Asukayama (Mt. Asuka)
The 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing season is right around the corner, so I thought it was the perfect time to look into one Edo’s most important hanami spots. It’s not as famous these days, but 飛鳥山 Asukayama Mt. Asuka is still a major hanami spot – it just tends to be more for locals these days. However, in the Edo Period, well to do Edoites and inhabitants of 大江戸 Ōedo the Greater Edo Area came from far and wide to enjoy the 桜 sakura cherry blossoms on this hilltop.
Commoners also came, providing they had the time and wherewithal to make a day trip. You see, walking to Asukayama wasn’t easy – even for the rich. This small “mountain” was located outside of Edo in an area known as 武蔵国豊嶋郡王子村 Musashi no Kuni Toshima-gun Ōji Mura Ōji Village, Toshima District, Musashi Province. Today this area isn’t part of 豊島区 Toshima-ku Toshima Ward, but rather a part of Tōkyō’s 北区 Kita-ku Kita Ward on the northernmost border of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis and 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Saitama Prefecture[i].
Just to give you an idea of the distance, it would take someone in modern clothes using modern roads about two hours to walk from 日本橋 Nihonbashi to Ōji. Walking in a kimono on dirt roads could have easily taken three hours or more. The route hanami-goers would have taken in the Edo Period, was the 日光街道 Nikkō Kaidō Nikkō Highway which connected Edo Castle with the elaborate funerary temples dedicated to the first and third shōguns, 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu and 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu, in Nikkō[ii].
The village of Ōji wasn’t a 宿場町 shukuba machi post town, but by the middle of the Edo Period, it was fully prepared to accommodate as many hanami-goers as possible. Elegant teahouses in this rustic area catered to samurai and merchants, but there were also more modest accommodations available for wealthy farmers who might also have made the long journey out here. Presumably, drinking & whoring were rampant[iii].
Let’s Compare Some Kanji
(no meaning, this is ateji; the kanji are just sounds)
flying bird (this also has no meaning and is ateji)
I provided two spelling variants because the first version is used in religious contexts, but the second is used in maps and local histories. Just as spoken language has dialectal differences, kanji use seems to have been localized as well – especially in the untamed eastern provinces. That said, we know there was a 山城 yamajiro hilltop fortress controlled by the 豊嶋氏 Toshima-shi Toshima clan[iv]. The fortification at the top of this ovoid plateau was called 飛鳥山城 Asukayama-jō Asukayama Castle. This is reflected the area’s larger administrative name until recently, which was the Toshima District.
The branch of the Toshima clan that moved to this eastern area, originated in modern 和歌山県 Wakayama-ken Wakayama Prefecture. The area we’re going to be referring to is located in the 紀伊半島 Kii Hantō Kii Peninsula[v]. This is the same area where you can find the 熊野古道 Kumano Kodō Kumano Pilgrimages, a series of ancient roads connecting various religious sites in the Kii Peninsula that date back to at least the 900’s. A specific shrine, associated with the Toshima clan was the 33rd station along the course called the 熊野曼荼羅 Kumano Mandara – this shrine was 阿須賀神社 Asuka Jinja Asuka Shrine.
Open their arrival in the 関東地方 Kantō Chiho Kantō Area, the Toshima used a process called 分霊 bunrei to split the 神 kami deity of Asuka Shrine in Wakayama and transport it to 王子神社 Ōji Jinja Ōji Shrine as the tutelary kami of their fort on the hill. Ōji Shrine was to serve as their tutelary kami[vi]. The difference between the kanji for “Asuka” are quite different, but there doesn’t seem to be any difference etymologically. Maybe the new variant was easier for locals to read – although to me, the original spelling is much clearer[vii].
A Strong Connection to Kii Domain
Anyhoo, so as I mentioned before, the Toshima clan originated in modern day Wakayama Prefecture. From ancient times until the end of the Edo Period, much of that area was called 紀伊国 Kii no Kuni Kii Province[viii], and in fact one of the most important Tokugawa fiefs was in Kii Province, 紀伊藩 Kii Han Kii Domain[ix]. The 紀伊徳川家 Kii Tokugawa-ke Kii Tokugawa Family were part of the 御三家 go-sanke the Three Great Families – branch families sired by Tokugawa Ieyasu that were expected to produce a shogun, should the main line fail to produce a capable male successor. The other two families were the 尾張徳川家 Owari Tokugawa-ke Owari Tokugawa Family and the 水戸徳川家 Mito Tokugawa-ke Mito Tokugawa Family.
