was shot at the Udagawachō branch of カラオケ館 Karaoke-kan[v], a nationwide karaoke chain.

lost

While most of Udagawachō is commercial these days and the place is literally teeming with people on every street and in every alley, as of 2017, there were actually only 530 households registered within this postal address, making it home to some 769 residents and an unknown number of pets. Estimates of the number of cockroaches, rats, and super-lethal death-crows are unconfirmed as of the publication of this article[vi].

Anyhoo, if you’ve ever been to Shibuya, you know it’s a shitshow – super-crowded with shoppers and, more recently, completely overrun by tourists. The area is so annoying that Tōkyōites refer to the residents of Shibuya as 渋豚 Shibuta “astringent pigs.”[vii]

Further Reading:

 

shibuya is trash

Yay! Udagawachō!!!

Let’s Look at the Kanji


u

This character means “eaves,” but was commonly used as ateji[viii] and is the origin of the hiragana /u/ and the katakana /u/ which represent the same sound.


ta
,da; den

rice paddy


kawa
, –gawa; sen

river


chō; machi

town

So, at first glance, it looks like this means “town that sits along the Uda River” and I’ll be honest with you: in my personal opinion, this is a case of what you see is what you get. I’m a big fan of Occam’s Razor. However, the story can be made more complicated and I’d like to drag you down the rabbit hole with me, so roll up your sleeves and let’s dive into it!

800px-Outa_Doukan

Ota Dokan, one of the builders of Edo Castle

A Tale of Two Families (but probably just one…)

Records from the 1400’s, late Muromachi Period, state that two clans called Udagawa or Utagawa[ix] controlled coastal areas from 品川 Shinagawa Shinagawa to 葛西 Kasai Kasai. The sources aren’t clear, but both families are said to have been illegitimate offshoots of the 佐々木氏 Sasaki-shi Sasaki clan (and possibly the 上杉氏 Uesugi-shi Uesugi clan)[x]. These clans were sent to develop the areas surrounding a minor seaside hamlet called 江戸郷 Edo-gō Edo village by the warlord 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan Ōta Dōkan on behalf of the Uesugi clan[xi]. As time went on, branches of the Udagawa clan spread this peculiar family name throughout what is present day 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis. In fact, this name is mostly found in Tōkyō, with more than 7000 people registered as Udagawas[xii]. Some family members have even settled in present-day Shibuya. We’ll talk more about this hypothetical Shibuya Udagawa clan later.

日本橋 nihonbashi

Utagawa Hiroshige capturing a snapshot of life in Edo. This is in Nihonbashi, though. Nowhere near Shibuya.

A Connection to Art that You Never Saw Coming!

Interestingly, the main branch settled in Shinagawa and gave their name to an area that used to be called 芝宇田川町 Shiba Udagawa-chō Udagawa Town, Shiba[xiii]. In the 1700’s, a certain artist named 但馬屋庄次郎 Tajimaya Shōjirō who lived in that coastal village borrowed the name of the town and started calling himself 歌川豊春 Utagawa Toyoharu, literally “poetic river abundant spring.”[xiv] If that spelling looks familiar, it’s because Toyoharu was the ukiyo-e master who established 歌川派 Utagawa-ha the Utagawa school of art[xv]. If the name still doesn’t ring a bell, maybe 歌川豊広 Utagawa Hiroshige, the most famous master of this style[xvi], will. If there’s anything we know for certain about this whole narrative, it is that the Utagawa School definitely takes its name from the coastal Udagawa-chō/Utagawa-chō village. The Shibuya connection is still a mystery.

Further Reading:

1930 dogenzaka

Love Hotel Lane. Dōgenzaka in the post-war era.

But Alas, I Digress[xvii]

The story goes that this part of Shibuya used to be called 宇陀野 Udano the Uda Fields. This combination of kanji is most likely ateji and so the true origin of the place name is probably lost to time. However, if this river existed and flowed through the area, it would logically be named 宇陀川 Udagawa the Uda River. The kanji 陀 ta/-da is fairly obscure in Japanese, usually only showing up in Buddhist loanwords from Chinese, so it was eventually changed to 田 ta/-da. However, the first clan using the name, was definitely in present-day Shinagawa and not Shibuya.

