Between the Azabu-Jūban main street* and Roppongi 5-chōme there is a monster hill. I’ve been told it’s one of the steepest hills in central Tōkyō – I believe it. I’ve walked it many times (it’s not that bad), but you definitely get a work out. FujiTV (?) used to run a short segment at night of hot girls running up famous hills. It’s flat at the top of the hill, but the street continues to Roppongi.
(the following video is not Torīzaka, but you get the idea…)*****
The name has always be curious to me because it’s made of two very common Japanese words:
鳥居 torī the “gate” to a Shintō shrine and 坂 saka hill. It would seem obvious except for the fact that there is neither a torī nor a shrine. The closest shrine I know is 麻布十番稲荷神社 Azabu-Jūban Inari Jinja Azabu-Jūban Inari Shrine, but it’s located a fair enough distance from the hill that I doubt there is a connection.
Just now as I’m thinking about it, I suddenly remembered that when the Torīzaka street** crosses the main street (which is a valley), it goes back uphill on the other side of the street. I seem to remember seeing some floats for a small neighborhood Shintō festival one time last year. Now I’m wondering if there is a connection.
Let the investigating begin!
The old maps say that is that a residence of the Torī clan existed here. Retainers of Tokugawa since the Sengoku Era, the family is famous for a certain 鳥居強右衛門 Torī Sunēmon, a loyal samurai who preferred crucifixion to double crossing his bros like a little bitch***. He took it like a man. It wasn’t a daimyō residence, but a relative named 鳥居彦右衛門 Torīzaka Hikoemon who a large samurai residence on the hill. The family was prestigious for their loyalty to the founder of the shōgunate and so the area took pride and referred to the area as 鳥居坂町 Torīzakachō the Torī Hill Neighborhood.
The area is still upper class and the buildings – be they schools, embassies or cultural institutions are surrounded by trees and greenery that really reflect the high city of the Edo Period elite. It’s a cool area despite being located right next to Roppongi which has a reputation as the dirty-ass gaijin slime pit of Japan.
There is another theory that 氷川神社 Hikawa Jinja Hikawa Shrine, one of the oldest shrines in the area, was originally the bottom of the hill near Azabu-Jūban**** and the street name is a reference to the shrine’s torī. The shrine is located in 元麻布 Moto-Azabu Old Azabu. But according to the information at the shrine, they were originally established in 942 on the same street and hill in Moto-Azabu, just a little bit lower down the hill. They were relocated further up the hill in 1659. While Torīzakachō is a neighboring area, the street intersections are too far to have made any confusion. Plus, the Torī family mansion would have already been on the other hill (Torīzaka) by this time. So I don’t think this theory is valid.
So, as it turns out, there isn’t a connection to the festival I saw. It’s mostly like a case of the area taking pride in the prestige of having a relative of a Sengoku Era hero, loyal to the founder of the Edo Bakufu, in their hood. Good for them.
* The street, as most streets in former castle towns like Edo, do not have names – and this is by design. The city is not laid out on a grid, streets twist and turn and often dead end suddenly, and they rarely have names. This is to confuse invading armies and hinder an easy advance into the heart of the city, the castle. The Romans built walls around the cities and government, the Japanese built cities around the government lol. Anyways, the street is referred to as the 麻布十番商店街 Azabu-Jūban Shōtengai Azabu-Jūban Shopping Street (in the Edo Period think of it as the merchant district).
** This street also doesn’t have a name, only the hill has a name. Another normal feature of life in a castle town.
*** The Battle of Nagashino is a pretty major event in Japanese History, read more about it here.
**** This area still appears on maps as 鳥居坂下 Torīzakashita (bottom of Torīzaka), but it’s not an official postal code name.
***** I embedded this as hyperlink above, but in case you missed it, here is the direct link to pictures of model, Kawai Asuna, running up Torīzaka (sorry, no video): http://ameblo.jp/asuna-kawai/entry-10483570688.html