It’s a weird thing that I’ve encountered over the years but I’ve gotten a few emails asking me to cover Meguro. I usually send them a link to my original article about Meguro and tell them that I have, in fact, already covered Meguro and explain how to search the site and send the link to the article. One person was like, “but can you really cover Meguro in depth?”
Sadly, the answer is, “Probably not in the detail that you’re asking.” You see, I rarely go to Meguro. It’s a residential area with great local shops, but for the most part it’s a local area that other Tōkyōites mostly associate with 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. The problem is compounded by the definition of Meguro you’re using. Today, it’s important to keep in mind that we are discussing the 目黒駅付近 Meguro Eki fukin Meguro Station Area, not the greater 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward. The ward is large and has many stations on many different train lines. Since we’re talking about the Yamanote Line, we’re not venturing far from Meguro Station.
To me, Meguro is a lovely ward and the Meguro Station area is quite famous because it gives instant access to the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River which is lined on both banks with tall cherry blossom trees. It’s one of the most famous hanami spots in the city. Local cafes and restaurants line the river and often set up temporary food stands to cater to hanami goers’ appetites. A few food trucks and other 屋台 yattai food stands also set up shop where they can. Recently, Turks and Iranians selling donner kebabs have been gaining popularity, but traditional Japanese street food like 焼鳥 yaki tori, 団子 dango, and other festival foods are available. Needless to say, there is alcohol everywhere (though, you’re best buying that at a convenience store or supermarket away from the river area because the food stands markup that shit big time).
Meguro Station gives access to the 目黒寄生虫館 Meguro Kiseichūkan Meguro Parasite Museum and 龍泉寺 Ryūsen-ji Ryūsen Temple. The Parasite Museum is supposedly a popular date site – though I’ve never met a person who went on a date there – and Ryūsen-ji is a temple dedicated to a wrathful Buddhist “deity” named Acala, who is called 御不動様 O-fudō-sama, “the unmovable one” in Japanese. Because the statue of this Buddha has black eyes (目 me eyes, 黒 kuro black), there is a popular etymology that the name of the area is derived from this temple[i]. The problem with Ryūsen-ji is that it’s a good 15 minute walk from Meguro Station. Normally, I wouldn’t include it except for that etymologic connection.
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I’ve covered a lot of place names over the years while writing this blog and Ebisu is actually one of the most boring from an etymological standpoint. Have you ever heard of Ebisu Beer? Oh, let me spell that differently. Have you ever heard of Yebisu Beer? The station and area is named after the Yebisu Beer Company which used to have a factory here. That’s the etymology.
I’m not being flippant, though. Yebisu Beer is effing delicious and is a source of pride in Japan. As far as Japanese macro beers go, it’s up there at the top[iii].
What does Ebisu mean?
I’ve already written about this and you can check it out here, but 恵比寿 Ebisu is the name one of the 七福神 shichi fukujin 7 gods of good luck. In the old writing system, those kanji could be rendered as ゑびす/ヱビス both of which are read as Ebisu.
Yebisu is an obsolete transliteration of Ebisu common before the writing reforms in post war Japan. Fans of Japanese horror may know the word 怪談 kaidan ghost stories by its archaic transliteration kwaidan, a term which was popularized by the author Lafcadio Hearn by his book Kwaidan and the 1964 movie by the same title. These words, like many other Japanese words, were updated to reflect the Japanese spelling reforms that came to pass in the post war years. Nobody ever said kwaidan or Yebisu since the 12th century or so, so the new romanization as kaidan and Ebisu were no brainers. The beer continued to use the archaic spelling as an affectation. I guess from a branding standpoint, it makes the beer appear classic. The train station, on the other hand, uses the modern transliteration.
What to do in Ebisu
Well, I don’t spend much time there personally, but I definitely say “there’s a lot to do in Ebisu!” For locals, just chilling out in the area is enough. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes in the area, and Ebisu Garden Place, a massive shopping area built on the former site of the Ebisu Beer Factory and HQ, offers enough for anyone to hang out in. For tourists, this area may be a little boring. It’s pretty westernized and actually caters to the international crowd – be they Japanese who are internationalized or wealthy expats who live within the Yamanote Loop. That said, there are two places that may be worth your time.
The first place you should know is the ヱビスビール記念館 Ebisu Bīru Kinenkan Museum of Yebisu Beer which tells the history of beer in Japan but also the history of the Sapporo Brewing Company. One might think that this is something unrelated to Japanese history, but believe me when I tell you this now: beer and modern Japanese history go hand in hand. Beer and the history of Tōkyō in particular go hand in hand. I don’t have a course planned out yet, but I’m working on Japanese History + Beer guided tour that is essentially an all-day booze-a-thon focused on historical spots. Think of it as an intellectual pub crawl that starts at the Beer Museum. Hit me up, if you’re interested.
As a center of art and culture, Tōkyō never disappoints on the museum side of things. However, recently there are more tourists than ever coming to Japan. Most of the tourist attractions and museums are being overrun by unruly tourist groups[iv]. The museums in Ueno are particularly insane these days. But if you wanna check out some well curated photography exhibitions that most tourists never go to, I suggest the 東京都写真美術館 Tōkyō-to Shashin Bijutsukan Tōkyō Photographic Art Museum (also called the TOP Museum for short) in Ebisu Garden Place. The exhibitions constantly change, so I can’t vouch for every showcase, but in my experience the museum is pretty consistent in quality. I’ve seen exhibits that focus on art history to exhibits that focus on the theater of the absurd – they pretty much run the gamut. It’s mostly locals who frequent the museum, especially couples, so it might be better to skip the bigger, more famous museums to check out this little gem on a weekday.
There’s One Snag, tho…
The Tōkyō Photographic Art Museum, as awesome as it is, has been undergoing a 2 year renovation project. So at the time of this writing, you can’t visit the museum. It’s slated to re-open in September of 2016 and my guess is it will be even more amazing than before. Unfortunately, it may become a much more high profile museum than before. I say “unfortunately” because in the past it’s been kind of a secret spot. After the renovation, I fear it will become overcrowded like other famous Tōkyō museums. Fingers crossed!
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[i] This is probably not the case, though, I discuss an alternate theory in my original article.
[ii] Long time readers will remember the horrific train wreck that was my Rivers of Edo-Tōkyō series. I almost quit my blog because of that damn series.
[iii] That said, Japan has an extensive micro/craft brew culture taking root that is putting out some fantastic specialty beers. I don’t want to slam the Japanese macros, though. They put the American macros to shame and I would never put them in the same category, but expats and some Japanese with experience abroad have started to call into question the traditional macros over the last 5-10 years. But this is a conversation for another time. Perhaps another post altogether.
[iv] I’m not going to single out a particular nationality, but you can probably guess who the usual suspects are.