What does Gohongi mean?


(5 trees)

Yūtenji Station provides access to Gohongi.
Yūtenji Station provides access to Gohongi.

So we’ve been in 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward for a while now, let’s move over to nearby 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward – walking distance from some places in the last article. Long time readers, will remember the etymology of 六本木 Roppongi; the kanji literally mean 6 trees and speculation about the origin of the name is rich and varied[i]. Today we will look at a place called 五本木 Gohongi which literally means 5 trees. Unfortunately, this place isn’t rich and varied. For most of its existence, this area has been agricultural. Even at Edo’s peak, it was well outside the city limits of the shōgun’s capital. Even once it was brought into the fold of 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture it was at far, far from the city center until quite recently.


Let’s Look at the Kanji


five thin, cylindrical thingies



So the kanji is literally “5 Trees” and first pops up in records of the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura Shōgunate dating it back to at least the 1200’s. A road passed through this area called the 鎌倉街道 Kamakura Kaidō Kamakura Highway[ii], which connected the center of government in Kamakura with the so-called 関八州 Kanhasshū the 8 Kantō Provinces[iii]. The road on the north side of the 守屋会館 Momiya Kaikan Momiya Meeting Hall in Gohongi used to be part of this route. It’s said that at this spot, there once stood a conspicuous cluster of 5 enormous trees that were used as a landmark. Being so far in the country, it was important to have landmarks; when you saw these 5 trees, you knew you were headed in the right direction[iv].

Sign in front of the Moriya Kaikan.
Sign in front of the Moriya Kaikan.

After the fall of Kamakura in the early 1300’s, certain stretches of the Kamakura Highway naturally fell into repair[v]. The tiny village was never very important to begin with and over the years the surrounding area became a dense forest. The stretch of the road behind the Moriya Meeting Hall, however, continued to be used by local farmers and so the road was somewhat maintained through the Edo Period.

By the Meiji Period, the area had become so overgrown that the trees on both sides formed a canopy over the road and so it was said to be dark even in the daytime. Meiji Era locals avoided the area because it was dangerous at both night time and day time[vi]. The locals were so firm in their belief that the Gohongi road was dangerous that they had a saying:

hiruma de sae, mi no ke ga yodatsu hodo usuguraku, 

genki no yoi wakamono demo tōru koto wo osoreta

“Even in the day time, it was so dark your hair would stand on end
that even strong young men were afraid to pass through there.”

Normally, I’d say “ya’ll are a buncha pussayz!” But remember, there was no gas or electric lighting here for a long time. If you’ve ever been camping and decided to explore the forest without a flashlight at dusk or midnight, you might be able to relate to this. It can be scary.

The area may have looked something like this.
The area may have looked something like this.

Gohongi was strictly agricultural from the Edo Period until the Meiji Period and carried on a very traditional way of life. When trolley service came to a few surrounding areas in Meguro and Setagaya, the village saw a little slow change. But it seems like the area stayed frozen in time until 1927 (Shōwa 2) when the 東横線 Tōyoko-sen Tōyoko Line connecting Tōkyō to Yokohama began servicing the area. The train stopped at 祐天寺駅 Yūtenji Eki Yūtenji Station[vii].

This is a picture of the estate of the first deputy mayor of Meguro-chō in 1924 (Taishō 13) which was located on Gohongi Dōri. This is 3 years before rail service came to Gohongi. Look at how tall and dense those trees are. The area that wasn’t being farmed must have looked much like this.
This is a picture of the estate of the first deputy mayor of Meguro-chō in 1924 (Taishō 13) which was located on Gohongi Dōri. This is 3 years before rail service came to Gohongi. Look at how tall and dense those trees are. The area that wasn’t being farmed must have looked much like this.
This is a picture of the same spot today. As you can see, nothing has changed.
This is a picture of the same spot today. As you can see, nothing has changed.

So, What Can I See or Do in Gohongi?

Not much, to be honest. Today it’s primarily a residential area. It’s conservative – and by that I mean no tall buildings, no vibrant shopping areas, lots of families with old connections to the area, and it’s not considered fashionable or popular. It doesn’t even have its own train station[viii]. That said, I’m sure there’s a lot for local people to do there – restaurants, temples, convenience stores, and what not.

There are 2 things that come to mind when looking at this area of Tōkyō if you’re interested in Japanese culture. And if you’re not interested in Japanese culture, I’m not sure why you’re reading my blog.

The Kōshin-tō of Gohongi

The Gohongi Koshinto-gun.
The Gohongi Koshinto-gun.

There is a cluster of 5 庚申塔 Kōshin-tō Kōshin Statues located in Gohongi. I guess that’s one Kōshin statue per tree[ix]. Kōshin statues are usually one offs – one statue per village or area. But I suppose the people of Gohongi (5 Trees) fancied themselves a little special.

So, what the hell is a Kōshin statue?
Well, I’m glad you asked.

