What does Yūrei-zaka mean?


(Ghost Hill)

If you spend any amount of time in Tōkyō, you will notice that it’s a hilly city. The Japanese themselves often refer to the country as 島国 shimaguni an island country (implying isolation from the rest of the world) but also as 山国 yamaguni a country of mountains (implying, well, um, it has a lot of hills and mountains).

Tōkyō’s 港区 Minto-ku Minato Ward has both the budget and ballz to commemorate famous hills that had names in the Edo Period. At the bottom and top of many hills, you can find 4-sided wooden poles announcing the hills’ names and brief explanations behind the names. In Tōkyō, references to locations such as 鳥居坂下 Toriizakashita the bottom of Torii Hill or 中野坂上 Nakano-sakaue the top of Nakano Hill are commonplace. These references may be crystallized in train station or bus top names, postal code designations, or just in the day-to-day parlance of the people in the neighborhood. For me, the most beautiful thing about this is that Japanese streets traditionally don’t have names. This reflects the Pre-WWII necessity for giving directions or identifying with your neighborhood by means of landmarks[i].

Yūrei - a Japanese ghost
Yūrei – a Japanese ghost

Ghost Hill

There are 幽霊坂 Yūrei-zaka “ghost hills” all over Japan – and at least 8 in modern day Tōkyō – and all of them have different etymologies. However, today I want to focus on Edo-Tōkyō’s most famous “Ghost Hill.” It’s located in 港区三田四丁目 Minato-ku Mita 4-chōme, the 4th block of Mita’s Minato Ward. It’s probably most famous because it lays on some of the former shōgunate’s most important lands. Many of the nearby estates were occupied by 大名 daimyō feudal lords performing service to the shōgun. Much of the area was heavily wooded which made it dark in the daytime and even darker at night. In the Edo Period the name was written as 幽霊坂 Yūrei-zaka literally “ghost hill” or ゆうれい坂 Yūrei-zaka which was not literally “ghost hill[ii].”

It’s said that in 1635, when the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu carried out a massive expansion of 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle, a number of temples and shrines were moved from castle’s periphery to make way for daimyō residences and military installations. A handful of these were relocated along a new hillside road (or by some accounts a minor road dating back to the Kamakura Period) near Edo Bay in the 三田 Mita area. In the early Edo Period, the place was said to be quite rustic and had lush vegetation and many tall trees. Unless the moon was particularly bright that night, the road more or less couldn’t be traversed at night – and even bright nights were risky because thieves and 妖怪 yōkai supernatural beings were said to haunt the woods waiting for unsuspecting passersby. The wealthy, including samurai, could only pass through with lantern bearers to light the way.

This is a famous photo of the lower residence of Shimabara Domain on nearby Tsuna-zaka (Tsuna Hill). It's not Yūrei-zaka, but it gives you an idea of how wooded the area was at that time. Even a street like this would have been scary at night.
This is a famous photo of the lower residence of Shimabara Domain on nearby Tsuna-zaka (Tsuna Hill). It’s not Yūrei-zaka, but it gives you an idea of how wooded the area was at that time. Even a street like this would have been scary at night.

Moving Lanterns Cast Moving Shadows, Don’t They?

Temples and shrines generally held large swaths of land and much of it was wooded with old trees. Yūrei-zaka was said to be so desolate and dark that even in the afternoon ghosts would show themselves. Others say that because in the early days, there were only temples and shrines and no bustling commoner districts with shops and restaurants, the area was particularly 寂しい sabishii lonely/desolate. Passing through there, especially at night, was a scary thing. Whether you saw a ghost there or not, it seemed like the sort of place you would most likely see a ghost.

yureizaka ghost

Another Etymology

In the Meiji Period, a certain 森有礼 Mori Arinori is said to have had a residence here. His given name 有礼 Arinori is the 名乗り nanori name reading his kanji. But according to this theory, the local Edoites read the name as  有礼Yūrei the 音読み onyomi Chinese reading for names. The story goes that the locals felt the original writing was inauspicious and unenlightened. It reflected Edo Period superstitions. For the locals, Arinori was an example of the new enlightenment. In the Meiji Government, he served as the first 文部大臣 Monbu Daijin Minister of Education. Forget the “ghost street,” let’s have an “enlightenment street!”

mori arinori

Never Heard of the Guy

Arinori is an interesting character. Longtime readers will remember that there was an elite transfer from 薩摩藩 Satsuma Han Satsuma Domain and 長州藩 Chōshū Han Chōshū Domain to the newly renamed 東京 Tōkyō Eastern Capital after the Meiji Coup. The 江戸っ子 Edokko Edoites – now forced to be called 東京人 Tōkyō no hito or Tōkyō-jin Tōkyōites – resented the “uncouth” outsiders from the south[iii]. The jagoffs from Satsuma were particularly despised by the people of the capital[iv].

