What does Baji Kōen mean?

Baji Kōen

(Equestrian Park – but literally, “horse thing park”)

Enough with the horses already!
Sit Ubu. Sit. Good dog.

Just when you thought I was finished with Setagaya and its inexplicable horse fetish… Just when I promised you, dear reader, that I wouldn’t come back to this part of Tōkyō for a long time… I’m back.

Sorry. Apparently I lied.

Make it stop!
Make it stop!

The other day I was talking to a lifelong resident of 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward and told her about my research into all of those horse-related place names. She only knew 下馬 Shimouma and 上馬 Kamiuma, but then quickly pointed out that I’d missed a place near her home. Half disheartened and half intrigued I decided I needed to add this one last place just for consistency. Luckily, it wasn’t a difficult one.

She was referring to a park called 馬事公苑 Baji Kōen which is easy to understand from the kanji, but a little difficult to translate into English[i]. First let’s look at the kanji and then talk about how weird the name is, shall we?

Let’s Look at the Kanji

uma, ma, ba

koto, ji
things, matters, business, affairs, events

, ku

en, sono

As I said, reading the kanji isn’t particularly difficult and guessing the meaning isn’t either. This would seem to be a “public park” where “horse things” went down. The interesting this is that 馬事 baji “horse things” isn’t a Japanese word in so far as I can find. The usual word used to refer to equestrian skills is 馬術 bajutsu, literally “horse techniques.” The second thing is that the usual word for “park” is 公園 kōen, but in this name the second kanji is replaced with the rarer 苑 en. The most famous area in Tōkyō that uses this kanji is the park, 新宿御苑 Shinjuku Gyoen. A gyoen is an imperial park[ii]. The writing used for this park, 公苑 kōen, seems pretty rare. It doesn’t appear in any dictionary I have access to and just to put things into perspective, if you google the usual writing, 公園 kōen, you’ll get 179 million hits. If you google this weird writing, you’ll only get 3 million.

Where's my flogging stick?
Where’s my flogging stick?

So Is This Poetic License or Something?

Not quite. And while I can’t explain the 馬事 baji part, I think I can explain the 公苑 kōen part. In 1934, this rural area was purchased by the 帝国競馬協会 Teikoku Keiba Kyōkai Imperial Horse Racing Society[iii]. The land lay fallow until 1939 when a race track and then an equestrian training and practice ground were built. The park was opened in 1940. The original name of the site was the 修練場 Shūrenba which just means practice grounds. After the war, in 1954, the park received its modern name.

The distinction isn’t really acknowledged in contemporary Japanese, but in the olden days the kanji used for parks, 園 en and 苑 en, referred to slightly different kinds of spaces. 園 en was used for spaces dedicated strictly to vegetation (let’s say flōra), whereas 苑 en was a space that also included animal life (let’s say flōra and fauna)[iv]. The old park had – of course – horses and stables, but also peacocks[v] and guinea fowl. The original space had been associated with the Japanese Empire, and so even though it wasn’t a 御苑 gyoen imperial park, it had some imperial stink in its pink – at least enough that the park administration thought that the using the kanji 苑 en was justified.

2 guys dressed like samurai racing Sarah Jessica Parkers in Baji Kōen.
2 guys dressed like samurai racing Sarah Jessica Parkers in Baji Kōen.

OK, So What Is This Place Today?

As I mentioned before, it was originally for training horses, racing horses, and other equestrian activities. In 1954, it was renamed 馬事公苑 Baji Kōen – the park’s current name, but the site was chosen by the 1964 Tōkyō Metropolitan Olympic Committee to serve as the 馬術競技開催 bajutsu kyōgikaisai equestrian exhibition site. The park was home to all of the equestrian events of the ’64 Olympics including the ridiculous “sport” of dressage, where humans force horses to do stupid things like tap dance in rhythm. Sadly, the seriously difficult martial art of riding on a running horse while shooting targets with a bow and arrow called 流鏑馬 yabusame is not an Olympic sport. Yes, you read that correctly, making a horse “tap dance” and do all the work is an Olympic sport. Horseback archery is not. Go figure[vi].

The 1964 Olympic Equestrian Exhibition
The 1964 Olympic Equestrian Exhibition

Today the park is actually a group of parks. The premises include a 庭園 teien – what you probably imagine when you hear the words “Japanese garden.” So if you want to take in some traditional Japanese beauty, you apparently can do that here. And while the park seems to be most famous for horses, actually the place is mostly frequented by locals who want to relax in nature or have quiet lunch among the flowers and trees. I spoke with a co-worker today who said he lives 10 minutes from the Baji Kōen and he said it’s a great place to take his kid.

Map of the park.
Map of the park.

A large amount of the park grounds are dedicated to horse riding activities. In the warmer months, there are special equestrian performances. Some areas are open to both pedestrians and horses, so there are signs warning that you might “meet a horse,” so be careful not to get run over.

See? I wasn't kidding about the horse meet and greet.
When meeting a horse in Japan, the proper etiquette is bowing. Never try shaking hands with a Japanese horse.

There are purportedly many 桜 sakura cherry blossom trees in the park, so it’s a favorite spot for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing for residents of Setagaya. I’ve been in Tōkyō for 10 years and I love hanami like a motherfucker but this park has never come under my radar until now. I may have to check it out.

Get drunk and ride horses! Now that's what I call hanami!
Get drunk and ride horses! Now that’s what I call hanami!

Oh, and get this. Next to the park there is a small museum dedicated to 進化生物学 shinka seibutsugaku evolutionary biology[vii]. Longtime readers will know that I looooooooooove watching changes over time. In linguistics, we use the word 通時的 tsūjiteki diachronic. Other disciplines use 進化的 shinkateki evolutionary. Whichever word you use, be it linguistic or biological, the idea of evolution is an idea is at the heart of JapanThis!. Looking at changes over time is fascinating.

Pony lovers!!!!
Pony lovers lol

And lastly, for those of you who can’t cram enough hot pony action into your life[viii], the park supposedly offers free pony rides once a month.


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[i] The JRA, who administer the park, render the name into English as Equestrian Park.
[ii] Shinjuku Gyoen was controlled by the imperial from the Meiji Period to the early post war period. It’s not an imperial garden anymore, but it still bears the name.
[iii] Forerunner of the modern 日本競馬会 Nihon Keiba-kai Japan Racing Asssociation (JRA).
[iv] If you don’t know what flōra and fauna are, um… shall I google that for you? (But please tell me you know the phrase or I’ll be really sad).
[v] By the way, what do you call a female peacock? That’s right, a peacunt.
[vi] Then again, the Olympics are fucking retarded. I’ve never been a fan of the over dramatic flair of the whole thing. The opening and closing ceremonies over-pander to the lowest common denominator and there’s not enough outright fucking. Yes, you heard that right. Put more porn into the Olympics and I’m totally onboard.
[vii] I’m a big fan of Richard Dawkins, another person who is so passionate about showing how life and the world changes and adapts.
[viii] There’s always one.

4 thoughts on “What does Baji Kōen mean?

  1. Let me toss out some castle trivia about this park too. If you visit the park there is a place where there is a mound of stones with a sign explaining the origins of the park. The stones to build this actually came from the former outer moat stone walls near Shinbashi that were discovered when the JRA built their building there. These stones are famous (among some castle geeks, anyway) because some of the stones have the family kokuin mark of the Inaba clan carved into them. Unfortunately I haven’t been there yet but it’s on the someday list.

  2. Very Very Interesting article. I understand that you visit places but how do you get some much information about those places? You go to library or talk to locals?

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