Nishi-Nippori, Nippori, Uguisudani
So, yeah. It looks like we’re 10 articles deep into this series exploring Tōkyō via the 山手線 Yamanote-sen Yamanote Line and we’ve already covered 17 of the current 29 stations[i]. That’s pretty good. We’ve covered more than half the of loop in record time. We’re making much better time than my series on the 大江戸線 Ōedo-sen Ōedo Line[ii]. Today, let’s try to bang through 3 more neighborhoods and round that number up to 20 stations.
All right, buckle up and let’s do this!
- Yes, I had a series on Tōkyō’s other loop line, the Ōedo Line.
Nishi-Nippori means West Nippori and it’s not a real place name. It’s just a train station name. Later I’ll talk about what Nippori means, but let’s talk about what the station gives you access to. First and foremost is an area called 道灌山 Dōkan’yama which literally means Dōkan Mountain. It’s allegedly the site of a 出城 dejiro satellite fort built by the warlord 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan to protect 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle[iii]. The plateau still gives a commanding view over the valleys below and it’s clear why this location was important from a military standpoint. Its steep slopes were naturally defensible and you had a view of the entire Kantō Plain, Edo Bay, and Mt. Fuji.
By the Edo Period, Dōkan’yama had become a popular 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing spot. Edoites could enjoy the same view of the Kantō Plain, Edo Bay, and Mt. Fuji – minus the fort and plus the cherry blossoms. Several 浮世絵 ukiyo-e woodblock prints document the beauty of the area[iv].
I’ve Covered All of this Before:
OK, I promised to tell you what Nippori means, but I kinda lied. The name is actually a bit of a mystery. You can read my original article about the etymology here. The name is most likely 当て字 ateji kanji used for its phonetic values rather than meaning. This hints at a particular ancient or possibly prehistoric name[v]. The oldest writing was 新堀 which just means “new moat” or “new canal,” the present writing is 日暮里 which means “village where you can spend the whole day.” This latter spelling became codified in the early Meiji Period and was more or less a marketing ploy. People had been visiting the area as tourists for almost a hundred years, the locals wanted to keep ‘em coming. In the days when you had to walk everywhere, the journey from central Edo to Nippori was basically a day trip – the equivalent of a modern Tōkyōite’s trip to Kamakura today[vi].
The area called Nippori is usually considered 下町 shitamachi low city by most Tōkyōites. It’s urban but residential, gritty, and really traditional and old fashioned. However, this image of shitamachi is relatively recent. In fact, it’s a post WWII view of the area.
As I said earlier, Dōkan’yama is a hilly plateau where a samurai warlord lived. That’s the very definition of the 山手 yamanote high city. That said, for much of its existence, this area was country during the Edo Period. Some samurai families lived on the hills and plateaux in the area. Some daimyō and rich people had second houses out here as well in the Edo Period. But the first real growth in the area was fueled by the establishment of 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji Kan’ei Temple in 上野 Ueno with the express purpose of being a funerary temple of the Tokugawa Shōguns[vii]. After a series of fires and natural disasters during the rule of the 11th shōgun, 徳川家斉 Tokugawa Ienari, many temples and shrines were moved from central Edo out here to the suburbs. They had less chance of falling prey to conflagrations, the so-called 江戸の華 Edo no Hana “flowers of Edo.”[viii]
Nippori Station gives you direct access to 谷中霊園 Yanaka Rei’en Yanaka Cemetery. This is the largest necropolis in Tōkyō and is home to pre-Edo Period graves right up to present day. Although the cemetery is generally considered a single entity, it’s actually 2 separate cemeteries. On the Nippori side, it is a state maintained cemetery formerly owned by 天王寺 Ten’ō-ji Ten’ō Temple, on the Ueno side, it’s a privately owned graveyard overseen by Kan’ei-ji. The two sprawling cemeteries eventually blended into one[ix]. The differences between the properties aren’t marked, but are instantly visible if you have a keen eye for detail in Japanese cemeteries. You’ll see almost every type of Japanese grave from so many eras here. It might seem morbid, but actually, it’s one of the most peaceful and interesting places in Tōkyō. It’s fitted with playgrounds and picnic areas and has so many famous graves that it’s one of the main destinations for Japanese history lovers. It’s also my most requested tour – go figure!
Wanna Know More?
- Wanna take a tour of this cemetery?
- What does Nippori mean?
- What does Sendagi mean?
- What does Dōkan’yama mean?
- Graves of the Tokugawa Shōguns!
Uguisudani is a place name that means “nightingale valley” and evokes a bucolic image of the time when this was once a favorite destination of Edoites who wanted to enjoy the calls of birds. In fact, Uguisudani Station plays recordings of nightingales on the train platform. Although the name has long been preserved by locals, there isn’t an official postal code designated Uguisudani. There area is actually called 根岸 Negishi and Uguisudani is just the station name. The enjoyment of the natural and mellifluous songs of birds in a simpler time before TV and the constant barrage of 24/7 media is a poetic and beautiful image.
