What does Taishido mean?


(Taishi Hall)

Taishido Shotengai (shopping arcade) is closed off to automobile traffic on the weekends.
Taishido Shotengai (shopping arcade) is closed off to automobile traffic on the weekends.

Just a heads up. All of these places I’ve been writing about over the past few weeks are located in Setagaya and Meguro. Since they seemed to be centrally located, I decided to walk around and take photos of some of the spots – especially the ones related to Minamoto no Yoritomo and his ill-fated horse. If you’re interested, check out my Flickr page to see the pictures. You’ll find the Ashige-zuka (Yoritomo’s horse’s grave), Komatsunagi Shrine (where he gave thanks to the local deity, Ne no Kami), Komadome Hachiman Shrine (related to the Late Hōjō clan), Yūten-ji (grave of the 36th high priest of Zōjō-ji which was well patronized by the Tokugawa shōguns), and Ensen-ji (which is central to today’s article).


If you’re here for the first time, you may want to read the last 5 articles. At the very least, you should probably read this one about the abundance of horse related place names in Setagaya.

Let's go!
Let’s go!

The origin of this place name is well known and it has documents and buildings to back it up[i]. It’s actually a very simple etymology. The story could go very deep, but let’s start out simple. If you wanna go deeper into the area and its culture, just keep reading. If you just want to know the etymology, feel free to quit after a few paragraphs. After that, it’s going to turn into a lot quasi-historical religious bullshit.

However, if you’ve been following the last few articles about 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward and 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward, you might want to stick around a little. I’m hoping that with this article I will have brought everything full circle and woven a colorful historical tapestry of this part of Tōkyō. It might not be a hot spot for tourists, but if you’ve got a passion for Edo-Tōkyō, there is plenty worth seeing in this part of the metropolis. I hope I’ve done justice to the area.

Long Story, Short

On the grounds of 円泉寺 Ensen-ji Ensen Temple there was a special building dedicated to the reverence of 聖徳太子 Shōtoku Taishi Crown Prince Shōtoku. That building was called 太子堂 Taishi-dō Taishi Hall. The Taishi-dō pre-dates the current temple and was this rural area’s original local claim to fame, thus the area was called Taishi-dō.

Long Story, Long

As I said in the short version, Ensen-ji has a special hall housing a statue of Shōtoku Taishi (574-627). Don’t worry about who he is yet, I’ll get to that later. The building was called the Taishi-dō which literally means “place to worship the imperial prince[ii].” The structure is said to have been built during the late 南北朝時代 Nanbokuchō Jidai Period of the Northern & Southern Courts (1336-1392)[iii]. Over the years it was made more beautiful and the temple became quite important in the area. To moderns, the name Taishi-dō sounds like a Buddhist structure, but in reality Shintō and Japanese Buddhism were perfectly compatible until they were made legally incompatible by the Meiji government in the 1870’s. This blending of religions is called syncretism[iv] and is usual in pantheistic religions. Anyways, this Taishi-dō houses the enshrined Shōtoku Taishi as a 神 kami Shintō deity.

But as stated before, the Taishi-dō was the main religious attraction, but later a 別当寺 bettō-ji a temple attached to the shrine was built. Eventually the entire complex was renamed 円泉寺 Ensen-ji as the Buddhist aspect took precedence over the Shintō aspect. Still, the hall dedicated to Shōtoku Taishi was the main draw. Hence the surrounding area came to be called Taishi-dō.

Older 10,000 yen notes used to feature Shotoku Taishi because he was a straight up pimp. Sort of. OK, not really.
Older 10,000 yen notes used to feature Shotoku Taishi because he was a straight up pimp.
Sort of.
OK, not really.

Who the Hell is Shōtoku Taishi?

Shōtoku Taishi is one of those people in Japanese history that it’s OK to dismiss as semi-fictional, but at the same time you have to acknowledge his place in the historical narrative of the country. I’ll say right now that most historians agree that he is a composite character. Whether he actually existed or not is even a debatable topic. But he looms large in the semi-legendary imperial narrative and acknowledging characters like Shōtoku Taishi[v] is pretty much necessary because… well, it’s just part of the narrative.

He supposedly lived during the 飛鳥時代 Asuka Jidai Asuka Period[vi] (roughly 538-710). This era saw the transition from 古墳 kofun burial mound culture to more Buddhist-style burial practices. In short, whether he was a real person or not, he is placed in the historical narrative at a time of great change in Japanese culture.

Shotoku Taishi. Notice the archaic hairstyle and clothing.
Shotoku Taishi. Notice the archaic hairstyle and clothing.

