The other day I wrote about Anjin-chō and Anjin Dōri. The street and former town are located in an area of Nihonbashi called Muromachi. I’ve always wondered about the name, and now after 8 years of living in Japan I finally got off my lazy ass and investigated it. But this story is great and full of plot twists.
Short Answer: The name of Tōkyō’s Muromachi is copied from Kyōto’s Muromachi.
The people of Edo saw similarities to the area in Kyōto as it was in the Edo Period. Kyōto Muromachi was a merchant district with many 土蔵 dozō earthen warehouses and the Edo Muromachi was also the home to many 土蔵 dozō – as it was located in the Nihonbashi area. The first kanji 室 muro means room, but can also refer to cellars or greenhouses or warehouses, such as dozō, that are designed to keep the stock cool or at a reasonable temperature. Apparently this was an apt comparison for the people of Edo.
What makes me say that?
Well, the period from 1337 – 1465/1467/1573 is called the Muromachi Period[i]. In 1573, the last Ashikaga shōgun was forced to leave Kyōto by none other than His Noble Badassness, Lord Oda Nobunaga. Just as the Tokugawa Shōgunate is also called the Edo Shōgunate because of its location, the Ashikaga Shōgunate is also called the Muromachi Shōgunate because of its location[ii].
So what’s the dilly, yo?
I have no idea where the first two Ashikaga shōguns held their court[iii], but the third shōgun, Yoshimitsu[iv], built a lavish palace on an old Heian Period street known as 室町小路 Muromachi Kōji Muromachi Alley. The residence was officially known as 室町殿 Muromachi-dono Muromachi Palace, but because of its legendary beauty it was colloquially known as the 花之御所 Hana no Go-sho the Palace of Flowers[v]. The location was ideal because it was a sprawling tract of land and it was very close to the real 御所 Go-sho Imperial Palace, or in reality close to one of the “temporary imperial residences” granted to the emperor by other court nobles or, at times, the shōgunate. The 花之御所 Hana no Go-sho Flower Palace aka the 室町殿 Muromachi-dono Muromachi Palace was the cultural, political, and military center of Japan for over 200 years.
Wait, what??? This place sounds so elegant and beautiful.
Why is this place famous for merchants and warehouse?
In its day, Muromachi was the center of Japan. From what I’ve read it seems like it was the most elite area of the most elite city. Unlike the Tokugawa Shōgunate, the Ashikaga Shōgunate was on pretty shaky ground from the beginning. Somehow they managed to last almost as long as the Tokugawa, but economic and political stresses rose to the surface and in 1467 war erupted. An 11 year war called the 応仁の乱 Ōnin no Ran Ōnin War broke out. Within the first year of fighting, the north half of Kyōto had been burnt to the ground. 11 years into the war the city was fucked beyond belief. When the Portuguese arrived in Japan 1543 looking to trade and convert the country, they were shocked to learn that the emperor of the country was living in a capital city more or less in ruins. Even more bizarre to them, the emperor was living in conditions they described as a shack or hut.
Even though we don’t tend associate lasting stability with Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, it is from Nobunaga’s time that we see rebuilding in earnest in Kyōto. Slowly stability came and from the Edo Period on, Kyōto regained its former glory, albeit in a new Edo Period form.
So after the destruction of Kyōto, the city repurposed old lands, including the Flower Palace and the area around the former 室町小路 Muromachi Kōji Muromachi Alley became the location of the warehouses of some very prosperous and famous merchants. In the early modern period, it became famous for kimono shops. Some of these shops still exist today, so the street seems well worth the visit[vi].
OK, so Edo’s warehouse district borrowed Kyōto’s warehouse district’s name.
This should be the end of the story, shouldn’t it?
But it isn’t.
The town in Edo (and Tōkyō) was named after a merchant warehouse area of Kyōto.
But where did the original Kyōto name come from?
Well remember how I mentioned that in the Edo Period 室 muro was a reference to warehouses? Well, this was actually a folk etymology. In reality, 室 muro had absolutely nothing to do with warehouses originally.
The Final Plot Twist
It turns out there was a family of imperial court nobles called the 室町家 Muromachi-ke Muromachi Family. The Muromachi family claims descent from the Fujiwara family… and I’ll leave that up to you Kyōto lovers to figure out. The Muromachi clan built the original Muromachi-dono on the alley that came to be known as Muromachi Alley and later Muromachi Street. The Ashikaga Shōguns appropriated the residence and expanded it to make the Hana no Go-sho. So while we say that the Muromachi Period is named after the residence of the shōguns, that name actually referred to a totally unrelated family of aristocrats. How d’you like dem apples?
[i] If you want to know why I have 3 dates for the ending of the Muromachi Period, then you need to read up on the Ashigaka Shōgunate, the Muromachi Period, the Sengoku Period, and the Azuchi Momoyama Period. That stuff is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay outside the focus of this article. But suffice it to say, making a cutoff date for the Muromachi Period can be a bit subjective depending on what angle your examining things from.
[ii] Which, as you can imagine, was probably not a warehouse district…
[iii] However, the first Ashikaga shōgun, Takauji, is buried at Tōji’in in Kyōto, so I’m assuming he had a residence in Kyōto to keep an eye on the fucking Emperors (yes, plural… it’s a long story), despite being a native of present day Tochigi.
[iv] Yes, he’s the same Ashikaga Yoshimitsu who built Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, in Kyōto.
[v] Yoshimitsu used the word for “imperial palace” and not the word for “just another lord’s palace.” Also Yoshimitsu was pretty gay for his day, which was totally acceptable for nobles of the military class at the time. The building was demolished after the overthrow of the last Ashikaga shōgun, but it is said to have been decorated in a cute floral theme in accordance to Yoshimitsu’s liking and there were lovely flower gardens all over the palace precincts. Everyone likes flowers – Yoshimitsu really liked flowers.
[vi] I’ve never been there myself, though… Next time, right?