As is often the case in Japanese history, clans usually took family names from their holdings. Due to high infant mortality rates, the 公家 kuge imperial court families in Kyōto tried to have as many sons as possible in order to pass on their lands, titles, and names to their first-born son. But what happened when you more than one son survived? The best solution was to send them out into the boonies to collect taxes and keep the peasants in check. These sons would establish new branch families and take the name of their fief as a family name. If there was another Uda River in Shinagawa, that would make sense. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

As for the hypothetical Shibuya Udagawa clan, we might have an example of the opposite thing happening. In this case, it’s possible that the area’s name derives from the clan. You see, by the same process of spinning off extra sons, the Sasaki clan that I mentioned earlier were descendants of the imperial family. The full name of the clan is 宇田源氏佐々木氏 Uda Genji Sasaki-shi the Uda Minamoto Sasaki clan.

OK, I know this is complicated, but bear with me. 宇多天皇 Uda Tennō, Uda the 59th emperor[xviii], established the Minamoto clan (also called Genji). This Minamoto clan spun off the Sasaki clan, which in turn, spun off the Udagawa clan. By this story, they included the name of Emperor Uda to remind people they had imperial blood in their veins – after all, they were two clans (Minamoto and Sasaki) and more than 400 years removed from their godly ancestor[xix]. If this were the case, the clan may have received their name (or petitioned for it) at the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in Kyōto and then were sent east to Edo in order to fortify the coast and used their spiffy new name to look super-cool to all the stinky, dirt-crusted peasants and fishermen living in the area.

If we want to assume the family brought their name from the west to the east, there is another theory. This one claims that the family name derives from 大和国宇陀郡 Yamato no Kuni Uda-gun Uda District, Yamato Province in present day 奈良県 Nara-ken Nara Prefecture. Nara is very near Kyōto and this doesn’t seem any more unreasonable than the last origin story I told you. In short, the result would be the same as above: an elite family is sent eastward and the local people adopt their new lords’ name because it’s prestigious. Suddenly, you’re not just a bunch of filthy, dirt-grubbing, fish-mongering peasants. No, you’re peasants whose masters are a clan of a clan of clan from way out west with a tiny drop of imperial blood running through their veins.

Further Reading:

boring

Yeah, I know… I think so too.

What Really Happened?

The source of the clan name, while not completely understood, at least has some reasonable origin stories. However, we know that an Uda River existed in Shibuya. By the Edo Period, this appellation referred to a very specific tributary of 渋谷川 Shibuyagawa the Shibuya River[xx]. This waterway existed right up until modern times and was ultimately covered up during the build up to the 1964 Tōkyō Olympics. Like many rivers in Tōkyō, the Uda River is now a sewer. If we apply Occam’s Razor, this is really best etymology we can come to. In my opinion – as I stated earlier – the name literally just means “the town on the Uda River” and no more. The connection to the Udagawa clan in Shinagawa is a mere coincidence at best. I think this theory is tidy and logical.

Despite all the muck I’ve dragged you through, dear reader lolololololol

pretend

Clan Name and Place Name Confusion

The annoying this about this particular place name is as annoying as Shibuya itself. Sources constantly try to make a connection between the Udagawa clan and Udagawachō to such an extent that I couldn’t find anything that tried to disentangle the two. This could very well just be a case of folk etmology, but if someone put a gun to my head forced me to reconcile these stories, I think I could present something that sounds plausible given what we know (just so I wouldn’t get shot in the head).[xxi]

I suspect that in the Muromachi Period, a branch of the Sasaki clan was granted the name Udagawa/Utagawa in Kyōto for either reason stated above[xxii]. They were granted a large coastal fief and acted as governors of that territory on behalf of the Uesugi clan, much as Ōta Dōkan also was. Their name came to be attached to their lands, so that’s how the name transferred. As new cadet branches spun off, one family settled in present-day Shibuya[xxiii] and the name stuck, as it carried some imperial prestige. The fact that there is a river in Shibuya probably didn’t hurt. It would have reinforced this name. And the rest, as they say, is history.”[xxiv]

I haven’t heard a trigger go “click” yet, so I think we’re good.