His main claim to fame is that he was the first major patron of Buddhism in Japan. To this day, he’s respected as a purveyor of peace and benevolence. Because he gave up his right to succeed to the emperorship, he’s considered an example of humility. He’s also admired for his deeds and his connection to the imperial family.

In 604, Shōtoku Taishi allegedly wrote the 十七条憲法 Jūshichijō Kenpō 17 Article Constitution based on Buddhist and Confucian moral teachings. While you might expect to the find rules of governance, it’s actually a preachy document telling the bureaucrats and nobles of the imperial court at Asuka how to behave in a way worthy of their high office and rank. It’s really boring, but if you’re into that sort of thing, you can read a translation of the constitution here.

Stupidest system for identifying rank ever
Stupidest system for identifying rank ever

We can also thank Shōtoku Taishi for establishing the first cap and rank system called the 冠位十二階 Kan’i Jūni Ka Twelve Level Cap & Rank System™. This was the first of several rank systems which involved funny-shaped Chinese hats with different colors to show what your rank was. These court rank systems got so convoluted later in Japanese history that I have refused to learn anymore about it until I have to. Also, since this blog rarely concerns itself with matters of the imperial court, it’s not really necessary to know. That said, if you must torture yourself and learn about the cap and rank systems of the court, you can read more about it here. BTW, a somewhat easier system that persisted in the court of the shōgun during the Edo Period is the system of honorary titles – you can read more about that here.

In conclusion, Shōtoku Taishi is an important semi-legendary figure in the history of the imperial court and the rise of Buddhism. Later great figures in Buddhism revered him and so you can find him enshrined in many temples throughout Japan. I’m not going to make this blog post about some guy who lived at the turn of the 7th century and probably never even set foot in the Kantō area, but if you want to read more, this article is pretty good.

Afterhours, Shotuku Taishi knew how to party. This has led to his everlasting fame.
Afterhours, Shotuku Taishi knew how to party. This has led to his everlasting fame.

About the Area and the Temple

Long time readers will know that the presence of a temple or shrine meant business opportunities. Pilgrims needed food to eat, places to rest, souvenirs to bring back, and most importantly, places for drinking and whoring. Whole economies grew up around temples and shrines. The town in this area adopted the name of its rock star bodhisattva/kami and so it was called Taishi-dō. From what I can tell, the name 武蔵国荏原郡太子堂村 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Taishi-dō Mura Taishi-dō Village, Ebara District, Musashi Province first appears in the historical record during the 安土桃山時代 Azuchi-Momoyama Jidai Azuchi Momoyama Period[vii], the climax of the Sengoku Period.

In my recent article on nearby Gohongi, we took a look at the popular belief called 庚申 Kōshin which maintains that there are 3 magic morality spy-worms living inside everyone – watching your every move. This superstition is usually associated with agricultural areas, like the Taishi-dō area used to be, and in fact the highest concentration of 庚申塔 Kōshin-tō Kōshin statues in Tōkyō is in Meguro and Setagaya. Ensen-ji erected the 庚申供養塔 Kōshin Kuyō-tō Blue Warrior Kōshin Statues[viii] inside a hollowed out dead tree in 1672. Something about this Blue Warrior Kōshin was special and that is why the temple claims that it was the center of Kōshin belief in the area and that is why there are so many Kōshin statues in the area. If you’re scratching your head about Kōshin, you really need to read the article on Gohongi.

Two Koshin statues housed inside a hollowed tree.
Two Koshin statues housed inside a hollowed tree.

By the 1680’s, Ensen-ji was popular with Edoites as well as samurai on sankin-kōtai duty who wanted to do a little sightseeing and essentially go partying with their friends or other travelers. The shōgunate had heavy restrictions on travel, but religious pilgrimages to Buddhist temples were an easy way to get permission to travel. If you had enough money and wanted to see some new places, a pilgrimage was pretty much the only way. This brought that sweet, sweet tourist money to the local temples and shrines and the 三軒茶屋 Sangen-jaya area[ix]. As a result the temple grounds were expanded and beautified. At some point, it became a branch temple of 宝仙寺 Hōsen-ji Hōsen Temple in 中野坂上 Nakano Sakaue[x]. This relationship also saw an influx of cash filling Ensen-ji’s coffers.

By the 1800’s, the temple complex was apparently quite splendid. Unfortunately, in 1857 a fire devastated the entire precinct destroying all of the temple records and treasures – including the original statue of Shōtoku Taishi. Reconstruction started immediately and by 1860, the Taishi-dō, the priests’ living quarters and, of course, the 本殿 honden main hall had been rebuilt – however the temple was a shadow of its former glory. The temple itself claims that the ridiculous Meiji Era 神仏判然令 Shinbutsu Hanzenrei Edict Separating Kami and Buddhas[xi] is what prevented the temple from returning to its former glory after the fire. I’m not sure how that would have made much a difference. That said, today the temple architecture is clearly modern but the visual focal point is definitely the Taishi Hall which is perched up on the high ground and is only accessible by stairs.

