Mukōjima (island/s over there)
Mukōjima is a postal address in 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward. It’s located on the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River, directly across from 浅草 Asakusa. Most tourists who visit Asakusa and check out the river have probably seen Mukōjima and didn’t even bat an eye. Today, it doesn’t look like much from that vantage point. After all, Asakusa is so lively and in every guidebook. On the surface, the area seems to be decidedly 下町 shitamachi low city, but if you dig a little deeper this town will give up some surprising secrets.
First, Let’s Look at the Etymology
The meaning of the name is obscure, but 2 theories exist. They’re both very similar and they’re both more or less plausible. The word itself is written with two kanji.
One theory is based on the fact that the Tokugawa shōguns had a detached palace in the area. The site was called 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten Sumida River Palace and it was located on the newly developed lands across from Asakusa, the prosperous town surrounding 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple[i]. To the northwest of the property, the 内川 Uchikawa, literally the “Inner River”[ii], (a stretch of the 古隅田川 Furusumida-gawa, literally the “Old Sumida River[iii]) flowed into the Sumida. According to this theory, an island or fairly large sandbar lay at this confluence to northwest and was said to be called 将軍の向島 shōgun no mukōjima the shōgun’s island over there. Naturally, the people using that phrase were the inhabitants of Asakusa on the other side of the river.
A second similar theory states that before the coming of the Tokugawa and the massive waterworks projects undertaken by the shōgunate[iv], the east bank of the Sumida River in this area was littered with sandbars and islands. Over time, these islands were reclaimed and incorporated into the expanding city. Some of these islands were big enough to have names – many of which still persist to a certain extent today: 牛島 Ushima (cow island), 柳島 Yanagijima (willow island), 寺島Terajima (temple island – remember this name). It’s said that the people living on the west bank (ie; Asakusa) collectively referred to these islands with one name: 向島 mukōjima the islands over there.
Both theories were first recorded in the Edo Period, but I find the reference to the Tokugawa a bit suspect. I don’t know why; it’s just a gut feeling. I find the “pre-Edo Period” theory more convincing. Again, I don’t know why; it’s just a gut feeling. But with a few other place names in the area referencing islands (島 shima), it doesn’t seem to be unreasonable that the people who lived along the river might do such a thing.
In the Edo Period, the area was famous for its natural beauty. People came here to enjoy the seasonal changes. There are many 浮世絵 ukiyo-e prints of people relaxing in the area. At this time, Mukōjima was just a popular name for the area. However, in 1891, the name Mukōjima was made official. Since that time the area has changed a lot. Today, the area has a lot to offer and if you have enough money, you might be able to spend the whole day there in style.
Now, Let’s Look at the Area Today
One of the most famous places in the area is 百花園 Hyakkka-en “the 100 flower park.” The park was built by a wealthy antiques dealer from 仙台藩 Sendai Han Sendai Domain named 佐原鞠塢 Sahara Kikū. He ran a store in 日本橋 Nihonbashi and hobnobbed with various 大名 daimyō feudal lords[v]. He represented the new breed of wealthy merchants and commoners that arose in the late Edo Period. He was highly educated, cultured, and had tastes that ran the gamut of both the nouveaux riches and the elite samurai class.
He purchased the 多賀屋敷 Taga yashiki Taga residence in 寺島村 Terajima Mura Terajima Village (a name we saw earlier) and in 1804 he converted it into a flower garden, originally called 花屋敷 Hana Yashiki the Flower Mansion. The concept of the garden was very different from the daimyō gardens of the Edo Period. It reflected the new sensibilities of the emerging rich commoners who found themselves with more leisure time and were developing a cultural esthetic distinct from the conservative styles preferred by the stagnating samurai class.
His concept was simple: 春夏秋冬不断 shunkashūtō fudan consistency throughout the seasons. Flowers were chosen from Classical Japanese and Classical Chinese poetry in order to amass a collection of flowers that would constantly bloom in turn throughout the seasons. Unlike the subdued and stoic daimyō gardens, it was vibrant, flashy, and always changing. The garden also wasn’t hidden behind high walls like a daimyō mansion, but could be visited by anyone with the right connections[vi]. The garden’s fame was so great that in March of 1829, the Party Shōgun, 将軍家斉 Tokugawa Ienari, visited – no doubt in the company of a gaggle of beauties from the 大奥 Ōoku the shōgun’s harem. The garden was sold to東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City in 1938 and was officially opened to the public in 1939. By some accounts, it is the only Edo Period flower garden of its kind that still exists.
