What does Sangenjaya mean?


(three tea houses)

Sangenjaya Crossing
Sangenjaya Crossing

Today’s place name is a bit problematic when it comes to writing. This is true in both English and Japanese. The name is written in the Roman alphabet as either Sangenjaya or Sangen-jaya. I’ll talk about why this dichotomy exists later, but for the time being just know both spellings are common. The hyphen-less version is much more common, but the hyphenated version is legit. I’m going to use both versions in this article when I feel it illustrates my point. Just be aware of that.

The word is problematic in Japanese because when you type the word in to most kanji conversion systems you’ll find the word unconvertible:










If you can read Japanese, you probably can understand the mechanics of what’s going on here. If not, don’t worry. I’m going to explain everything in due time. I promise.

[EDIT 10/2020: This article was originally written in 2015, the Japanese input methods have improved dramatically since then. This kanji conversion problem is a thing of the past.]

Anyhoo, Sangenjaya is located in present day 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward[i]. And now that I’m looking at more maps of the area, I’m thinking this area is going to be a real treasure trove of interesting place names for upcoming issues.

Sangenjaya on a map
Sangenjaya on a map

But First, Let’s Look at the Kanji




counter for buildings




shop, store

The bane of many a student of Japanese is the “counter.” What’s a counter, you ask? A counter is a suffix (and its accompanying kanji) attached to the end of Japanese numbers to show that you are counting something. In English these would be the equivalent of ordinal and cardinal numbers. For example one machine is 一台 ichidai, one small animal is 一匹 ippiki, one glass of beer is 一杯 ippai, one can/bottle of beer is 一本 ippon, one order of beer is 一つ hitotsu, and one facial cumshot is 一発 ippatsu[ii]. One building or store is 一軒 ikken. Two buildings or shops are 二軒 niken. Three buildings or shops are 三軒 sangen.

Long term readers, will recognize the word 茶屋 chaya teahouse[iii]. In the Edo Period, this could refer to a variety of business models ranging from a place to get a light meal, to a shop that provided entertainment with geisha, to an outright brothel that just happened to serve tea. The name Sangen-jaya derives from 三軒の茶屋 sangen no chaya the 3 teahouses. Under a normal linguistic process known as 連濁 rendaku sequential voicing[iv], the mora ちゃ cha /tɕa/ changes to じゃ ja /dʑa/ and voilà! ちゃや chaya becomes じゃや jaya. Remember earlier when I talked about the kanji conversion on a computer, that’s why you still input ちゃ cha instead of じゃ ja, or more correctly, you put in ぢゃ ja, but this is difficult on a computer.

The area is often affectionately called 三茶 Sancha. It doesn’t actually have a meaning, but if you forced someone to translate it at gunpoint I guess it means “three tea.”

Sangenjaya Station
Sangenjaya Station

So What’s Up With The 3 Teahouses?

I’m glad you asked. In the Edo Period, the area around 三軒茶屋交差点 Sangen-jaya Kōsaten Sangenjaya Crossing[v] was home to 3 teahouses. The intersection is actually where a road bifurcated and became the 大山道 Ōyama Michi Ōyama Path and 登戸道 Noborito Michi Noborito Path. These roads lead towards a series of established temple and shrine pilgrimage routes. The area wasn’t a post town, but travelers would diverge here and so it seemed as good a place as any to get a quick meal, some refreshing tea, and maybe a prostitute or two[vi].

The 3 teahouses are well attested on maps and so the original locations are known.


Ishibashi Shop


Kado Shop


Tanaka Shop

All of the shops are family names followed by the suffix for “shop” or “store.” The name of Ishibashi-ya is a bit more complicated, though. The shop was originally called 信楽 Shigaraki, but the name was later changed to 石橋楼 Ishibashi-rō. It’s often listed as Ishibashi-ya, probably to make it conform to the other 2 shops.

The location of the 3 teahouse at the end of the Edo Period.
The location of the 3 teahouse at the end of the Edo Period.

In the Edo Period, the area called Sangenjaya today was comprised of the former 中馬引沢村 Naka-Umahikizawa Mura Naka-Umahikizawa Village,  下馬引沢村 Shimo-Umahikizawa Mura Shimo-Umahikizawa Village, and 太子堂村 Taishi-dō Mura Taishi-dō Village in former 武蔵国荏原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara District, Musashi Province[vii]. It seems that by the 1800’s, the popular name Sangen-jaya was already well known in the area. However, the name didn’t officially exist until quite recently. The birth of the official place name Sangen-jaya coincided with the 1932 creation of Setagaya Ward.

