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What does Koganei mean?

In Japanese History on June 12, 2017 at 8:08 am

Koganei (Little Gold Well)

koganei hanami
Although Spring and the cherry blossom season has come and gone, I thought I’d take a moment to explore one of Edo’s big 5 花見スポット Hanami Supotto Cherry Blossom Spots. Anyone who’s been keeping up with the blog since spring knows that recently I did three articles covering 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing, and in those articles Edo’s most famous cherry blossom spots were mentioned. Today, we’re not going to talk much about cherry blossoms; this will be more of a straight forward etymology thang.

Also, in case you’re new to JapanThis! or you’re too lazy to look back at previous posts, I’ll quickly remind you of the most popular hanami spots Edoites loved. There’s no official list, but the sites that seem to have been the most popular were 上野山 Ueno-yama Ueno Hill, 飛鳥山 Asukayama Asuka Hill, 隅田川堤 Sumida-gawa Tsutsumi Sumida Riverbank, 御殿山 Goten’yama Goten Hill, and a stretch of the 玉川上水 Tama-gawa Jōsui Tamagawa Aqueduct in a village called 小金井 Koganei. Of all these spots, Koganei was without a doubt the farthest from the city of Edo. In fact, on modern paved roads, it would take you at least five hours to walk non-stop from 日本橋 Nihonbashi in central Tōkyō to Koganei. I imagine people in the Edo Period would have walked all day, found lodging, then enjoyed the cherry blossoms the next day, and maybe visited few temples and shrines before returning home – making this a legit two day excursion sandwiched between two days of some serious-ass walking. Also, make no mistake about it: Koganei was waaaaaay outside of the city limits. In those days, this was 武蔵国多磨郡 Musashi no Kuni Tama-gun Tama District, Musashi Province. This was not cosmopolitan Edo. It was East Bumfuck[i].

Further Reading:

koganei nowhere.jpg

Central Tōkyō is located on the bay in the East. Koganei is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. That fuchsia colored spot doing nothing other than looking fuchsia. BTW, I have nothing against fuchsia, I grew up in the 80’s. I actually love the color lol.

Famous Hanami Spot Turned Lame Suburb

Today, Koganei is pretty much synonymous with the “lame suburbs.” You’d have to go to 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Saitama Prefecture or 千葉県 Chiba-ken Chiba Prefecture to get lamer, but at least Koganei is actually part of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis. The area that is called 小金井市 Koganei-shi Koganei City is made up of roughly 12 Edo Period villages and rice fields[ii] that were combined to create 小金井村 Koganei Mura Koganei Village when the Meiji Government set up new administrative districts in 1889 (Meiji 22).

koganei hanami meji period.jpg

Hanami along the Tama Aqueduct in the Meiji Period.

Sadly, the old Tamagawa Aqueduct hasn’t aged well as a cherry blossom viewing spot. That said, Koganei is still famous for this cherished springtime tradition. These days, the main attraction is 多磨霊園 Tama Reien Tama Cemetery[iii]. While it’s most definitely a public cemetery, it’s functioned more as a park since the 1960’s[iv]. Completely covered in cherry blossoms, it feels more like an urban green space than a graveyard. There are quite a few famous historical personages interred here, but the most notorious is probably 三島由紀夫 Mishima Yukio, a crazy right wing Japanese author who tried to launch a silly military coup in the 1970’s. When it was obvious that his little political stunt was going to fail, he tried to commit 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment. His boyfriend was to deliver the coup de grace, but apparently sucked at using swords and tried to behead him multiple times before another dude stepped in to behead them both[v]. Total clusterfuck.

Further Reading:

mishima yukio.jpg

Mishima Yukio making a speech during his attempted military coup.

OK, Let’s Look At the Kanji 

The modern place name Koganei is written with three kanji. However, this apparently wasn’t always the case. In order to explore the name, we’re going to have to focus on four kanji in particular, although later, we’ll be looking at some interesting variations.



kane, –gane

gold, money


well, spring; community


field, meadow, plain

Theory One

There seem to be three theories, two of which are closely connected. The first one, though, is a bit of a long shot, but not completely improbable. It suggests that there was a well in the area. Its water was so abundant and pristine that it was worth its weight in 黄金 kogane gold (using the kanji for “yellow” and “gold”)[vi]. The story goes, the locals wrote the name 黄金之井 Kogane no I The Golden Well[vii]. We know the genitive particle 之 no wasn’t necessary when speaking because the name was also rendered in a mix of hiragana and kanji as こがね井 Koganei. Using hiragana was an effective way of communicating the pronunciation (at the expense of the meaning of the first two syllables[viii]), and the use of that single kanji reinforced the meaning of “well.” This theory is vague, yet the orthography kinda supports it… kinda.

koganei park

Present day Koganei Park

Theory Two

The next theory states that the plains on the southside of a cliff in the modern city used to be called 金井原 which was read as Koganeihara, Koganei Meadow. The cliff is thought to be くじつ山 Kujitsu-yama Mt. Kujitsu in present day 小金井公園 Koganei Kōen Koganei Park. The field is the south side of present day 前原町 Maehara-chō Maehara Town[ix]. If you’re familiar with this area, you may know that this is one section of Tama Cemetery. It’s a sprawling, modern cemetery that is very, very flat. The geography matches the etymology to a point. However, we’re left with a mystery. What did the kanji 金井 refer to? They mean “gold” and “well,” but did they refer to an actual well, or even gold for that matter?


Kanai Hachiman Shrine – a direct connection to the god of war, Hachiman, tutelary kami of the Minamoto clan, and by clan bloodlines, affiliated with the Nitta and Kanai clans.

Theory Three

The third theory is that Koganei – or even Koganei Meadow – was a reference to the clan controlling the area who wrote their name 金井. There are several kinks in this theory, too. First, newly created branch clans usually took the name of their fief as a surname, and not vice-versa[x]. Second, this family name is usually read as Kanai[xi], not Koganei[xii]. However, the Kanai were indeed active in the region, both prior to and during the Kamakura Period. The local branch was founded by a samurai named 新田義宗 Nitta Yoshimune, later 金井義宗 Kanai Yoshimune, who controlled 武蔵国金井原 Musashi no Kuni Koganeihara Koganeihara, Musashi Province. Also, if you refer to the kanji chart above, you’ll see how 金井 could be read as both Kanai and Koganei.

nitta yoshimune

Grave of Nitta no Yoshimune (Kanai no Yoshimune)

So Which Theory do I Prefer?

Well, let’s do a recap. There may have been a well that flowed abundantly. A field may have taken its name from the well. A branch of the Nitta clan moved in and took the name Kanai (using the same kanji of their new fief). Knowing the new branch families usually adopted the name of their land holdings as a family name, I reject the idea that the area is named after the Kanai clan, but don’t see any reason to see all three of these theories as potentially one in the same. Again, there could have been a well at some point[xiii]. We know there was a huge meadow of arable land whose name referenced a well. Then these Nitta samurai came in and took the name of the field to become the Kanai[xiv]. Given that the Nitta clan was a powerful clan with connections to the imperial court, they wouldn’t want their name to reflect the backwater pronunciation of this area. It was in their best interest to use a reading that was easily intelligible by anyone with a proper education. This doesn’t seem unreasonable to me at all. In fact, it seems the most logical and probable explanation.

rhe plot thickens
Further Nitta/Kanai Hints or Coincidence?

The fact that writers in the Kamakura Period alternated between 小金井 and こがね井 is interesting. To me, this could point to a couple of things. One, the name already existed since protohistoric times and the presence of the Kanai Clan was a bizarre coincidence. Two, the clan’s name was in fact derived from the meadow or village’s name, but they rejected the local reading, whereas the local villagers weren’t sure about the elite reading and just continued “villaging” under the assumption that they were correct. When we find place names written in hiragana, it’s generally done to clarify how to read the kanji since there are always multiple readings – especially in regional dialects.

Furthermore, when Koganei Village was created in 1889, there were a number of fields bearing the name 新田 shinden, which literally means “new field.” The Kanai clan was an offshoot of the 新田氏 Nitta-shi Nitta clan. The word shinden uses the same kanji as the surname Nitta. This could just be a coincidence, or it could be a hint that the local farmers were sucking up to their new samurai overlords in the 1300’s[xv]. If the former is the case, I think it’s safe to assume the area was originally named Koganei, the Kanai clan adopted the name of their fief while rejecting the local reading, and the villagers were aware of all of this.

lpganei shrine.jpg

Koganei Shrine (former Tenman-gū)

When I checked the records of 小金井神社 Koganei Jinja Koganei Shrine, I thought I’d get some clarity since ancient shrines tend to have old records and preserve local histories and legends. What I soon discovered was that while no one knows when or where Koganei Shrine was originally established, records indicated that it has been at the current location since 1205 (early Kamakura Period) when the Heian Period intellectual, 菅原道真 Sugawara no Michizane[xvi], was enshrined there and it was named 天満宮 Tenman-gū, a standard name for shrines dedicate to him[xvii].

According to a local history compiled between 1804 and 1829 called the 新編武蔵風土記稿 Shinpen Musashi Fūdoki-kō Newly Edited Description of Musashi Province[xviii], Tenman-gū served as the tutelary shrine of 小金井村 Koganei Mura Koganei Village, 下小金井村 Shimo-Koganei Mura Shimo-Koganei Village, and  小金井新田 Koganei Shinden. This 19th century text uses the modern spelling with the initial kanji 小 ko small consistently, which means the orthography was standardized by then. But as I mentioned before, in the Kamakura Period, the place name was often written without the kanji for ko.

koganei jinja.jpg

Incidentally, the shrine itself has nothing to say about the spelling of Koganei or its development over the years. Remember, since 1205 the shrine was called 天満宮 Tenman-gū and protected three villages lying in just boring-ass farmlands where people probably didn’t give a rat’s ass how to spell their village name because… well… they probably didn’t go much farther than the next village. Tenman-gū’s name was changed to Koganei Shrine[xix] in 1870 (Meiji 3) to reflect its status as the main Shintō shrine for this particular area. By this time, the Edo Period spelling – and today’s spelling – was firmly set in stone[xx].

Further Reading:



So What About That Additional Kanji?

Although  and 黄金 can both be read as kogane, most people wouldn’t look at 金井 and think, “oh yeah, that’s Koganei.” They’d think, “oh yeah, that’s kane” in the first case, and “oh yeah, that’s ōgon” in the second case. In order to avoid any confusion, it seems that by the Kamakura Period, the kanji 小 ko small was added to make the correct reading perfectly clear. The addition of this character is thought to be a function of 当て字 ateji kanji used as a phoneme rather than an ideograph[xxi]. Some ancient place names are thought to be strictly ateji, especially ones that might not be Japanese in origin[xxii]. Other times, ateji are just used to make potentially unintelligible or confusing names easily legible[xxiii].