Despite local prejudices and perhaps in line with the revolutionary and modern cultural shift begun during the Bakumatsu and amped up during the early Meiji Era, the Edoites (now Tōkyōites) found that not all of their new ruling class from the south consisted of assholes hell bent on taking over the city for personal gain. Some truly enlightened people were determined to drag Japan kicking and screaming into “modernity.” Some of them just so happened to be from Satsuma. Mori Arinori is one of those people and the locals seemed to like the guy.


So who was this Mori Arinori guy and why should we know him?

Well, he was born in Satsuma in 1847 to the 森家 Mori-ke Mori Clan. This meant he was 6 years old at the time of Commodore Perry’s arrival and he was 21 years old when the shōgunate actually fell in the 1868 Meiji Coup. In 1865, he went to University College London to study western mathematics, physics, and naval surveying. He became enamored with western thought – in particular, that of the British Empire and the “Anglosphere[v].”

After the collapse of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, he served as the first Japanese ambassador to the United States (1871-1873). At that time, he became fascinated with the American education system and came back to Japan with an intention to reform education. Oh, and he had big plans.

He returned as an Americanophile. He advocated for freedom of religion – in particular secularism and humanism in education. The 1870’s was the peak of discussion about women’s rights in the US. Arinori naturally pushed for women’s rights in Japan, but ironically never advocated their right to vote[vi]. Most surprisingly, he recognized English as not only a lingua franca (international language), but as the language of the future. In his education reforms, he pushed for Japan to abandon the Japanese language in order to compete on a global scale. No joke. He and a large number of supporters wanted to replace the Japanese language with the English language.

These were some of the most radical ideas interjected into the Japanese socio-political conversations of the time. But perhaps he had “gone too native” during his time abroad. His time in England and America affected his sense of spirituality and he became a Christian. His western secularist, humanist, proto-feminist, and monotheistic Christian values were sending out mixed messages to the Japanese statesmen of his day. And the average Japanese person of the day was still used to the so-called “closed country policy.” They’d never studied a foreign language or seen a map of the world. Outside of Edo or the major port cities, they’d mostly likely never even seen a non-Japanese person. FFS, Christianity was more or less verboten since the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (late 1500’s).

Arinori made friends and enemies on both the left and the right, but unfortunately his progressive views ultimately got him killed. On the same day the 大日本帝國憲法 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kenpō Meiji Constitution was promulgated, he was assassinated. The killer’s rationale was that he rudely entered 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine[vii] without taking off his shoes and used other western mannerisms[viii].

ghost cemetery

Mori Arinori is an unfortunate example of how the Meiji Coup of 1868 didn’t usher in a new age of peace overnight. People on both sides of the revolution fought for change and “modernization,” but a spirit of terrorism that arose during the Bakumatsu was bound to plague Japan for at least another 100 years[ix]. Even after Japan’s defeat in WWII, humiliating occupation, and haphazard reconstruction, the country was plagued with internal political strife – much of which can be traced back to the great cultural upheaval of the Bakumatsu and the disproportionate advances in the urban centers and the decades’ long lag in the suburban and rural areas.

Anyways, Arinori was pushing for reforms that some intellectuals were ready for but the average person of the street, farmer, ex-samurai, merchant, or ex-outcast couldn’t even begin to wrap their heads around. And on the day the Meiji Constitution was proclaimed in 1889 (Meiji 22), he was murdered.


Yūrei-zaka Today

Edo Period forests had taken a toll in the 1923 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake and like much of the bay area; this neighborhood took a beating in the firebombing of Tōkyō by American forces in 1945. Today it looks nothing like its Edo Era self. But many of the temples that characterized the area during the time of the Shōgunate are still there.

I don’t know if this is an exhaustive list, some temples seem to have moved over the years. Today, most of these temples are pretty minor. But, in those days, 2 of them were quite major (I’m looking at you 實相寺 Jissō-ji and 正泉寺 Shōsen-ji).


Fairly minor temple, but is home to the grave of 荻生徂徠 Ogyū Sorai who some consider the most influential Confucian scholar of the Edo Period. I don’t know much about Confucianism, so here’s a link to an article about him. Knock yourself out.


A minor temple, barely famous for its 白粉地蔵 oshiroi jizō white faced jizō[x].


保科正之 Hoshina Masayuki[xi] chose this temple to be a 菩提寺 bodai-ji funerary temple of his family in Edo[xii]. Masayuki was the 3rd son of 2nd shōgun 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada by a concubine. Long story short, he was given control of 会津藩 Aizu Han Aizu Domain with a stipend of 230,000 石 koku.  As a senior member of the 老中 rōjū council of elders at Edo Castle, he was appointed regent of his nephew, the 4th shōgun, 徳川家綱 Tokugawa Ietsuna.  To legitimize his position, the shōgunate granted him a new family name 松平 Matsudaira and so he is often referred to as 松平正之 Matsudaira Masayuki. (Update: I spoke with a member of the family maintaining this temple, she said the grave is Masayuki’s wife’s grave and that Masayuki’s grave is in Aizu.)