The legend goes that a certain potter and ceramic artist from Kyōto named 尾形乾山 Ogata Kenzan visited the chief priests of nearby 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji the Tokugawa Funerary Temple in the area[x]. Having heard from the priests that the nightingales of Edo sang in an uncouth accent or dialect, he brought nightingales from Kyōto that could “sing proper” and released them in the area. He hoped the birds would flourish and that their songs would bring peace of mind to the priests of Kan’ei-ji and the spirits of the departed shōguns that rested on the top of the Ueno Plateau.
The 2 stories we have are part of the standard narrative and there’s not much we can say about how accurate they are, but they definitely seem to corroborate each other. Another etymology – much less well known – is also in circulation. Uguisudani is located in a strikingly noticeable valley beneath the Ueno Plateau where the shōguns were buried and where many samurai and daimyō lived. Many artists who preferred the Edo Period equivalent of the Bohemian life kept second homes in the 下町 shitamachi commoner district of present day Uguisudani[xi]. Because this was the periphery of the city and far from home, the low city catered to the more carnal desires of its moneyed inhabitants. If this theory is to be believed, there are 2 explanations being floated around. One, the reference to the beautiful song of the nightingale actually derives from the 喘ぎ声 aegigoe cries of pleasure of prostitutes heard throughout the neighborhood. Or two, the story of Kenzan bringing nightingales who could “sing proper” was a case of relocating prostitutes fluent in the Kyōto dialect and manners to the area to service the priests of Kan’ei-ji who just weren’t down with the unsophisticated Kantō girls of the Early Edo Period.
I like the first explanation. People came here for bird watching. And indeed, people did come to this area for day trips to visit temples and shrines and to do 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. The bird watching thing makes sense. On the other hand, if you exit Uguisudani Station today, you are in the heart of a very notorious love hotel district replete with a vibrant and sometimes over the top sex industry. For a town that wasn’t a post town, it’s quite remarkable how much of a sex industry exists here.
No matter which etymology you believe[xii], the elevation and difference between the high city and low city is obvious. A walk through the maze that is Uguisudani speaks volumes about its low city heritage, but also its long standing reliance on the sex industry, and until recently the yakuza[xiii].
I love Uguisudani. It’s one of the last bastions of shitamachi culture. Sure, it’s clinging to the post-WWII Shōwa culture, but even that represents Edo’s commoner culture in so many ways. I try to come here as often as I can.
I Provide Extensive Tours of all of these Areas:
- JapanThis! Tours (let’s hang out!)
- Graves of the Tokugawa Shōguns
- My original article on Uguisudani
- My video on reading the special topography of Tōkyō
- My photos of Japan, including Edo-Tōkyō
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[i] A third major hub station is planned and expected to be in preparation before the 2020 Tōkyō Olympics.
[ii] The term 大江戸 Ōedo means “the greater Edo area” and refers to the shōgun’s capital as well as the surrounding areas that absorbed its unique culture. Here’s my series on the Ōedo Line.
[iii] In Dōkan’s time, I wouldn’t use the term “castle.” It was basically a robust, fortified residence. The image of a typical Japanese castle didn’t come to Edo Castle until the arrival of the Tokugawa in about 1600.
[iv] I’m a huuuuuuuuge love of ukiyo-e, so please check out this book.
[v] Prehistoric just means before a reliable written history existed.
[vi] From Nihonbashi to Nippori would have taken an Edoite about 2-3 hours. Today it would be about 15 minutes by train. From Edo to Kamakura would have been a 2 day walk at bare minimum. However, today you could probably make the walk in 10 hours, but by train it’s roughly 45 minutes.
[vii] Its counterpart was 増上寺 Zōjō-ji Zōjō Temple in Shiba. Here’s my article on Shiba. (It’s old)
[viii] This might seem strange but fights among couples and neighborhood fires were called “Flowers of Edo.” Lovers’ quarrels were seen as unsightly and everyone ignored them so as to not get involved and then the couple would make up and “bloom again.” Likewise, the constant fires of the low city were seen as embarrassing but they saw quick rebuilding and investment in destroyed neighborhoods which also saw the areas “bloom again.”
[ix] After WWII, much of the land of the land surrounding the old Tokugawa mausolea was sold off as family burial plots to average citizens.
[x] At that time, roughly the Genroku Period, the chief priests of Kan’ei-ji were a branch of the imperial family in Kyōto. It’s implied that Kenzan’s visit to the area was due to his connections with the imperial court.
[xi] This practice was uncommon if you had the means. It was a way to escape the family and keep what we would call a “private studio” today. Likeminded artists, writers, and merchants would also be in the area and this was good for networking.
[xii] I’m not sure I’m convinced by any, to be honest.
[xiii] There used to be Taiwanese and Chinese prostitutes who were street walkers – totally illegal in Japan, but it was overlooked. In the build up to the 2020 Olympics, they’ve disappeared. There also used to be yakuza all over the place on the street corners and in the shops, but recently I haven’t seen them so… some of the really interesting vibrancy of Uguisudani may be temporarily fading.
2 thoughts on “Yamanote Line: Nishi-Nippori, Nippori, Uguisudani”
Love this series! Thanks for writing!
Thank you for the kind words and I apologize for how long it’s taking me to finish. I’m gonna try to bang out the rest of this series because I want to finish by the middle of next month.
Thanks for reading! It really means a lot to me!