Neither family was called upon to produce an heir until a crisis arose in the early 1700’s. The seventh shogun, 徳川家宣 Tokugawa Ienobu, ruled for a mere three years (from 1709 – 1712). All his male offspring died young. The only one who could inherit the position of shōgun was three year old 徳川家継 Tokugawa Ietsugu. He was made shogun, but being a sickly child, he also tragically died at age six in 1716. He, too, had held the title of shōgun for a mere three years. Being a six year old child, it was unlikely that he would produce an heir, and well, as you can imagine, he didn’t[x].
The crisis resulted in the shōgunate electing a male member of the Three Great Families deemed closest by blood and by loyalty – oh, and also age-appropriate. The man chosen for the job was of the Kii Tokugawa, and his name was 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune. Up to this point, he had been the daimyō of Kii Domain. After his election and adoption into the main 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family, he was to go down in history as one of the most distinct and memorable shōguns of all time[xi].
Yoshimune inherited a shōgunate in chaos with hemorrhaging coffers. He spent money to build a beautiful mausoleum at 増上寺 Zōjō-ji in Shiba for his predecessor, Ietsugu, but then issued a series of sumptuary laws[xii]. One such law was that no more individual funerary temples would be built for future shōguns, himself included. From this period forward, shōgun’s would be enshrined in existing mausolea in Shiba and Ueno through a process called 合祀 gōshi mutual enshrinement.
In addition, Yoshimune passed some dumb laws about what clothes people of certain ranks could wear[xiii], he tried to revitalize the art of sword craftsmanship[xiv], and he encouraged merchants to form monopolies[xv] – all of which prove that samurai didn’t know dick about economic theory[xvi]. That said, he did help make the shōgunate financially solvent, so at least he got that part right.
Wait. Wait. Wait. I Thought This Was About Asukayama?
Yes, yes. It is about Asukayama. And here’s where it all finally comes full circle.
Despite all his austerity measures, Yoshimune also sought to sprinkle a little joy for the average person on the street in the way of what we would call “public works” today. At the time, Edo only had one famous spot for hanami, 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji one of the funerary temples of the shōguns[xvii]. Feeling an ancestral connection with his native Kii Province, he chose Asukayama in Ōji for a new project. He ordered that the long since demolished fortress of the Toshima clan be reclaimed for the people. Cherry blossom trees were planted at the top of the plateau and people could enjoy a spectacular view of both Edo, Edo Bay, and much farther off in the distance, Mt. Fuji[xviii].
The National Park System
Fast forward to the Meiji Period and the overthrow of Tokugawa Shōgunate.
In 1873 (Meiji 6), Japan created its first public parks, and naturally these were in 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City, literally the new “Eastern Capital”[xix]. The government chose five famous hanami spots to be the first “official” parks; they were 上野公園 Ueno Kōen Ueno Park and 芝公園 Shiba Kōen Shiba Park[xx], both Tokugawa funerary temples, also included were 浅草公園 Asakusa Kōen Asakusa Park[xxi] and 深川公園 Sumida Kōen Sumida Park and, of course, 飛鳥山公園 Asusakayama Kōen Asukayama Park.
In 1879 (Meiji 12), an emergent real estate mogul named 渋沢栄一 Shibusawa Ei’ichi bought part of Asukayama and built a house there. Ei’ichi is of particular interest, because unlike other real estate developers of his day, he wasn’t interested in the daimyō holdings of Edo proper. He focused on constructing playgrounds for the rich and fabulous in the suburbs well outside of the dusty and crowded alleys of Edo-Tōkyō). This mode of thought was derived from the British garden city movement.
Ei’ichi realized that the value of the 山手 yamanote high city lands that were being sold off piecemeal by the new government. So, while the government sought to regain funds it lost by essentially buying out the samurai class during the abolition process, newly made businessmen like his peer, Mitsubishi’s 岩崎弥太郎 I wasaki Yatarō, had more than enough cash to make huge land purchases of this scale. Ei’ichi focused on cheaper suburban lands to make residential developments. Yatarō focused on properties within the former shōgunal capital turned imperial capital.
From 1901 Ei’ichi began sharing this property with his son as a second home[xxii], and after his death in 1931, the house passed on to his son who continued living there.
Most of the Shibusawa estate was destroyed during the Firebombing of Tōkyō in 1945 by US forces. Luckily, many of the old cherry blossoms survived and as a result, in the postwar years, the whole hill once again became open to the public.
