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What does Umayabashi mean?

In Japanese History on December 22, 2015 at 1:29 am

Umayabashi
厩橋 Umayabashi  (stable/barn bridge)

o-umayabashi now

This triple arched green bridge is Umayabashi. If I’ve got my bearing right, the left side is the west bank (ie; Asakusa/Taitō Ward) and the right side is the east bank (ie; Honjo, Sumida Ward).

I’m really, really sorry for the delay getting this article out. I had a problem with my internet connection at home for about 2 weeks and literally couldn’t do any work[i]. Man, 2 weeks without internet is a horrible experience. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Well, maybe on Donald Trump or those assholes in ISIS. I really don’t like them.

Anyhoo…

厩橋 Umayabashi is a bridge that crosses the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River[ii]. It connects 台東区蔵前二丁目 Taitō-ku Kuramae 2-chōme 2nd block of Kuramae, Taitō Ward and 東区駒形二丁目 Taitō-ku Komagata 2-chōme 2nd block of Komagata, Taitō Ward on the west bank with 墨田区本所一丁目 Sumida-ku Honjo 1-chōme 1st block of Honjo, Sumida Ward on the east bank.

The word is made of 2 kanji.


umaya, maya
(baya in some dialects)
barn, stable
(this kanji is extremely rare today)

hashi
bridge

There’s one more kanji we will encounter.


o-, on-, go-
an honorific prefix used in polite speech, but historically also used to refer to possessions of the shōgunate and the imperial court.
Onmayagashi

On-mayagashi (O-umaya Coast) – note the ferry service. We’ll talk about that in a minute.

The Etymology

The name derives from 御厩 O-umaya. The kanji were read as おんまや On-maya and おうまや O-umaya in the Edo Period. Both readings are acceptable, but the former seems more imperial, while the latter appears more shōgunal – or at the very least, it appears more Edoesque. The name is a reference to a short lived stable owned by the Tokugawa Shōgunate. As mentioned earlier, 厩 umaya means stable. 御厩 o-umaya/on-maya are honorific forms of the same word. Any possessions of the shōgun were generally given the honorific prefix 御 go/o[iii]. The exact location of the shōgunate’s stables is unclear today, but they were most likely located on the west side of the river in Kuramae/Komagata[iv].

The horses stabled in this area were not magical samurai war horses[v]. In fact, because the shōgunate restricted horse use to only high ranking samurai, you couldn’t just ride a horse through the city. The horses at O-umaya were merely pack horses used by the granary at 御倉 O-kura the great rice warehouse from which 大名 daimyō feudal lords and 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun were paid their stipends. At that time, Asakusa was a bustling suburb – that is, on the outskirts of Edo – while the east side of the river was generally rural. However, this particular stretch of the river was urbanized[vi] on both sides. 大名屋敷 daimyō yashiki daimyō palaces and a detached palace of the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family were located in this area[vii]. Fruit markets and vegetables markets existed on the quays, shōgunal storehouses lined the river, and warehouses of various daimyō dominated the alleyways.

If you’re scratching your head, check out these related articles later:

Umaya Coast

O-umaya Coast during a rainstorm.

Not so much a Place Name as a few Place Names

You’d think that the landholdings of the shōgun would loom large in the historical record, but the O-umaya’s existence seems to have been so short lived or so mundane that little is known about it. However, the place name seems to have been commonplace by 1690, the 10th year of the reign of the 5th shōgun, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. That year of the “golden age” of the shōgunate, a ferry crossing was established in the area. It was named 御厩之渡し O-umaya no Watashi O-umaya Crossing. The quay on the west bank of the river was referred to as 御厩河岸 On-maya-gashi or O-umaya-kagan the O-umaya Riverbank[viii].

asakusa-gawa shubinomatsu onmayagashi

O-umaya and the Asakusa section of the Sumida River at night.

Meanwhile, on the East Bank of the River

While people occasionally traveled from the west bank to the east, most of the traffic consisted of country merchants or rich farmers from the east bank seeking the pleasures of Edo. A good deal of them took the ferry to make religious pilgrimages to 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple in 浅草 Asakusa, but that was largely an excuse to indulge in the exotic and erotic delights of the 吉原 Yoshiwara, Edo’s licensed red light district. And even though the country bumpkins loved a little drinking and whoring when they had the time, the reality was that the samurai on sankin-kōtai duty in the barracks located on the east bank were the biggest spenders. The ferry services were all for hire, but few ferry services charged samurai. This was out of the commoners respect for their social superiors as there was a legally sanctioned chance of being killed for insulting a samurai’s honor[ix]. In Star Wars terminology, this is called the “let the Wookie win” defense.

asakusa-gawa shubinomatsu onmayagashi

O-umaya and the Asakusa section of the Sumida River at night.