Regardless of the true etymology of the name, writing 小金井 koganei is pretty much the most reliable way to ensure that when someone sees the word, they’ll say, “oh yeah, Koganei.” Unless you’re a moron, that’s the only way to read it, really[xxiv].

Further Reading:


tama reien map.jpg

Map of Tama Cemetery

Hanami and Tama Reien

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, Koganei was famous for cherry blossoms in the Edo Period. It required a bit of time and money for an Edoite to head out there to enjoy the trees in full bloom. While some of the old groves still exist along the former Tama Aqueduct, the main attraction these days is the former Koganei Meadow, modern Tama Cemetery. That said, while Yanaka Cemetery’s 桜通り Sakura-dōri Sakura Avenue[xxv] in central Tōkyō attracts a certain amount of drunken spillover from Ueno Park who picnic and party among the graves, I don’t think that happens in Tama Cemetery. So…, if you go, look around and see what other people are doing and be respectful. When in Rome and all that.

Further Reading:

koganei logo.jpg
There’s a Company Called Koganei

This probably isn’t very interesting, but there’s a company called Koganei. They were established in 1935 (Shōwa 10) as the Yamamoto Trading Company in Tōkyō, but moved their factory and headquarters to 小金井市 Koganei-shi Koganei City in 1941 and changed their name to Koganei, Ltd in 1951. According to their website, they specialize in the “manufacture and sales of pneumatic system products, static electricity removing units, electric actuators, centralized lubrication equipment, and environmental/hygiene related products.” I’m not sure what more to do with that information, so here’s where I’m gonna finish this article.

I hope you enjoyed exploring Koganei, a suburb of Tōkyō. I also hope you’ve learned a little bit about how ateji is a big deal in Tōkyō place names. I hope you enjoyed how these place names tie in with powerful samurai families. If you like my research-intensive articles, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’m looking forward to your comments down below. Have a great day, ya’ll.


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[i] Well, technically speaking, in relation to Edo, it was West Bumfuck. But who the hell says that?
[ii] Namely, 小金井村 Koganei Mura former Koganei Village, 貫井村 Nukui Mura Nukui Village, 下染屋村 Shimo-Zomeya Mura Shimo-Zomeya Village, 押立村 Oshitate Mura Oshitate Village, 人見村 Hitomi Mura Hitomi Village, 是政村 Koremasa Mura Koremasa Village, 上石原村 Kami-Ishihara Mura Kami-Ishihara Village, 下小金井新田 Shimo-Koganei Shinden, 梶野新田 Kashino Shinden, 関野新田 Sekino Shinden, 十ヶ新田 Jūjū Shinden (reading suspect), and 本多新田 Honda Shinden. The last five place names that end with 新田 shinden, literally “new fields” refer to uninhabited agricultural lands. More about that later.
[iii] Reien translates literally as “soul garden” or “spirit garden,” but what distinguishes a reien from a 墓地 bocchi cemetery or 墓所 bosho graveyard is that the latter is just a regular cemetery, usually – but not always – affiliated with a temple, whereas the former tends to be larger with a “park-like atmosphere.”
[iv] Apparently, it was filled to capacity.
[v] If you wanna see Mishima after his seppuku and beheading… whoomp there it is.
[vi] See my article on Iogi for another shitty use of the word “yellow gold”/”yellow money.”
[vii] Literally, “yellow gold,” but in this case, it’s just a synonym for “gold.”
[viii] If indeed there was any meaning preserved at all. The reduction to hiragana may just indicate that nobody knew or was in agreement about the origin of the “kogane” part of Koganei as far back as the Kamakura Period.
[ix] The 原 hara in Koganeihara and the 原 hara in Maehara-chō are the same.
[x] This wasn’t a rule set in stone, though. Some place names did occasionally take their names from ruling clan.
[xi] If this theory is correct, the family in question was a minor branch of the main 金井氏 Kanai-shi Kanai Clan, which itself was a minor branch of the 新田氏 Nitta-shi Nitta Clan, which was itself a branch of the 清和源氏 Seiwa Genji Seiwa Minamoto Clan – the Minamoto descended from 清和天皇 Seiwa Tennō Emperor Seiwa (858-876), Japan’s 56th emperor. This is the same bloodline that produced the first Kamakura Shōgun, 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo. This connection to such an elite eastern samurai clan with a direct connection to the imperial family should put the prestige of this family in context.
[xii] Or Kanei.
[xiii] Or it could’ve been an ancient word, maybe not even Japanese.
[xiv] Why not the Koganei? Probably because nobody could read it. But let’s get to that later.
[xv] Hell, it could be both.
[xvi] Who the fuck was Sugawara no Michizane?
[xvii] Supposedly there are about 14,000 enshrinements of Sugawara no Michizane throughout the country.
[xviii] This document has come up many times since I started the blog. Fūdoki are essentially local histories and geographical descriptions that the imperial court had been compiling since the Asuka Period. Later the shōgunates, and the Tokugawa Shōgunate in particular continued the practice.
[xix] Using the kanji for ko, of course.
[xx] Though again, I think it’s safe to assume that the spelling was standardized by the Kamakura Period.
[xxi] WTF is ateji?
[xxii] This means, some ancient place names are non-Japonic in origin.
[xxiii] Japan has many dialects, ateji may smooth things out. An example where ateji wasn’t adopted is 山手 Yamate in Yokohama and 山手 Yamanote in Edo-Tōkyō. The words are written the same, but you must know the local reading to pronounce them correctly.
[xxiv] I mean, I guess you could read it Oganei, but… nah, that would just be dumb.
[xxv] Yanaka Cemetery

What does Asukayama mean?

In Japanese History on March 21, 2017 at 4:28 pm

Asukayama (Mt. Asuka)

asukayama sakura

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].

asukayama hanami

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].

ojiya meiji

Teahouse Oji-ya in the Meiji Period, located on the Otonashi River beneath Asukayama.

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.


You can clearly see the shape of the “mountain” and given the general flatness of the area, it’s easy to see why this would have made a good a to built a fortified structure.

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.

asuka shrine

Asuka Shrine in Wakayama

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].

Further Reading:

Oji Shrine

Oji Shrine where the tutelary kami of the Toshima clan was enshrined to protect Asukayama.

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.


The Kii Peninsula in perspective

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].

nitenmon ietsugu

Very little remains of Ietsugu’s once guilded and ornate mausoleum after the war. The Nitenmon gate is in horrible condition today, but is currently being restored before the 2020 Olympics.

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].


Tokugawa Yoshimune

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.

Yoshimune Kyoho

Yoshimune going over the shōgunate’s finances.

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.

asukayama ukiyo hanami.jpg

Partying hard at hanami was not a modern invention. Edo Period people were equally boisterous and rowdy.

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].

Further Reading:

asukayama hanami pire

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.

1893 Paper Mill

A couple enjoying hanami on Asukayama in 1893. You can see a paper mill down below next to the Otonashi River. The paper thing will come back later.

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.



Shibusawa Ei’ichi

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.

Oji teahouse garden

A garden on the Otonashi River beneath Asukayama.

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].

Further Reading:

asukayama train

There are two antique trains preserved on Asukayama.

3 Museums of Asukayama


The park is also home to three museums:

Asukayama Hakubutsu-kan

Asukayama Museum
This museum explores the mountain’s history as far back as the Jōmon Period.

Shibusawa Shiryō-kan

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.

Kami no Hakubutsu-kan

Paper Museum
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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Explore Edo-Tōkyō

Do You Even History Geek, Bro?


[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

What does Shinjuku mean?

In Japanese History on February 10, 2016 at 3:22 am

(new post town)

koshu kaido naito-shinjuku

Shinjuku Dōri – this is where it all began.

Today’s article is long overdue. I originally wrote about Shinjuku in February 2013. The blog has matured a lot since then and I think there’s a lot more to say about the history of the area. The etymology is straightforward and was correct in the original article, but I just wanted to go into more detail. After all, Shinjuku isn’t just one of the busiest and most important places in Tōkyō; it’s arguably one of the busiest and most important places in the world. Also, just like Roppongi and Shibuya, Shinjuku has its fair share of both lovers and haters[i].

By the way, there are tons of footnotes[ii] in this article. As always, I suggest you use them. This is a pretty messy story.

My Previous Articles on Shinjuku:

shinjuku crazy

Shinjuku – skyscrapers, densely packed shopping and residential areas. Some are pristine, some are filthy (by Japanese standards, which is clean by many other standards lol).

First, Let’s Look at the Kanji

The kanji are fairly straightforward and longtime readers will probably want to skip to the next section, but for those of you aren’t so familiar with the kanji, here they are.



yado; shuku/juku

inn; suffix attached to a place name to indicate that it’s a post town

A note about pronunciation. In the 下町言葉 shitamachi kotoba low city dialect, the pronunciation Shinjiku and Shinshiku are sometimes heard. This usually isn’t done in daily conversation anymore, but is a feature of 落語 rakugo traditional story telling[iii]. I don’t know if it’s a true dialectal variant or an affectation. Also, in other parts of the country the kanji 新宿 can also be read as: Shinshuku, Niijuku, Arajuku, and Arayado. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

five highways.png

The so-called Gokaidō, or 5 Highways.

Famously, there were 5 highways leading to and from Edo[iv].  Of those five 街道 kaidō highways, one was the 甲州街道 Kōshu Kaidō which led from 日本橋 Nihonbashi in central Edo to 甲府藩 Kōfu Han Kōfu Domain[v] in modern 山梨県 Yamanashi-ken Yamanashi Prefecture, an important Tokugawa holding. Long time readers will know that before trains and cars, people walked everywhere. If you lived in Edo and wanted to go to any place in Japan, you just had to walk there. Depending on where you wanted to go, this could take weeks. Along the way, you had to sleep somewhere. As a result, a series of 宿場町 shukuba machi post towns were created to accommodate travelers[vi]. 宿 shuku, as you know means “inn” and 場 ba means “place” and 町 machi means “town.” These towns provided food, lodging, and ample opportunities for drinking and whoring.

At the beginning of the Edo Period, the original first rest town on the Kōshū Kaidō was in 高井戸宿 Takaido-shuku Takaido Post Town located in modern 杉並区Suginami-ku Suginami Ward. On a modern paved road, this walk could take you about 3 ½ hours. On an Edo Period road using Edo Period walking shoes, it would have taken a little longer. In addition to that, if you were a daimyō, you would be expected to proceed at a respectable pace and make a spectacle of your entourage which would make the same journey take even longer. Keep in mind that 3-4 hour calculation is assuming you actually started counting at Nihonbashi. If you came from some other area, there’s no telling how long it could take to get to Takaido-shuku.

Some Related Articles:


naito family crest upside down

The family crest of the Naitō family is a hanging wisteria. But in Shinjuku, the family crest is depicted upside down. It’s a mystery.

