Long time readers will know that we’ve just rolled into one of my favorite areas of Tōkyō.
Ueno is an access point to a myriad of fantastic spots connected to Japanese history. I’ve covered it numerous times before so I’m just gonna keep it brief this time. In short, the place name Ueno refers to the area immediately surrounding Ueno Station in the vocabulary of a typical Tōkyōite. However, prior to the arrival of trains, Ueno was – strictly speaking – the high ground above the station that is now 上野公園 Ueno Kōen Ueno Park. The lowlands below the park are very 下町 shitamachi low city and betray their commoner origins. The high ground was 山手 yamanote high city and wasn’t so much a “city” per se as much as it was religious center based around 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji Kan’ei Temple one of 2 funerary temples of the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family. The name 上野 Ueno itself means “high field” and is a reference to the 上野台地 Ueno Daichi Ueno Plateau.
The plateau was also home to swaths of 武家屋敷 buke yashiki samurai residences and a handful of 大名屋敷 daimyō yashiki daimyō residences. This is in direct conflict with the area’s modern image of being 下町 shitamachi low city. And while it certainly has a feel of old, traditional Tōkyō, Ueno is located on the Yamanote Line for a reason[i]. Despite the station being located in the old lowland commoner district, the term traditionally referred to the elite high ground.Most of the confusion deals with a shift in the usage of the terms and the fact that the high ground here is still very traditional.
In Ueno today, you can find bits and pieces of the Tokugawa mortuary temple, Kan’ei-ji, the 書院 shoin room where the last shōgun, 徳川慶喜 Tokugawa Yoshinobu put himself under self-imposed house arrest as an act of submission and loyalty to the emperor, numerous temples and shrines, and the battleground of the 上野戦争 Ueno Sensō Battle of Ueno, in which a volunteer samurai militia loyal to the shōgunate fought the imperial rebels in a one day battle that resulted in the destruction by fire of the main hall of Kan’ei-ji and many of its other buildings. The bulk of Kan’ei-ji’s land holdings have become Ueno Park which is famous for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing and for years has been one of the crazier hanami spots – most likely because about 80% of the trees in the park are cherry blossoms. If you can look past the big crowds and drunk zombies stumbling around everywhere, the sheer number and density of 桜 sakura cherry blossoms is stunning.
- Yamanote vs. Shitamachi
- Ueno (crappy 2013 article)
- Sendagi (again, sorry, it’s an old article)
- Graves of the Tokugawa Shōguns (series)
I think my original article on Okachimachi pretty much sums up the origin of this place name. 徒 kachi were the very bottom rung on the ladder of 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the Tokugawa shōguns. Long story short, they were samurai but they essentially lived like commoners. That is to say, they lived in the lowlands in barracks similar to (and often adjacent to) the 長屋 nagaya row houses for poor commoners in the 下町 shitamachi low city. In Edo, they were the “white trash” of the samurai class – not through their own fault, though. Class was hereditary. Commoners afforded them the usual courtesy a samurai deserved, but the rest of the samurai class thought very little of them.
In the Edo Period, there was a small barracks town in this area. It was essentially home to many 御徒o-kachi the polite term for this class of hatamoto. Keep in mind, the commoners would never dare refer to them by their rank to their face (they were considered just barely samurai by their own class)[ii]. But to the commoners in the area, it looked good to have samurai in the neighborhood. Sure, these weren’t daimyō or high ranking shōgunate officials, but they were still samurai. I don’t know if this affected property values in the Edo Period, actually, I sort of doubt it did, but really I don’t know. That said, what would you be more proud of having across the street from your house; a bunch of cheap yukata makers and green grocers or some sword wielding samurai?
Hopefully now you can sort of imagine why the title of low ranking samurai would have held so much sway among their commoner neighbors after the abolition of the samurai class in 1868 (which would have meant the destruction of the barracks and those kachi had to fend for themselves in the real world). Still, it sounded cool to have had samurai in the neighborhood once the samurai were all but gone.
Between Okachimachi and Ueno Station, there is an area called ｱﾒﾔ横丁 Ameya Yoko-chō which has a somewhat obscure etymology, but by most accounts seems to be a reference to a post war black market area where American military surplus was sold off to Tōkyōites living in the burnt out capital. ｱﾒ屋 ame-ya is said to be short for ｱﾒﾘｶ屋 Amerika-ya America shops. 横丁 yoko-chō means something like alley or side street/town. When visiting Ueno, I think it’s great to stop off here for a few drinks and 焼鳥 yakitori grilled chicken to soak in the shitamachi vibe, reflect on history, and chat with local salarymen who are generally drunk enough to engage foreigners in conversations. It’s a really cool part of town and if you take my guided tour of this part of Tōkyō, chances are we’ll end up here for drinks at the end of the day.
- Japan This Tours
- Ueno (2013 half-assed article)
- A blog that compares Shōwa Okachimachi with Present Day
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[i] There has been confusion over the years as to what the terms 山手 yamanote high city and 下町 shitamachi low city mean and to which parts of town the terms apply. The area from Tabata to Okachimachi is a leading factor in this confusion.
[ii] They were called 御侍様 o-samurai-sama sir samurai by commoners.