Nippori (The City You Could Spend A Day At And Never Be Bored)
One of the cool things about place names is that you can do a lot of guessing. A name like Ikebukuro (literally “lake” + “bag”) can give you lots of things to conjecture about while riding the train or walking around the city (or in my case, while washing my hair in the shower or tossing and turning trying to sleep at night). For me, this guessing is what inspires me to get out there and research all these place names. Today’s Tōkyō place name is no exception.
So, here’s a little insight into my mind. I looked at the name 日暮里 and took the kanji apart one by one. 日 ni (sun, day), 暮 bo (livelihood, spending time), 里 ri (village/hamlet, hometown/origin). Seems random, right? So, I thought, “A-ha! Sunny Living Village!” Sure, it sounds like an old folks home, but… who knows? I’m not a native Japanese speaker anyways.
I figured this couldn’t be right. So I dug a little deeper.
日暮 can be read as 2 compound words, higurashi, which means “daily work, daily routine” or higure, which means “sunset” or “twilight.” The last character 里 refers to a kind of place, so we can leave that kanji alone for now. It’s those first 2 characters we have to worry about. Are they separate? Are they a compound?
Well, the story gets more complicated here. (don’t they all?)
It turns out that the area had a different name originally. It was written as 新堀 niihori/niibori/nibbori/nippori literally “new moat”* but more like “new town” or “new village.” We don’t know exactly how the kanji were read**, but you can see that “nippori” is one possibility. Even if the reading was originally something closer to “niihori,” it could have easily become “nippori” over time.
Although, Nippori was on the outskirts of town, in the Edo Period, the area became more developed and many temples and shrines opened there. One of the two Tokugawa funerary temples, Kan’eiji was nearby, which also added to prestige and brought sightseers and pilgrims. In the 18th century, the 11th Tokugawa shōgun, Ienari, ordered many major temples and shrines be re-located to the Yanaka/Nippori area to protect them from any potential conflagrations. Ienari’s reign saw a shitload of horrific disasters throughout the land, so I guess he was trying to hedge his bets. So basically, by the end of Edo Period, this area was bumpin’. It was still bumpin’ in the Meiji Period. It was bumpin’ up to WWII and – I would argue – it’s still bumpin’ now. This whole area is teeming with history and museums and restaurants and you could probably spend months just exploring Nippori, Yanaka, Uguisudani and Ueno and never get bored.
Which brings us to the next evolution of the name.
In the Edo Period, the area was famous for flowers, gardens, temples, shrines, restaurants and cherry blossoms. Since it was on the outskirts of town, in an era without cars and trains, you’d have to make a whole day out of any excursion to the area (even today, you’d have to make a whole day out of visiting the area if you want to even see a fraction of what’s there).
At that time, the area started showing up on maps and guides as either 新堀村 Nippori Mura (Nippori Village) or 日暮里村 Nippori Mura (Nippori Village). Obviously it was no longer a new village, in fact, it was the 日暮ﾉ里 higurashi no sato (the nippo no ri, if you will — the “spend a day village”). The idea being that you can spend a whole day there and never be bored.
All I have to say to that is, “hear, hear!”
As I said, in the Edo Period the kanji for Nippori wasn’t fixed. In 1887 (Meiji 10) the name was officially recorded and propagated as 日暮里 and the old characters 新堀 were lost to collective memory.
How’s that for a place name history? Pretty freaking awesome, if you ask me!
* While we usually think of 堀 hori referring to moats, it can also just refer to a canal. The verb 掘る horu actually just means “dig/dig up.” In old Japanese place names it can also refers to settlements or villages because they may have been fortified by moats or may have held some prestige due to the presence of a canal.
** Shinbori is another possible variant. In fact, a bridge near my home is called 新堀橋 shinboribashi “new moat bridge.”