.

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[i] His name ド助兵衛 is code for ドスケベ do-sukebe “total pervert.” And yes, this is completely made up, stupid.
[ii] Please tell me you remember what ギャル gyaru were. If not, GTFO lol
[iii] I dunno. I’ve seen some crazy intersections in Ho Chi Minh City… just crowded with scooters instead of people, but whatever…
[iv] The nuance is like Main Street, but uses a word for “town,” “block,” or “neighborhood.”
[v] The room used in the film is actually commemorated with a plaque and can be booked in advance by phone. But warning, it uses the Joy Sound system, which is lame AF.
[vi] To put this into perspective, 西新宿 Nishi-Shinjuku, the area west of Shinjuku Station, is home to just as many businesses (probably more) but also houses 15,700 domiciles with roughly 22,600 residents. This gives it a balance that Udagawachō lacks. It’s basically a town devoured by consumerist culture and tourist culture. In short, there’s no community. It’s a neighborhood drunk on “meh.”
[vii] I totally just made that up.
[viii] We’ve talked about 当て字 ateji many times at JapanThis!. It’s when kanji are used for their phonetic values, rather than ideographic meanings. In the far countryside, like Edo before the 1600’s, many place names used ateji because the meaning of the name had been lost or it was just easier for semi-literate people to understand.
[ix] Both pronunciations are valid and families used them in addition to spelling variations to distinguish their unique family lines. For example, 宇田川 and 宇多川.
[x] That means, somebody been makin’ babies out of wedlock and shit. Awwwwww yeah.
[xi] Both the Ōta and Uesugi were based in Kamakura at that time, but they wanted to relocate to Edo. It seems the Udagawa clans were the vanguard of their development strategy.
[xii] The name is not restricted to Tōkyō, though. There are about 19,200 Utagawas throughout all of Japan. Also this spelling only takes into account 宇田川 Udagawa and not its more distinguished alternate spelling 宇多川 Udagawa/Utagawa.
[xiii] This area is near present day 新橋 Shinbashi Shinbashi, although their castle (fortified residence) was in 北品川 Kita-Shinagawa North Shinagawa, I would assume somewhere on the 高輪台 Takanawa-dai Takanawa Plateau.
[xiv] 歌 uta can mean song or poem.
[xv] When we use “school” in this sense, think of it as a style passed down from master to apprentice, not like some dude is taking finger painting classes on the weekends or like a modern fine arts university.
[xvi] Arguably one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, ukiyo-e artists of all time.
[xvii] Who? Me? lol
[xviii] Emperor Uda ruled from 887 to 888. A short reign to be sure, but he lived from 867 to 931.
[xix] Godly in the sense that the imperial family claims descent from the sun goddess, 天照 Amaterasu, and the other court families likewise claim heavenly descent from other gods.
[xx] Some people believe the name is a coincidence of history. One theory about the origin of the place name Shibuya says it is a reference to a dried up, rust-colored riverbed, but I think that theory is a bit of a stretch.
[xxi] Not a fan of getting shot in the head. Jussayin’.
[xxii] Perhaps they initially lived in Nara…
[xxiii] The area was pretty much the boonies until the 1920’s, so obviously records would be spotty at best.
[xxiv] Again, I’m not convinced that the Shinagawa Udagawa clan and Udagawachō in Shibuya are related. I’m also not convinced there couldn’t be any overlap. There just isn’t enough information to make a strong argument either way other than Occam’s Razor.

What does Inaricho mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on November 28, 2019 at 3:28 am

稲荷町
Inarichō
(Inari town)

inaricho station

Let’s give a hearty thanks to reader Will on fire who suggested this topic on Twitter. You should follow him and if you don’t already follow me, you should. I share lots of Japan-related news, pix, and just vent from time to time. It’s good fun[i]. Also, Twitter and Facebook are great ways to suggest new place names that you’re curious about. Anyhoo, let’s get into it, shall we?