In the Heian Period, a Taoist belief called 庚申 Kōshin in Japanese was imported from China. This belief held that there are 3 insects (usually considered worms) that live inside the human body called 三尸虫 sanshi mushi. These worms were like little morality spies who watched your every move but they could only leave your body every 60 days while you slept. They would sneak out of your body and report all of your bad deeds to the 天帝 tentei creator of the universe. The tentei would then curse you will illness, death, financial ruin, no heir, bad breath, an ugly spouse, and all manner of repugnance.

The Sanshi. From left to right - Geshi (lower worm), Chūshi (middle worm), Jōshi (upper worm).
The Sanshi. From left to right – Geshi (lower bug), Chūshi (middle bug), Jōshi (upper bug).

Every 60 days, believers who felt they had something to hide, would gather for what was more or less and all night party at a Kōshin-tō[x]. These were stone monuments erected to remind people of the 60 day cycle and the need to keep those treacherous worms inside your body. By staying up all night partying, the worms were trapped in the body and could not report your misdeeds to the tentei. Having braved the long night, all your bad deeds of the previous 59 days were inadmissible in a court of law – so to speak – and you were off the hook for another 60 days[xi]. This Taoist ritual was especially popular with farmers and people in rural areas.

While presumably no one still believes in 3 literal worms living in your body who tattle on you to the creator of the universe, there are supposedly still seasonal events tied to this tradition in agricultural areas in the countryside. Kōshin-tō can be found all over the country. In Tōkyō itself, there are quite a few of these stone monuments scattered throughout the metropolis as well as place names referring to them[xii] – Meguro Ward alone claims to have about 70 Kōshin-tō.

The famous "3 monkeys" who "see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil" are related. See the footnotes for details.
The famous “3 monkeys” who “see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil” are related. See the footnotes for details.


Far more impressive in size – though totally lacking worms living in your body – is 祐天寺 Yūten-ji Yūten Temple. This temple was established in 1718[xiii] as a grave and shrine to a deceased priest named 祐天 Yūten by his disciple, 祐海 Yūmi. Both were priests of the 菩提寺 bodai-ji funerary temple of the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family at 増上寺 Zōjō-ji Zōjō Temple[xiv]. In 1723, the shrine had been expanded into a fairly large Buddhist temple complex and soon began to receive patronage from the shōgun family itself. The temple proudly sprawls across a beautiful plateau and retains a lot of its Edo Period feel. It’s a little off the beaten path, but well worth the visit if you want to see a good example of 18th century temple construction.

Yūten-ji boasts its fair share of trees.
Yūten-ji boasts its fair share of trees.

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[i] Read my article about what Roppongi means here.
[ii] Also called the 鎌倉道 Kamakura Michi. Actually terms are often translated as the Kamakura Highways because the Japanese term can refer to a single path or the entire network of highways leading into and out of Kamakura.
[iii] 安房国 Awa no Kuni Awa Province, 上野国 Kōzuke no Kuni Kōzuke Province, 下野国 Shimotsuke no Kuni Shimotsuke Province,  相模国 Sagami no Kuni Sagami Province, 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province, 上総国 Kazusa no Kuni Kazusa Province, 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni Shimōsa Province, and 常陸国 Hitachi no Kuni Hitachi Province. This is the massive fief that 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi granted to 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1589.
[iv] Take this all with a grain of salt because, while records show this name as far back as the Kamakura Period, nobody wrote about the etymology until the early 1800’s in a document called 新編武蔵風土記稿 Shinpen Musashi Fudoki-kō New Description of the People and Lands of Musashi Province. Just because a place name is said to have been used in the Kamakura Period doesn’t exclude it from having existed before the Kamakura Period.
[v] Other stretches of the road were enhanced and expanded by the later 足利幕府 Ashikaga Bakufu Ashikaga Shōgunate and 徳川幕府 Tokugawa Bakufu Tokugawa Shōgunate.
[vi] I’m not sure if this because brigands were living in the forest, or if unsavory types were using the area to trap unsuspecting pedestrians, or if it was just folklore and superstition.
[vii] More about Yūten-ji later.
[viii] ie; there is no Gohongi Station.
[ix] See what I did there?
[x] Also called a 庚申塚 Kōshin-zuka Kōshin Mounds.
[xi] Interestingly, the much more famous 三猿 sanzaru 3 monkeys are thought to have originated from the Kōshin belief. The 3 monkeys, who, in archaic Japanese 見ざる言わざる聞かざる mizaru iwazaru kikazaru see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil, are talismans against the 3 worms. They prevent the 3 worms from seeing, speaking, or hearing any bad deeds of the owner. The most famous 3 monkeys are the wooden reliefs at 日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshō-gū, the main grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Being dead is sometimes euphemistically referred to as 寝ている nete iru sleeping (just as in English “resting”). The 3 monkeys would prevent the 3 worms from reporting back any misdoings of the deceased while he or she “slept.”
[xii] In Tōkyō, there is a station called 庚申塚駅 Kōshin-zuka Eki on the 都電荒川 Toden Arakawa-sen.
[xiii] This was during the reign of the 7th shōgun, 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune.
[xiv] Read more about the graves the Tokugawa Shōgun’s here.

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