A super-minor temple.


Yet another super-minor temple.


Minor, minor, minor…


Shōsen-ji was established sometime in the first 5 years of the 1650’s near 赤坂溜池 Akasaka Tameike the Akasaka Reservoir[xiii], but later transferred to 三田 Mita[xiv].  The Mita location served as the first フランス公使館 Furansu Kōshikan French Embassy. It also provided housing to the Swiss representative. British citizen and very well-connected interpreter, Ernest Satow also stayed here for a while. In 1911 (Meiji 44), the temple was transferred to its current location in 目黒 Meguro[xv].


Totally minor.

Other Yūrei-zaka in Edo-Tōkyō

At the beginning of the article, I mentioned that there were Yūrei-zaka all over Japan. Compiling a comprehensive list would take forever, but luckily Japanese Wikipedia has a list of the 8 major ones in Tōkyō. That said, there were at least 14 Yūrei-zaka in Edo. The 坂学会 Saka Gakkai Society of Hill Nerds[xvi] lists all of hills in Edo on their website. The site is pretty freaking amazing, but it’s Japanese only.


(some have links to previous articles)










Kanda-Suruga-dai (near Akihabara)


Fujimi-chō (Chiyoda Ward)





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[i] A tradition that is very much alive in Tōkyō. “When you see x, turn right. Go straight until you see y. At y there is a 3 way intersection. When you see shop z, take that street one block. I’ll meet you there.” This is how directions are given in Tōkyō.
[ii] Well, let’s be honest. This means “ghost hill,” but this ambiguous spelling would lead to a later folk etymology.
[iii] It seems to me the Edokko (native Edoites) always regarded outsiders – even those on sankin-kōtai duty – with a bit of disdain. This is not unlike modern Kyōto, where geisha districts view outsiders with distrust and have a system of vetting prospective customers. That style isn’t a Kyōto thing. It’s an old Japan thing. Kyōto is famous for this because it’s one of places where the tradition carries on traditionally.
[iv] Again, they were outsiders since the Battle of Sekigahara, so the prejudice against Satsuma was probably ingrained in the culture of Edo. They were one of many embodiments of 田舎侍 inaka-zamurai country samurai – elites who didn’t understand the manners of Edo or Kyōto. Whether this is true or not, the Satsuma men had a reputation in the early Meiji Period for still practicing 衆道 shūdō a somewhat ritualized form of man-on-man sex among samurai – something that had fallen in disfavor since the coming of the foreigners and was actually made illegal in 1872 (Meiji 5).
[v] The English-speaking world.
[vi] Dick!!
[vii] Ise Grand Shrine claims to house the 神 kami deity of mother of the imperial family and therefore all of Japan. It is without a doubt one of the most important Shintō institutions in Japan. The shrine’s traditional establishment is 4 BCE (about 2000 years ago) making this one of the most important shrines in all of Japanese history – especially in regards to the imperial family. Yet right wing politicians insist on going to 靖国神社 Yasukuni Jinja Yasukuni Shrine with the express purpose of pissing of Korean and China. Yasukuni was established in 1869 (Meiji 2) to honor the war dead of the illegal coup Satsuma and Chōshū waged against the shōgunate. The Meiji Coup established the 大日本帝国 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Empire of Japan and Yasuki Shrine became the government’s repository for the veneration of 神 kami of those who died in service of the newly established Meiji State (and by extension, imperial Japan in general).
[viii] Just for the record, the “official story” is generally believed to be a bunch of horse shit. What got him killed was his radical political view and his attempt to change the education system.
[ix] I’m looking at you, 三島由紀夫 Mishima Yukio.
[x] What is a jizō? Read here.
[xi] Read more about him in this article at Samurai Archives.
[xii] Masayuki himself is buried in 福島 Fukushima, once part of Aizu Domain. My understanding is that the graves at Shōsen-ji are those of the concubines, unmarried daughters, and sons who died before coming of age. The daimyō and most important members of the Aizu Matsudaira who died in Edo were interred at 広徳寺 Kōtoku-ji in present day 練馬区 Nerima-ku Nerima Ward. I haven’t visited, but I was just checking out some pictures and the cemetery looks spectacular. By the way, I have an article on Nerima.
[xiii] Guess what, I have an article about Tameike. It’s old, but the information is good.
[xiv] I have an article about Mita. It’s also old, but the information is good.
[xv] Surprise, surprise! I have an article about Meguro.
[xvi] My translation.

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