The Rise of Naitō-Shinjuku

In 1590, 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu granted the 内藤家 Naitō-ke Naitō clan[vii] a massive fief outside of Edo to monitor traffic on the Kōshū Kaidō and the 鎌倉街道 Kamakura Kaidō. Later, this fief would become the Naitō clan’s 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki suburban residence[viii]. The land given to the Naitō clan was eventually deemed excessive compared to the 石高 kokudaka rice value[ix] of 高遠藩 Takatō Han Takatō Domain. So a certain section of the land was confiscated by the shōgunate and repurposed as a post town. The town came to be called 内藤新宿 Naitō Shinjuku Naitō New Post Town.

the end

The End

Wait. What? Who the fuck are the Naitō?
And Takatō Domain? Dude, You Got Way Ahead of Yourself…

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sorry! I just wanted to give a quick overview. Bear with me (or bare with me, if you wanna), and I’ll explain everything. I promise.

The name Naitō will be attached to the place name Shinjuku for most of its existence, so let’s look into this family just a little bit.

Born in 1555 in 三河国岡崎 Mikawa no Kuni Okazaki Okazaki, Mikawa Province, a certain 内藤清成 Naitō Kiyonari was an important retainer of Tokugawa Ieyasu[x]. In 1560, as a result of the 桶狭間之戦い Okehazama no Tatakai Battle of Okehazama, Tokugawa Ieyasu regained control of his family’s ancestral stronghold at 岡崎城 Okazaki-jō Okazaki Castle. This alliance with 織田信長 Oda Nobunaga was the beginning of Ieyasu’s rise to power and influence. This worked out nicely for all the Mikawa samurai. In 1580, Naitō Kiyonari was made the mentor of Ieyasu’s 3rd son (and future 2nd shōgun), 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada. At the time, he was 25 and Hidetada was just 2.

In 1590, Ieyasu gave up control of the ancestral Tokugawa lands in Mikawa Province and assumed control of the 関東八州 Kantō Hasshū 8 Kantō Provinces. This relocation meant a massive elite transfer. That is, all of Ieyasu’s Mikawa samurai moved to Edo. In the same year, he requested that Naitō Kiyonari also come to Edo to continue attending Hidetada in 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle. He granted him a large swath of land that provided tactical support to the villages surrounding the intersection of the Kōshū Kaidō and Kamakura Kaidō. The new fief spanned from 四谷 Yotsuya to 代々木 Yoyogi[xi]. At the time, this area was country. It was essentially the undeveloped areas west of the outer moat of Edo Castle. Since it existed outside of the original castle town and was developed by daimyō and 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the Tokugawa, it can be considered 山手 yamanote[xii] the high city.

Oh, and speaking of hatamoto and daimyō and all that. When Naitō Kiyonari came to Edo with Ieyasu, he came as a hatamoto. The clan’s luck changed for the better in 1691. At that time, the 5th shōgun, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi elevated the Naitō clan’s rank. In 1698, the shōgunate made 内藤清枚 Naitō Kiyokazu daimyō of Takatō Domain in present day 長野県 Nagano-ken Nagano Prefecture.


You’ve got mail… from the shōgun.

Bureaucracy. It’s a Bitch.

By this time, Edo had been the Tokugawa capital for about 100 years. Although Ieyasu had granted Kiyokazu’s ancestor, Kiyonari, a vast swath of land, the rules about daimyō and rank had become stricter. Edo was expanding out into the country as well. This wasn’t the Sengoku Period anymore.

I mentioned it earlier, but with their newly earned daimyō status, the Naitō clan were under closer scrutiny by the 老中 rōjū shōgun’s chief advisors. The value of their new fief in Takatō wasn’t high enough to warrant such a large landholding in Kantō. It was bigger than or as big as most of the holdings of the richest daimyō – families that had been daimyō for a much longer time and who commanded huge domains. The shōgunate confiscated a section of the Naitō estate to make things seem fair. The area they were most interested in was the land where the Kōshū Kaidō and the 青梅街道 Ōmekaidō Ōme Highway intersected. This seemed like a good place to establish a shukuba machi (post town). The local villages had already been servicing the Naitō clan’s residence for almost 100 years. A local economy was present on both highways. Making an official post town in the area could take some of the onus off of Takaido and 伝馬町 Denma-chō[xiii] and build up a stronger suburban economy.

Even though the Naitō clan took a hit in terms of landholdings, the newly created shukuba, Naitō-Shinjuku, was destined to be a success – a wet, sticky, hot mess of a success.

Some related reading:


Stereotypical image of a post town.

So, What was Naitō-Shinjuku?

Well, before the name Naitō Shinjuku got thrown around, the small town that popped up to service the palatial estate of the Naitō was called Naitō Machi literally “Naitō Town.”[xiv] This was the commoner district outside of the Naitō compound. So, a strong case could be made that the original name of Shinjuku was actually Naitō Machi. The addition of the word Shinjuku definitely came later.

harbinger of things to come

The green areas are the post town. The yellow areas are shrines, temples, and roads. The weird blue line is the Tama Jōsui (Tama Aqueduct). You’ll probably want to come back to this map later.

As I mentioned before, the original fief given to Kiyonari was later reduced when the family was given daimyō status and the area became a shimo-yashiki. But make no mistake about it; the plot of land held by the Naitō was still expansive. Modern 新宿御苑 Shinjuku Gyoen Shinjuku Imperial Park is more or less the former Naitō estate.


This section of the Naitō residence was said to be open to the public.

The Naitō knew what a fantastic rural palace they had. They built several spacious gardens with manmade hills, ponds, and all manner of flowers and trees. The family was apparently very generous to the local people and opened up the玉川園 Tamagawa-en Tamagawa Garden to the general public each season[xv]. Tamagawa-en is easily counted among some of the most famous attractions of the Edo[xvi]. Even to this day, some of the cherry blossoms trees in Shinjuku Gyoen are said to be about 400 years old[xvii].

Related reading:

hiroshige ever the jokester

Utagawa Hiroshige – ever the jokester. What do you think this painting is about?

But it wasn’t all ice cream, daimyō gardens, and puppy dogs. Day to day life in the area was pretty mundane most of the time. From the Edo Period until the American Occupation, Shinjuku was notorious for drinking and whoring – and by that, I mean the unlicensed sort[xviii]. Since local unlicensed sex industries were a taboo topic, the Naitō Machi area was perhaps best known a relay station. This meant the shōgunate kept horse stables here for messengers who had to relay important messages quickly. The presence of a lot of horses meant this area was famously covered in 馬糞 bafun horse manure – or less politely maguzo horse shit. It’s said that on hot days, pedestrians and horses kicked up dust clouds of dirt and dry shit and the air was yellow and foul.

The neighborhood of 新宿区四谷4丁目 Shinjuku-ku Yotsuya yon-chōme 4th block of Yotsuya, Shinjuku Ward was called 四谷大木戸 Yotsuya Ōkido. This is because from 1616 to 1792 a special 関所 sekisho check point stood here. An ōkido – literally “large wooden door” – was the name given to the border stations that protected the routes in and out of the shōgun’s capital. Edo had 3 main ōkido:



Itabashi Ōkido


Takanawa Ōkido


Yotsuya Ōkido

Kōshū Kaidō

Travelers coming in and out of Edo would show their paperwork, and if approved they’d be admitted into the city. But apparently by the 1790’s, the shōgunate didn’t see the need for such precautions anymore.


The entrance to Naitō Shinjuku was the Yotsuya Ōkido. The entrance was never this fortified, though. This looks like the center of a castle town, but this drawing was done in the the Late Edo Period when ōkido basically didn’t exist anymore.

Let’s Take a Stroll through Naitō-Shinjuku

Travelers coming in would pass the ōkido and continue on the Kōshū Kaidō through the post town. The area covered present day 新宿一丁目 Shinjuku Icchōme 1st block of Shinjuku, 二丁目 Ni-chōme 2nd block, and 三丁目 San-chōme 3rd block. Today, that stretch of road is called 新宿通り Shinjuku Dōri Shinjuku Street. The street was lined with all kinds of shops and inns and would have been like any other shukuba machi. The town ended when you arrived at a fork in the road in an area called 淀橋 Yodobashi[xix]. This fork was the beginning of the Ōmekaidō[xx].

naito shinjuku diorama.jpg

Everybody loves dioramas!

The post town gained quite a reputation in its first 20 years. There were 52 inns in addition to other businesses. Supposedly, nearly every business in Naitō-Shinjuku offered prostitutes as an additional service. It was so bad that the 奉行所 bugyōsho magistrate’s office was regularly hounded by the proprietors of shops in 吉原 Yoshiwara[xxi] who complained that they couldn’t compete with pricing and availability[xxii]. They insisted that the shōgunate either ban prostitution in Naitō-Shinjuku or at the very least regulate the shit out of it. After a fire devastated the area, the shōgunate mulled the costs of rebuilding. Compounded by complaints from rich proprietors in Yoshiwara, the post town was shut down in 1718.

More reading:

Shinjuku Dori.JPG

You may want to refer to the map I posted earlier. This is the modern route from the Yotsuya Ōkido to the split from the Kōshū Kaidō to the Ōmekaidō.

The Shut Down of Naitō-Shinjuku

However, the party didn’t stop – it just slowed down… but it slowed down a lot.

In the same year, the 8th shōgun, 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune, enacted a series of sumptuary laws called the 享保の改革の最 Kyōhō no Kaikaku Kyōhō Reforms. One of his reforms was aimed at restricting unlicensed prostitution and stated that 旅籠屋一軒につき飯盛女は2人まで hatago-ya ikken ni tsuki meshimori onna futari made inns for travelers may have no more than 2 meshimori onna per shop. Meshimori onna is the Japanese word for girls who served meals and provided sexual favors in post towns. That meant a town like Naitō-Shinjuku could now be regulated so the town was back in business almost as quickly as it had been shut down.

Edo Period Street Walkers.jpg

We’re not a post town anymore. Now we’re just a 岡場所 (okabasho), a local red light district.

The problem was that without its post town status people were passing through and staying at the original first official post town, Takaito. The village headman of Naitō Machi appealed to the shōgunate saying that most of the townspeople had lost their livelihoods. He also argued that other post towns, Takaito in particular, couldn’t handle all the traffic and re-opening Naitō-Shinjuku as a post town would ease the burden. Various appeals were made between 1723 and 1737 – more than 30 years. But every time the shōgunate rejected the petitions. They were effectively drawn off the maps. Naitō-Shinjuku was only known to the local commoner population and the Takatō samurai population who needed to indulge in a nice cup of tea, a bath, and some sex with a local Kantō girl. But this wasn’t enough. The town was suffering.

Finally, in 1772, about 50 years after the post town was closed by the shōgunate, they granted shukuba status to the area again[xxiii].

naito shinjuku in 1919

Naitō Shinjuku in 1919

The Icing on the Cake

Recently, the shōgunate had more or less given up on regulating the number of meshimori onna at inns. They began looking the other way when other shops began employing them too. They even went so far as to make special exceptions for certain villages, certain post towns, and even certain individual businesses. In short, Naitō-Shinjuku was back in full swing.