Here’s the original post:

Where is Inarichō?

OK. So, let’s do this. Anyone who’s ever taken the 銀座線 Ginza-sen Ginza Line to 上野 Ueno Ueno or 浅草 Asakusa Asakusa has passed by 稲荷町駅 Inarichō Eki Inarichō Station. With Asakusa becoming an ever-increasing tourist trap[ii], chances are high that most people who visit 東京 Tōkyō will pass by here, though chances of them getting off the train are slim. In general, old timers might refer to this area as 下谷 Shitaya which literally means “the lower valley.”[iii] However, these days Inarichō is located in 台東区 Taitō-ku Taitō Ward, an area famous for its traditional 下町 shitamachi low city vibe[iv].

Further Reading:

inaricho station ginza line.jpg

The Ginza Line stopping at Inaricho Station

Let’s Look at the Kanji

稲荷
Inari
Inari, the primary rice deity

machi, chō
town, city;
neighborhood

Etymology

The origin of this place name is pretty basic. It’s named after a local 稲荷神社 Inari jinja Inari shrine. As I mentioned before, the old timers may call this area Shitaya. This term refers to the areas that lie beneath 上野山 Ueno Yama the Ueno Plateau – the low city areas of 浅草 Asakusa Asakusa, 本所 Honjo Honjo, and 深川 Fukagawa Fukagawa. To this day, these areas are famous for their non-fancy, traditional atmospheres.

And like I said, there was an ancient Inari shrine in the area. When a train station first opened here in 1927, they chose the name Inarichō “Inari Town” because this particular neighborhood was historically known by that name – the shrine being the area’s only claim to fame. That’s the long story short[v].

shitaya shrine.jpg

There’s Always More to the Story

The shrine that started the whole thing still exists and is called 下谷神社 Shitaya Jinja Shitaya Shrine and according to their records it was established in 730 by what were basically regional tax collectors. They collected rice tax on behalf of the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in 京都 Kyōto Kyōto[vi]. At this time, eastern Japan was barely under the control of the imperial court. The court’s legend says that a certain samurai warlord named 平将門 Taira no Masakado Taira no Masakado decided to call himself “Emperor of the East.” Historical records point more at regional territorial disputes, but Masakado became a bit of a folk hero in Edo as an easterner who stuck it to the man.

taira no masakado painting

Anyhoo, depending on how you slice up the dates, Masakado’s unsuccessful uprising came to an end when he was unceremoniously beheaded in 940[vii]. Shrine records say that one year before, in 939, a certain 藤原秀郷 Fujiwara no Hidesato Fujiwara no Hidesato rebuilt the shrine complex to pray for the defeat of Masakado because he was a dick like that. Religion is dumb but praying for someone’s death is pretty gross. As a result of his defeat, Taira no Masakado became a symbol of eastern pride, especially in Edo, while Hidesato came to be seen as a toadie of the distant and rarified court in the west. However, Masakado is still famous throughout the country, while Hidesato is a footnote in history books. The fact that he gets a paragraph on JapanThis! is probably the most attention he’s gotten in a thousand years. Yeah, fuck that guy. I’m #TeamMasakado all day long, baby.

And for those of you who follow Japanese baseball, the east/west rivalry pre-dates the 東京ジャイアンツ Tōkyō Jaiantsu Tōkyō Giants and 阪神タイガース Hanshin Taigāsu Hanshin Tigers[viii] by more than a thousand years. Masakado’s uprising wasn’t the beginning, but it was definitely an incident in which eastern Japan, and Edo in particular, finally grew a pair and realized they could be contenders in a country controlled nominally by a bunch of snooty aristocrats in Kyōto who claimed to be the descendants of 神 kami deities, rather than samurai bad asses from the hinterland. But, just to set the record straight, here at Japan this we know that Edo-Tōkyō is cooler. Always has been. Always will be[ix].

Further Reading:

rice plants.jpg

Inari, God of Rice

So, the etymology of Inarichō is very straightforward. Shrine to Inari. Station gets a name. All good. So, who is Inari? Longtime readers probably already know this, but if you’re new to JapanThis! or want a refresher, I’ll give a quick breakdown.