On the east bank of the river, there had also been a rural palace of the Tokugawa shōguns known as 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten the Sumida River Palace[x]. The elite, rural side of the river was lined with 桜の木 sakura no ki cherry blossom trees and by 1872 (Meiji 5), it seems to have become a hot spot for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing in the spring. That particular year experienced a rush of Edoites from the west bank who wanted to see the cherry blossoms of 向島 Mukōjima on the east bank. A ferry loaded beyond capacity departed from O-umaya and soon capsized. The cold and rapid currents of the Sumida swept the boat and its passengers downstream. Many of the revelers drowned as few could overcome the force of the river in their heavy, early spring 着物 kimono and 羽織 haori traditional jackets worn with kimono. The incidence prompted quick action from the government.

1502jcii

The O-umaya Ferry

These kinds of accidents had happened quite often since the Meiji Coup in 1868 because of the unprecedented ease of travel that the liberalism of the new imperial government afforded. But tragedies like this were excuses to further modernization[xi]. Ferry service was temporarily halted and construction of a bridge was begun slightly downstream. Finally, in 1874 (Meiji 7), a traditional Japanese-style wooden bridge was opened for service called 厩橋 Umayabashi Umaya Bridge[xii]. The paid ferry service soon ended as the bridge was free to cross on foot[xiii].

4f08732d

The Meiji Era wooden bridge

 

In 1893 (Meiji 26), a steel bridge was built to replace the traditional wooden bridge in order to accommodate trains and automobile traffic. It was finished in 1895 (Meiji 28). The current bridge is a much more stable construction that replaced the first steel bridge following the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923. Interestingly, the modern bridge only allows automobile and pedestrian traffic. No trains cross it these days, though the 都営大江戸線 Toei Ōedo-sen Toei Ōedo Line, a subway, passes nearby. The bridge is nothing special today – just one of many bridges that cross Edo’s former 大川 Ōkawa Great River.

img_4

The Meiji Era steel bridge. Note it is divided into 3 segments like the modern bridge.

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[i] On the bright side, I was able to plow through a pretty epic book. I hope to have a review for you before New Year’s.
[ii] The river was known by different names at different locales throughout its windy path. Sumida River referred to a very specific stretch of the river. Prior to the Meiji Period, the bulk of the river was referred to as the 大川 Ōkawa the Great River or the Big River. This is a name not unlike that of the Mississippi, which derives from a Native American dialect word that means “Great River.” I don’t know anything about Native American languages or dialects, but this is what Wikipedia has to say about the language group.
[iii] Refer to my article on O-daiba and my article on Kuramae.
[iv] 駒形 Komagata literally means “horse shaped,” but apparently this place name is from the 800’s and is actually a reference to 馬頭観音 Batō Kannon/Mezu Kannon, the Japanese version of हयग्रीव Hayagrīva. I’m not an expert in Buddhism or Hinduism, but for whatever reason the first kanji means “horse.” At nearby 浅草寺 Sensō-ji, you can see a structure called the 駒形堂 Komagata-dō. This is mostly likely where the place name Komagata comes from. The presence of a stable belonging to the shōgunate is most likely a coincidence.
[v] The magical samurai warhorses, as everyone knows, were stabled at your mom’s house.
[vi] Or, more accurately, “suburbanized.” Is that a word?
[vii] More about that in a bit.
[viii] The former, Onmaya-gashi represented in 浮世絵 ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicting daily life in Edo-Tōkyō. The latter, seems more logical considering other place names, including 大森海岸 Ōmori Kaigan Ōmori Coast (see article on Ōmori here). Also, the most basic rules of reading kanji in modern Japanese tend to favor “kagan/gagan” over “kashi/gashi.” So, Onmaya-gashi may be an affectation.
[ix] Under the Tokugawa Shōgunate’s rules, a practice commonly called 切捨て御免 kirisute go-men, which means “an excuse for killing and discarding someone” existed. The idea was a samurai was more educated and at the top of the hierarchy so if you caused some affront to him, he could kill you on the spot and in the following investigation claim his social status as an excuse. Whether the courts of Edo bought it or not, the samurai would be freed or asked to perform 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide. The suicide option was considered more dignified than execution.
[x] I discussed the palace briefly in my article on Mukōjima.
[xi] I’m not using excuse in a light way here, either. The more lives saved, the better. But with western technology, we see the chipping away at Edo. The old city begins to disappear.
[xii] Note the honorific kanji 御 o was removed for the new bridge name. This was a deliberate move by the imperial government to eradicated traces of the shōgunate from the shōgun’s former capital.
[xiii] Surely, you could walk across the river faster than fight the downstream current on a small boat.

  1. This is SO interesting. Way to research and find so many historical depictions of the area you’re describing.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
    I think it’s important to include as many pictures as possible to see how the area has changed.

    I hope you enjoy the other articles.

  3. Most people hardly even consider the convenience of bridges today, but looking back only a short time ago you can see what life was like without them. However, as you said, much has also been lost because of these technologies.

    I am awaiting that book review, btw 🙂

  4. […] What does Umayabashi mean? […]

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