Woo-hoo! Let’s get this party started. More sexxxy food time for everyone. Awwwwwwww yeah.

Shinjuku Swells Up & Gets Bigger and Bigger

Even after the obsolescence of post towns – these were often replaced by train stations – the area’s reputation as a red light district never diminished. To this day, Shinjuku’s lively 歌舞伎町 Kabukichō district is synonymous with the sex industry.

Again, given the sheer number of people, department stores, apartments, and skyscrapers that define Shinjuku today, it’s hard to believe it was never anything but a massive city center. But the area was still pretty underdeveloped until after the 1923 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake. The real development began after a series of fires in 1925. The site was chosen as a 副都心 Fuku-toshin. Toshin means “city center.” Fuku-toshin literally means “vice city center,” but maybe “urban subcenter” is a better translation? I dunno. “Vice city center” sounds kinda bad ass. Anyways, that was when Shinjuku really began to get its proverbial girth.

Naito Machi.JPG

Modern Naito Machi includes both the former post town and former daimyō residence.

So What Happened to the Name Naitō-Shinjuku?

The creation of Shinjuku Ward is very complicated and boring but here’s the short version. In the 1920’s, Naitō-Shinjuku was combined with some other towns to form 淀橋区 Yodobashi-ku Yodobashi Ward. In 1947, when Shinjuku Ward was created Naitō Machi still existed – indeed, that postal address still exists today. And while Naitō-Shinjuku was the first Shinjuku, it wasn’t the only Shinjuku. There were 西新宿 Nishi-Shinjuku West Shinjuku and 東新宿 Higashi Shinjuku East Shinjuku and… well, you get the picture. Thus when reshuffling administrative units of Tōkyō in 1947, it just made sense to call the whole area “Shinjuku.” This was the common name for the district anyways; Naitō-Shinjuku was just one part of that area.

And while we haven’t lost Naitō Machi as a postal address, we have actually lost Naito-Shinjuku. But the debauchery of Naitō-Shinjuku lives on in Kabukichō and other parts of Shinjuku Ward. I can’t help but feel that the culture of Shinjuku is deeply rooted in its licentious post town days. Don’t forget things were so out of control the fucking Yoshiwara tried to shut them down!

So the next time you visit a prostitute in the area, just remember that you’re actually connecting with a profound, grand, unbroken historical erotic tradition passed down directly from the culture of the Edo Period.

Oh yeah, and the park’s not too bad.

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[i] I count myself among both groups. Yes, I’m a lover and a hater.
[ii] Footnote test. lol.
[iii] Here’s the Wikipedia article on rakugo.
[iv] There were more than 5, by the way. But the traditional “big 5” started at Nihonbashi. Here’s my article on them.
[v] For the record, in the Edo Period, 甲府藩 Kōfu Han Kōfu Domain was a Tokugawa shōgunate controlled fief located in 甲斐国 Kai no Kuni Kai Province. Fans of the Sengoku Period will recognize Kai Province and Kōfu (which both share the kanji 甲 kai/) as the territory of the Sengoku warlord 武田信玄 Takeda Shingen.
[vi] This system wasn’t a product of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. It popped up naturally as villagers took advantage of inter-provincial/inter-domain traffic. The Tokugawa shōgunate definitely insisted on regulating it.
[vii] Later the clan would be promoted to daimyō rank. They controlled 高遠藩 Takatō Han Takatō Domain in modern 長野県伊那 Nagano-ken Ina-shi Ina City, Nagano Prefecture
[viii] More about that later. At this time, the Naitō family were just retainers of Ieyasu. Ieyasu was just a daimyō, one of the 5 most powerful daimyō in Japan, but he still had a 10 year uphill struggle to become shōgun.
[ix] Here’s a good explanation of kokudaka from Samurai Archives.
[x] Who went by the name 松平元康 Matsudaira Motoyasu in those days.
[xi] According to legend, Ieyasu told Naitō Kiyonari that he would give him a fief based on how far his horse could ride. This ended up being Yotsuya in the east, Yoyogi in the west, Sendagaya in the south, and Ōkubo in the north. Take the story with a grain of salt.
[xii] I know this has been beaten to death here, but if you don’t know what yamanote and shitamachi mean, please read this article.
[xiii] Denma-chō was home to one of Edo’s 3 Great Execution Grounds.
[xiv] This is what happens when commoners suck up to nobles.
[xv] As a 武家 buke military family, of course they didn’t allow full access to the entire residence and all the gardens, but still, that’s pretty cool.
[xvi] This area is now present day 玉藻池 Tamamo Ike Tamamo Lake in Shinjuku Gyoen
[xvii] I don’t know how you confirm this without cutting the tree down, but what the hell do I know?
[xviii] This means, no government regulation free-range prostitution. You’ll see what I mean soon enough.
[xix] If the name Yodobashi sounds familiar to you (ie; like a huge electronics retailer), you’re not going crazy. The shop’s name derives from this location. I have an article about that somewhere.
[xx] Today, parts of this road still exist, including the famous “rape tunnel.” It’s preserved as the 旧青梅街道 Kyū-Ōmekaidō Old Ōmekaidō. The current road that bears the name Ōmekaidō has been moved a little. If you look at the walls in the tunnel, they have the whole length of the Ōmekaidō mapped out and each post town is labeled!
[xxi] Yoshiwara was the main licensed prostitution district of Edo.
[xxii] Yoshiwara was extremely expensive. The whole process was highly ritualized in the classier establishments. You’d go one night to have tea with a proprietor and if you were lucky, you’d be introduced to a girl for some more tea. Then you’d have to come back and court her more until she finally said, “yes.” Of course, there were lower class places that sped up the process. But in a Naitō-Shinjuku it was like “do you want a girl after your tea?” or “thanks for ordering a plate of soba, would you like a blow job after that?”
[xxiii] By 1808 the town had made a full economic recovery as it’s recorded that they had 50 inns and 80 tea houses.

What does Mukōjima mean?

In Japanese History on August 13, 2015 at 7:21 am

Mukōjima (island/s over there)

Take a good look at this map. You're gonna have to refer to it a lot.

Take a good look at this map. You’re gonna have to refer to it a lot.

Mukōjima is a postal address in 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward. It’s located on the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River, directly across from 浅草 Asakusa. Most tourists who visit Asakusa and check out the river have probably seen Mukōjima and didn’t even bat an eye. Today, it doesn’t look like much from that vantage point. After all, Asakusa is so lively and in every guidebook. On the surface, the area seems to be decidedly 下町 shitamachi low city, but if you dig a little deeper this town will give up some surprising secrets.

First, Let’s Look at the Etymology

The meaning of the name is obscure, but 2 theories exist. They’re both very similar and they’re both more or less plausible.  The word itself is written with two kanji.


over there,


The Sumida-gawa Palace

The Sumida-gawa Palace

One theory is based on the fact that the Tokugawa shōguns had a detached palace in the area.  The site was called 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten Sumida River Palace and it was located on the newly developed lands across from Asakusa, the prosperous town surrounding 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple[i]. To the northwest of the property, the 内川 Uchikawa, literally the “Inner River”[ii], (a stretch of the 古隅田川 Furusumida-gawa, literally the “Old Sumida River[iii]) flowed into the Sumida. According to this theory, an island or fairly large sandbar lay at this confluence to northwest and was said to be called 将軍の向島 shōgun no mukōjima the shōgun’s island over there. Naturally, the people using that phrase were the inhabitants of Asakusa on the other side of the river.

A seafood restaurant in Mukōjima famous for serving 鯉 (carp)

A seafood restaurant in Mukōjima famous for serving 鯉 (carp)

A second similar theory states that before the coming of the Tokugawa and the massive waterworks projects undertaken by the shōgunate[iv], the east bank of the Sumida River in this area was littered with sandbars and islands. Over time, these islands were reclaimed and incorporated into the expanding city. Some of these islands were big enough to have names – many of which still persist to a certain extent today: 牛島 Ushima (cow island), 柳島 Yanagijima (willow island), 寺島Terajima (temple island – remember this name). It’s said that the people living on the west bank (ie; Asakusa) collectively referred to these islands with one name: 向島 mukōjima the islands over there.

Both theories were first recorded in the Edo Period, but I find the reference to the Tokugawa a bit suspect. I don’t know why; it’s just a gut feeling. I find the “pre-Edo Period” theory more convincing. Again, I don’t know why; it’s just a gut feeling. But with a few other place names in the area referencing islands (島 shima), it doesn’t seem to be unreasonable that the people who lived along the river might do such a thing.

Shamisen players relaxing at a sushi stand on the bank of the Sumida River in Mukōjima.

Shamisen players relaxing at a sushi stand on the bank of the Sumida River in Mukōjima.

In the Edo Period, the area was famous for its natural beauty. People came here to enjoy the seasonal changes. There are many 浮世絵 ukiyo-e prints of people relaxing in the area. At this time, Mukōjima was just a popular name for the area. However, in 1891, the name Mukōjima was made official. Since that time the area has changed a lot. Today, the area has a lot to offer and if you have enough money, you might be able to spend the whole day there in style.

Now, Let’s Look at the Area Today

mukojima desu

Mukōjima Hyakkka-en

One of the most famous places in the area is 百花園 Hyakkka-en “the 100 flower park.” The park was built by a wealthy antiques dealer from 仙台藩 Sendai Han Sendai Domain named 佐原鞠塢 Sahara Kikū. He ran a store in 日本橋 Nihonbashi and hobnobbed with various 大名 daimyō feudal lords[v]. He represented the new breed of wealthy merchants and commoners that arose in the late Edo Period. He was highly educated, cultured, and had tastes that ran the gamut of both the nouveaux riches and the elite samurai class.

He purchased the 多賀屋敷 Taga yashiki Taga residence in 寺島村 Terajima Mura Terajima Village (a name we saw earlier) and in 1804 he converted it into a flower garden, originally called 花屋敷 Hana Yashiki the Flower Mansion. The concept of the garden was very different from the daimyō gardens of the Edo Period. It reflected the new sensibilities of the emerging rich commoners who found themselves with more leisure time and were developing a cultural esthetic distinct from the conservative styles preferred by the stagnating samurai class.


His concept was simple: 春夏秋冬不断 shunkashūtō fudan consistency throughout the seasons. Flowers were chosen from Classical Japanese and Classical Chinese poetry in order to amass a collection of flowers that would constantly bloom in turn throughout the seasons. Unlike the subdued and stoic daimyō gardens, it was vibrant, flashy, and always changing. The garden also wasn’t hidden behind high walls like a daimyō mansion, but could be visited by anyone with the right connections[vi]. The garden’s fame was so great that in March of 1829, the Party Shōgun, 将軍家斉 Tokugawa Ienari, visited – no doubt in the company of a gaggle of beauties from the 大奥 Ōoku the shōgun’s harem. The garden was sold to東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City in 1938 and was officially opened to the public in 1939. By some accounts, it is the only Edo Period flower garden of its kind that still exists.


