Shinagawa (river of products[i])
One feature of the Yamanote Line is the presence of regularly occurring hub stations. These stations feed into other train and bus networks and handle an extremely high volume of commuter traffic. Shinagawa Station connects 5 trains lines and 1 新幹線 shinkansen high speed line[ii]. The reason the station is an important hub, is actually historic and goes back to the area’s importance as a coastal distribution center and one of the main access points to Edo for travelers coming from western Japan.
品川駅 Shinagawa Eki Shinagawa Station is the first station on maps issued by JR East Japan for the 山手線 Yamanote-sen Yamanote Line. In 1885 (Meiji 18), when the train was a simple route from former 江戸湾 Edo-wan[iii] Edo Bay to the northernmost suburbs of 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō City, this was the logical start of a south-north train route, for both commercial traffic and commuter traffic. The final destination was 赤羽駅 Akabane Eki Akabane Station on the border of southern 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Saitama Prefecture. It was also the logical starting point of train traffic from the previously shōgunal/now imperial capital to 横浜 Yokohama (a port city) and 京都 Kyōto the former imperial capital[iv]. Shinagawa was the perfect hub by sea and by land. By the 1950’s when Japan debuted its groundbreaking high speed rail system, the shinkansen, the area’s importance as a hub town since feudal times, made it the obvious choice for high speed train service and early plans to incorporate Shinagawa into the projected shinkansen network began early.
Popular etymology says that the name refers to an ancient location where 品 shina goods were delivered from the bay via a 川 kawa river (ie; the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River). This etymology is somewhat suspect, as an older written form 品ヶ輪 Shinagawa is attested in the 1200’s. The older writing isn’t so different, though. It basically implies tying up boats and unloading goods.
- My original article about Shinagawa and Takanawa
- Shinagawa Station: Then and Now
- My article on the Meguro River
- My article on Meguro
Until the 1950’s, Shinagawa was located on the shore of Edo-Tōkyō Bay. The modern Yamanote Line and 京浜東北線 Keihin-Tōhoku-sen Keihin-Tōhoku Line tracks literally mark the old coastline. The area east of the tracks is called 港南 Kōnan the South Bay but is all landfill and There’s even an abattoir that still exists in the area – testament to how far outside of the city center this area once was.
In fact, if you walk out of Shinagawa Station’s old exit, the Takanawa Exit, you’ll find the terrain hilly. If you walk out of the Kōnan Exit, you’ll find the terrain flat. That’s because the Kōnan area is the old beach and ocean floor. Shinagawa in the Edo Period was perched up on highlands that bordered 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay. A simple walk through the area today shows you how much of the elevation differed and still differs to this day.
Pre-Modern Japanese people didn’t go to the beach to suntan and play in the surf. Well, at least the samurai class didn’t[v]. But in towns like Shinagawa, which would have been a day’s walk for most Edoites, landlubbers could get access to the freshest 江戸前寿司 Edomae zushi Edo Style Sushi[vi]. The shore wasn’t lined with beach goers, it was lined with 茶屋 chaya tea houses that offered spacious, open rooms with a view of the bay and the pleasure boats that jetted off here and there. It offered a view of the open sky and before the sunset, views of mountains in other provinces that were inaccessible to most people. At night, special rooms designed for 月見 tsukimi moon viewing allowed guests and geisha to gaze at the moon and stars in the sky and their shimmering reflections in the still waters of the bay. Its reputation for seafood, seaweed, and 飯盛女 meshimori onna prostitutes who worked in the teahouses on the bay was almost unparalleled on the Tōkaidō[vii].
A Post Town
Shinagawa was located on the 旧東海道 Kyū-Tōkaidō Old Tōkaidō Highway linking Edo[viii] with Kyōto[ix]. Travelers from the west could enter the city via this route and after a hard day’s walk, they could take a load off their feet, get a decent meal – most likely local seafood – and watch the moon set over the bay. Drinking & whoring, ever an option in Edo, were no exception here. But as the name and location implies, it was a major fishing area with close ties to the sea. It was ingress to the city for locals. Keep in mind, in the Edo Period, only shōgunate approved daimyō were allowed to come in and out of Edo Bay.
