Ōmori (great forest, big forest)
So in my last article, I returned to 品川区 Shinagawa-ku Shinagawa Ward for the first time in maybe a year. Well, technically that’s not true. We got close when I talked about the 5 Great Roads of Edo and Suzugamori Execution Ground. But for the most part, we haven’t hung out in this part of town for a while.
It’s kind of shame, too.
“Why?” you ask.
Because, as I said the other day, the area is literally littered with history. I’ve walked this area countless times over the last 10 years and I haven’t even scratched the surface. While it’s not as well preserved as Kyōto, Shinagawa is one of those areas that – like Kyōto – you can come back to time and time again and always find something new. The main difference is that Kyōto gives up her past easily. Shinagawa plays hard to get. You really have to know what you’re looking for.
Oh, for fuck’s sake! I just remembered Ōmori is in 大田区 Ōta-ku Ōta Ward not 品川区 Shinagawa Ward. Goddammit! Arrrrrrgh!!!!!!! Well, anyways, it’s part of the coastal area that was called 品川沖 Shinagawa-oki, an ambiguous term that in the Edo Period could refer to a coastline or the open sea or, well, just the sea.
OK, let me catch my breath and calm down for a second. In all fairness, I guess it doesn’t really matter because Shinagawa and Ōta border each other – and in the Edo Period, there would have been no distinction made between the two places. In fact, the closest station to the ruins of Suzugamori Execution Ground is called 大森海岸駅 Ōmori Kaigan Eki, literally Ōmori Coast Station but that area is still in Shinagawa Ward.
Anyhoo, this place was a coastal 田舎 inaka rural area and was well outside of central Edo. So let’s imagine what we might have found in the outskirts of Edo that existed around Edo Bay, shall we?
What comes to mind are things like… execution grounds, fishing villages, and trees. Lots and lots of trees. Which brings me to my next point. Japan is a 島国 shimaguni island country, but it’s not a tropical island. Japan is mountainous and heavily forested in her most beautiful areas. These forests often extended right up to the coastline, for the most part[i]. For much of the Edo Period, this area was still heavily wooded.
So Let’s Take a Look at the Kanji!
|big, great, large|
So from this we can recognize that exactly the kind of natural, wooded area we would expect to find in the Edo Period was here. It was country. It was covered in trees. Normal. This is a literal place name – without a doubt: The “big-ass forest.”
There’s another interesting twist to this story, though.
Edward Morse, an American naturalist/zoologist[ii] who specialized in shellfish, came to Japan in 1877 and helped the first incarnation of 東京大学 Tōkyō Daigaku Tōkyō University establish a zoology department. Along the way, and perhaps by accident, he launched archaeology and anthropology in Japan when he discovered a 貝塚 kaizuka midden (a mound made of discarded shellfish) in Ōmori. This was Japan’s first archaeological dig and it was a major discovery in that it showed the Japanese that their origin wasn’t really recorded in books like the 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki[iii]. It showed that science could prove that Japan’s history actually went way farther back than anyone had ever imagined. The shells and pottery fragments dated from the Late Jōmon Period, about 2000-1000 BCE. The term Jōmon which all Japanese will recognize as a legitimate prehistoric era is actually a translation of Morse’s English description of the pottery samples he found. He noticed rope-like patterns and called them “cord marked” which was translated into Japanese as 縄文 “rope-design.”
It’s all in Japanese, but if you’re interested, here’s the website for the Ōmori Kaizuka Park.
As I mentioned in my article on Samezu, this part of Edo Bay was renowned for its fish and 海苔 nori seaweed. This local specialty was generally referred to as 江戸前海苔 Edo-mae nori seaweed from Edo Bay, but each area had its unique brands. 品川海苔 Shinagawa Nori, 大森海苔 Ōmori Nori, and 芝町海苔 Shiba Machi Nori were some of the most sought after brands, the latter being the most prestigious[iv]. The development and modernization of Tōkyō Bay in the 50’s and 60’s more or less put an end to the fishing and nori cultivation that typified the area for centuries.
One unique aspect of Ōmori as opposed to other areas that were developed in the late Edo Period and “modern eras,[v]” is that the actually coastline is still preserved to a certain extent. The ruins of Suzugamori Execution Ground are located next to 大森海岸駅 Ōmori Kaigan Eki Ōmori Coast Station. A short walk from the station will bring you to small inlet which is basically where the shoreline began in the Edo Period[vi].
If anyone is interested in the Ōmori Nori Museum, here’s the website. It’s Japanese only.
[i] If you want to see tropical Japan, you’ll have to go to Okinawa – which wasn’t officially a part of Japan until after the Meiji Coup in 1868.
[ii] Neither of these titles may be accurate. All of the disciplines he was involved with were sciences in their infancies – though arguably their most exciting days. All the disciplines he worked in were very much overlapping at the time, too. But any way you look at it, the guy is pretty much a huge bucket of win for Japan, archaeology, anthropology, and biology.
[iii] There are 2 ancient sources for Japan’s earliest history – mostly legendary stories. They are the 古事記 Kojiki Record of Ancient Matters and the older, more detailed 日本書紀 Nihon- shoki Chronicles of Japan.
[iv] Most likely due to the fact that it was located a fair distance away from the Tōkaidō – also this is where the grand funerary temple of the Tokugawa shoguns is located, Zōjō-ji. Ōmori and Shinagawa are on the Tōkaidō, so it was easy to pick up some nori as 御土産 o-miyage souvenirs to give your friends and family.
[v] Often the term “pre-modern” is applied to Japanese history before 1868 when the Meiji Coup took place. I actually find this term a bit distasteful as it seems to presume that “modernity” is defined by the advances of the western cultures. Scientifically, there’s no doubt, the western countries were more advanced, but there’s no need to kick another culture in the balls. To be sure, the Japanese were developing a rich cultural tapestry and were making advances of their own. I don’t know what other word to use, but “pre-modern” really rubs me the wrong way. Words like “feudal” and “medieval” often get thrown around and I find these unfulfilling as well. I guess this is why I use the generic phrase “Old Japan.”
[vi] I don’t know how much truth there is to this, but some people say that one form of execution at Suzugamori was to crucify prisoners upside down in the bay at low tide. The, they would wait for the tide to come in slowly. They would be drowned by the sea at high tide. This is just my musing… but is it easier to let a person drown tied upside-down to poles and go clean up the mess the next day, or is it easier to burn them, cut off their head or do some more expedient execution? It all sounds horrible to me. The life of outcastes (read, “the lucky bastards who had to do this work”) in the Old Japan sounds truly awful.