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The Meguro River

In Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on September 1, 2014 at 4:56 am

目黒川
Meguro-gawa (literally, “black eye river,” more at “the Meguro River”)[i]

 

The Meguro River.

The Meguro River.

Finally.

Finally… my 7 part series on the rivers of Edo-Tōkyō is finished. The task seemed a little daunting, but worthy of doing.

“A little daunting,” I thought!

It was soul draining to say the very least. I had to take long breaks during the research phases even in the writing phases just to keep my own sanity. Any of you also follow me on Twitter know I’ve been busy with other stuff as well.

But this entire experiment has been eye opening for me. What started this series was a curiosity about the rivers that breathed life into this sprawling metropolis. Anyone who’s ever seen any 浮世絵 ukiyo-e scenes of day to day life in the shōgun’s capital surely have noticed the abundance of river scenes. This is no mere coincidence. Readers of the blog should also know that I’m a big fan of Jin’nai Hidenobu’s phrase “the Venice of Asia” when referring to Edo.

In Japan’s post WWII years, as the economy grew, the rivers got more and more polluted and some of them smelled awful (the Meguro River was no exception). Major building projects began to take place in Tōkyō Bay and rivers that were used as drainage and open air sewers were paved over or diverted and drained completely. I don’t know if this is 100% accurate or not, but the first time I visited Shibuya in 2001 or 2002[ii], I noticed an odd smell and asked my friend about it. He said, “There are dirty rivers under Tōkyō. Sometimes their smell just comes up through the cracks.”

Sometimes their smell comes up through the cracks, indeed.

Cruising on the Meguro RIver.

Cruising on the Meguro River.

 

 

Are You Going to Talk About the Meguro River??  

Yes, of course. Sorry about the digression.

 

The start of the Meguro River is the confluence of the the Kitazawa River and Karasuyama River.

The start of the Meguro River is the confluence of the the Kitazawa River and Karasuyama River.

 

What is the Meguro River?

In reality, the Meguro River is a nothing more than a glorified storm drain today. Its official length is 7.82 km. It begins at the confluence of the 北沢川 Kitazawa-gawa Kitazawa River and the 烏山川 Karasuyama-gawa Karasuyama River. It passes through 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward[iii], 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward[iv], and 新川区 Shinagawa-ku Shinagawa Ward[v] and empties into Tōkyō Bay at 天王洲 Ten’ōzu in Shinagawa.

 

The End of the Meguro River in Shinagawa. Hello, Tokyo Bay!

The End of the Meguro River in Shinagawa. Hello, Tokyo Bay! This structure is called the 目黒川水門 Meguro-gawa Suimon “Meguro River Floodgate.”

 

The Meguro River Midori Michi

The confluence of the Kitazawa and Karasuyama Rivers is located in Karasuyama (in Setagaya). The rivers are actually underground, so you won’t see much there, though there is a monument. The emergent Meguro River is also underground.  A little water is diverted to ground level and manifests as a small, decorative creek. This area is called the 目黒川緑道 Meguro-gawa Midori Michi Meguro River Green Path. The man-made stream and its accompanying vegetation attract a variety of wildlife whose populations and health are closely monitored to maintain a healthy “green space.” A short distance away, at 大橋 Ōhashi, literally “the big bridge,” where 国道 246号 Kokudō 246-gō National Highway #246 passes, the underground river and the creek are re-united at the mouth of the visible portion of the river.

 

Water breathes life into the city. It's so important to have green spaces like the Midori Michi.

Water breathes life into the city. It’s so important to have green spaces like the Midori Michi.

 

Much of the modern course of the Meguro River is supposedly the old Shinagawa River. However, there hasn’t been a river called “Shinagawa” for hundreds of years. In casual conversations, I’ve heard a lot of confused explanations for the existence of the place name “Shinagawa” despite the lack of a river bearing the same name[vi]. The most repeated stories usually reference a 川 kawa river used to bring 品 shina/hin products in and out of the bay. Whether that derivation is true or false is a discussion for another article.

 

Are the Meguro River and Shinagawa River the Same Thing?

