Why is Kōenji called Kōenji?


(High Circle Temple)


Kōenji is funky town in Suginami Ward next to Nakano. Like Nakano, it’s got everything. It’s residential and convenient, but you have plenty of places for shopping and eating and drinking and whoring.

The name seems pretty straight forward. Any place name that ends with (ji/tera) is named after a temple. Lots of those, as you can imagine. And yes, Kōenji is named after a temple.

The west part of Tōkyō – Takadanobaba, Nakano, Kōenji, Mitaka, Kichijōji, etc. – was pretty fucking rural in the Edo Period. It was a good place for bored samurai to practice various 武術 bujutsu martial arts. This particular area was well known for falconry which was what Japanese nobility did for fun because they didn’t have video games yet and life was pretty boring. Some of the Tokugawa shōguns and daimyō doing alternative attendance service came out here for falconry.

Tokugawa Ieyasu and a falcon.
Tokugawa Ieyasu and a falcon.

Wait! What the Fuck is Falconry?

In Japanese, it’s called 鷹狩 taka-gari (falcon hunting). It’s a kind of “game” by which you hunt birds or other animals with a trained bird of prey. Since getting trained birds of prey was expensive, it was a “game” that was pretty much restricted to the nobility. It sounds fucking boring as hell to me, but all the rich daimyō loved this shit.

Wait, if they loved it so much, why do you never see it much in samurai movies these days?  Because… well, it was probably boring as hell. What do you expect? These people didn’t have smartphones, purikura, bukkake, and bit torrents yet. Making a bad ass bird go catch another bird for you might be cool if you’ve never seen the internet.

The temple

Anyways, back to Kōenji.

In the mid-1550’s there was a temple established on a hill in the area. The name of the temple was (and still is) 宿鳳山高円寺 Shukuhōzan Kōenji*, but most people just call it Kōenji.  The story goes that Tokugawa Iemitsu (the 3rd Tokugawa shōgun) stopped by this temple often whilst getting his falconry on in the area. In fact, the planting of a few trees on the premises are attributed to him (a topic for another time).

It’s said that originally, the area had the name 小沢 Ozawa “little creek,” but after the shōgun became a patron of the temple, the temple’s prestige rose and the area naturally took on the name of the temple.

Koenji Awa Odori
Koenji Awa Odori

On last note, Kōenji is famous for a summer festival that features a kind of dances called 阿波踊りAwa Odori. This traditional dance comes from Tokushima (formerly 阿波国 Awa no Kuni). I have a certain friend who might slit my throat – with good justification – if I didn’t mention that this dance is not Kōenji’s local dance. It’s just a way for Tōkyō people to enjoy this traditional dance. Anyways, real 阿波踊り Awa Odori comes from Tokushima and if you meet a person from Tokushima and you say that, you may earn a friend for life. Awa Odori is beautiful and the music is cool and the costumes are beautiful. If you can’t see it in Tokushima, try it in Kōenji.

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*鳳山 is an interesting word itself. 鳳 ōtori refers to a kind of mythological bird of prey that can turn into a fish. It’s not a phoenix, but if you think of it as a phoenix, it makes sense. This area was famous for bad ass birds.

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