There are 2 types of 和菓子 wagashi Japanese sweets that originated in the area. The first is called 言問団子 Kototoi Dango and the second is called 桜餅 sakura mochi.
Kototoi Dango is both the name of a shop in Mukōjima and the product they specialize in. Their main product is 団子 dango dango that comes in three flavors: white anko, red anko, and miso. The shop was established by a gardening teacher, 外山佐吉 Toyama Sakichi – a commoner – in the late Edo Period. The name Kototoi is a reference to a bridge located downstream from the original shop called 言問橋 Kototoibashi Kototoi Bridge. The shop’s dango became popular with the people who came to the area to watch fireworks along the Sumida River. Since people from all over the shōgun’s capital came to see the annual event, the dango from this shop’s reputation spread quickly. You can see the shop’s website here
Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi
Sakura mochi is a kind of Japanese sweet that is flavored with cherry blossom leaves. There are many variations throughout Japan, but it generally boils down to 2 main styles: 関東風 Kantō-fū Kantō Style and 関西風 Kansai-fū Kansai Style. Of course, both regions claim to have invented the snack in an attempt to have bragging rights over a food made with cherry blossoms, a symbol of Japan[vii]. But eff that noise. Let’s just talk about some Mukōjima yumminess,
These little bad boys are called 長命寺桜餅 Chōmeiji sakura mochi cherry blossom mochi named after Chōme-ji, a temple located on the Sumida River[viii]. The temple is near Kototoi Dango. This temple may also be connected to the “temple island” that I mentioned earlier, Terajima.
It seems the shopkeepers living in the 門前町 monzen-chō town built up around a temple[ix] began collecting cherry blossoms that fell from trees along the river in the 1690’s and started using them to flavor various foods to sell to people who to the area for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. In 1717, local shops began selling this special sakura mochi in front of the temple. This year also coincided with a decree to plant more cherry blossoms along this section of the Sumida River by 8th shōgun, 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune[x]. The new style of mochi was an instant hit with the hanami goers and just as Kototoi Dango’s reputation spread far and wide quickly, so did that of Chōmeiji sakura mochi. Various shops in the area sell this specialty today.
Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s Biggest Geisha District
Unless you already knew this, I’ll bet you didn’t see this one coming.
Mukōjima is home to a 花街 kagai[xi] a geisha district (literally “flower town”). The area was famous for its nature and greenery in the Edo Period but the rise of the nouveaux riches began to have an effect on the area. This effect would soon transform the area.
Because of the influx of new money and the rise of industry during the Meiji Period, a unique geisha culture emerged in Mukōjima. The demand for geisha was high among men of means in the newly renamed city (Edo→Tōkyō). The area was particularly popular with artists, poets, and novelists in the early 1900’s.
Unfortunately, most of Tōkyō’s geisha culture fizzled out after the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake and the firebombing of WWII. But for some reason Mukōjima managed to hold on to the tradition[xii]. To this day, there are many 料亭 ryōtei located in the area. Ryōtei are high end dining venues that have the space, the setting, the pedigree, and the connections to provide entertainment by geisha. Many establishments won’t accept new customers without an introduction by a current customer or a trusted acquaintance of the owner. In general, such indulgences are extremely cost prohibitive, but there are occasional cheesy bus tours that will give you a glimpse into the world.
At its peak, they say more than 1000 geisha operated in the area and there were anywhere from 100-200 shops providing entertainment to high end clientele. Today those numbers are much smaller. It’s said there are a little over 100 geisha who regularly perform in Mukōjima and the number of ryōtei is well under 20[xiii]. All of this notwithstanding, Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s largest extant geisha town today. In the early evening, you will probably see geisha scurrying around and if you have the money – I most definitely don’t[xiv] – you can enjoy their service, entertainment, and a little taste of Edo.
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[i] Asakusa had had a decent population since the Kamakura Period.
