The area called Yūraku-chō lies in an area that used be a fortified island between the inner and outer moats of Edo Castle. In fact, the elevated train tracks supported by red brick foundations are built on the reclaimed outer moat of Edo Castle. The palaces of the daimyō most closely aligned with the Tokugawa shōguns were located here and to this day, you can still walk on a road from 数寄屋橋 Sukiyabashi[i] (literally, “tea-house bridge”) to Tōkyō Station on a road that was nicknamed[ii] 大名小路 daimyō koji daimyō alley.
This neighborhood was home to the 南町奉行 minami machi bugyō-sho office of the southern bugyō, a kind of magistrate/governor[iii]. Actually, if you go to the area today, you can see a few remains of the bugyō office. There are some stone walls[iv], plumbing[v], and a cistern[vi] preserved in the basement of the イトシア ITOCiA shopping center[vii].
My Ōsaka readers[viii] may be scratching their heads saying 有楽町 is pronounced Uraku-machi while my Edo peeps are probably saying “Ōsaka people are ridiculous; everyone knows it’s Yūraku-chō.” Both areas are written with the same kanji, and both are attributed to the same individual, a certain 織田信益 Oda Nobumasu, brother of 織田信長 Oda Nobunaga[ix]. Oral tradition maintains that the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, granted him a plot of land for his residence near Sukiyabashi Gate on the banks of the outer moat[x].
Nobumasu became a tea master and used the name 有楽 or 有楽斎 which are Uraku and Uraku-sai respectively[xi]. In the Kansai area – Kyōto and Ōsaka – it retains the Uraku reading. In Kantō, which was admittedly not as cultured as Kyōto at the time, the same characters were read as Yūraku. Which reading is correct? It seems difficult to say because while people in Edo used one reading, and people in Ōsaka used another, Nobumasu himself was native to Owari Province which used a dialect altogether different from those two. However, the reading Yūraku is more prevalent in the modern language, probably because Standard Japanese is essentially the Tōkyō Dialect. However, Uraku is most likely what Nobumasu would have expected to be referred to as.
Modern Yūraku-chō is partly reasonable shopping district[xii] and partly ガード下 gādo shita drinking town under the tracks of the Yamanote Line and shinkansen. There are great casual dining and drinking establishments in the area with a lingering tinge of post-war Shōwa Period grit. The area is a comfortable middle ground between the sophisticated shopping district of 銀座 Ginza and the salaryman wasteland of 新橋 Shinbashi[xiii].
The next station on the Yamanote Line is 新橋 Shinbashi, which literally means “new bridge.” Since I wrote my original article on Shinbashi, I’ve come across more information on the so-called “new bridge” which made what I first said unclear. But without getting into the nitty-gritty, the bridge which appeared on Edo Period maps as ｼﾝ橋 Shinbashi[xiv] seems to have been an auxiliary bridge or a kind of service entrance to the castle. It wasn’t defended with a 御門 go-mon gate or 見附 mitsuke fortified approach. The area was fortified in the early 1700’s and renamed 芝口御門 Shibaguchi Go-mon Shibaguchi Gate, but the area was lost to a fire about 10 years later and never rebuilt.
After the Meiji Coup, the first station of the first train line in Japan, the Tōkaidō Main Line was built in the bordering area that’s called 汐留 Shiodome today. The station was named 新橋駅 Shinbashi Eki Shinbashi Station. The present day Shinbashi Station area was actually known as 烏森 Karasumori the Crow Forest in the Edo Period and is located a good 5 or 10 minute walk from where the original station sat[xv].
Shinbashi is a Shōwa Era shitamachi gem in Tōkyō that takes some getting used to. I’ve heard many times from other expats about how much they hate the place. To them it represents old, drunk salarymen drenched in spilt sake and shōchū who reek of cigarette and kitchen smoke stumbling through the streets and pissing down unlit basement stairways before they rudely push their way onto the crowded last train home.
Not unsurprisingly, some of the rawest drinking spots in Tōkyō are located here. Like all Shōwa Period towns, it’s far more social than most of the big city. And believe it or not, it’s considered one of the best ナンパスポット nanpa supotto pick up spots for middle aged office workers of both sexes[xvi]. Some of the ママさん mama-san proprietresses of small スナック sunakku local dive bars are known to match-make solo drinkers for the night in hopes of bringing a pair of lonely hearts together… if only for the moment[xvii].
The present-day Shinbashi area was home to the 中屋敷 naka-yashiki middle residence[xviii] of the Date clan from 仙台藩 Sendai Han Sendai Domain, where the wives and children of Date Masamune’s descendants lived.
[i] Where that sushi restaurant from Jirō Dreams of Sushi is located.
[ii] And still bears the informal name.
[iii] There were actually two machi bugyō in Edo. The minami machi bugyō was located in Yūraku-chō, while the kita machi bugyō, the northern bugyō, was located in Yaesu, near present-day Tōkyō Station.
[iv] Complete with 刻印 kokuin symbols denoting the provenance of the stone work.
[v] Repurposed as benches for shoppers.
[vi] That’s another term for a well.
[vii] Don’t ask me about the capitalization, I didn’t name the place.
[viii] Do I even have any?
[ix] The first (and craziest) of the 3 Great Unifiers of Japan.
[x] That said, the area wasn’t officially referred to as Yūraku-chō until the Meiji Period when the area was disconnected from the castle and redeveloped as civilian.
[xi] The Edo Period equivalent of a DJ name.
[xii] A refreshing alternative to neighboring Ginza, which has long been considered the standard bearer of high fashion and designer brands in Asia.
[xiii] It also melts into Hibiya and Marunouchi. The more I think about it, Yūraku-chō is like a chameleon.
[xiv] The katakana seems to have been used to clarify the reading – the kanji 新橋 could also be read Arabashi.
[xv] Needless to say, by the “original station” I’m referring to the former Shibaguchi area, which is considered the Shiodome area today.
[xvi] Yup, this is an actual thing.
[xvii] And presumably continued patronage to their bars…
[xviii] Not sure what a “middle residence” is? Have no fear, here’s my primer on the Tokugawa shōgunate’s policy of alternate attendance.