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What does Muromachi mean?

In Japanese History on June 24, 2013 at 3:14 am

室町
Muromachi (Muromachi)

On the left, Nihonbashi Honkoku-cho. In the Middle, Nihonbashi Muromachi. On the right, Nihonbashi Honcho. The black lines are the original Edo Period blocks. The red lines are the modern blocks that exist today.

On the left, Nihonbashi Honkoku-cho.
In the middle, Nihonbashi Muromachi.
On the right, Nihonbashi Honcho.
The black lines are the original Edo Period blocks.
The red lines are the modern blocks that exist today.

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.

Not sure where this was, but this is probably what Muromachi looked like in the Edo Period... minus the telegraph poles.

Not sure where this was, but this is probably what Muromachi looked like in the Edo Period…
minus the telegraph poles.

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.

CG dozo warehouse

CG dozo warehouse

Here's a modern dozo warehouse in the country.

Here’s a modern dozo warehouse in the country.

And here’s a disclaimer, I’ve only been to Kyōto twice so I really don’t know as much about the city as I’d like to. If anyone else knows more about this stuff that me, then feel free to chime in. The rest of this article is probably a train wreck…

Anyhoo, we are talking about the Muromachi of Kyōto in the Edo Period, which I’m guessing was a very different place than it had been before the Sengoku Period.

What makes me think 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].

Ashikaga Takauji, founder of the Lame Bakufu... Errr, I mean, the Ashikaga Bakufu.

Ashikaga Takauji, founder of the Lame Bakufu…
Errr, I mean, the Ashikaga Bakufu.

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.

Hana No Gosho aka Muromachi-Dono

The Hana no Gosho.
Seat of the Ashikaga Shogunate.
(Is it just me or does it look a little bit like Nijo Castle?)

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].

Muromachi Alley in the early Showa Period

Muromachi Alley in the early Showa Period

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 warehouse originally.

は?!

は?!

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?

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[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?

  1. I never knew there was a place named Muramachi in any city. Thanks!

  2. I had no idea there’s a city called Muramachi in any city. I live in Nagoya.

    Awesome! Love your blog!

  3. Hey, I posted twice and neither comment showed up.

  4. Word Press’s spam filter thought your e-mail address was porn spam. lol
    Pretty original addy, I have to admit.

    • What? Is my email address displayed??
      I don’t want to post my address on a website.

      • Don’t worry. Your e-mail addy isn’t displayed. I can see it on the Word Press’s admin page. It’s a spam prevention measure.

  5. Wait a minute! Why is my comment downvoted so many times?? lol

  6. I did.

  7. WTF is this conversation? HAHAHAHAHHAHAHA.

  8. Question 1) So I know this is a pretty old article, but do you have any remembrance of where you found the CG dozo image above?

    Question 2) Have any ideas about the differences, architecturally or useage-wise, between the buildings known as “dozo” and as “kura”? Or are they exactly the same?

    And just so you don’t think I’m just all give and no take, I can answer your question above about Ashikaga residence in the early years of the Muromachi period in Kyoto. Takauji and Tadayoshi had no permanent kyoto residence in the early years, operating first out of Rokuhara (south-east) and Kinugasa (north-west) areas of the city.

    In 1344 Ashikaga Takauji took up residence near the Imperial palace, and in 1346 Ashikaga Tadayoshi built a palace and mortuary temple (tojiji) complex known as “Sanjo-Bomon”, which was located (conveniently) between Sanjo-Bomon dori (now Oike-dori) and Nijo-dori, roughly between Higashinotoin street and Tominokoji street. Ashikaga Takauji took up residence in this palace after his own residence in Kamigyo burned down in 1351, staying their until he died in 1358.

    The second Ashikaga Shogun, Yoshiakira, built his own “second” Sanjo-bomon palace in 1365 on the block directly south-east of the original Sanjo-bomon. Because “reasons”. The third Shogun, Yoshimitsu built the Muromachi palace you mention in your article, but apparently his son, Yoshimochi was dissatisfied when he became shogun and rebuilt the sanjo-bomon palace and moved back in around 1409. Sanjo-bomon was used by successive shoguns until shogun Yoshinori rebuilt the Muromachi palace and moved back there in 1431.

    These fuckin’ shoguns man, I tell you…

    There’s a great article about this by Stavros over on JStor:
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/25791340?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

    and another by Stavros on the Architectural style of these palaces:
    http://www.eastasianhistory.org/sites/default/files/article-content/31/EAH31_01.pdf

  9. Sorry, I don’t remember where I got the image. Like you said, this was a looong time ago lol. I probably just googled something like muromachi and kura.

    As for kura vs dozō, I recently had to research a bunch about this topic, so I actually do have an answer for you. Kura is the general term. Dozō is a type of kura. So while all dozō are kura, not all kura are dozō. Dozō specifically refers to earthen building materials, but in common usage means a kura that just used for storage. (So actually my usage in the article is technically incorrect, I know now). On the other hand, the kura in the photo are Misegura, shop kura. These were preferred by wealthy merchants because the earthen construction is fireproof. One more thing, rich merchants in Edo, and rich merchants copying the Edo style, painted first plastered their walls white, just like castle construction, then they painted that black, called Edoguro (Edo Black). This was expensive because you had to repaint he black every couple of years. Building kura was expensive in and of itself, and a sign of wealth. Painting them black every so often was even more expensive and was a way of showing off your success. The misegura in the photos seem to have Edoguro.

    Thanks for your info on those fucking shoguns and the links. While we’re recommending articles on Kyoto. I recently read a book Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective, which covered a bunch of this. It was a really interesting read. I actually reviewed it here: https://japanthis.com/2015/12/28/book-review-japanese-capitals-in-perspective/

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