Short answer, yes.

View of Ebara Shrine from Shinagawa Bridge.

View of Ebara Shrine from Shinagawa Bridge.

 

But I Think the Long Answer is More Interesting.

It’s not much of a long answer and more of a series of tangents. Wanna go there?

If you’re a long time reader, you probably already know the story of Meguro and the story of Mejiro, so you know that folk etymology is most likely involved. But I’m gonna take a short detour to talk about Shinagawa a little bit.

I’ll preface this digression with 2 facts: modern day Shinagawa is spread across both 港区 Minato-ku Minato Ward and 品川区 Shinagawa-ku Shinagawa Ward, modern Meguro lies in 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward. However in the Pre-Modern Era, both villages lay in 武蔵国江原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara District, Musashi Province.

Family crest of the Minamoto, the shogunal family.

Family crest of the Minamoto, the shogunal family.

 

In 1184, Minamoto no Yoritomo sent an edict exempting his distant clansmen in the Ebara District from imposing superfluous taxes – other than annual land/rice taxes – on the peasants of the area[vii]. These relatives were the 品川氏 Shinagawa-shi Shinagawa clan. Apparently, this is the oldest document referencing Shinagawa. But as we’ve seen time and time again here at JapanThis!, when a new branch family was established, they would take a new family name based on the fief that they controlled. In the case of Shinagawa, this shows the place name Shinagawa clearly predates this remote noble family.

 

The Ōi Clan – River Makers

Anyone familiar with the Shinagawa area will know 大井町 Ōimachi. If your place name radar just went off, you’re probably right. I haven’t covered Ōimachi yet, but believe me, it will happen.

The Shinagawa clan was branch of the main 大井氏 Ōi-shi Ōi clan[viii]. In order to irrigate their fief, the Ōi clan dabbled in a little river manipulation. Somewhere near the place called 立会川 Tachiaigawa (the modern kanji mean something like “the place where rivers stand together/come together”), the Ōi separated a section of the river 断ち合い川 tachiai kawa rivers that cut off from each other[ix].  This happened in the Kamakura Period. One of the branches passed by 瀧泉寺 Ryūsen-ji Ryūsen Temple in Shimo-Meguro (see my article on Meguro).

 

Once the Shinagawa and Meguro River, today it's the Tachiaigawa River. This bridge is Namidabashi in Shinagawa. It was the final "bye bye" place for families and the soon to be executed.

Once the Shinagawa and Meguro River, today it’s the Tachiaigawa River. This bridge is Namidabashi in Shinagawa. It was the final “bye bye” place for families and the soon to be executed.

 

Interestingly, the Ōi were a branch of the 源氏 Genji Minamoto clan (and as such, so were the Shinagawa). The Shinagawa and Ōi retainers made up an auxiliary force of samurai called 随兵 zuihyō or zuibyō[x]. In the Kamakura and to a certain degree in the Muromachi Periods, these were low ranking, sometimes mounted, warriors who were called in for important jobs such as making the shōgun’s procession longer when he didn’t have enough people; making high ranking shōgunate officials’ processions look longer, you know, when they didn’t have enough people; and protecting 神輿 mikoshi portable Shintō shrines when they were transported from a main shrine to a newly established branch shrine… in a procession, of course.

 

The Meguro Clan – They Didn’t Do Shit

In neighboring 江原郡目黒郷 Ebara-gun Meguro-gō Meguro Hamlet, Ebara District, another noble family supplying 随兵 zuihyō to the Kamakura shōgunate had also taken the name of the local area and were known as the 目黒氏 Meguro-shi Meguro clan. Supposedly their residence was the site of the present day Meguro Junior High School. No extant remains are visible today.

 

meguro clan residence

 

But back to the river. As we’ve seen throughout this series, before the so-called Modern Era, there was no standardized, official naming system as we have today. River names were generalizations and local areas had local names for their little slice of the river. Hence the river was called the Shinagawa River in Shinagawa and the Meguro River in Meguro.

