I don’t think I’ve ever gotten off the Yamanote Line at Ōtsuka Station. Sure, I’ve seen it on maps and I’ve definitely passed the station many times[i]. The area is primarily residential, but is also home to a variety of restaurants, cafés, and izakaya[ii]. If the hustle and bustle of Ikebukuro or Shinjuku isn’t to your liking, you can probably find something to eat near this station.
The place name literally means “the big mound.” The word for mound is usually associated with graves or memorial monuments. In this case, it’s said that there was a 古墳 kofun ancient burial mound[iii] located in the area[iv]. Long time readers will know that in the Heian Period and Kamakura Period, local Kantō strongmen adopted the place names of their territories as family names to distinguish their particular branches of the old western noble families. The story goes that a certain provincial warlord of 豊嶋郡小石川村 Toshima-gun Koishikawa Mura Koishikawa Village, Toshima District adopted the name Ōtsuka. It’s not clear where they were based and the family’s pedigree and provenance is obscure[v], but at any rate, the name Ōtsuka stuck and the name 大塚村 Ōtsuka Mura Ōtsuka Village eventually appeared on a map in 1629[vi].
The concept of a “great mound” was not limited to this area. In fact, Ōtsuka is a very common place name all around Japan. There’s even a Paleolithic trash dump[vii] in Ibaraki Prefecture that bears the name Ōtsuka and a well-known kofun in Tōkyō’s Setagaya Ward that also bears the name. Because of this commonality, there are many families called Ōtsuka. In fact, it’s the 82nd most common name in Japan.
Fans of J-Pop may be familiar with the singer, 大塚愛 Ōtsuka Ai[viii]. She got a little negative attention when she released her 2004 album, Love Jam, which featured strawberry jelly splattered across her face and hair on the album cover. The album artwork got a lot of attention after a huge billboard was put up in Shibuya in the direction of 道玄坂 Dōgenzaka[ix], a hill that leads to Shibuya’s red light (famous for, yes, drinking & whoring, love hotels, and swinger bars). Passersby instantly connected the splattered “love jam” imagery with a genre of porn that had recently become mainstream – that is to say, bukkake.
For those of you who appreciate a little blasphemy, I’m about to make a connection you probably never thought of. In 2002, the largest Japanese pornography company, Soft On Demand (SOD), released a video[x] starring one of the hottest actresses at the time, 堤さやか Tsutsumi Sayaka. The video in question jokingly suggested that the term bukkake derived from a quasi-religious term, 仏賭 bukkake, which means something like “gambling on Buddha” or “Buddha gambling.”[xi]
Fuck, I lost my train of thought.
Oh, right. Buddhism.
So anyhoo, one of Tōkyō’s major temples is located in Ōtsuka. Its name is 護国寺 Gokoku-ji Gokoku Temple. The temple was built by decree of the 5th shōgun, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi and dedicated to his mother, 桂昌院 Keishō-in[xii]. The temple houses the grave of a certain English architect who launched a new era in aristocratic and state-related architecture in the post-Edo Period. His name was Josiah Conder and we’re gonna talk about him later in the article.
I’m gonna take a break to admire Sayaka’s brilliant corpus of work, and then I’ll meet you all at the next station[xiii].
The most commonly touted origin of this place name is that because it was a wetland area, there were many 鴨 kamo geese living in the area. 巣 su means nest and so the idea goes that this area was a bunch of 鴨の巣 kamo no su goose nests. The problem is that the order of the kanji doesn’t quite work out. If the name were Kamosu (goose nest) instead of Sugamo (nest goose), this etymology would hold up. The fact of the matter is that this word is probably much older than the historical record, so it’s most likely 当て字 ateji kanji used for phonetic reasons rather than meaning[xiv]. A future article discussing the other possible origins of this place name is forthcoming, either immediately after this Yamanote Line Series or in the late summer.
Sugamo is usually famous for 2 things. First and foremost, it’s famous for old people. Old people loooooove this place. Secondly, it’s famous for drinking and whoring[xv].
Yeah, the area has a thriving sex industry. There’s not much to say about it because it is what it is. It’s not as big as what’s found in Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, or Minowa[xvi], but it is a very well-known destination for those looking for paid sexual adventures.