[ii] Rivers tended to be called different things in different areas. So the Sumida River, being a very long river, had many names in different locations. Each tributary also had a different name, despite being part of the same river basin. You can read more about this in my article on the Sumida River.
[iii] A former branch of the Sumida River that originated in present day Saitama Prefecture, but is now is separated from the river that is currently called the Sumida River.
[iv] The shōgunate modified the courses of rivers, built moats, diverted channels, and all manner of waterworks… and guess who wrote a series on it.
[v] He was most likely lending daimyō money, too. This meant they would have given him access to all sorts of opportunities that might not have been available to other commoners in order to keep his favor. If you want to know more about merchants lending daimyō money, check out this article.
[vi] The “right connections” seems to have meant influential writers, poets, artists, geisha – any kind of cultured commoners with money and influence, really – and even daimyō who had a taste for the vibrancy of the late Edo Period.
[vii] The deep association of cherry blossoms as a symbol of the samurai is particularly strong in Edo-Tōkyō because of the samurai government. That said, I’m pretty sure everyone likes cherry blossoms, so that particular pro-Edo argument is a little weak to me. However, I’m not interested in that debate at all.
[viii] The temple’s foundation date is unclear. It may date back to the Heian Period but it only date back to the 1590’s, when 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu entered Edo. What is known for sure is that the temple received the patronage of the Tokugawa Shōgunate during the reign of the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu.
[ix] Monzen-chō, literally “towns at the front of the temple gate,” popped up to cash in on the needs of pilgrims, funeral mourners, and the casual visitors who would stop by out of curiosity – in this case, cherry blossom viewers. People needed food, lodging, and other services and thus special economies developed around temples. See my article on Monzen-Nakachō.
[x] Yoshimune was made shōgun the same year. The sudden arrival of this new local product may have its roots in many causes. The new shōgun’s decree offered a kind of novelty – why buy some ordinary, stupid snack, when you can buy the new taste of the year? It also showed respect to the new shōgun – thanks for sending all this business our way – more cherry blossoms means more tourists in the spring. And the list goes on…
[xi] 花街 is read as hanamachi in Kyōto. Kagai is the 音読み on’yomi Chinese reading of the kanji. Hanamachi is the 訓読み kun’yomi Japanese reading of the kanji. Apparently, the plosives か /ka/ and が /ga/ of the on’yomi have generally been perceived as harsh and uncouth by speakers of 京都弁 Kyōto-ben the Kyōto Dialect. To this day, the guardians of the highest register of that dialect are the geisha of the former imperial capital. For their sensibilities, apparently the on’yomi, hanamachi rolls off the tongue much more smoothly. Interestingly, hanamachi uses an affricative ち /tɕ/ and nasal sounds ま /ma/ and ん /ɴ/. Removing the plosive sounds means the risk of spitting on a person is lower and the use of nasals makes the vowels clearer. Some westerners complain about girls making announcements outside of shops as being annoying and nasal (for the record, I like this). They’re unwittingly favoring the clearer nasal sounds that highlight vowels and make their voices travel farther. It’s just my speculation, but this may have roots in the female speech of Kyōto.
[xii] Akasaka, due to its proximity to the National Diet Building, had a geisha district in the Edo Period. There is still a geisha culture there. The modern geisha are said to be extremely skilled and talented, but in the Edo Period and early Meiji Period the term “Akasaka Geisha” referred to the geisha of the lowest quality in the city. It was essentially a euphemism for a prostitute or a geisha so unskilled she might as well just be a whore. Today, Akasaka is home to many hostess bars of various qualities. Many of the proprietresses of certain long running establishments arrange “night time liaisons” between the working girls and the male clients. It’s said that this is a legacy of the image of the “Akasaka Geisha.” First, if this is a real legacy, it might be hard to prove. I suspect it’s just romanticizing history to justify the modern business model. And second, a hostess isn’t a geisha – or a prostitute, for that matter. Any blurred lines are things that individuals agree to do outside of the actual job descriptions.
[xiii] Some venues that are not ryōtei provide plebian-focused geisha performances for tourist groups. It’s my understanding that they are not included in the “official count.”
[xiv] It’s sad really. Being entertained by geisha is on my bucket list, but it’s about as realistic a dream as a threesome with Perfume. Yes, I said threesome. A-chan isn’t invited.