The name dates from the early Edo Period, when a bridge called 大橋 Ōhashi the Great Bridge was built over 大川 Ōkawa the Great River (today called the Ryōgoku Bridge and the Sumida River, respectively). On west side of the river was 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province. On the east side of the river was 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni Shimōsa Province. The idea being that this part of Edo included the lands of 2 ancient provinces.
Ryōgoku is a must see for anyone who reads JapanThis!. For starters, it is home to one of the greatest museums in the world, the 江戸東京博物館 Edo-Tōkyō Hakubutsukan Edo-Tōkyō Museum which describes the history of the city from its humble roots to modern times in an exhaustive permanent exhibit and world class special exhibits that change seasonally. If you come to Tōkyō, you must see this museum. Here’s their website.
And I’m not kidding. If you read this blog, you must go to that museum. You’ll love it.
I wouldn’t lie about this.
Next to the Edo-Tōkyō Museum, is the 両国国技館 Ryōgoku Kokugi-kan Ryōgoku Sumō Hall. 3 of the 6 national sumō tournaments take place here. Because of this, the association with Ryōgoku and sumō is deep and you can find many restaurants in the area that specialize in ちゃんこ鍋 chanko nabe a kind of hot pot dish[i] that sumō wrestlers eat the shit out of all year round to fatten up. The dish is said to have been invented in Ryōgoku.
Fans of the 赤穂浪士 Akō Rōshi 47 Rōnin may want to visit a small park called 本所松坂町公園 Honjo Matsuzaka-chō Kōen Honjo Matsuzaka-chō Park. The park is located on the former estate of a 旗本 hatamoto direct retainer of the shōgun named 吉良上野介 Kira Kōzuke no Suke. Kira is one of the all-time villains of Japanese literature. He’s painted as the bad guy in the story of the 47 Rōnin – however, in reality he was just an average government worker just trying to schlep his way through life when a bunch of hillbilly thug samurai broke into his house while he was sleeping and cut off his head.
Obviously, there’s more to the story, and you can read about it here. But the story is one of the best known in Japan due to its yearly rehashing every New Year’s (Kira’s murder took place in December, so it’s kind of a winter themed story). At any rate, the park has an 稲荷神社 Inari Jinja Inari Shrine said to be from Kira’s residence. There’s also a corner of a wall and gate said to be a remnant of that mansion. I’m not sure if this wall is authentic or not because the historical record says that after his murder, the estate was seized by the shōgunate; commoner residences were then built on the site. It’s possible that some sections of his residence were incorporated into the new structures, but what I do know is that Ryōgoku suffered badly in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake and this particular area wasn’t really revitalized until the 1930’s when the locals wanted to preserve the site of Kira’s house as a commemorative park. Also, I’m pretty sure that this area was again devastated in the firebombing during WWII. That said, it’s a pretty amazing place to see. You can also get a sense of the size of a property owned by a 旗本 hatamoto direct retainer of the Tokugawa in central Edo – the park is pretty close to the same size as the original estate.
And finally, in the Edo Period, this area was famous for the 両国花火 Ryōgoku Hanabi Taikai Ryōgoku Fireworks Display which marked the beginning of the boating season[ii]. The festival began in the 1730’s, and the pyrotechnics were handled by 2 shops[iii] that set up in upstream and downstream locations. The shops were called 鍵屋 Kagi-ya and 玉屋 Tama-ya and they competed for applause by trying to outdo each other. The audience would cheer Kagiyaaaa!! when the Kagi-ya team impressed them and they would cheer Tamayaaaa!! when the Tama-ya team impressed them. The Ryōgoku fireworks lost their steam by the end of the Edo Period because a stray rocket landed in the city and started a huge fire. In the 1970’s the tradition was re-launched under the name 隅田川花火大会 Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai Sumida River Fireworks Display.
Interestingly, to this day 江戸っ子 Edokko 2nd/3rd generation or more Tōkyōites[iv], still call out “kagiyaaa!” and “tamayaaaaa!” at firework displays. The exclamation, “tamayaaa!” is far more prevalent than “kagiyaaaa!” and the reason is actually tied to the history of fireworks in the area. Even though the Tama-ya shop was an offshoot of the Kagi-ya shop, over the course of the Edo Period festivals, the Tama-ya displays became much more popular and innovative. Families passed on these words as exclamations and the most popular one, “tamayaaa!” became the most prevalent. All of this said, Tōkyō is a city populated by people from other places, so most people don’t know the origin of the words. If you use these, you’ll be using 2 of the few remaining words of 江戸弁 Edo-ben, the near extinct Edo Dialect[v].
[i] Here’s a description of chanko nabe.
[ii] In the Edo Period, the festival was also called 両国川開 Ryōgoku Kawabiraki Ryōgoku River Opening because it marked the beginning of the season for boating on the river.
[iii] Interestingly, they were both founded by a master firework maker from Ryōgoku named 篠原弥兵衛 Sasabara Yahei. Yahei’s original shop was called 鍵屋 Kagi-ya (literally, key shop). One of his sons went on to found another shop called 玉屋 Tama-ya (literally, ball shop because he was said have massive cajones).
[iv] By one of many varying definitions.
[v] The term “Edo Dialect” is actually a misnomer. Standard Japanese is often called the “Tōkyō Dialect” and that’s closer to the truth, but even in the Edo Period, the area used a mishmash of local dialects from various villages. This was compounded by the fact that there were samurai from every part of Japan stationed in Edo. People of different classes also spoke differently.