Takada no Baba
Takada no Baba, or “Takadanobaba” as JR East likes to write it, was a quiet village called 戸塚村 Totsuka Mura Totsuka Village in the Edo Period. While this area was rustic (or suburban at best) at that time, today it’s a buzzing party town that caters to the students of 早稲田大学 Waseda Daigaku Waseda University[i]. As soon as you exit the station, you’ll find a sea of 居酒屋 izakaya Japanese style pubs and restaurants. But just a heads up about drinking in Takada no Baba: These are university students – most of them are lightweights under pressure to overdrink by their peers and 先輩 senpai upper-classmates. They can be loud. They can be obnoxious. They can be oblivious to everything because… they’re lightweights. They stumble around like zombies on the weekend. They pass out on the floors of restaurants. They walk zig-zag and side-puke on the street. They’re basically Japanese salarymen in training. It ain’t pretty.
The name Takada no Baba means “Horse Grounds of Takada Domain.” In the Edo Period, a 馬場 baba horse grounds was a spot, usually a long rectangular shaped spot, for practicing horsemanship and mounted martial arts. While mounted attacks with swords on bound bales of hay was one sort of training, the most interesting practice was a martial art called 流鏑馬 yabusame. This is mounted archery and it looks fucking bad ass. If you are in Japan and have a chance to watch yabusame, I highly recommend it.
As I mentioned earlier, the area was called Totsuka and that was the original name for the station, but it was rejected in favor of the more noble sounding Takada no Baba. Takada no Baba conjured up an image of the area’s connection with the daimyō and samurai class in general – a decidedly 山手 yamanote high city connotation. However, the location of the old horse grounds is not in the immediate station area. The city blocks preserve the shape of the horse grounds and can be found in 戸塚一丁目 Tostuska Icchōme 1st block of Totsuka near 甘泉園公園 Kansen’en Kōen Kansen’en Park, which was part of the 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence of the 清水家 Shimizu-ke Shimizu Clan of Satsuma Domain.
Long time readers may be scratching their heads. Why was Satsuma Domain’s lower residence located next to a horse ground named after Takada Domain (which was located in present day Niigata)? It’s purely coincidence. According to legend, the horse grounds were established in 1636 by the 3rd shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu to honor 茶阿局 Chā no Tsubone, the mother of 1st shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s 6th son. She either loved the area for relaxing in nature or she was a fan of mounted archery (probably the latter). When her and Ieyasu’s son became the daimyō of Takada Domain, she came to be addressed as 高田殿 Takada-dono Lady Takada[ii]. If this theory is correct, and it seems to make sense, the real meaning of the name Takada no Baba is something like the Chā no Tsubone (ie; Lady Takada) Memorial Horse Grounds.
Mejiro means “white eyes” as is commonly thought to be a reference to a Buddhist statue housed at 金乗院 Konjō-in, a nearby temple. The statue has white eyes, but this most definitely a reflection of the place name, not the origin of the place name. In my original article, I went into the etymology pretty thoroughly and so I only have a few things to say about the area today.
Honestly, I haven’t spent any time in Mejiro. In fact, if I ever went there, I really don’t remember. It’s an upscale, residential neighborhood and my image of the area is that if you don’t live there, there’s not much reason to go there. The station only has a single exit – a rare attribute for a train on the Yamanote Line.
The area is home to 学習院大学 Gakushūin Daigaku Gakushuin University, arguably the snobbiest university in Japan. Members of the imperial family, descendants of the former Tokugawa shōgun family, and 宮崎駿 Miyazaki Hayao grace their illustrious list of graduates. Then again, certified nutjobs like 三島由紀夫 Mishima Yukio, 麻生太郎 Asō Tarō, and 小野洋子 Ono Yōko also went here. Pedigree and wealth is the name of the game here. The lower residence of the Owari Tokugawa[iii] was located in this area has been converted into a planned community that takes advantage of the traditional aspects of the old 山手 yamanote high city. There’s a lot of greenery and privacy. Land ownership is encouraged[iv] over renting/buying high rise apartments in order to protect property values and give the residents a sense of security, tranquility, and – let’s face it – isolation.
Mejiro seems like the sorta place I’d like to walk through the streets just getting drunk and rowdy, yelling at people, doing coke, smoking cigarettes, pissing on buildings, and humping trees and cars just to make people feel uncomfortable[v]. Punk’s not dead.
Today, we’ll finish with Ikebukuro.
