(green things alley; more at greengrocers’ street)
One of the things that make exploring Edo-Tōkyō so fun is that every neighborhood is unique. If you’re in the center of the old city, wherever you are is surely surrounded by a few blocks of something different[i]. A term that comes up time and time again is 横丁 yokochō. The modern image of a yokochō is usually a very narrow, dirty, old alley in the 下町 shitamachi low city, but by my understanding, Aomonoyokochō was neither narrow nor dirty – even in the Edo Period. However, if you don’t mind, before we discuss the neighborhood, I’d like to get everyone acquainted with some terminology and concepts.
Three Famous Yokochō in Tōkyō
Places called Yokochō had been a consistent attribute of the city until the Bubble Economy when Tōkyō’s government and a handful of prolific developers began reshaping the urban landscape. These unique neighborhoods were not just the first to go, but I would argue they’re the most widespread loss the city suffered since the firebombing during World War II. The few remaining alleys are cherished by Tōkyōites as ever-disappearing respites and escapes to a nostalgic “Old Tōkyō.”[ii] A few just popped into my head as I’m writing.
のんべい横丁 Nonbei Yokochō Drunkards’ Alley. Located in 渋谷 Shibuya, this alley is also famous for its intimate, postwar style スナック sunakku counter service restaurants run by older women who ruthlessly cater to locals[v].
恵比寿横丁 Ebisu Yokochō. Located in 恵比寿 Ebisu, near Shibuya. So-so in my opinion, but to be perfectly honest, I haven’t spent much time there.
I haven’t explored these areas on JapanThis! because they aren’t particularly historic. However, you can make a good case that they are the three most famous of Tōkyō’s remaining yokochō. Of course, there are others, but I’m not going to repeat them here because I’d prefer keeping them lowkey and off TripAdvisor.[vi]
Anyways, if you didn’t know what a typical yokochō was, now you do. That means we can get on to the good stuff.
Let’s Look at the Kanji
|literally, green things;|
an archaic/dialect term for fruits and vegetables
|alley, side street;|
town/neighborhood off the main thoroughfare
You may have never heard of 青物横丁 Aomonoyokochō[vii] or the name the street’s local chamber of commerce pushes, あおよこ AOYOKO[viii], because it’s only accessible by a single train line, the 京急線 Keikyū-sen Keikyū Line. For tourists, it’s not a particular noteworthy area. There’s a KFC, a MOS Burger, and a handful of chain 居酒屋 izakaya Japanese style pubs. There are two well-stocked convenience stores, but it’s pretty nondescript. That said, what makes 青物横丁 Aomonoyokochō Green Grocer Town[ix] special is its name and its place in the Edo Period infrastructure of Japan[x]. Also, for the sake of this article, I’m going to use two distinct spellings: Aomonoyokochō refers to the area in general, Aomono Yokochō refers to the side street that connects to the old Tōkaidō highway. It’s a nuanced difference, so you probably don’t need to worry much about it, but the different renderings are intentional on my part.
Bear in mind, this area exists in 南品川宿 Minami Shinagawa-shuku South Shinagawa Post Town on 旧東海道 Kyū-Tōkaidō the old Tōkaidō, the main pre-modern highway that connected the imperial court in 京 Kyō Kyōto and 江戸 Edo Edo (modern day Tōkyō). This was the largest post town in the country[xi]. For travelers coming in and out of Edo, there were a plethora of necessities: food, lodging, drinking and whoring, new shoes, and お土産 omiyage souvenirs. That said, Shinagawa-shuku was so large and so highly trafficked that various local economies popped up to support the neighborhood people who likewise supported the mass influx and outflux of regional lords and their samurai entourages[xii]. In short, this Aomono Yokochō was the beating heart of Shinagawa.
- What does Shinagawa mean?
- Shinagawa Then and Now
- What does Shinbanba mean?
- What does Tachiaigawa mean?
- The 5 Great Highways of Old Japan
Let’s Look at Some More Kanji
|the standard word for vegetables[xiii]|
|greengrocer, vegetable stand|
Shinagawa-shuku was most famous for its seafood, seaweed, and a range of low-class prostitutes to a number of high-end courtesans and geisha[xiv]. Aomono Yokochō, being off the old highway, didn’t cater much to travelers. It provided necessary foodstuffs to local restaurants, brothels, and local fisherman who were probably just plain sick of seafood and wanted some fucking vegetables for a change, dammit.
Edo Period streets didn’t have names[xv] and presumably this one didn’t either, but it was well-known that locals called this street Aomono Yokochō. In fact, I’ve got a map here that has the street clearly labeled as such. The place name still isn’t official, it’s just 南品川三丁目 Minami Shinagawa Sanchōme 3rd Block of Minami Shinagawa[xvi]. However, the area surrounding Aomono Yokochō is called Aomonoyokochō because in Meiji 37 (1904), 青物横町駅 Aomonoyokochō Eki Aomonoyokochō Station was established. Today, the character 町 chō town has been simplified to 丁 chō town. It had originally been a cable car stop between Shinagawa and Yokohama because it was a convenient spot for travelers commuting between both cities to pick up fresh vegetables and fish. The train just made the area even more convenient until the advent of supermarkets in the Post-War Period.