On the most basic level, 稲荷神 Inari no Kami[x] Inari is the 神 kami deity of rice production. His[xi] name is made of two characters 稲 ine/ina rice and 荷 ri something you carry. The kanji clearly imply “rice harvest.”[xii] When the cult of Inari began isn’t known, but we can assume it dates back well into prehistory[xiii]. Rice fields take a lot of time and manpower to build[xiv]. Rice represents food. Surplus rice means money. Large scale rice production requires protection and is a symbol of status because in a world of haves and have nots, the haves can feed more loyal subjects than their neighbors.

rice paddy japan

Hopefully, you can see where this is going. By the time we get to 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai the Warring States Period[xv], you have samurai warlords all around the country making all kinds of territory grabs to control agricultural production (read: money and power). An underlying religious component is that since ancient times, powerful clans often venerated Inari for profitable harvests. The Warring States 大名 daimyō feudal lords often adopted their local Inari as a tutelary kami.

In the Edo Period (1600-1868), when the shōgun’s capital was in… umm… Edo, hence the name, an institution called 参勤交代 sankin kōtai alternate attendance was established. This required the various daimyō to maintain palaces in Edo to take part in the shōgun’s government. Most of them, through a process called 分霊 bunrei splitting a kami, would re-enshrine their local Inari in Edo. Because the area presumably had thousands of Inari shrines to begin with, the addition of new Inari shrines by more than 200 daimyō during the Edo Period, this particular kami became the most recognizable deity in the capital and probably all of Japan[xvi]. I’ve said this many times in many articles, the Edoites had a proverb, 伊勢屋、稲荷に、犬の糞 Iseya, Inari ni, inu no fun which essentially means “you can’t go anywhere in Edo without seeing shops named Iseya, Inari shrines, and dog shit.” To this day, you can still find shops called Iseya everywhere – maybe as many or more Inari shrines. Dog shit… not so much. And, for those of you who are fans of spatial anthropology, know that when you see free-standing Inari shrines in Tōkyō, there’s a good chance you’ve arrived at a former daimyō’s palace.

Further Reading:

 

fushimi inari taisha kyoto

Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine in Kyoto

Inari and Foxes

Anyone who has visited 伏見稲荷大社 Fushimi Inari Taisha Fushimi Grand Shrine in 京都 Kyōto Kyōto knows exactly what to expect of an Inari shrine. In fact, if the image of this shrine isn’t burned into your brain, you need to learn a little more about Japan. No shame, though. We all start somewhere. And so, while a vermilion 鳥居 torii gate is common[xvii], the most striking feature is the shrine being flanked by two semi-tame 狐 kitsune foxes, often holding objects in their mouths, such as scrolls, toy balls, or jewels.

inari kitsune.jpg

The association of Inari with foxes is strong, but the origins are unclear. Obviously, in the Japanese countryside, you’d probably find foxes near rice fields. But as Shintō and Buddhist teachings aren’t very dogmatic or standardized between sects and regions, the link between Inari and foxes is not set in stone – although Inari shrines without fox guardians are almost unheard of. Most people think Inari is a fox, or at least the avatar of Inari is a fox. Others believe foxes are merely emissaries of Inari, as the kami doesn’t possess a physical body. I personally don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer to why foxes are associated with Inari other than the fact that you find foxes in the countryside. I tend to think that foxes are messengers of Inari and not Inari himself[xviii]. That said, Inari and foxes – white foxes specifically – are inextricably tied together.

ginza line 1927

Ginza Line in 1927, somewhere between Asakusa and Ueno, which means there’s a 50/50 chance this is Inaricho Station.

Inarichō Station

Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, Inarichō is a station name. Despite the area being known by locals as Inari-chō, it’s not an official postal address. The neighborhood is located in 台東区東上野三丁目に Taitō-ku Higashi Ueno 3-chōme 3rd block of East Ueno, Taitō Ward. Only the station name preserves this traditional appellation.