But what’s more noticeable is the sheer amount of senior citizens and the shops catering to them[xvii]. The most noticeable product being sold is 赤パンツ aka pantsu red underwear. In many Asian countries, red is an auspicious color thought to bring health and good fortune to anyone, but the elderly often need more good luck than most when it comes to health which make red underwear a funny and well-meaning present for aged loved ones. Also, there are a few shops specializing in 漢方 kanpō, traditional Chinese herbal medicine[xviii]. On top of all that, you can find a lot of great traditional foods in the area. I had soba at a restaurant in the area that was fantastic. They made the noodles by hand in the store window and blended different types of buckwheat from around Japan to achieve different tastes and textures[xix]. There are also shops specializing in Japanese sweets that downplay the sweetness – not that traditional J-sweets are sweet by western standards. But the idea is that old people lose their sense of taste, so eating subtle sweets with green tea is thought to exercise the mind and the taste buds[xx].
So, just why are all these old people descending upon this area in droves? And why are all these shops catering to the elderly? The reason is simple, really. This particular niche market is an outgrowth of the presence of 高岩寺 Kōgan-ji Kōgan Temple which is home to a particular object of reverence, the とげぬき地蔵尊 Togenuki Jizō-son spirit who takes away your maladies. The traditional belief is that through some sort of sympathetic magic, if you wash the part of statue that corresponds to the ailing part of your body[xxi], the Jizō will absorb your pain and thus you will be cured.
Sugamo is crawling with old people and all of them stop by Kōgan-ji. This is truly a sight to see. And by all means, visit the temple and wash the statue. However, if you’re actually sick, see a doctor. Last I checked, statues don’t cure diseases or fix baldness[xxii].
OK, so, yeah, I’ve written about Komagome in the past. And I’ll say right now that we don’t know the etymology of this place name for sure. It seems to be quite ancient and falls in line with other horse-related place names in the area. The Kantō area was traditionally famous for horse breeding in the Heian Period and earlier. Horse breeding is also closely associated with the rise of the samurai in the East[xxiii].
There are quite a few reasons a history fan might want to explore Komagome. The first reason to come here is to visit 六義園 Rikugi-en, one of the few remaining daimyō gardens in Tōkyō. The garden was built by 柳沢吉保 Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, who was made lord of Kōfu Domain by the 5th shōgun, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi – the so-called “dog shōgun.”[xxiv] Yoshiyasu seems to have been a tastemaker of his day – an arbiter of elegance, if you will – but he was also a spiteful little prick hell bent on destroying the reputation of Tsunayoshi’s former lover. Oh, sorry. I forgot to mention that after the shōgun broke up with his old sidedick, 喜多見重政 Kitami Shigemasa, Yoshiyasu became the shōgun’s new favorite and got all sorts of new status and rank as a result. If you’ve ever been dumped and shit on by your ex and his/her new partner, you probably haven’t even had it this bad. Yoshiyasu set out to destroy Shigemasa[xxv].
Another reason to go to Komagome is to visit another garden called the 旧古川庭園 Kyū-Furugawa Teien Old Furugawa Gardens. This garden was the former property of a Japanese aristocrat whose name isn’t really important for this article[xxvi]. What is important is that the residence that still stands here today was built by a guy named Josiah Conder. Known as ジョサイア・コンドル Josaia Kondoru, but sometimes as コンドル暁英 Kondoru Kyōei in Japanese, he has come to known as the father of Japanese architecture. He was an Englishman who taught at the University of Tōkyō and built many prestigious buildings in Japan, including the 鹿鳴館 Rokumeikan, a party hall for elite Japanese to entertain foreign dignitaries. They could hobnob with foreign elite and learn about all things western while showing off how western they could be[xxvii].
The Rokumeikan was Conder’s magnum opus, but it was actually located quite far from here. That said, here in Komagome, Josiah built the western style residence of Meiji Era businessman 古河市兵衛 Furukawa Ichibei – hence the name Old Furukawa Gardens. To modern westerners, this house isn’t anything special. However, in 1917, just 6 years after the death of the Meiji Emperor, a western-style manor like this was still a rarity. Tucked away on a former daimyō residence, the average Tōkyōite would have been very unfamiliar with this architectural mode[xxviii]. The only people who set eyes upon this home before the 1950’s were top industrialists, diplomats, politicians, and military leaders.
Oh, and now you can go back to Ōtsuka Station to visit Gokoku-ji to visit his grave.
All of that stuff is cool, but if you ask me, there is a much cooler place to see. It’s totally obscure and admittedly it’s not much to see today, but it’s one of those places where you can play your Japanese history nerd card if you’ve actually been.