Japanese Sweets

There are 2 types of 和菓子 wagashi Japanese sweets that originated in the area. The first is called 言問団子 Kototoi Dango and the second is called 桜餅 sakura mochi.

Kototoi Dango

Kototoi Dango is both the name of a shop in Mukōjima and the product they specialize in. Their main product is 団子 dango dango that comes in three flavors: white anko, red anko, and miso. The shop was established by a gardening teacher, 外山佐吉 Toyama Sakichi – a commoner – in the late Edo Period. The name Kototoi is a reference to a bridge located downstream from the original shop called 言問橋 Kototoibashi Kototoi Bridge. The shop’s dango became popular with the people who came to the area to watch fireworks along the Sumida River. Since people from all over the shōgun’s capital came to see the annual event, the dango from this shop’s reputation spread quickly. You can see the shop’s website here

Kototoi dango

Kototoi dango

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

Sakura mochi is a kind of Japanese sweet that is flavored with cherry blossom leaves. There are many variations throughout Japan, but it generally boils down to 2 main styles: 関東風 Kantō-fū Kantō Style and 関西風 Kansai-fū Kansai Style. Of course, both regions claim to have invented the snack in an attempt to have bragging rights over a food made with cherry blossoms, a symbol of Japan[vii]. But eff that noise. Let’s just talk about some Mukōjima yumminess,

These little bad boys are called 長命寺桜餅 Chōmeiji sakura mochi cherry blossom mochi named after Chōme-ji, a temple located on the Sumida River[viii]. The temple is near Kototoi Dango. This temple may also be connected to the “temple island” that I mentioned earlier, Terajima.

It seems the shopkeepers living in the 門前町 monzen-chō town built up around a temple[ix] began collecting cherry blossoms that fell from trees along the river in the 1690’s and started using them to flavor various foods to sell to people who to the area for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. In 1717, local shops began selling this special sakura mochi in front of the temple. This year also coincided with a decree to plant more cherry blossoms along this section of the Sumida River by 8th shōgun, 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune[x]. The new style of mochi was an instant hit with the hanami goers and just as Kototoi Dango’s reputation spread far and wide quickly, so did that of Chōmeiji sakura mochi. Various shops in the area sell this specialty today.

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi


Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s Biggest Geisha District

Unless you already knew this, I’ll bet you didn’t see this one coming.

Ryōtei are exclusive dining establishments that provide geisha entertainment.

Ryōtei are exclusive dining establishments that provide geisha entertainment.

Mukōjima is home to a 花街 kagai[xi] a geisha district (literally “flower town”). The area was famous for its nature and greenery in the Edo Period but the rise of the nouveaux riches began to have an effect on the area. This effect would soon transform the area.

Because of the influx of new money and the rise of industry during the Meiji Period, a unique geisha culture emerged in Mukōjima. The demand for geisha was high among men of means in the newly renamed city (Edo→Tōkyō).  The area was particularly popular with artists, poets, and novelists in the early 1900’s.

mukojima geisha

Unfortunately, most of Tōkyō’s geisha culture fizzled out after the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake and the firebombing of WWII. But for some reason Mukōjima managed to hold on to the tradition[xii]. To this day, there are many 料亭 ryōtei located in the area. Ryōtei are high end dining venues that have the space, the setting, the pedigree, and the connections to provide entertainment by geisha. Many establishments won’t accept new customers without an introduction by a current customer or a trusted acquaintance of the owner. In general, such indulgences are extremely cost prohibitive, but there are occasional cheesy bus tours that will give you a glimpse into the world.

Yes, those are real geisha. And no, geisha babies are not called

Yes, those are real geisha. And no, geisha babies are not called “gaybies” so please don’t e-mail me asking about that.

At its peak, they say more than 1000 geisha operated in the area and there were anywhere from 100-200 shops providing entertainment to high end clientele. Today those numbers are much smaller. It’s said there are a little over 100 geisha who regularly perform in Mukōjima and the number of ryōtei is well under 20[xiii]. All of this notwithstanding, Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s largest extant geisha town today. In the early evening, you will probably see geisha scurrying around and if you have the money – I most definitely don’t[xiv] – you can enjoy their service, entertainment, and a little taste of Edo.

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[i] Asakusa had had a decent population since the Kamakura Period.
[ii] Rivers tended to be called different things in different areas. So the Sumida River, being a very long river, had many names in different locations. Each tributary also had a different name, despite being part of the same river basin. You can read more about this in my article on the Sumida River.
[iii] A former branch of the Sumida River that originated in present day Saitama Prefecture, but is now is separated from the river that is currently called the Sumida River.
[iv] The shōgunate modified the courses of rivers, built moats, diverted channels, and all manner of waterworks… and guess who wrote a series on it.
[v] He was most likely lending daimyō money, too. This meant they would have given him access to all sorts of opportunities that might not have been available to other commoners in order to keep his favor. If you want to know more about merchants lending daimyō money, check out this article.
[vi] The “right connections” seems to have meant influential writers, poets, artists, geisha – any kind of cultured commoners with money and influence, really – and even daimyō who had a taste for the vibrancy of the late Edo Period.
[vii] The deep association of cherry blossoms as a symbol of the samurai is particularly strong in Edo-Tōkyō because of the samurai government. That said, I’m pretty sure everyone likes cherry blossoms, so that particular pro-Edo argument is a little weak to me. However, I’m not interested in that debate at all.
[viii] The temple’s foundation date is unclear. It may date back to the Heian Period but it only date back to the 1590’s, when 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu entered Edo. What is known for sure is that the temple received the patronage of the Tokugawa Shōgunate during the reign of the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu.
[ix] Monzen-chō, literally “towns at the front of the temple gate,” popped up to cash in on the needs of pilgrims, funeral mourners, and the casual visitors who would stop by out of curiosity – in this case, cherry blossom viewers. People needed food, lodging, and other services and thus special economies developed around temples. See my article on Monzen-Nakachō.
[x] Yoshimune was made shōgun the same year. The sudden arrival of this new local product may have its roots in many causes. The new shōgun’s decree offered a kind of novelty – why buy some ordinary, stupid snack, when you can buy the new taste of the year? It also showed respect to the new shōgun – thanks for sending all this business our way – more cherry blossoms means more tourists in the spring. And the list goes on…
[xi] 花街 is read as hanamachi in Kyōto. Kagai is the 音読み on’yomi Chinese reading of the kanji. Hanamachi is the 訓読み kun’yomi Japanese reading of the kanji. Apparently, the plosives  /ka/ and /ga/ of the on’yomi have generally been perceived as harsh and uncouth by speakers of 京都弁 Kyōto-ben the Kyōto Dialect. To this day, the guardians of the highest register of that dialect are the geisha of the former imperial capital. For their sensibilities, apparently the on’yomi, hanamachi rolls off the tongue much more smoothly. Interestingly, hanamachi uses an affricative // and nasal sounds /ma/ and /ɴ/. Removing the plosive sounds means the risk of spitting on a person is lower and the use of nasals makes the vowels clearer. Some westerners complain about girls making announcements outside of shops as being annoying and nasal (for the record, I like this). They’re unwittingly favoring the clearer nasal sounds that highlight vowels and make their voices travel farther. It’s just my speculation, but this may have roots in the female speech of Kyōto.
[xii] Akasaka, due to its proximity to the National Diet Building, had a geisha district in the Edo Period. There is still a geisha culture there. The modern geisha are said to be extremely skilled and talented, but in the Edo Period and early Meiji Period the term “Akasaka Geisha” referred to the geisha of the lowest quality in the city. It was essentially a euphemism for a prostitute or a geisha so unskilled she might as well just be a whore. Today, Akasaka is home to many hostess bars of various qualities. Many of the proprietresses of certain long running establishments arrange “night time liaisons” between the working girls and the male clients. It’s said that this is a legacy of the image of the “Akasaka Geisha.” First, if this is a real legacy, it might be hard to prove. I suspect it’s just romanticizing history to justify the modern business model. And second, a hostess isn’t a geisha – or a prostitute, for that matter. Any blurred lines are things that individuals agree to do outside of the actual job descriptions.
[xiii] Some venues that are not ryōtei provide plebian-focused geisha performances for tourist groups. It’s my understanding that they are not included in the “official count.”
[xiv] It’s sad really. Being entertained by geisha is on my bucket list, but it’s about as realistic a dream as a threesome with Perfume. Yes, I said threesome. A-chan isn’t invited.

What does Egota mean?

In Japanese History on July 30, 2015 at 1:06 am

Egota (literally, “inlet – old – field”)

Shin-Egota Station

Shin-Egota Station

This etymology is really problematic. No one can agree on how to pronounce it. No one can agree where the name come from. No one can even agree if it’s a good area or not. The people who live there like it. The people who don’t couldn’t care less about it


No Agreement – How The Fuck Do You Pronounce It?

Is it Ekoda or Egota? Well, it generally depends on who you ask (or who’s telling you). There are two stations that each bears the two major variations.

Ekoda Eki

Ekoda Station
(Seibu Ikebukuro Line)

Shin-Egota Eki

New Egota Station
(Ōedo Line)

As it stands, “Egota” is an actual postal code in Nakano Ward[i]. In the Tōkyō Metropolis, this is as official as a place name gets.  However, “Ekoda” Station in Nerima Ward uses the alternate pronunciation. It’s not an official place name. That said, Shin-Egota Station is on the boundary of Nakano and Nerima wards and uses the Nakano name. This means that the most “official” pronunciation is “Egota.”

The 2 spellings actually wreak havoc upon non-Japanese search engines. For example, English Google Maps lists both stations as Ekoda Station and Shinekoda Station[ii]. Despite all of this confusion, there does seem to be a general rule of thumb. In short, Nakano Ward tends to use “Egota” and Toshima Ward tends to use “Ekoda.[iii]” This seems to be a modern convention, though. Since the Edo Period, the place written 江古田村 Egota Mura Egota Village was referred to variously as えこだ Ekoda, えごた Egota, えごだ Egoda, and えこた Ekota.


Now Let’s Look at the Kanji


inlet, bay

ko, go


ta, da

field, rice paddy

Just an initial glance at this whole mess makes want to say that this is 当て字 ateji. Long time readers of the blog will know that ateji is when kanji are used for their phonetic qualities, not their ideographic qualities. Basically, it’s a way to make a word that might be difficult to read instantly readable. In pre-modern Japan, ateji relied on kanji that any person with a basic grasp of high frequency kanji could read. Words that didn’t have kanji or that were of otherwise “mysterious” origin were often rendered in ateji. Place names were often mysterious – as they are even today[iv].

One of the big clues that this writing is ateji is the first character. 江 e inlet or bay is the origin of the katakana character エ e. Katakana is strictly phonetic and has no meaning. is one of those “go to” kanji for that sound. This location is nowhere near the bay or any inlet thereof.