It’s interesting to note that Edo Period maps and illustrations don’t use the word 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River to describe the river that passes by Ryūsen-ji. The river in Shimo-Meguro is called the こりとり川 Koritori-gawa. The word こりとり koritori comes from syncretic Buddhism and Shintō. In kanji, it’s written 垢離取り kori tori. This refers to the act of ritually purifying oneself in water before visiting a temple or shrine[xi]. The kanji for kori literally mean 垢を離す aka wo hanasu getting rid of filth[xii].

Before there was the Ice Bucket Challenge there was "kori."

Before there was the Ice Bucket Challenge there was “kori.”

 

Which Brings me to my Final Point

Why where people jumping in the river to get rid of spiritual impurities? If you noticed, earlier I dropped a reference to Ryūsen-ji. This is a temple in 下目黒 Shimo-Meguro Lower Meguro. There are many claims that the name of this area comes from this temple. In the Edo Period this temple was one of a cluster of temples called 江戸五色不動 Edo Goshiki Fudō the 5-Colored Immovable Buddhas of Edo. However, most linguistic evidence indicates that the name is quite ancient and has nothing to do with the temple. That said, if you’re interested, I think I wrote an article about this somewhere…

 

Pilgrimage map.

Pilgrimage map.

 

Coincidentally, people jumped into the river during the firebombing during WWII. The river was said to be littered with corpses for weeks. There’s an ancient superstition that says cherry blossom trees require human blood to grow and that underneath every cherry blossom is a grave. The events of WWII and this superstition are sometimes invoked by old people who have lived in Meguro since the war days. They say the cherry blossoms are so beautiful because they’re fed by all of those who died in the river during the firebombing. It’s a kind of ghoulish thought, but I can guarantee you, plants and trees can grow just fine without human blood.

 

Two cherry blossoms means two dead bodies. Awwwwww yeah.

Two cherry blossoms means two dead bodies. Awwwwww yeah.

 

But as I said earlier, the Meguro River is basically a drainage ditch. But there are many 桜 sakura cherry blossoms planted along its route in Naka-Meguro. As a result the area has become popular for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. Food stands are set up and cafes and restaurants that line the river do a lot of business catering to the crowds admiring the pink and white leaves. Normally, living next to a drainage ditch doesn’t give you bragging rights but Naka-Meguro has become one of the most desirable areas in Tōkyō. But this wasn’t all the case. The area was one of the least desirable areas until the late 1980’s. The river was seriously polluted until a major clean up and attempt to revitalize the area was begun. The cherry blossoms were planted at that time.

 

Today the Meguro River is one of the most popular spots for hanami.

Today the Meguro River is one of the most popular spots for hanami.

 

Alright. So that’s it. No more river articles. Woo-hoo!

 

 

 

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__________________________________________________

[i] See my article What does Meguro mean?
[ii] I don’t remember and don’t have my old passport to confirm.
[iii] Here’s my article on Setagaya.
[iv] Here’s my article on Meguro.
[v] Here’s my article on Shinagawa.
[vi] I wrote article about Shinagawa and Takanawa, but it’s so old that I don’t want to include a link. Embarrassing. I promise to revisited the topic again some time.
[vii] The surviving document is the 品河三郎清実に品川郷の公事免除 Shinagawa Saburō to Kiyzane/Kiyomi ni Shinagawa-gō Kōji Menjo Exemption from Official Service for Shinagawa Saburō and Shinagawa Kiyomi of Shinagawa Hamlet. (The name 清実 has many possible readings, so I’m not sure which is correct. I provided 2 possibilities and have chosen Kiyomi from here on out).
[viii] Anyone familiar with the Shinagawa area will know 大井町 Ōimachi. If your place name radar just went off, you’re probably right. I haven’t covered Ōimachi yet, but believe me, it’s in the works.
[ix] I’m not sure if this was one branch irrigation ditch or a many….
[x] A kind of rear guard.
[xi] The act of visiting a temple or shrine is called 詣で mōde or 参り mairi.
[xii] Buddhist monks would read this as ku wo hanasu getting rid of ku. Ku is filth that causes suffering. Here’s what wiki says about it.

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