If you’re a history nerd, you could easily spend a day walking 旧品川宿 Kyū-Shinagawa-shuku Old Shinagawa Post Town, you could do a 七福神巡り Shichi Fukujin Meguri a pilgrimage of the 7 gods of good luck (popular during the New Year holiday), or continue the walk from beyond the former post town along the Old Tōkaidō quite a distance.
In the Edo Period, the area along the highway itself was lined with inns, teahouses, and local businesses catering to travelers, but as you got farther from the post town you’d come to the farthest outskirts of Edo, where the execution grounds were located. Mixing killing with the local populace was not just spiritually unclean, it was hygienically unclean – a concept the Japanese seemed to have been aware of to a certain degree since the days of old[x]. But if that’s your thing, the killing floor of the local execution ground is located in the area. I like visiting the area because, yeah, that’s my thing.
Originally, billed as a “rāmen stadium” that was home to 6 or 7 rāmen joints, the space was later expanded to include a “donburi stadium.” 丼ぶり donburi refers to a large bowl of rice with a variety of different toppings. I’ve eaten at quite a few of the rāmen shops there, most are pretty average. Good, but nothing that stands out like なんつッ亭 Nantsuttei which is an exceptional shop that specializes in 豚骨 tonkotsu rāmen[xi]. The owner got his start in 九州 Kyūshū, famous for tonkotsu rāmen while learning the art in 熊本 Kumamoto. The broth is particularly heavy, so I don’t recommend it on hot summer days, but Nantsuttei’s unique point is the use of マー油 māyu a special blend of garlic that is overcooked in 胡麻油 goma abura sesame oil until it turns black. While tonkotsu rāmen is usually milky in color, this broth turns a heavy black color and has a deep, robust flavor that is completely unique among rāmen styles. The shop has won many awards and is not only the most famous rāmen shop in Shinatatsu, it’s one of the most famous shops in all of Japan.
The name 品川宿 Shinagawa-shuku literally means Shinagawa Post Town. The 旧東海道 Kyū-Tōkaidō old Tōkaidō Highway that connected the imperial capital of 京都 Kyōto with the shōgun’s capital of 江戸 Edo ran through this area. The Tōkaidō was arguably the most important highway in the country at the time and reports by the few foreigners who saw it at the time marveled at how busy it was compared to European roads. A post town in the Edo Period consisted of inns, baths, shrines, temples, and other businesses that catered to travelers that lined both sides of the highway in the officially designated post town[xii].
Strictly speaking, Shinagawa-shuku referred to the stretch of the old Tōkaidō that ran from present day Shinagawa Station to… well, it depends who’s talking, I suppose. Strictly speaking, the inn town existed in the area near 北品川駅 Kita-Shinagawa Eki Kita-Shinagawa Station, but as this was one of the busiest post towns of the Edo Period, the town came to span quite a long stretch of the highway – quite far outside of the officially designated area. It petered off about the time you reached the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River and 江原神社 Ebara Jinja Ebara Shrine, but if you explore the area, you should probably keep walking as far as 大森海岸 Ōmori Kaigan the Ōmori Coast where 鈴ヶ森死刑所 Suzugamori Shikeijo Suzugamori Execution Ground was located. Exploring this area can take you anywhere from half a day to a whole day depending on how deep you want to go. Shinagawa-shuku and the old Tōkaidō’s clearly 下町 shitamachi low city atmosphere is a huge contrast from the ultramodern hustle and bustle of the Shinagawa Station area. Shinagawa-shuku was home to more than 90 旅籠屋 hatago-ya inns, 1 本陣 honjin, and 2 脇本陣 waki-honjin. Honjin were special accommodations for daimyō and high ranking shōgunate officials. Waki-honjin were for lower ranking shōgunate officials.