One of the problems with place names written with ateji is that they usually blur or cover up the original meaning forever. The original name could have been a dialect word. It could have been a far more ancient name passed down from the 蝦夷 Emishi or アイヌ Ainu – peoples who lived in Japan before the people whom we think of as “culturally Japanese” became dominant[v]. I don’t want to get into a huge discourse on the peoples of Japan, so just understand that other cultures and languages existed in Japan before and some of their place names may have persisted after the introduction of kanji. But we can’t be certain about many of them.

ego no ki

The Most Famous Theory – The Japanese Snowbell Theory

This is by far and wide the most popular theory about this place name. According to this theory, the area was covered with Japanese snowbell trees (Styrax japonica). In Japanese, the tree is called エゴノキ ego no ki. The snowbell blossoms could be pressed to make cooking oil. These trees grow everywhere in Japan – all the way from the north in Hokkaidō down to the south in Kyūshū[vi]. Most people believe this theory and it gets repeated in books, magazines, and TV.

Remember this theory. We’re going to come back to it later.

A flowering shiso plant

A flowering shiso plant

The Egoma Theory

荏胡麻 egoma is a kind of oil made from Perilla frutescens – oil made from a kind of wild sesame plant. The leaves and plant are generally known as 紫蘇 shiso in Japan. Shiso leaves are popular in seasonal tempura dishes and there is a famous brand of 焼酎 shōchū that is infused with shiso leaves. In pre-modern Japan, some clans used to make 油紙 yushi[vii] oil treated paper with this leaf’s oil. This was a traditional paper treated with egoma used for archival purposes or official messages that needed to be waterproof. Like Chōfu[viii], there’s no evidence this industry ever existed in the area.

Two old Ainu dudes. (At least I think they're both dudes)

Two old Ainu dudes.
(At least I think they’re both dudes)

The Ainu Theory

Long time readers – and by long time, I mean you’ve been reading regularly for a few years now – will be familiar with certain tropes that constantly come. I’ve referred to them as “the Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory,” “the Tokugawa Yoshimune Did It theory,” “the Captain Japan[ix] Did It Theory,” and the occasional “the Ainu Did It Theory.”

Of course when we talk about Ainu in this part of Japan, we might actually be talking about the 蝦夷 Emishi, a culture said to be related to the Ainu but that might not be. But then again, we might be talking about actual Ainu people. Nobody really knows for sure. The Emishi and Ainu are a bit of an enigma and to make matters worse the names have sometimes been used interchangeably over history. The Emishi – who appear to be a related but separate people – seem to have been absorbed into the Yamato Culture[x] – or into the Ainu Culture – or both. Again, nobody fucking knows. But the Ainu most definitely still exist in Hokkaidō, one of their ancestral homes.

In short, this theory claims that the name derives from a lost Ainu/Emishi word that means 密集 misshū which means a crowd or a dense thing or place or 集団 shūdan which means a group or a mass (and carries a connotation of “people” or “populace”). This theory was recorded in the Edo Period without citing the original Ainu/Emishi word which means one of two things: the tradition was passed on for centuries by oral tradition and the word was lost along the way or it is complete bullshit made up at some time… probably in the Edo Period.

Yama no kubochi - a basin in the hills.

Yama no kubochi – a basin in the hills.

The River Basin Theory

In some old Kantō dialects, there is a word 江古 ego[xi]. These kanji and the reading are identical to the first 2 characters in 江古田 Egota. Ego doesn’t refer to “the ego” which you may know from psychology[xii]. No, it refers to something far more mundane and boring[xiii].

In standard Japanese this word is rendered as 山の窪地[xiv] yama no kubochi “a depression in the hills” which itself is an obscure term. Kubochi is essentially a synonym for 盆地 bonchi a basin – this is a term all Japanese people are familiar with. According to this theory, 江古田 Egota means 水が流れ込む田んぼ mizu ga nagarekomu tanbo a field that water flows down into.

This looks legit on the surface. There is actually a river called 江古田川 Egota-gawa and an actual bridge called 江古田川大橋 Egota Ōhashi the Great Egota Bridge. There are hills in the area as well. The only problem with this theory is that within the 23 Special Wards of Tōkyō Metropolis, virtually nothing of the old dialects remains. The evidence for this theory is supplied from other places in agricultural areas of Kantō where bits and pieces of the old dialects persist. No documents link this place with this etymology – it’s purely hypothetical[xv].

This tree look familiar? Time to talk about that Japanese Snowbell Theory again.

This tree look familiar?
Time to talk about that Japanese Snowbell Theory again.

Let’s Revisit the Japanese Snowbell Theory

There are more theories than I’ve listed here, but these are the big ones. However, I promised to talk about the most famous theory. That theory states (and I quote from myself) that:

The area was covered with Japanese snowbell trees (Styrax japonica).

In Japanese, the tree is called エゴノキ ego no ki.

I don’t know why this is the “pet etymology” that gets shared the most because it’s probably the most easily disproved etymology. It’s complete shite.

On the surface, it seems legit. 江古田 ego-ta a field of snowbells could be ateji for エゴノキの田んぼ  ego no ki no tanbo a field of snowbell trees. For native speakers and non-native speakers, this theory looks pretty good.

At the heart of this conundrum lays the name of this tree, エゴノキ ego no ki. Japanese spelling[xvi] has changed over the centuries, in particular, after the Meiji Coup and especially after WWII. The etymology of ego no ki has been obscured by the modernization of Japanese orthography[xvii]. It’s also obscured by the standard Romanization, ie; ローマ字 rōma-ji .

Before the spelling reforms, this tree’s name was written as ヱゴの木  ego no ki[xviii]. That first character doesn’t exist in the modern syllabary[xix]. It’s a character that’s been obsolete since the 1940’s and is only used for dramatic effect today[xx]. The easiest equivalent I can think of in English is when “the” is written as “ye”[xxi] today to look medieval or something. In Japanese, this character actually reflects Classical Japanese (probably from the Heian Period until the Kamakura Period). That is to say, it uses characters that represent sounds that died out long ago[xxii].

However, when 江古田 Egota/Ekoda is spelled out in hiragana, the first character has historically been e. The character  we/ye came to be pronounced /e/ (ie; it’s phonetically identical to e), but it indicates a mora[xxiii] that is etymologically distinct. To make this clearer, I’ll summarize using rōma-ji: ego couldn’t have derived from “yego” (or “wego“).

my brain hurts

So WTF Is the Etymology?

As I said, there are additional theories, but most of them are tiring – at least to me. Maybe I’ll look into them a bit more later. Unless you live in Egota, which would have been a rare case until after the Great Kantō Earfquake, your chances of even knowing this area at all are low. In the Edo Period, this was just farm land.

As for my opinion, I think it’s clear that the kanji are ateji. The kanji have no meaning and actually hinder getting us to the bottom of the story. It’s also clear that the popular theory of a field of Japanese Snowbell trees is absolutely untrue.

The “Ainu Did It Theory” is impossible to prove until somebody produces an Ainu word that seems to make a plausible case. I also think the “Ainu Did It Theories” are weak in general given the nearly complete cultural saturation of the Yamato Culture. Granted, there hasn’t been a lot of archaeological data from the area, but it doesn’t seem to have been very populated until the last 50-100 years.

If I had to choose a favorite of theory, I think the “The River Basin Theory” is pretty good. Long time readers who remember my grueling Rivers of Edo-Tōkyō series may seem some logic behind this etymology. Having researched more than 250 place names, rivers and other bodies of water seem to be one of the most common reference points. Many Japanese people have said to me the “Japan is a country of water.” Edo was often called “Venice of the East.” The most common modern epithet (which has both positive and negative connotations) is 島国 shimaguni island country. So it’s clear that from time immemorial to present day water is very important to this land and the country’s relationship with water is deeply ingrained in the culture.

That said, none of these theories can be confirmed. And as I said before, the name just reeks of ateji and ateji actually hinders understanding the origins of a name. The presence of 江 e (a water kanji) is the most confusing part of the mystery. It supports was I think is the strongest theory because it is a reference to water, but it is also the source of the katakana character エ e. That means the kanji was used so much for its phonetic usage other than its ideographic meaning that there’s almost no way to grasp which usage is more important (the phonetic meaning or the ideographic meaning).

So, yeah. This has been a wild ride. But there’s no definitive answer. Egota/Ekoda will forever be a mystery. Sometimes it’s good to have them – they keep us on our toes.

Wanna learn about Egota Station and Shin-Ekoda Station?

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[i] 中野区江古田 Nakano-ku Egota Egota, Nakano Ward.
[ii] The missing hyphen is technically a mistake, too. The official station name is clearly hyphenated in signage.
[iii] There seem to be a few exceptions to the rule, but I couldn’t find specific examples.
[iv] The tradition of ateji was born out of necessity when kanji (a Chinese writing system) was first imported to Japan. The Japanese presumably had no standardized writing system – if any writing system at all – and began transcribing their spoken language into the ideographic writing of the Chinese. You can read more about ateji here.
[v] I don’t want to get into the Emishi and Ainu here. It’s a really big topic and may not have any connection to this. You can read more here.
[vi] They actually grow in some parts of Okinawa, which is farther to south and more or less tropical.
[vii] Also read abura-gami.
[viii] Did I mention I have an article about Chōfu?
[ix] Captain Japan, of course, being my nickname for the semi-legendary 大和武尊 Yamato Takeru character of the old Yamato State.
[x] Basically, the “Japanese people” who followed the Imperial Family and took over the main islands of Japan (with the exception of Hokkaidō and Okinawa – territories annexed by the Meiji government after the 1868 Meiji Coup).
[xi] I use “is” in the loosest of possible senses. Most of the Kantō dialects have died out and been replaced with 標準語 Hyōjungo Standard Japanese. So, “there was a word” might be more appropriate, but I’m not sure what linguistic hijinks is going on the backwater farming communities of Kantō.
[xii] That word, ego, is actually the first person singular pronoun in Latin. It’s the Latin word for “I.”
[xiii] But absolutely intrinsic to place names in a county that is mountainous and covered in rivers.
[xiv] Sometimes written as 山の凹地 yama no ouchi (same meaning).
[xv] This theory was proposed by linguistics using modern dialectal dictionaries.
[xvi] Spelling is what we call this in English normally, but I’m actually talking about orthography.
[xvii] Are shitting me? You didn’t read the last footnote? Orthography is how you write words. To use the loose term, spelling.
[xviii] It can also be written entirely in kanji as 野茉莉 egonoki, but usually isn’t.
[xix] Japanese doesn’t have an alphabet; it has 2 syllabaries reinforced by kanji.
[xx] Occasionally archaic spellings even make it into their Romanized counterparts, sometimes you might see Yedo for Edo, Yebisu for Ebisu, Iyeyasu for Ieyasu, Kwan’non for Kan’non, and kwaidan for kaidan. These aren’t just random affectations. They actually reflect the etymological origins of these names and words. The kana in question is sometimes rendered as we, especially when standing alone because it occurred in the わ行 wa-gyō “wa” row: わ waゐ wi, blank, ゑ we, を wo.
[xxi] “Ye” meaning “the” is one of the greatest examples of how misunderstood orthography can explode in your face.
[xxii] There are probably more examples in English than any other language, but consider the word “comfortable.” This spelling reflects a pronunciation of Shakespeare’s time which was 4 syllables /ˈkom for tə bəl/ but the modern pronunciation is 3 syllables /ˈkʌmf tər bl/.
[xxiii] What the fuck is a mora??!!!

