This is a combination of 2 place names. If you’ve been paying attention to this series[i], at the last station was a park called清澄庭園 Kiyosumi Tei’en Kiyosumi Garden. Kiyosumi is the surname of a wealthy merchant family living in the area at the beginning of the Edo Period.
Shirakawa is a reference to the suburban palace of 白河藩 Shirakawa Han Shirakawa Domain (located in present day Fukushima Prefecture). Shirakawa Domain was far from the shōgun’s capital and changed hands many times[ii]. But during the Edo Period Shirakawa was put on the maps of Edo.
A certain 沖田総司 Okita Sōji, said to have been a true prodigy in the art of the sword, became head instructor of the 試衛館 Shieikan fencing school at 19 or 20 years old. The lead instructor, Kondō Isami, was planning to hand things over to Okita Sōji when he went to Kyōto. But in the end, Sōji went to Kyōto with Isami and his students.
Isami would eventually become the commander of the elite samurai enforcers called the Shinsengumi and Okita Sōji was put in charge of their 1st unit, a very prestigious position for a person of his age. This speaks highly of his skill, not to say the trust and respect afforded to him by the top leaders of the Shinsengumi – Kondō Isami and Hijikata Toshizō. To this day, Okita Sōji is a heart throb with 歴女 rekijo Japanese girls who love history – mostly because he was young and cool and died well before his time. He was killed by illness, which means he didn’t get the chance to die in battle as a samurai. This romanticized version of his life makes him 可哀想 kawaisō “a poor thing” to many people.
It’s doubtful Okita Sōji ever came to this area. It seems like he was born at another Shirakawa residence in Nishi-Azabu. This also seems to be the place he died by illness[iii]. He’s buried in a nearby temple that won’t let you see his grave except once a year. His grave doesn’t reflect his status at the time. It looks like the grave of any other low level samurai of his day.
If you get off at this station and decide to walk around for a few hours, you’ll have plenty to see and do. The area is decidedly 下町 shitamachi low city. It basically residential but it’s packed with temples and shrines, many of which have connections to Edo Period daimyō, artists, poets, and innovators of industry. Also in the area is the Fukagawa Shitamachi Museum which showcases shitamachi life during the Edo Period[iv]. There’s also a 2-3 hour pilgrimage of the 七福神 Shichi Fukujin 7 Gods of Good Luck that you can do in the area[v].
If you like Japanese poetry, you can visit the Bashō Museum. Bashō is a guy who ran around Japan writing poetry about the local areas. If you like poetry and can read Japanese, by all means go to this museum. If you don’t and if you can’t, by all means skip it.
[i] And I emphasize that this article is part of series. We are hitting every station on the Ōedo Line. The series begins here.
[ii] That is to say, it wasn’t held by a single daimyō family during the Edo Period.
[iii] Tradition says tuberculosis, but modern scholarship speculates all kinds of things including anemia and heat stroke. Diets and day to day routines were so different; I tend to prefer the tuberculosis theory.
[iv] They have English speaking volunteer docents now, something I could have really used 13 years ago when I visited for the first time.
[v] That said, I don’t recommend starting from this station, but you could if you want to do it the hard way. The best starting point is the next station, Monzen-Nakachō.