In 1927, 東京地下鉄道 Tōkyō Chikatetsudō the company that would become today’s 東京メトロ Tōkyō Metoro Tōkyō Metro that we all know and love opened 稲荷町駅 Inarichō Eki Inarichō Station. Even though it’s gone under many renovations over the years, the station is pretty much the same one that we got in the 1920’s for the 銀座線 Ginza-sen Ginza Line. Essentially an unofficial local nickname based on an Inari shrine in former Shitaya Ward, which is now Taitō Ward birthed a train station name. It could have faded into obscurity, but it didn’t. The train station preserves that legacy.

shitaya shrine entrance.jpg

Entrance to Shitaya Shrine

In Conclusion

Sadly, the etymology of Inarichō is not particularly exciting. But I hope long time readers enjoyed the reiteration of who Inari is and I hope knew readers learned something knew and useful. Coincidentally, I spent the evening tonight at a fashionable tea café called Inari Tea in 恵比寿 Ebisu Ebisu[xix]. It’s nowhere near Inarichō Station, but as Inari shrines are everywhere, it’s impossible to avoid this kind of reference to the auspicious rice god. Inari is a super common place name, so if you see an area named after Inari, I think you can assume its named after the rice god or is at least referencing it. And why not? White foxes are super cute!

Further Reading:

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[i] By the way, iTunes forced my computer to reboot and MS Word didn’t save a good 20-30% of the original article. So I apologize for this being so brief. There was actually a lot more to say, but computers suck. Or at least my computer sucks.
[ii] Still worth a visit, mind you.
[iii] And believe me, we’ll be talking about that later.
[iv] This may be a topic for another day, but Taitō Ward is comprised of former 下谷区 Shitaya-ku Shitaya Ward and 浅草区 Asakusa-ku Asakusa Ward. However, the name Shitaya is still used casually by locals for the lowlands in Taitō Ward, but only appears officially in the block names (eg; 下谷一丁目 Shitaya Icchōme 1st Block, Shitaya and so on).
[v] It’s important to remember that today Inarichō is not a postal address, it’s only a station name. Today this area is 東上野三丁目 Higashi Ueno San-chōme 3rd Block of East Ueno. That said, it used to be a place name.
[vi] More about that in a moment.
[vii] OK, I made up the “unceremoniously” part. The imperial court went to great lengths to put down Masakado’s rebellion and… I don’t know… there might have been some “ceremony” surrounding his execution. Or maybe he died in battle and was beheaded ex post facto. We don’t really know.
[viii] If you don’t follow Japanese baseball, this has traditionally been the biggest rivalry. Basically Tōkyō vs. those losers in Ōsaka.
[ix] And yes, I’m shit posting. If you don’t like it, go read that other website about Ōsaka and Kyōto place names. Oh, riiiiiiight….
[x] Also read as Inarishin. Also known by other names like 稲荷大明神 Inari Daimyōjin. In common speech this kami or his shrines can be referred to as 御稲荷様 o-Inari-sama or more casually 御稲荷さん o-Inari-san.
[xi] Actually, Inari’s gender is somewhat ambiguous. Unimportant might be a better way to think of it.
[xii] Though, it should be known that different kanji were used throughout history, but most of them did include a reference to rice. Many historians (I don’t know about linguists), seem to think the name derives from 稲成 ine-nari becoming rice, hence “rice growing.” I’d like to speak to a Japanese diachronic linguist about that one, though. Not sure if I believe it.
[xiii] Just a reminder, “prehistory” means “before written documents.”
[xiv] The kanji 男 otoko man is actually made of two characters rice paddy and power. This doesn’t refer to the manpower required to build rice paddies, rather the power acquired by controlling rice paddies and the power required to protect them.
[xv] Sengoku Period on Samurai Archives.
[xvi] But make no mistake about it. The cult of Inari was pervasive. It had been popular since time immemorial.
[xvii] Non-vermilion gates also exist.
[xviii] But whatever. We’re talking about religion. All of this is made up bullshit anyways lol.
[xix] If you know your Japanese beers, you know YEBISU. Same thing.

What does Meoto-bashi mean?