Graves of the Tokugawa Shōguns

In on July 28, 2015 at 5:56 pm

Tokugawa Shōgun-ke no Haka (graves of the Tokugawa Shōgun family)


In May of 2013, I decided to write a series on the quest that sparked my passion for Japanese history: my quest to visit the graves of each Tokugawa shōgun[i]. I set out to describe the locations of the funerary temples of each but soon discovered that I knew a lot less than I thought I did about the scope of each monument. If you have ever been to Nikkō, you have seen the apex of Edo Period mortuary architecture – at least in terms of scale and perennial maintenance. However, these religious complexes – in particular the graves of the 1st and 3rd shōguns, Ieyasu and Iemitsu, were completed at the dawn of the Edo Period before the shōgunal funerary temple had developed a standardized style.

The 2nd shōgun and his wife, Hidetada and Sūgen’in[ii], were interred at Edo in sprawling funerary temple next to a shrine dedicated to the first shōgun at Zōjō-ji. In Edo, a unique style of funerary architecture for the shōgun family arose. Hidetada’s grave, which was built before things had standardized, was said to have rivaled Nikkō in color and use of space. The subsequent temples, which came to be reused for group enshrinements, made up for lack of space with ostentatious gilded carvings and an attention to detail that was rare outside of the shōgun’s capital. From the time Japan opened her boarders until WWII, foreigners and Japanese alike were enamored by stunning beauty of the funerary temples of the shōgun’s at Kan’ei-ji, Zōjō-ji, and Nikkō.

Ruins of the shogun graves at Kan'ei-ji as they were in the 1960's

Ruins of the shogun graves at Kan’ei-ji as they were in the 1960’s

As I said earlier, this series was done back in 2013. JapanThis! has changed a lot since then. I’ve changed a lot since then. At that time, I was trying to stick to an everyday or every other day publishing schedule, if I remember correctly[iii]. The grueling schedule took its toll on me. There may be misspellings, funky grammar mistakes, and errors of all stripes and colors. But at least it’s there for now. I’m planning to revisit this topic, but for now it’s there and it’s not bad.

Also, all of the recent posts have active footnote links. However, in 2013, MS Word and Word Press didn’t play well together like they do today. The footnotes, of which there are many, are not clickable in this series[iv]. If you’re interested in a footnote, you probably have to scroll down manually the old fashioned way. Sorry.


Oh, one more thing. Except for the 2 temples at Nikkō, all of the Edo-Tōkyō structures were destroyed in WWII. Bits and pieces remain, but you’ll have to go through my introductory article and the individual articles to sort out most of the details. The Kan’ei-ji graves seem to be in the original configurations, but off limits to the public. The Zōjō-ji graves were combined in a small plot and are occasionally opened to the public, but to understand the scope of the mausolea, you probably need me or another guide to walk you through the ruins in Shiba Park. Lastly, the final shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, had a Shintō burial in Yanaka near the graves at shōgun cemeteries at Kan’ei-ji. This was most likely an act of submission to the emperor – living embodiment of the new spirit of Japan.


Without Further Ado, the Graves of the Muthafuckin’ Tokugawa Shōguns


Name Original Burial Site Modern Location
0 Introduction Article
1 Ieyasu Tōshō-gū (Kunōzan→Nikkō)[v] Nikkō
2 Hidetada Daitoku-in[vi] Tokugawa Cemetery at Zōjō-ji
3 Iemitsu Taiyū-in Nikkō[vii]
4 Ietsuna Genyū-in Tokugawa Cemetery at Kan’ei-ji
5 Tsunayoshi Eikyū-in Tokugawa Cemetery at Kan’ei-ji
6 Ienobu Bunshō-in Tokugawa Cemetery at Zōjō-ji
7 Ietsugu Yūshō-in Tokugawa Cemetery at Zōjō-ji
From here on no new mausolea were built; future shōguns were enshrined in existing funerary complexes  
8 Yoshimune Eikyū-in Tokugawa Cemetery at Kan’ei-ji
9 Ieshige Yūshō-in Tokugawa Cemetery at Zōjō-ji
10 Ieharu Genyū-in Tokugawa Cemetery at Kan’ei-ji
11 Ienari[viii] Genyū-in Tokugawa Cemetery at Kan’ei-ji
12 Ieyoshi Bunshō-in Tokugawa Cemetery at Zōjō-ji
13 Iesada Eikyū-in Tokugawa Cemetery at Kan’ei-ji
14 Iemochi Bunshō-in Tokugawa Cemetery at Zōjō-ji
15 Yoshinobu Yanaka Cemetery Yanaka Cemetery


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[i] A quest, that is sadly so in reach, and yet even after 10 years of living here hasn’t completely materialized yet due to the privacy requested by the Tokugawa family about the cemetery in Ueno. But one day the prize will be mine!
[ii] She had quite a few names throughout her life, but because of a recent Taiga Drama about her life, the average person on the street today knows her as 江 Gō – or more politely, Gō-hime Princess Gō. Sūgen’in is her Buddhist name that she donned in retirement.
[iii] Or maybe, I had switched to once a week. I don’t remember.
[iv] Or if they are, it’s not consistent throughout the series.
[v] There is actually quite a bit of controversy as to whether Ieyasu’s physical remains are at Kunōzan or Nikkō. The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter according to Shintō or Japanese Buddhism. A person can be enshrined anywhere and no physical remains are necessary.
[vi] Also called Taitoku-in. Recently, Zōjō-ji has been pushing Taitoku-in.
[vii] There is evidence of a temporary grave at Kan’ei-ji, but this may have been a shrine without physical remains – similar to the proliferation of Tōshō-gū (shrines to Ieyasu) all over the country. It’s not clear to me at this point.
[viii] The Party Shōgun #TeamIenari

What does Gohongi mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on January 22, 2015 at 5:56 am

Gohongi (5 trees)

Yūtenji Station provides access to Gohongi.

Yūtenji Station provides access to Gohongi.

So we’ve been in 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward for a while now, let’s move over to nearby 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward – walking distance from some places in the last article. Long time readers, will remember the etymology of 六本木 Roppongi; the kanji literally mean 6 trees and speculation about the origin of the name is rich and varied[i]. Today we will look at a place called 五本木 Gohongi which literally means 5 trees. Unfortunately, this place isn’t rich and varied. For most of its existence, this area has been agricultural. Even at Edo’s peak, it was well outside the city limits of the shōgun’s capital. Even once it was brought into the fold of 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture it was at far, far from the city center until quite recently.


Let’s Look at the Kanji!


five thin, cylindrical thingies



So the kanji is literally “5 Trees” and first pops up in records of the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura Shōgunate dating it back to at least the 1200’s. A road passed through this area called the 鎌倉街道 Kamakura Kaidō Kamakura Highway[ii], which connected the center of government in Kamakura with the so-called 関八州 Kanhasshū the 8 Kantō Provinces[iii]. The road on the north side of the 守屋会館 Momiya Kaikan Momiya Meeting Hall in Gohongi used to be part of this route. It’s said that at this spot, there once stood a conspicuous cluster of 5 enormous trees that were used as a landmark. Being so far in the country, it was important to have landmarks; when you saw these 5 trees, you knew you were headed in the right direction[iv].

Sign in front of the Moriya Kaikan.

Sign in front of the Moriya Kaikan.

After the fall of Kamakura in the early 1300’s, certain stretches of the Kamakura Highway naturally fell into repair[v]. The tiny village was never very important to begin with and over the years the surrounding area became a dense forest. The stretch of the road behind the Moriya Meeting Hall, however, continued to be used by local farmers and so the road was somewhat maintained through the Edo Period.

By the Meiji Period, the area had become so overgrown that the trees on both sides formed a canopy over the road and so it was said to be dark even in the daytime. Meiji Era locals avoided the area because it was dangerous at both night time and day time[vi]. The locals were so firm in their belief that the Gohongi road was dangerous that they had a saying:

hiruma de sae, mi no ke ga yodatsu hodo usuguraku, 

genki no yoi wakamono demo tōru koto wo osoreta

“Even in the day time, it was so dark your hair would stand on end
that even strong young men were afraid to pass through there.”

Normally, I’d say “ya’ll are a buncha pussayz!” But remember, there was no gas or electric lighting here for a long time. If you’ve ever been camping and decided to explore the forest without a flashlight at dusk or midnight, you might be able to relate to this. It can be scary.

The area may have looked something like this.

The area may have looked something like this.

Gohongi was strictly agricultural from the Edo Period until the Meiji Period and carried on a very traditional way of life. When trolley service came to a few surrounding areas in Meguro and Setagaya, the village saw a little slow change. But it seems like the area stayed frozen in time until 1927 (Shōwa 2) when the 東横線 Tōyoko-sen Tōyoko Line connecting Tōkyō to Yokohama began servicing the area. The train stopped at 祐天寺駅 Yūtenji Eki Yūtenji Station[vii].

This is a picture of the estate of the first deputy mayor of Meguro-chō in 1924 (Taishō 13) which was located on Gohongi Dōri. This is 3 years before rail service came to Gohongi. Look at how tall and dense those trees are. The area that wasn’t being farmed must have looked much like this.

This is a picture of the estate of the first deputy mayor of Meguro-chō in 1924 (Taishō 13) which was located on Gohongi Dōri. This is 3 years before rail service came to Gohongi. Look at how tall and dense those trees are. The area that wasn’t being farmed must have looked much like this.

This is a picture of the same spot today. As you can see, nothing has changed.

This is a picture of the same spot today. As you can see, nothing has changed.

So What Can I See or Do in Gohongi?

Not much, to be honest. Today it’s primarily a residential area. It’s conservative – and by that I mean no tall buildings, no vibrant shopping areas, lots of families with old connections to the area, and it’s not considered fashionable or popular. It doesn’t even have its own train station[viii]. That said, I’m sure there’s a lot for local people to do there – restaurants, temples, convenience stores, and what not.

There are 2 things that come to mind when looking at this area of Tōkyō if you’re interested in Japanese culture. And if you’re not interested in Japanese culture, I’m not sure why you’re reading my blog.

The Kōshin-tō of Gohongi

The Gohongi Koshinto-gun.

The Gohongi Koshinto-gun.

There is a cluster of 5 庚申塔 Kōshin-tō Kōshin Statues located in Gohongi. I guess that’s one Kōshin statue per tree[ix]. Kōshin statues are usually one offs – one statue per village or area. But I suppose the people of Gohongi (5 Trees) fancied themselves a little special.

