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What does Ushigome-Yanagicho mean?

In Japan, Japanese History on September 27, 2013 at 6:28 am

牛込柳
Ushigome-Yanagichō (Crowd of Cows Willow Tree Town)

Some of Yanagicho's shitamachi vibe (low town)  still exists.

Some of Yanagicho’s shitamachi vibe (low town) still exists.

Will someone please stop the Ushigome insanity??? I wanna get off. I’m starting to feel dizzy.

牛込 ushigome a crowd of cows
柳町 yanagi-chō willow tree town

Every explanation seems to be “there used to be a bunch of willow trees here.”

Well… duh… yeah… that’s what the name means. Willow Tree Town all night long, baby.

Willow trees. Yanagi.

Willow trees.
Perhaps Yanagicho once looked like this in the greener, more river-y Edo Period.
(btw – this is not Yanagicho)

So, there are places called 柳町 yanagi machi or yanagi-chō all over Japan[i] because there are lots of willow trees in Japan. But generally, we can associate willow trees with riversides and low water-rich environs. This area fits that profile. So at one time, there may have been an abundance of willow trees.

This particular place name is a merging of a few elements.

Before the reshuffling of special wards in Tōkyō, the name of the town was 市谷柳町 Ichigaya Yanagichō[ii]. After the reshuffling[iii], parts of Ushigome Ward and Ichigaya Ward were merged into the newly created Shinjuku Ward. When a station was built here the station name became Ushigome Yanagi-chō.

Ushigome-yanagicho is just another train station. You might not even notice it.

Ushigome-yanagicho is just another train station. You might not even notice it.

A Little Bit About the Area

After the 明暦大火 Meireki Taika the Great Meireki Fire, many victims were relocated to this area. This area is located in the 下町 shitamachi the low town. In the Edo Period it was an area for commoners and merchants. It was also famous for candle shops. Woo-hoo.

While we have said that Ushigome is a traditionally 山手 yamanote high city area, there was a 下町 shitamachi low city element too. Yanagichō was that element.

Because it was shitamachi, the main intersection is located in a deep depression. By the 1970’s people started noticing that exhaust fumes from cars was supposedly getting trapped here. Residents were turning up with symptoms of lead poisoning and there was a brief media scare about a lead poisoning problem. The government banned trucks over a certain size and took a few other measures to reduce traffic in order to remedy the problem. Supposedly the area is cleaned up now. (I hope TEPCO wasn’t involved in this project or it’s probably worse…)

Yanagicho intersection in the 1970's.

Yanagicho intersection in the 1970’s.

Yanagicho intersection these days.

Yanagicho intersection these days.

The Shinsengumi Connection

A train geek stamp for the Oedo Line's Ushigome-Yanagichou Station.Note Kondo Isami on the left and the Shieikan marker in the middle.

A train geek stamp for the Oedo Line’s Ushigome-Yanagichou Station.
Note Kondo Isami on the left and the Shieikan marker in the middle.

But the area’s real claim to fame, in terms of Edo-Tōkyō History, is that Yanagichō is where 試衛館 the Shieikan was located. Bakumatsu and seppuku lovers alike will recognize this name as the dōjō of 近藤勇 Kondō Isami, leader of the 新撰組 Shinsengumi[iv] – some of the biggest bad asses of the final days of the Tokugawa shōgunate.

Today the dōjō is gone; it disappeared from the historical record[v] in 1867. This is no doubt due to the shame the Meiji Government tried to cast on the samurai who supported the shōgunate – in particular, the Shinsengumi – and especially Kondō Isami, who was essentially rounded up and tried in a kangaroo court of imperial loyalists to be disgraced and put down like a sick dog.

Bastards.

Recently some have suggested that the location where the historical marker is today may not be in the correct location.

Marker of the place where the Shieikan once stood.

Marker of the place where the Shieikan once stood.

If you go past the marker and down the hill, there is a small shrine.

If you go past the marker and down the hill, there is a small shrine.

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[i] If you don’t believe me, here’s a small list.
[ii] Let it be noted, I haven’t covered Ichigaya yet.
[iii] In short, old Ushigome Ward + old Ichigaya Yanagi Town → Ushigome-Yanagi Town.
[iv] The Shinsengumi were an elite force of swordsmen who were in charge of taking down any anti-shōgunate terrorists in Kyōto. They had an extraordinary will to power and an unsurpassed propensity to kill according to a certain book on the topic that just repeats those phrases until the reader wants to slit their own belly just to make it stop.
[v] At least the records that I have access to.

  1. I didn’t expect the Shinsengumi twist!!! Awesome!!!

    • Intentionally buried the led on this one.

      I do that often.

      It’s not good for internet searchability, but I think it makes for a better read.

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