In Japanese History on October 26, 2019 at 3:20 pm

夫婦橋
Meoto-bashi (“lovers’ bridge,” more at “wedded couple’s bridge”)

meotobashi.jpg
I often get asked, “Marky, how do you find new place names?” Believe it or not, it’s just random. However, I’d say 80% of the time, I’m just riding a bus or train, and something jumps out and I wonder “why is this place called what it’s called?” That other 20% comes from just looking at random places on maps and wondering the same thing, “why is this place called what it’s called?” In today’s case, something really strange happened.

I’m an avid Pokemon GO player. As a result, the app discovers weird place names all the time. I was on the 京急線 Keikyū-sen Keikyū Line coming back to 東京 Tōkyō from 韓国 Kankoku Korea and I had the app open. En route, it found 夫婦橋 Meoto-bashi which I read as Fūfu-bashi. There must be a good story here, I thought.

musume

We’ll talk more about this grave later…

Let’s look at the Kanji


fu, , bu; otto, oto; sore
husband; man


fu; yome

wife, bride; woman


hashi, -bashi; kyō

bridge

夫婦 fūfu is the standard word for a married couple. Sometimes, you might be invited to a party with the phrase ご夫婦で来てください go-fūfu de kite kudasai please come with your spouse. Another common expression is 夫婦生活 fūfu seikatsu married life and 夫婦墓 fūfubaka[i] husband and wife shared grave[ii]. That last term can also be read as meotobaka. While meoto is a proper reading of the kanji, fūfu is far and away the more common pronunciation. In the case of this bridge, the correct reading is Meoto-bashi. That said, the meaning is exactly the same: married couple’s bridge.

open marriage
Where is Meoto-bashi?

That’s a good question, because I’d never heard of this bridge. But, as I said before, Pokemon GO found the location for me and I was just sitting on the train. A quick internet search sorted things out nicely. I soon learned that Meoto-bashi is located in 大田区 Ōta-ku Ōta Ward and spans the 平作川 Hirasaku-gawa Hirasaku River[iii] — essentially a three-minute walk from 京急蒲田駅 Keikyū Kamata Eki Keikyū Kamata Station. Nearby the bridge is 夫婦橋親水公園 Meoto-bashi Shinsui Kōen Meotobashi Riverside Park[iv]. Anyhoo, the bridge and the park are a 15-minute train ride from 品川駅 Shinagawa Eki Shinagawa Station.

Further Reading

sunamura-san

Grave of Sunamura Shinzaemon

Construction of Meoto-bashi

According to records, the first bridge to span the Hirasaku River in this area was built in 1667 by a local farmer named 砂村新左衛門 Sunamura Shinzaemon. When people hear the term farmer, they might think of some kind of country bumpkin peasant, but make no mistake about it, Shinzaemon was a very wealthy landholder and extremely well educated. Despite being a farmer according the class system of the day, it’s probably better to think of him as a pre-modern civil engineer[v].

edo period bridge

Typical, old Japanese bridge minus the mud surface.

The point of creating the bridge wasn’t only to get people from Point A to Point B, but also to create a 水門 suimon floodgate to prevent back current from 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay flowing against the river and flooding the riverside villages. An unexpected side effect of the floodgate was a buildup of silt that created a sand bar upon which another bridge was eventually built. Having two bridges so close together in what was literally the boonies was extremely rare and the people came to think of them as a pair, a married couple, if you will. The bridges seem very rustic when compared to the flashy wooden bridges of Edo that we all know and love from 浮世絵 ukiyo-e woodblock prints of daily life in the Edo Period. In fact, an 1825 description of Meoto-bashi describes it as a rough, log bridge covered in dirt and mud[vi].

The current concrete bridge was built in 1954, and other than a major update in 1988, it remains unchanged.

meato bridge.jpg

Two Bridges.

A Married Couple. End of Story?

Nope. Not a chance.

Prior to Shinzaemon’s bridge/floodgate, apparently there had been bridges here before. We don’t have specific dates about their construction (remember, this was the boonies), but it’s fair to say there were bridges crossing the Hirasaku River in this area as far back as the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura Shōgunate – roughly 800 years ago, which is when Eastern Japan really began to take off. Because of the counter currents from the bay during typhoons and tropical storms[vii], these ancient bridges were often destroyed and washed away by nature’s temper tantrums.