God, where do I start? First keep in mind that the word 山手 yamanote means high city and used to refer to elite, high ground where samurai and feudal lords lived. But the meaning eventually came to mean areas west of the outer moat of the Imperial Palace (former Edo Castle). This shift in meaning pretty much rendered the terms yamanote and 下町 shitamachi low city (commoner districts) meaningless in many cases. On the surface, Ikebukuro seems to be living proof of this. But yeah, Ikebukuro has always been a lowland area, both geographically and metaphorically.
Ikebukuro is essentially the Armpit of Tōkyō. A lot of people say Minami Senju is the Armpit, but at least Minami Senju has some deep history. Ikebukuro is crowded, smells awful, and excels at sucking. The area was countryside until the 1950’s and for history nerds, there’s no reason to visit this place that I can think of. The name Ikebukuro literally means “pond bag” but is actually a reference to the land between 2 bodies of water. This area was essentially a marsh or wetland and the original village built in the area was called 池袋村 Ikebukuro Mura Ikebukuro Village – the village between 2 lakes (probably used for rice farming).
Being a wetlands area, for a long time I thought that the only reason Ikebukuro was on the Yamanote Line was because it connects 新宿 Shinjuku and 大塚 Ōtsuka, which were both home to 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki palatial “lower residences” of daimyō. But upon closer inspection, it seems there was a concentration of 武家屋敷 buke yashiki samurai residences in the area. Even though it was rural and marshy, the presence of samurai families in a location west of Edo Castle qualify parts of Ikebukuro as yamanote in both the Edo Period and modern day definitions. But strictly speaking this area was not part of the shōgun’s capital. This would have been 武蔵国豊嶋郡 Musashi no Kuni Toshima-gun Toshima District, Musashi Province and it was pretty much rural until recently.
As I mentioned in the introductory article of this series, the Yamanote Line evolved out of an original train line connecting Shinagawa and Akabane (on the border of Tōkyō Metropolis and Saitama Prefecture).
In the 1950’s, to avoid overcrowding in central Tōkyō, the so-called 都心 toshin city center, development began in several 副都心 fuku-toshin sub-centers. Ikebukuro was one of these and later, so was 大宮 Ōmiya in Saitama. 2 trains provide direct access from Ōmiya to Ikebukuro which means it’s really easy for rural Saitama-folk to get access to the capital. Since the Bubble Years, Ikebukuro has come to be associated with Saitama. That is to say, Tōkyōites generally don’t have a good impression of Ikebukuro. The reason is simple: Saitama is to Tōkyō what New Jersey is to New York.
Sunshine City is the area’s main claim to fame. It’s a large shopping development that is one of the most architecturally bland structures in Tōkyō. It features, I dunno, a half-assed aquarium, a half-assed planetarium, and a half-assed museum of Ancient Asian History[vi]. There’s an observation deck where, on a clear day, you can take a picture of the boring, dirty, and smelly shopping area called Ikebukuro. Amazing, huh?
To Read About the Place’s Boring Etymology:
- Here’s my original article on Ikebukuro
- And my article on Senju
- Kozukappara Execution Grounds (related to Senju)
- What does Toshima mean?
- What does Shinjuku mean?
[i] Waseda is a fairly prestigious school in Japan, but gained the image of a party school when it was rocked by a scandal in the early 2000’s. A student club was organizing huge parties executing coordinated rapes and gang rapes female attendees. Luckily, some of the organizers and participants were arrested and jailed, but who knows how many people got off free or how many other victims there are that have never come forward? It’s pretty fucking disgusting.
[ii] This is a reflection of a linguistic taboo in Pre-Modern Japan about referring directly to a person by name. This taboo is still evidenced in modern Japanese culture by a tendency to avoid words like “you” when referring to people you’re not close with. Names are OK with honorific suffixes like ～さん -san or ～さま -sama, but sometimes even the polite あなた anata you is avoided. Calling her Chā or even Chā no Tsubone (which is a title) would have been presumptuous.
[iii] Does Nagoya Castle ring a bell?
[iv] A very costly option in Tōkyō.
[v] For the record, while I do enjoy a drink now and then, I absolutely HATE smoking and I don’t do coke. In fact, I rarely even drink Coca-Cola, lololol. I prefer tea, thank you very much.
[vi] OK, full disclosure. I’ve never seen the aquarium, planetarium, or museum, but they sound a little lame. If you’ve been, let me know your impressions in the comments section.