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What does Keyakizaka mean?

In Japanese History on February 1, 2014 at 4:53 pm

欅坂
Keyakizaka (Zelkova Hill)

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Today’s place name etymology is another easy one. The first kanji is 欅 keyaki and means zelkova tree. The second kanji is 坂 saka hill. The kanji for keyaki is pretty rare in Modern Japanese, so this name is almost always written as ケヤキ坂 keyakizaka so people can actually read it. The Roppongi area has a long standing connection with zelkova trees. In fact, some people cite 6 giant zelkova trees as the etymology of the place name Roppongi[i].

But basically, the Azabu and Roppongi areas were a short walk from 江戸湾 Edo Wan Edo Bay but and the terrain was marked by lush wooded high ground (which became yamanote) and not-too-wet lowlands (which became shitamachi). The lush high ground was perfect for daimyō residences and lowlands were suitable for the merchant towns that catered to the elite domain “embassies.” Interestingly, the area is home to a number of embassies – many occupying former daimyō properties.

Anyhoo, I’m getting side tracked. I can’t say whether this name has survived from the Edo Period or not, but this 400 meter or uphill promenade is definitely befitting of the area’s Edo Period elite history. The street is wide and lined with trees and flower beds. The flowers are changed seasonally. The zelkova trees are richly illuminated – much more so now than the first time I visited in 2003. The street runs through a part of the Roppongi Hills “urban center” connecting the formerly shitamachi Azabu-Jūban shopping street with the 5-star Grand Hyatt Tokyo at the top of the hill. If you view off the road into the Roppongi Hills complex you will come upon the so-called Mohri Garden.

A quick word about this garden’s name. Roppongi Hills was developed by a dude named Mori Minoru. This garden is named after the Mori Clan who ruled 長州藩 Chōshū han Chōshū Domain. The developer’s name is 森 Mori and the daimyō’s name is 毛利 Mōri (spelled Mohri in the official Roppongi Hills jargon). So don’t confuse the two. But all I wanted to point out is that the developers claim that the garden is a partial holdover from the original daimyō garden. Take that with a grain of salt. It’s definitely a nice garden, if not a busy garden, and it’s definitely in the Japanese style. But I’m not willing to vouch to say any of it is actually a remnant of the Edo Period.

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[i] 六本木 Roppongi literally, “6 Trees.” Another version of the story says they were pine trees and not zelkovas. I don’t buy into that theory at all because there is a much more compelling derivation.
BTW – I just looked up my original article on Roppongi and was shocked at how short and uninformative it was. So I’m adding Roppongi to my “do over” list and will give a detailed explanation about the ‘Pong. 

  1. Actually, the Môri yashiki and grounds were massive, containing numerous gardens. I saw the yashiki super imposed over a map of present-day Roppongi during an exhibition of Môri family treasures at the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo Midtown. I remember my jaw hitting the floor as I realized how expansive it was. Anyway, the garden at Roppongi Hills does I think correspond to where there was one in the Edo period, but that’s as far as it goes. Maybe they tried modeling it based on an old drawing or painting, but who knows?

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