So the other day, I wrote about 大崎 Ōsaki and I mentioned a shrine called Irugi Shrine. It’s not too far from my home, so I decided to check it out and take some pictures. Before I went, I looked into the history of the shrine a little. Visually, it’s a little unimpressive when nothing’s going on and it’s 5°C with strong winds, but it’s a pretty interesting place historically-speaking.
Just some quick notes about the spelling. Some of the English signs on the shrine precinct use the spelling Iruki. While this pronunciation is technically possible, all of my Japanese sources say Irugi. In the Edo Period, the village was famous for a kind of pumpkin called 居留木橋南瓜 Irugibashi kabocha Irugibashi Pumpkin[i]. This is 当て字 ateji kanji used for phonetic qualities, not meaning. The extra character was inserted for legibility. The local people knew how to read the name of their village, but other people might have been confused as to the pronunciation. Also, before the post WWII spelling reforms, the first kanji 居 iru was not thought of as いる iru but as ゐるwiru/yiru – all 3 pronounced the same, as /iɺɯ̥/.
Details about the foundation of this shrine are unclear, but it most likely predates the Edo Period. That said, in the early Edo Period, there seems to have been a bridge crossing the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River at the location of current 居木橋 Irugibashi Irugi Bridge. Apparently, the shrine was vulnerable to storms and floods damage due to its proximity to the river and so the villagers of 居木橋村 Irugibashi Mura Irugibashi Village re-located the shrine and its associated temple, 観音寺 Kannon-ji to the top of a hill, where it now stands. The entire village was actually moved to the high ground, which is why the bridge that was the namesake of the village and shrine is actually located quite far from this spot.
The area was famous for 雉子 kiji green pheasants so originally, the shrine was called 雉子ﾉ宮 Kiji no Miya Green Pheasant Shrine but in 1872 (Meiji 5), the shrine was renamed Irugi Shrine[ii]. The current structure dates from 1978. In 1889 (Meiji 22), the 5 villages in the area were combined to make 大崎村 Ōsaki Mura Ōsaki Village. This is when the place name 居木 Irugi disappeared[iii].
As I said, the shrine was built on a plateau. The shrine has 3 approaches that I could find. These are called 参道 sandō which means “road to visit a shrine.” The main approach is a long street that runs directly up the hill to main entrance. The left side of the steep stairway is flanked by a man made stone mountain made of lava called 富士塚 Fujizuka Fuji Hill. Fujizuka are artificial “Mini Mt. Fujis” and can be found all throughout Tōkyō (you can see here). Climbing Mt. Fuji has long been considered a kind of spiritual pilgrimage. Those who can’t make the journey to the volcano itself can climb a Fujizuka and earn the same spiritual points. Irugi Shrine’s Fujizuka was built in 1933. At the time of construction, a startling discovery was made. This section of the hill was actually a 貝塚 kaizuka shell mound that dated back to the 縄文時代 Jōmon Jidai Jōmon Period. No proper excavation was carried out, however, until 1968[iv]. Archaeologists determined that the site actually dated all the way back to the early Jōmon Period (4,000–2500 BCE)[v].
What’s a Shell Mound?
In 1877 (Meiji 10), Edward S. Morse famously spotted a shell mound – also called a midden – while riding a train from 東京 Tōkyō to 横浜 Yokohama[vi]. His work was so groundbreaking in Japan that he is considered the Father of Japanese Archaeology. A shell mound is essentially an ancient trash dump that consists of mostly shells, but also bones, pottery, and other human refuse. Morse called the pottery he discovered “cord marked pottery” because of the way it was decorated. The Japanese word 縄文 Jōmon is a literal translation of his description of his term. Today, the top of the Fujizuka features a traditional 灯篭 tōrō Japanese stone lamp made out of excavated earth and shells.
The site is designated as one of the 100 Scenic Spots of Shinagawa, a sort of Japanese History Nerd Pilgrimage that may take you more than a day or two to visit every spot (it’s easy to get distracted along the way because the area is so rich in history). I’ve explored the area extensively and I still haven’t seen all 100 spots. In fact, this was my first time to visit this spot.
Despite being a local shrine, it’s quite active. I visited it on a Friday afternoon around 1 PM and while the shrine itself wasn’t doing anything, there were quite a few people coming and going. The shrine office, which sells お守り o-mamori talismans and other paraphernalia, was open for business[vii]. The shrine performs the usual set of Shintō purification rituals, but its main business is doing traditional, Shintō weddings. The local people and local businesses regularly visit the shrine on special holidays. It’s particularly busy during the first 2 weeks of January when local the employees of local companies come for 初詣 hatsumōde the first shrine visit of the new year.
- My photos of Irugi Shrine
- My article about Omotesandō
- My article on the Ōmori Shell Mound
- Samurai Archives’ article on the Jōmon Period
[i] An interesting note about the Japanese word for pumpkin: The word カボチャ kabocha derives from the Portuguese word for Cambodia which the Japanese of the 1500’s heard as カンボジャ Kanboja. With the ban on Christianity and expulsion of the Portuguese the word was corrupted to its present form.
[ii] If you walk 10-15 minutes to 五反田 Gotanda, you can find a shrine called 雉子神社 Kiji Jinja Kiji Shrine which preserves the reference to green pheasants. By the way, I have an article about Gotanda.
[iii] 居留木橋ｶﾎﾞﾁｬ Irugibashi Kabocha Irugibashi Pumpkin was still a 名物 meibutsu famous food until the end of the Meiji Period. The kanji 南瓜 is actually Chinese, not Japanese.
[iv] The shrine was destroyed in the Firebombing of Tōkyō in March, 1945. It wasn’t fully rebuilt until 1978, after the excavation was completed and enough funds were raised to properly resurrected the shrine to its former glory.
[v] Read more about the Jōmon Period here.
[vi] See my article on the 大森貝塚 Ōmori Kaizuka where he made his important discovery.
[vii] I had some questions about the history of the shrine and the area, but sadly, the staff couldn’t tell me anything that I couldn’t find online.