Today the area called Taishi-dō is a fairly affluent residential neighborhood. From my walking around the area, it seemed pretty inconvenient – no convenience stores or vending machines and recycle bins that one would expect. I found some large houses, including one western style home with a large yard. I also found a traditional wooden house with a yard that looks like a blue collar home from the country side – quite a rare city within the 23 Wards of Tōkyō. But as you head towards the 散華茶屋 Sangen-jaya area[xii] it gets much more convenient and lively. There are probably some great places to hang out and eat in that area, but it seems to me that the bulk of Taishi-dō is a quiet residential escape from the hustle and bustle for well to do families.

A New England style home with a yard in Tokyo? What is this magic?
A New England style home with a yard in Tokyo?
What is this magic?
A country home in the traditional Tama style with a yard... in Tokyo. Once again, I ask. What is this magic?
A country home in the traditional Tama style with a yard… in Tokyo.
Once again, I ask. What is this magic?

88 Holy Places

Today the temple is not famous at all. It’s not even famous in its own neighborhood. But in the Shōwa Period, a new pilgrimage course called the 玉川八十八ヶ所霊場 Tamagawa Hachijū Hakkadokoro Reijō 88 Holy Sights of Tamagawa was created. It covers 4 former 郡 gun districts[xiii] and this temple Ensen-ji is #51 on the course. The pilgrimage is apparently a knock off of the 四国遍路 Shikoku Henro Shikoku Pilgrimage, another 88 temple pilgrimage related to legendary supermonk, 空海 Kūkai. You can read about the Shikoku Henro here. If you’re interested in this local version of the pilgrimage, here is the list (Japanese). It starts in 神奈川県川崎市 Kanagawa-ken Kawasaki-shi Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture and ends in 東京都大田区 Tōkyō-to Ōta-ku Ōta Ward, Tōkyō Metropolis.

That's a pretty hard course. I'm guessing it would take 2-3 days? What do you think?
That’s a pretty hard course. I’m guessing it would take 2-3 days? What do you think?

The Supermonk

The pilgrimage is centered on 88 temples that were supposedly established by (or related to) the supermonk Kūkai – also known as 弘法大師 Kōbō-Daishi which means something like “the great teacher who spread the Buddhism[xiv].” As I’ve mentioned before, the Tokugawa shōgunate imposed strict travel measures on the highways. Also, you couldn’t leave your domain without written authorization of some shōgunate official. However, the shōgunate loved itself some Buddhism and actually required every person to officially register with a temple. So if a group of people requested permission to go on a pilgrimage, the shōgunate was a little more lenient about saying “yes” and voilá! you had yourself a vacation, son.

The problem is that for most people, the cost of traveling a very far distance was too high. If an Edoite wanted to do a pilgrimage, the cost alone would theoretically have been much more prohibitive than the shōgunate. So, large domains came up with imitation pilgrimages to keep things local. For example, tiny Mt. Fuji hills are located all over Tōkyō so people can replicate the action of actually climbing Mt. Fuji. Yearly pilgrimages to 日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshō-gū to worship the enshrined 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu were required of the 大名 daimyō feudal lords, but there were substitute enshrinements at the Tokugawa funerary temples in Edo. A visit to these shrines was considered sufficient if a lord couldn’t afford or didn’t have time to travel all the way to Nikkō. In short, there was a well-established tradition of replicating pilgrimages (and, of course, remotely enshrining kami). This pilgrimage seems to have gotten momentum in the early Meiji Period and was stopped when it reached 88 temples in the Shōwa Period.

Kūkai the Superskunk.
Kūkai the Superskunk.

Spreading Buddhism & Writing Reform

Anyways, back to Kūkai. He was supposedly born in 774 at a time when the imperial capital was still in 奈良 Nara and in his youth would have seen the court moved to 平安京 Heian-Kyō Kyōto. This means he lived in a Japan that was becoming more literate and worldly and emerging from Shōtoku Taishi’s world. He studied Buddhism[xv] and Sanskrit in China and returned to Japan with a mission to Buddhify the fuck out of the country. In this, Kūkai and Shōtoku Taishi has some things in common.