A local legend persists among the old timers in the area. According to them, after a particularly brutal storm that ruined the bridge and devastated the villages along the Hirasaku River, the village headman called an assembly. In order to appease whatever kami deity was allowing these horrible things to happen to the people, it was decided that a sacrifice must be made. The most beautiful, unmarried girl of the village was chosen by the people. She was dressed in white garments[viii] and marched down to the riverbank where they had begun construction of a new bridge. The young girl was placed into the hole where the first pillar was to be inserted. Her family and the villagers said their farewells – presumably much crying ensued. And then they lowered the pillar into the slot, believing her sacrifice would preserve the safety and prosperity of the village and the bridge which was vital to their survival. This practice is called 人柱 hitobashira. It literally means “human pillar.”

emma ai

Whoa. Human Sacrifice?! Was That Really a Thing???!

Without archaeological evidence to back up certain famous claims of hitobashira, it’s hard to say definitively. However, records going back as far as the 700’s, including 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki The Chronicles of Japan, claim this sort of human sacrifice existed in 神道 Shintō the native religion. From time to time, you’ll hear ghost stories in Japan that say things like “underneath every beautiful cherry blossom tree lies a dead body” – often a samurai who fell in battle or committed 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide or a fair maiden who was sacrificed for the good of the village. In 地獄少女 Jigoku Shōjo Hell Girl, the only anime you need to watch[ix], the main character 閻魔愛 Enma Ai is condemned to her role of, um, condemning other people to “hell” after being selected by local villagers to be hitobashira to protect the village. Many Japanese castles have stories about retainers or local beauties being buried alive for the protection of the lord’s keep and therefore, the domain’s security. I sincerely hope these are just spooky stories, but there are a lot of them in the folklore and mythology in Japan, so I wipe a little tear from my eye while I say, this practice most definitely happened in some form or another.

hitobashira grave

Edo Period grave erected to commemorate the life of the young girl sacrificed for the sake of the village.

Happy Halloween

On that note, get your costumes ready. Go be spooky and sexxxy! Also, if you’re trying to get laid, you might want to leave this dark story out of your repertoire. That said, I have a few other Halloween-related articles you might like to share with a friend[x].

Further Reading

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō With Me Japan This Guided Tours
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[i] This word can get giggles because it also sounds like 夫婦馬鹿 fūfu, baka couples are stupid.
[ii] As uncomfortable as this may be for some, 夫婦ぶっかけ fūfu bukkake refers to couples who, um, get the bukkake treatment together or engage in cockhold bukkake play. Just trying to be thorough here, folks. This is research.
[iii] I’d never heard of this river before, but for those curious, it flows from 横須賀 Yokosuka in 神奈川県 Kanagawa-ken Kanagawa Prefecture to 東京湾 Tōkyō-wan Tōkyō Bay.
[iv] The official English name of the park is “riverside park.” However, the word 親水 shinsui parent water is sometimes translated as “hydrophilic” which means “water loving.” I don’t think there’s an equivalent English word, but the nuance is something like “next to the water” or “intimate with the water” and can be found in other Tōkyō parks that are located on rivers or sometimes have fountains powered by the nearby river.
[v] Also, just for reference, this part of Tōkyō was not part of Edo. It was just rice paddies and forests as far as the eye could see in 武蔵国荏原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara District, Musashi Province.
[vi] I’m going out on a limb an guessing that the dirt and mud was to make pulling carts across the bridge smoother, as logs would have been bumpy and could probably damage axels and goods.
[vii] And the lack of technological know how to combat back currents.
[viii] In Japan, white is a symbol of death. Corpses are dressed in white at funerals and samurai who performed 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment wore white.
[ix] My opinion. I don’t watch other anime.
[x] PS: Any English article you read on these topics was done after I did the research, so please don’t support those lazy “journalists.” You heard it hear first, my friends.

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