So, yeah, if you ever make a friend from Komagome and you’re hell-bent on impressing them, you can try asking them about the Edo Period home of the Komagome Village Headman – which actually still exists today and is still owned by the same family[xxix]. It’s a private residence, so I don’t recommend ringing the doorbell or trying to open the gate[xxx]. The compound is walled off and – to the best of my knowledge – always closed to the public. But from the outside, you can see the original Edo Period gate and fence which are in excellent condition. This gives you a real firsthand view of what residences of samurai or high ranking commoners would have looked like at the time. In central Tōkyō, this is almost unheard of today. That said, I bet most residents of Komagome have no idea this place exists.
- What does Komagome mean?
- Home of the Komagome Village Headmen
- What does Kitami mean? (learn about what a dick Yoshiyasu was)
- What does Uchisaiwaichō mean? (mentions the Rokumeikan)
- Wiki’s article on foreign advisors in Meiji Japan[xxxi], of which Conder was one of many.
So we’ve been all over the place today, haven’t we? Something like 4 stations in just one article, right? Fuck, my head is spinning. Yet, here we are in a place most people have never heard of called Tabata.
Tabata is pretty much a no man’s land on the Yamanote Line. Its 商店街 shōtengai shopping street is a byproduct of the Shōwa Period, but on the surface, this neighborhood isn’t much more than a residential area built up during the post war years. However, it does have a distinctly Shōwa Era 下町 shitamachi low city feel. An artist friend of mine lived here while he got his master’s degree in fine arts. I came over to his place for a birfday party once and that’s was my most in depth exposure to the area.
The place name is ancient and is thought to mean something like “plateau on the edge of the fields.” There is a plateau and the area was rural until quite recently so, this etymology seems legit[xxxii]. In 1889 (Meiji 22), the Tōkyō University of Fine Arts was established in Ueno. This saw an influx of writers and artists to the surrounding areas. Tabata became particularly well known for a concentration of influential Meiji Era authors who lived in the newly developing area and it earned the nickname 文士村 Bunshi Mura Writers Village. Although the area isn’t a mecca for authors anymore, it’s still home to reasonably priced housing that appeals to graduate students of the Fine Arts University and artists trying to make a names for themselves.
Unless you want to check out the topography to compare the elevations of the former plains and the plateau, I can’t think of any reason to ever come here[xxxiii]. However, if you’re really into Meiji Era Japanese literature, the 田端文士村記念館 Tabata Bunshi Mura Kinenkan Tabata Writers Village Museum is located near the station[xxxiv]. The museum features memorabilia related to 芥川龍之介 Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, the so-called Father of the Japanese Short Story. Ryūnosuke was a mover and shaker of the new Meiji Era literary movement. He combined Sino-Japanese traditions with western traditions. He was also suffered from some kind of trauma or severe depression and killed himself at age 35. He also had some pretty wild hair going on.
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[i] And by many times, I’m including a few early mornings after drinking all night and immediately falling asleep on the Yamanote Line and just going around in circles for hours until waking up and realizing I was still on the train. Ahhhh, my first years in Japan – those were the days lol.
[ii] Usually defined as “Japanese style pubs,” but more drinking/eating establishment that focus on individual groups than an open free-for-all like western style pubs.
[iii] What’s a kofun? Click here to find out.
[iv] Where is this kofun located? Good question. I have no idea if its existence is confirmed.
[v] They are generally referred to as 小名 shōmyō minor feudal lords. The term is literally the opposite of daimyō: 小名 shōmyō minor name, 大名 daimyō major name.
[vi] This was in the early years of the rule of the 3rd shōgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu.
[vii] You can call it a shell mound (cuz it was full of discarded shells) or a midden.
[viii] She’s a great performer, and because of her use of double entendre and veiled references to sex, it’s not surprising that people made the connection between her poster and bukkake. Many are convinced it was a deliberate and calculated marketing decision. I do want to say that the album Love Jam features one of the great summer songs of Japan, 金魚花火 Kingyo Hanabi (Goldfish Fireworks). I love this song.
[ix] A place name that I haven’t covered yet. Sorry.
[x] The video was entitled ロリタザーメン Rorita Zāmen Lolita Semen and was apparently so popular that it was re-released in 2004. You can preview/buy this classic video here. Don’t ask how I know all of this.