Legend will also credit him with inventing 平仮名 hiragana the native Japanese syllabary. I haven’t looked into this attribution’s veracity, but it’s well known that hiragana was a byproduct of a limited set of cursive kanji for women. The even simpler 片仮名 katakana script developed along similar lines as a shorthand script for Buddhist monks taking notes of sermons. Supermonk Kūkai may have been involved, but there’s no definite proof. After all, we do have records of other writing systems that were created out of whole cloth. Cyrillic is somewhat logically attributed to Byzantine missionaries, Κύριλλος καὶ Μεθόδιος Kýrillos kai Methódios Cyrillus and Methodius, who lived in the early 800’s – but it evolved over the centuries. Korea’s 한글 Hangul seems to have been created by a documented group of scholars in the 1400’s, and while I know very little about it, I do know that it was supplemented by 한자 hanja kanji[xvi]. Kūkai lived at the time when hiragana and katakana appear on the historical radar, but there’s no signed document saying, “Yo, I made this cool syllabary. What do y’all think? Love, Kūkai.”

Katakana didn't happen overnight...
Well, what did you think? Hiragana didn’t happen overnight. Neither did the Roman alphabet.

His one confirmable contribution to Japan is the popularization of 真言宗 Shingon-shū Shingon Buddhism, an esoteric sect. I wouldn’t know one sect of Japanese Buddhism from another and I have no interest in learning[xvii] so I don’t want to go on about Kūkai’s contributions to Buddhism because I’m not qualified to speak about them. But Buddhist temples love him and often claim to be founded or have some connection to him. Hence, he is the Supermonk.

A dragon carved into wood at the shrine to Toshoku Taishi.

Closing the Book on Setagaya

OK, so I’ve written 6 articles on Setagaya this year and it’s only February. And if you’re wondering what the name Setagaya itself means, I have an article for that from 2013. For me it’s been eye opening and I hope you all have enjoyed it too. I think I’ll move on to another area for a little bit – we can come back here at any time, of course. And as always, if you have any place names in Tōkyō that you’re curious about, hit me up in the comments section below, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Patreon, and on Flickr. I’ll add your suggestion to my to-do list. And I usually put requests at the top of the list. Jussayin’.


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[i] Well outside sources, at least. The temple’s own records were destroyed in a fire in the 1800’s.
[ii] I’ll talk more about his name later, but 太子 taishi isn’t actually his given name. It’s actually an imperial title designating the son of an emperor who will inherit the chrysanthemum throne.
[iii] What the fuck are the Northern and Southern Courts? Glad you asked. Actually, no I’m not. While this is a really explosive incident in samurai history, it’s actually one of the most boring events in Japanese history. Anything involving the imperial family is boring as fuck. This term refers to a period of time when there were two separate imperial courts claiming imperial legitimacy. In reality the 足利幕府 Ashikaga Bakufu Ashikaga Shōgunate controlled the Northern Court and protected that line. In the Meiji Period, the Northern Court were branded pretenders. So if the imperial family can brand the Ashikaga Shōgunate and their puppet emperors illegitimate rulers of Japan, I think I can brand the present imperial family a puppet family of usurper clans during the Bakumatsu. Two can play at that game.
[iv] If Westerners are familiar with Roman history, they will recognize syncretism.
[v] Like 大和武尊 Yamato Takeru – Captain Japan.
[vi] Read more about the Asuka Period here.
[vii] Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, Ieyasu, blah blah blah…
[viii] Not sure what the Blue Warrior is? Neither am I. This short article on Wiki might be related. But I’m not running a blog about Japanese Buddhism, so that’s as far as I’m going.
[ix] If you take a walk down the Old Tōkaidō in Shinagawa, you’ll notice that the road is littered with shrines and temples. Why do you think this is? Daimyō, rank and file samurai, merchants, and even rich farmers would walk along this road, stay overnight in the area, and spend all kind of money. Establishing a shrine or temple on this road was one of the best business decisions one could have possibly made in old Japan. It’s religion. You don’t even have to do any real work!
[x] This totally surprised me because I lived in Nakano for 6 years and saw this temple all the time. I never thought it would pop up in my blog years later.
[xi] We’ve talked about the Edict Separating Kami and Buddhas so many times; I’m not going to go into it again. Either search for it on my site using the search function, or here’s the Wiki article. I should probably make a once and for all post on my site…
[xii] Yes, yes, yes. I have an article about Sangen-jaya.
[xiii] The districts are 荏原郡 Ebara-gun, 橘樹郡 Tachibana-gun, 都筑郡 Tsuzuki-gun, 多摩郡 Tama-gun.
[xiv] This was his posthumous name.
[xv] And if I’m not mistaken, some Hinduism.
[xvi] And I think kanji are still used to a certain degree in South Korea, because I saw it in a few places the one time I visited Seoul.
[xvii] Unless there are magical moral spy-bugs involved.

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