If you follow the old Tōkaidō from 品川駅 Shinagawa Eki Shinagawa Station, the only two yokochō that remain are Aomonoyokochō and 立会川横丁 Tachiaigawa Yokochō , but if you pay attention to other side streets, you’ll find a myriad of plaques commemorating long since vanished yokochō – each one dedicated to a particular industry or class. If you’re a nerd like me, you can revel in imagining these neighborhoods of yore, but to be honest, even the locals just walk past them without even blinking an eye.
No More Kanji. I Promise!
Let’s Look at the Neighborhood
“Hey, Marky, if I were to just get off the train and walk around this neighborhood, what would I see?”
The answer to this question depends on your imagination and level History Nerdiness[xvii]. I don’t want to discourage anyone from visiting any place I discuss on Japan This!. That said, the pay-off here would be low unless you walked from either 日本橋 Nihonbashi to 旧川崎宿 Kyū-Kawasaki-shuku Kawasaki Post Town or some shorter interval therein[xviii]. Without context, it just looks like a pretty average street in a somewhat obscure part of Tōkyō. That notwithstanding, if you take a long, methodical stroll through the old Shinagawa Post Town, you’ll notice immediately how wide this street is and how busy it is. When the post town system was abolished and the trains started running, this area was already well-established as the distribution point for fresh foodstuffs along the highway and its various neighborhoods. And, history nerds, take heed. If we’re talking about Shinagawa Post Town proper, this was the busiest neighborhood[xix]. To this day, it’s busy, just in a different way.
Would you like to take a look at what cool shit you can see in the area? I bet you do, so let’s get into it.
So, there area was famous for supplying food so it’s not surprising that a family-owned business became local rock stars. The most prosperous greengrocer in the area was a family run business established in 1800 called 平野屋 Hirano-ya, literally Shop Hirano[xx]. It stood at the corner of the old Tōkaidō and Aomono Yokochō. They became the dominant purveyors of vegetables and fish in the area until they eventually made the switch to the supermarket business model under the name フードマーケット平野屋 Fūdo Māketto Hirano Food Market Hirano. This grocery store operated for nearly 220 years until it went out of business in May 2018[xxi]. But man, 220 years is a pretty epic run!
[UPDATE: At the 2019 Shinagawa-shuku Matsuri, I noticed paper lanterns with the name Hirano-ya written on them, so the family is probably still running a business under that name, maybe just not brick and mortar.]
Another interesting shop in the area is 畳松岡 Tatami Matsuoka, a traditional tatami “factory.” This business was established in 1779 which makes it even older than the defunct Hirano-ya. Better yet, they’re still doing business which is even older and still operating. To top it all off, they are still working in a Taishō Era building that uses the original signage which displays the original post-war right to left spelling, so it actually reads 岡松畳. As if this business wasn’t old school enough, that kind of sign just adds to the authenticity. That said, this stretch of the old Tōkaidō is home to quite a few traditional tatami factories.
Around the corner is 天妙国寺 Tenmyōkoku-ji Tenmyōkoku Temple which was founded in the Kamakura Period (1285, to be precise). It retains most of its sprawling Edo Period lands, but history nerds may be interested in two particular graves.
Graves of Itō Ittōsai & O-matsuri Sashichi
The first is that of 伊東 一刀斎 Itō Ittōsai[xxii], a semi-legendary samurai who may have lived between 1560–1653. He’s attributed as the founder of 一刀流 Ittō-ryū the one sword/one strike school of sword fighting[xxiii], hence his adopted first name. Being a branding master, he secured his legacy as one of Japan’s greatest swordsman – second only to the equally annoying and boring 宮本武蔵 Miyamoto Mushashi[xxiv].
The second grave is a bit more obscure. That’s the tomb of お祭佐七 O-matsuri Sashichi, an important figure in the world of kabuki in the Late Edo Period and Early Meiji Period.
The former site of 釜屋 Kamaya is clearly demarcated but there aren’t any material remains… remaining. This teahouse/inn came to be used by the 幕府 bakufu shōgunate as back up for government officials during the 幕末 Bakumatsu final years of the shōgunate. In North Shinagawa, there was 本陣 honjin the main inn for feudal lords and in South Shinagawa there was the 脇本陣 waki-honjin sub-honjin used for lower ranking officials[xxv]. However, due to the high amount of traffic in and out of Edo, Kamaya was granted official status as a government patronized inn. In 1867 and 1868[xxvi], 土方歳三 Hijikata Toshizō vice-commander of the 新選組 Shinsengumi[xxvii] stayed here. It’s well-known that he was a womanizer and passionate fan of ye good olde drinking and whoring, so the locals still tell stories of him visiting teahouses in order to be introduced to the best prostitutes in Shinagawa[xxviii]. Also, Tom Cruise is fine and all, but many Japanese people will call Hijikata Toshizō the real “last samurai.”