[xi] This was a 100% pure fabrication on the part of the production company. Bukkake is actually a non-sexual term that refers “pouring onto something.” The famous example that is usually cited is the ubiquitous dish, ぶっ掛け饂飩 bukkake udon. When making this dish, you pour the broth on to the noodles in a bowl.
[xii] Keishō-in is the Buddhist name she took after retirement. Her actual name was 御玉 O-tama.
[xiii] By the way – and this is no joke, while looking for a pic of Tsutsumi Sayaka, I googled her name in Japanese a picture of the cover art for Ōtsuka Ai’s Love Jam came up. Apparently I’m not the only one making this connection. The only difference is I’m using etymology and history to masquerade as an educator of some sort lol.
[xiv] What’s ateji? Here you go. This article is constantly updated and recently it’s turned to dogshit. Don’t blame me for what you read, but in general used to be pretty good.
[xv] It’s famous for a third thing, Sugamo Prison, but was actually located in present day Ikebukuro. I’m not posting a link to the articles on Sugamo because I’m not you’re bitch. Just use the search function or google (it was in the previous article, btw).
[xvi] Minowa = Yoshiwara.
[xvii] It seems there’s a ﾋﾟﾝｻﾛ pinsaro pink salon (a blowjob shop) that caters to the fantasy of men who fancy getting blown by women in their 60’s and 70’s. Not my cup of tea, but definitely rocking the Sugamo image like a boss lol.
[xviii] Apparently, the testing and manufacture of Japanese kanpō is highly regulated, but I don’t trust it. If medical marijuana gets approved – which has proven uses, I might trust it. But if they won’t even take that step, then I’m just 100% suspicious of these leafy, bad-tasting concoctions.
[xix] The shop keep claimed the blends were developed in the Edo Period and Meiji Period to cater to the varying tastes of samurai from outer provinces stationed in Edo during sankin-kōtai duty. He said Edo’s soba didn’t taste good to the provincial samurai/merchants, but shops that blended exotic buckwheat strains appealed to both provincials and Edoites alike. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it may have a kernel of truth in it.
[xx] This clearly isn’t backed up by science, but it seems to make sense from a “keep your mind as active as possible for as long as you’re alive” standpoint.
[xxi] Note, I didn’t say “body part,” but “part of the body.” That’s because this is just a statue. Ain’t no real healing happening here.
[xxii] I’ve tested the baldness cure first hand. Sadly, didn’t work.
[xxiii] Early samurai were generally mounted warriors; however by the Edo Period horseback riding was restricted to the highest echelons of the samurai class.
[xxiv] Informed by his Buddhist principals, shōgun Tsunayoshi issued several decrees protecting living creatures beginning with dogs because he had been born in the Year of the Dog. If the stories are to be believed, huge kennels had to be built to house all of the stray dogs that began to overrun the city. Anyways, this earned him the nickname 犬公方 inu kubō the dog shōgun.
[xxv] You can get the whole story here.
[xxvi] His name was 陸奥宗光 Mutsu Munemitsu, if you care.
[xxvii] Here’s what Wiki has to say about the Rokumeikan.
[xxviii] Remember, most of the city was still more or less Edo – still a wooden city, but now with trains and trolleys.
[xxix] The family is called 高木 Takagi.
[xxxi] In their time, they were called 御雇ひ外國人 o-yatoi gaikokujin.
[xxxii] Some have suggested the place name is actually prehistoric. If that’s the case, we can never know the true origin of the place name.
[xxxiii] Besides my friend’s birfday party, the only time I ever came here was for a stupid one night stand. That was cool and all. Since it was on the Yamanote Line, it made it easy to get the fuck outta there and go home the next morning ASAP, if you know what I mean.
[xxxiv] Hopefully you can read Japanese literature in Japanese because this museum apparently has no English exhibitions.
3 thoughts on “Yamanote Line: Ōtsuka, Sugamo, Komagome, Tabata”
All these years and I never knew Sugamo was such a dirty place xD
Please, please, PLEASE, take your verbal diarrhoea and stash it away somewhere the mice won’t get at it. Honestly, getting through the expletive riddled guff you wrote was a real uphill struggle. Leave that garbage at home unless you are simply hell-bent on trying to look cool to ten-year-olds…
Hey man, I didn’t come to you. You came to this site by your own volition. If you’re such an easily offended little snowflake, feel free to go elsewhere and enjoy all the other websites out there about Japanese history and whatnot. But when you’re on MY website, you play by my rules. I won’t come to your well researched, personally financed, personally time invested site and tell you how do things.