Eventually, the city built a tiny monorail in 2009 to take people up and down the “mountain.” You can walk up the hill in five minutes, or stand in line for ten minutes to take the monorail. Officially, I think it’s for people with disabilities, but most people take it expecting a nice view[xxiii].
- What does Den’en Chōfu mean? (a garden city designed by Shibusawa Ei’ichi)
3 Museums of Asukayama
The park is also home to three museums:
This museum explores the mountain’s history as far back as the Jōmon Period.
|Shibusawa Ei’chi Foundation Museum
A museum about the life and work of Sibusawa Ei’ichi, in particular his recovery efforts after the Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923.
A four story museum related to this product that we use every day.
I haven’t been to any of these museums, so I can’t say much about them, but I imagine drunken hanami revelers stumbling around the paper museum aimlessly or passed out on the floor of the Shibusawa Museum would be quite a funny sight.
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[i] So, it’s way on the outskirts of Tōkyō, so you can imagine just how far away this was from the shōgun’s capital.
[ii] Modern Nikkō City, Tochigi Prefecture.
[iii] “Presumably” – I use the word with a 99% probability.
[iv] Descendants of the 平豊嶋氏 Taira Toshima-shi Taira Toshima clan, one of the strongest warrior families of imperial descent sent from the west to police and monitor the east of Japan.
[v] Remember this name: Kii.
[vi] The name Ōji literally means “child of a kami” and is something I discussed in probably way to much detail in my articles on Hachiōji and Ōji.
[vii] The “flying bird” configuration is identical to the that of the ancient capital of 飛鳥 Asuka which is enshrined in the epoch name 飛鳥時代 Asuka Jidai Asuka Period.
[viii] Often abbreviated as 紀州 Kishū with no change in meaning.
[ix] Also referred to as 和歌山藩 Wakayama-han Wakayama Domain, again with no change in meaning.
[x] And who knows if he was even expected, too. But girls were married off early, so who’s to say young Ietsugu wasn’t expected to get busy in the Ōoku for the sake of the family? (But for the record, I highly doubt it.)
[xi] If I were to compile a list of the great shōguns out of all fifteen, it generally goes like this: Ieyasu, Hidetada, Iemitsu, Tsunayoshi, Yoshimune, Ienari, and Yoshinobu. I include Ienari because ruled the longest and brought #StrongDickGame to the office.
[xii] He relaxed many of the restrictive sankin-kōtai laws to regain the loyalty of the daimyō who surely felt the policy of alternate attendance was oppressive. By his new decree, they wouldn’t be called on to build and support priests for new Tokugawa mausolea, only maintenance of the existing structures.
[xiii] Seems random.
[xiv] There were no wars, so seems pointless.
[xv] Monopolies? Really? Yes. And this sort of thinking is what led to the rise of the 財閥 zaibatsu the industrial and financial business conglomerates who dominated the economy and aspects of the government of 大日本帝国 Dai-Nippon Teikoku the Empire of Japan from 1868-1945.
[xvi] In their defense, even modern economists don’t know dick about economics. Also in their defense, economic theory is an outgrowth of the so-called western “Enlightment,” which spans roughly 1715-1887 – a time Japan was closed to most western nations. Interestingly, upon Yoshimune’s ascendency to the office of shogun in 1716, he relaxed the ban on foreign books. This gave birth to a movement among Japan’s more intellectually minded samurai in the so-called 蘭学 rangaku Dutch Studies – one of the few imported subjects. This led to ambitious samurai scrambling to learn Dutch in order to read and translate military texts from Holland. This also meant that in the final days of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, many of the samurai involved in the Meiji Coup had been exposed to, at the very least, not purely Japanocentric ideologies.
[xvii] Located on 上野台 Uenodai the Ueno Plateau, present Ueno Park – still one of the greatest hanami spots in all of Japan.
[xviii] In an era with no skyscrapers – nay, no buildings over two stories – any view from the top of a tall hill was spectacular. This is something that’s hard to imagine today in modern Tōkyō.
[xix] As opposed to 京 Kyō Kyōto the capital (in the west).
[xx] Shiba Park’s cherry blossoms were largely destroyed in the Firebombing of Tōkyō by the US in World War II. That said, a hearty strain of plum blossoms survived. They are ugly yet robust – typical plum blossoms. But they hearken back to origins of hanami in ancient China. They’re a symbol of the influence of Classical Chinese culture over wide swaths of Asia, and Japan in particular.
[xxi] Destroyed in WWII.
[xxii] The main estate was in 三田 Mita.
[xxiii] There isn’t one lol