I’ve covered quite a few place names in Shinagawa recently, so I think this will be the last for a while. That said, Aomonoyokochō is an interesting neighborhood to visit if you live in Shinagawa. I don’t know if I’d travel all the way across town just to look around. That said, if you want to take a walking tour of the entire post town with someone who knows it inside and out, I can do that. And Aomonoyokochō is a great place to pick up some cans of beer for the next stretch of the walk. If パチンコ pachinko is your thing, there’s that, too. I’ll probably just have a beer outside and play PokémonGO, though. Smokey pachinko is too stinko for me lol. On that note, I hope you enjoyed the article and I’ll see you next time!
[i] At least, historically speaking.
[ii] Any way you want to take that term.
[iii] Or sometimes known as Piss Ally.
[iv] These days, it’s overrun by foreign tourists and many of the shops are no longer run by Japanese. The atmosphere is still good, but don’t be surprised if the owners and staff are Chinese or Korean. They still provide Japanese food, though. They’re smart and they know what foreigners who believe everything they see on TripAdvisor want. #FuckTripAdvisor.
[v] Also, thanks to TripAdvisor, attracting more foreign tourists and losing its cool.
[vi] TripAdvisor Ruins Everything. #FuckTripAdvisor
[vii] The street name was originally written as 青物横町 Aomonoyokochō. The new final character was simplified using a shorthand kanji that was easier to scan, but more notably was standard on maps in the capital since the early Edo Period.
[viii] I’ve seen this in print, but I’ve never heard locals use the word. They might, but I’ve never come across it. If you’re new to the Japanese language, many long words regularly get shortened. For example, あけましておめでとう akemashite omedetō happy nude year becomes あけおめ ake ome, while 今年もよろしく kotoshi mo yoroshiku happy nude year to you too becomes ことよろ koto yoro. These kinds of abbreviations sound cute, catchy, or funny and reflect a long-standing attribute of the language. At the time of writing, I just saw it written あをよこ a(w)oyoko which uses an outdated use of hiragana.
[ix] I’m being liberal with the translation here, but I think that’s a legit rendering. Also, locals hate the long name so they’ve abbreviated it to 青横 aoyoko. And good on them for doing so. Aomonoyokochō is a mouthful. Also, please note that the usual word these days for a greengrocer is 八百屋 yaoya.
[x] Which became the modern infrastructure of Tōkyō and the rest of Japan.
[xi] It was so large, in fact, that it was split into 北品川宿 and 南品川宿 and bled out for miles into the boonies. The Edo shōgunate considered Shinagawa as part of 荏原国 Ebara no Kuni Ebara Province. This area mostly fell under the administrative power of 大名 daimyō regional lords loyal to the Tokugawa Shōgunate and also to village headmen who… you know… oversaw villages.
[xii] Somewhere some dead traveling merchant or pilgrim is rolling in their urn screaming “but what about me?” And so, yeah. There were plenty of merchants and pilgrims traveling this road who were also staying overnight and drinking and whoring.
[xiii] ie; 青物 aomono = 野菜 yasai.
[xiv] Minus the prostitutes, dried versions of seafood and seaweed where prized souvenirs by people in the outer domains.
[xv] And for the most part Tōkyō streets don’t have names either.
[xvi] Minami means “south.”
[xvii] History Nerdiness by the way, is not a quantifiable term.
[xviii] Even at that, you’re not gonna see much….
[xix] Again, not for travelers, but for local businesses.
[xx] Hirano is the family name.
[xxi] It was replaced the same month by a chain pharmacy called サンドラッグ San Doraggu Sun Drug (which sounds more fun than it actually is lol).
[xxii] His real “first name” was 景久 Kagehisa.
[xxiii] Here’s the Wikipedia article on this style of swordsmanship.
[xxiv] Who is Miyamoto Musashi? Another branding expert who secured his legacy as a sort of archetypal samurai. Weebs love this guy.
[xxv] If the terms honjin and waki-honjin are new to you, check “further reading” sections at the beginning of this article.
[xxvi] The 1868 stay was after the defeat of shōgunate forces by the newly established imperial army at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi. The Shinsengumi retreated to Edo (well, modern Chiba Prefecture, actually) in order to regroup and figure out the situation as the last shogun, 徳川慶喜 Tokugawa Yoshinobu had voluntarily stepped down and transferred power to the imperial court in Kyōto. By this time, both 近藤勇 Kondō Isami commander of the Shinsengumi and Hijikata were 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shogun and should have been allowed to stay at the honjin or waki-honjin. Presumably, they were already booked by people who outranked them, or, in a problem that plagued both commanders for much of their adult lives, they were formerly 百姓 hyakushō farmers. Despite their samurai status and recently obtained honors, they were frequently discriminated against for having low family pedigree. That may explain why Hijikata didn’t stay in the honjin or waki-honjin. I’m not sure, though.
[xxvii] The Shinsengumi were an anti-terrorist police force that primarily operated in Kyōto on behalf of the Edo Shōgunate.
[xxviii] Whether there’s any truth to these stories, I can’t say. But they’re not implausible.