Ishibashiya in 1877 (Meiji 10).
Ishibashiya in 1877 (Meiji 10).

In the Meiji Period, the area became famous for シャボン屋 shabon-ya shops selling western soaps[viii], 立飲屋 tachinomi-ya shops where you drink while standing[ix], 駄菓子屋 dagashi-ya cheap candy and snack shops, and 魚屋 sakana-ya fish mongers[x]. Today, it’s a rather affluent area with many bustling restaurants and bars. Parts of the neighborhood are crowded with Shōwa Era buildings and shops and so the area is popular with people who enjoy that type of atmosphere. Less than 10 minutes by train from 渋谷駅 Shibuya Eki Shibuya Station, it attracts a lot of university students looking to get their drink on[xi].

Sangenjaya at night
Sangenjaya at night

Where Are The Teahouses?

In the Meiji Period, Kado-ya went out of business and Tanaka-ya was lost in a fire. In 1936, Ishibashi-ya moved across the street and changed its name to 茶寮イシバシ Saryō Ishibashi which means something like “Tea Room Ishibashi.” The first floor was a 洋食喫茶 yōshoku kissa a café specializing in yōshoku, Japanized western dishes. The second floor was a banquet hall that served yōshoku for large events and parties. In 1945, the family running the shop was evacuated due to the destruction incurred by the American firebombing of Tōkyō.

2 photos of the interior of Saryō Ishibashi.
2 photos of the interior of Saryō Ishibashi.

I don’t know the details, but according to local legend Tanaka-ya re-emerged at some time in the Sangenjaya area. It didn’t come back as a teahouse but as a ceramics shop. The modern shop is called 田中屋陶苑 Tanakaya Tōen Tanaka Ceramics. The shop uses the family name and is the only surviving business with any connection to the Sangen-jaya place name[xii].

Tanakaya Ceramics
Tanakaya Ceramics

Teahouse Postscript?

Lastly, I want to share a link. This guy made a map of where the teahouses were. Then he went to the area and photographed the spots as they look today. It’s pretty cool! You can find his blog here.


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[i] Yes, I have already written about the etymology of Setagaya.
[ii] #TeamIenari
[iii] Long term readers will most likely remember this from my article on O-hana-jaya.
[iv] I’ve covered rendaku so many times, I don’t really feel like getting into it again. If you’re interested, read about it in Wikipedia.
[v] “Crossing” is Japanese English for “intersection.”
[vi] Or three.
[vii] And believe me, we’ll get to those gems in due time.
[viii] Interestingly, this word シャボン shabon derives from the Portuguese word sabaõ which means the word dates back to the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai Warring States Period.
[ix] Today the term means a kind of casual bar or izakaya where you stand and drink. But in this case, these were actual 酒屋 saka-ya sake shops, but they didn’t only sell alcohol, they set up tables or counters for customers to taste sake and casually drink in the store.
[x] Remember, this was quite far from the center of Edo-Tōkyō and the bay.
[xi] If you’re looking for the more carnal pleasures, worthy of the teahouse legacy, you might be able to find some discreet メンズエステ menzu esute men’s spas – essentially a massage with a happy ending.
[xii] I can’t find any information linking the Tanaka family running the ceramics shop to the Edo Period tea house family. So keep in mind, the name Tanaka is like Smith, Johnson, or Williams. A cursory Google search for 田中陶器店 Tanaka Tōki-ya brought up a shop with the same name in 佐賀県 Saga-ken Saga Prefecture as the first hit. Saga is an area famous for ceramics. I’m not saying there’s a connection – I can’t – but the presence of this Tanaka-ya should be viewed with a little skepticism until further evidence comes to light. If any of my readers knows anything about this, I’d love to hear from you.

7 thoughts on “What does Sangenjaya mean?

  1. Interesting to know about the kanji input.
    On my iPhone I got 三元じゃや.

    Cool little tidbit. Thanks!

  2. I like drinking in Sangenjaya.
    There’s a women’s university near there, so it’s a great place to pick up chicks.

  3. Your ‘counters’ explanation wasn’t resonating with me until ippatsu, so many thanks for putting it terms I can understand. You the man!

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