- Check here for an update, I will have a tour of this area prepared soon
- Shinjuku (an example of an extraordinary post town)
- Shinagawa Station: Then and Now
- Guest House Shinagawa-shuku
To be fair, this site is located between the largest gap between stations on the Yamanote Line. It’s pretty much the middle point between 田町駅 Tamachi Eki Tamachi Station and Shinagawa Station. Until the new station is built between these stations, it’s a bit of a hike if you’re interested in seeing it.
In the Edo Period, Tamachi was home to the suburban palaces of many 大名 daimyō feudal lords. It had direct access to the shōgun’s court at 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle by a number of routes. Shinagawa, on the other hand, was located directly on the sea and was an inn town and port town. Shinagawa was much more rural and home to many commoner districts, especially those areas associated with seafood and distribution. Nevertheless, most of the traffic in and out of the shōgun’s capital came via the Tōkaidō. In the early days of the shōgunate, 3 official check points were established to monitor travelers. These check points were called 大木戸 ōkido, literally “big wooden doors.” If you wanted to enter Edo via the Tōkaidō, you had to show your traveling papers at the 高輪大木戸 Takanawa Ōkido Takanawa Check Point. If you wanted to leave via the Tōkaidō, you had to do the same. As the so-called Pax Tokugawa Tokugawa Peace of the Edo Period came to be accepted as a day to day fact of life, security at the 3 main ōkido of Edo became lax and they were eventually abandoned. They were, however, not torn down as they could be reused if need be at a later date and served as useful landmarks to travelers and locals. The stone base of the Takanawa Ōkido remains partially intact[xiii]. It’s not much to look at today, but its presence in art from the Edo Period and Meiji Period attest to its importance as a local landmark. It also puts into perspective something that I’m always mindful of: Edo was the world’s most populous city at one time, but it’s just a tiny corner of the modern 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis today.
- What do Shinagawa & Takanawa mean? (a really old article from 2013)
- What does Nihonbashi mean?
- The 5 Great Highways of Edo
Our next station is a little less famous, but no less interesting. I hope you’ll stick around for the next article. There are currently 29 Yamanote Line stations and we’re just getting started. Let’s do the whole loop together. 1 down and 28 to go!
If you’re gonna be in Japan, let’s take a history tour together!
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[i] Take this meaning with a grain of salt. I want to return to this topic, but in my original 2013 article, I looked at some of the possible origins. I will revisit both place names in detail later.
[ii] Sometimes translated as “bullet train,” but I hate that word. Just call it “shinkansen” and understand what it is.
[iii] At that time 東京湾 Tōkyō-wan Tōkyō Bay.
[iv] Keep in mind, Shinagawa Station serviced western Japan as a commercial route, not passenger route. Passenger traffic from Meiji Era Tōkyō to western Japan began at 新橋 Shinbashi (located in present day 汐留 Shiodome). Service was later moved to 烏森 Karasumori (present day Shinbashi). It’s complicated, but that article is coming soon. So don’t worry too much about it now.
[v] And any class who imitated them.
[vi] By the way, Edomae (Edo Style) means the usual sushi you eat today, minus those fucked up California rolls you eat in America. You can call that sushi if you want to, but it’s not Edomae. Also, today, Edo/Tōkyō Bay is the last place you’d want a fish from today. But I just want to emphasize, Edomae refers to the style of sushi created in Edo that has become the standard for Japanese sushi nationwide.
[vii] Many of these prostitutes had been sold into sexual slavery by indigent farmers in the surrounding countryside.
[viii] Under the control of the 幕府 bakufu shōgunate.
[ix] Under the control of the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court.
[x] To a certain extent. They still had no germ theory.
[xi] Tonkotsu literally means “pork bone” and refers to the rich, milky スープ sūpu broth made by cooking the hell out of pork bones and pork fat. Tonkotsu rāmen is often called 博多ラーメン Hakata rāmen because it was supposedly developed in Hakata, an area of 福岡 Fukuoka in Kyūshū.
[xii] Yes, post towns were officially designated by the shōgunate or local lords, although unofficial post town also existed out of convenience and necessary, mostly to deal with overflow.
[xiii] And largely ignored by the business people who walk past it every day going to lunch or coming to and from work.