So, what the hell is a Kōshin statue?
Well, I’m glad you asked.

In the Heian Period, a Taoist belief called 庚申 Kōshin in Japanese was imported from China. This belief held that there are 3 insects (usually considered worms) that live inside the human body called 三尸虫 sanshi mushi. These worms were like little morality spies who watched your every move but they could only leave your body every 60 days while you slept. They would sneak out of your body and report all of your bad deeds to the 天帝 tentei creator of the universe. The tentei would then curse you will illness, death, financial ruin, no heir, bad breath, an ugly spouse, and all manner of repugnance.

The Sanshi. From left to right - Geshi (lower worm), Chūshi (middle worm), Jōshi (upper worm).

The Sanshi. From left to right – Geshi (lower bug), Chūshi (middle bug), Jōshi (upper bug).

Every 60 days, believers who felt they had something to hide, would gather for what was more or less and all night party at a Kōshin-tō[x]. These were stone monuments erected to remind people of the 60 day cycle and the need to keep those treacherous worms inside your body. By staying up all night partying, the worms were trapped in the body and could not report your misdeeds to the tentei. Having braved the long night, all your bad deeds of the previous 59 days were inadmissible in a court of law – so to speak – and you were off the hook for another 60 days[xi]. This Taoist ritual was especially popular with farmers and people in rural areas.

While presumably no one still believes in 3 literal worms living in your body who tattle on you to the creator of the universe, there are supposedly still seasonal events tied to this tradition in agricultural areas in the countryside. Kōshin-tō can be found all over the country. In Tōkyō itself, there are quite a few of these stone monuments scattered throughout the metropolis as well as place names referring to them[xii] – Meguro Ward alone claims to have about 70 Kōshin-tō.

The famous "3 monkeys" who "see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil" are related. See the footnotes for details.

The famous “3 monkeys” who “see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil” are related. See the footnotes for details.


Far more impressive in size – though totally lacking worms living in your body – is 祐天寺 Yūten-ji Yūten Temple. This temple was established in 1718[xiii] as a grave and shrine to a deceased priest named 祐天 Yūten by his disciple, 祐海 Yūmi. Both were priests of the 菩提寺 bodai-ji funerary temple of the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family at 増上寺 Zōjō-ji Zōjō Temple[xiv]. In 1723, the shrine had been expanded into a fairly large Buddhist temple complex and soon began to receive patronage from the shōgun family itself. The temple proudly sprawls across a beautiful plateau and retains a lot of its Edo Period feel. It’s a little off the beaten path, but well worth the visit if you want to see a good example of 18th century temple construction.

Yūten-ji boasts its fair share of trees.

Yūten-ji boasts its fair share of trees.


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[i] Read my article about what Roppongi means here.
[ii] Also called the 鎌倉道 Kamakura Michi. Actually terms are often translated as the Kamakura Highways because the Japanese term can refer to a single path or the entire network of highways leading into and out of Kamakura.
[iii] 安房国 Awa no Kuni Awa Province, 上野国 Kōzuke no Kuni Kōzuke Province, 下野国 Shimotsuke no Kuni Shimotsuke Province,  相模国 Sagami no Kuni Sagami Province, 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province, 上総国 Kazusa no Kuni Kazusa Province, 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni Shimōsa Province, and 常陸国 Hitachi no Kuni Hitachi Province. This is the massive fief that 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi granted to 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1589.
[iv] Take this all with a grain of salt because, while records show this name as far back as the Kamakura Period, nobody wrote about the etymology until the early 1800’s in a document called 新編武蔵風土記稿 Shinpen Musashi Fudoki-kō New Description of the People and Lands of Musashi Province. Just because a place name is said to have been used in the Kamakura Period doesn’t exclude it from having existed before the Kamakura Period.
[v] Other stretches of the road were enhanced and expanded by the later 足利幕府 Ashikaga Bakufu Ashikaga Shōgunate and 徳川幕府 Tokugawa Bakufu Tokugawa Shōgunate.
[vi] I’m not sure if this because brigands were living in the forest, or if unsavory types were using the area to trap unsuspecting pedestrians, or if it was just folklore and superstition.
[vii] More about Yūten-ji later.
[viii] ie; there is no Gohongi Station.
[ix] See what I did there?
[x] Also called a 庚申塚 Kōshin-zuka Kōshin Mounds.
[xi] Interestingly, the much more famous 三猿 sanzaru 3 monkeys are thought to have originated from the Kōshin belief. The 3 monkeys, who, in archaic Japanese 見ざる言わざる聞かざる mizaru iwazaru kikazaru see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil, are talismans against the 3 worms. They prevent the 3 worms from seeing, speaking, or hearing any bad deeds of the owner. The most famous 3 monkeys are the wooden reliefs at 日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshō-gū, the main grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Being dead is sometimes euphemistically referred to as 寝ている nete iru sleeping (just as in English “resting”). The 3 monkeys would prevent the 3 worms from reporting back any misdoings of the deceased while he or she “slept.”
[xii] In Tōkyō, there is a station called 庚申塚駅 Kōshin-zuka Eki on the 都電荒川 Toden Arakawa-sen.
[xiii] This was during the reign of the 7th shōgun, 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune.
[xiv] Read more about the graves the Tokugawa Shōgun’s here.

What does Eitaibashi mean?

In Japanese History on January 3, 2015 at 5:08 am

Eitaibashi (eternity bridge, but more at “Eitai Bridge”)

Eitaibashi at night.

Eitaibashi at night.

A few days ago, I wished everyone a happy new year and I promised you 2 articles about bridges on the Sumida River that were named after shrines. I’m pretty sure I followed through with that promise[i]. So, please accept my humble apologies as I present a 3rd article about a bridge on the Sumida River. This time the bridge is associated with a temple instead of a shrine.

Let me briefly outline the history of this area first. First there was an island, then there was a temple, next there was a birthday, and finally there was a bridge.

It's become a fairly photogenic bridge over the years.

It’s become a fairly photogenic bridge over the years.

The Kanji You Should Know For This Place Name


forever, eternity,
endless generations



tera, –ji




Prior to the coming of the Tokugawa, there was small fishing village located on a shoal in the shallows of the present day 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. The area was called 永代島 Eitai-jima Eitai Island (literally “the eternal island”)[ii]. Once Tokugawa hegemony was established, the area was connected to the mainland by landfill in order to encourage business. A Buddhist temple was established in the area in 1624 during the first year of 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu’s reign[iii]. That temple was called 永代寺 Eitai-ji Eitai Temple. It took its name from the name of the island, so the name means “Eitai Island” → “Temple of the Unending Generations.” Anyways, it’s just an auspicious name, so don’t read too much into it. A few years later in 1627, a major shrine was established here called 富岡八幡宮 Tomioka Hachiman-gū[iv] and placed under the supervision of Eitai-ji. This kind of rapid progress is typical of the reigns of the first 3 shōguns.

Today, Eitai-ji is a shadow of its former self.

Today, Eitai-ji is a shadow of its former self.

Tomioka Hachiman-gu is still a force to be reckoned with.

Tomioka Hachiman-gu is still a force to be reckoned with.

The Story of the Bridge

Prior to the Edo Period, the traditional way of crossing the Sumida River was by established ferry crossings called 渡し watashi. These established ferry crossings were located where major roads needed to connect to roads on the other side of the river, in particular 街道 kaidō highways[v]. The original ferry crossing was located about 100 meters[vi] upstream from the current location of the current bridge, Eitaibashi. It was called 大渡し Ōwatashi the Great Ferry Crossing (also known as 深川之渡し Fukagawa no Watashi the Fukagawa Ferry Crossing).

This isn't the Owatashi, but it is the Sumida River. In this particular image, the bridge in the background is the Ryogoku Bridge.

This isn’t the Owatashi, but it is the Sumida River. In this particular image, the bridge in the background is the Ryogoku Bridge.

An Eternal Bridge and an Eternal Shōgunate?

In 1698, the 5th shōgun, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, celebrated his 50th birthday. In a time where infant mortality was high, turning 50 years old in any part of the world was a pretty big deal. Let’s be realistic here. Living 7 years was pretty much a monumental feat in itself[vii]. So the shōgunate decided to go balls out. They happened to be building a 4th bridge across the Sumida River at the 大渡し Ōwatashi Great Ferry Crossing. The local temple Eitai-ji was based in nearby Eitaijima and the kanji were auspicious enough to make a good name for the shōgun’s birthday. As the bridge connected 2 business districts, the implied meaning was “an eternal shōgnate granting eternal prosperity.[viii]

Believe it or not, this is the official image of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi issued by the shogunate.

Believe it or not, this is the official image of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi issued by the shogunate.

The bridge soon became a famous sightseeing spot. From the top of the bridge you could see Mt. Tsukuba to the north, Mt. Hakone to the south, and Mt. Fuji to the west. If you looked out eastward across the bay, you could see 安房国 Awa no Kuni Awa Province and 上総国 Kazusa no Kuni Kazusa Province (in modern 千葉県 Chiba-ken Chiba Prefecture).

Not these clowns again? Really?  My deepest apologies... but yes, the "47 Ronin" are about to make an appearance.

Not these clowns again? Really?
My deepest apologies… but yes, the “47 Ronin” are about to make an appearance.

Famously, on the evening of December 14th, 1702 a group of armed rednecks raided the home of a hatamoto bureaucrat named 吉良上野介 Kira Kōzuke no Suke[ix]. Kira is the dude who is generally portrayed as the bad guy in the popular 47 Rōnin narrative[x]. In what was essentially an honor killing, the 四十人之芋侍 yonjūnin no imozamurai 47 hick samurai[xi] stalked Kira for a year and then finally beheaded him[xii] at his estate in 両国 Ryōgoku. The popular narrative often says that they crossed Eitaibashi while marching in a procession from Kira Kōzuke no Suke’s estate in Ryōgoku to their lord’s grave at Sengaku-ji in 高輪 Takanawa. The route would have been possible. Maybe they just wanted to check out the new bridge. Or maybe since both events happened during Tsunayoshi’s reign, the stories were conflated. At any rate, Eitaibashi figures into to some versions of the 47 Rōnin story.

A Few Year’s Later the Situation Changed..

An actual photograph of Tokugawa Yoshimune.

An actual photograph of Tokugawa Yoshimune.

By the reign of 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune (1716-1745[xiii]) the shōgunate found itself in a financial crisis. Yoshimune’s first act as shōgun was his first – and apparently only – act of extravagance. He commissioned a gorgeous mausoleum called 有章院 Yūshō-in at 増上寺 Zōjō-ji for the child shōgun, 徳川家継 Tokugawa Ietsugu[xiv]. After that, his entire reign (and indeed his pre-shōgunal career) was marked by austerity and frugality. His emphasis on fixing the shōgunate’s deficit culminated in the 1630’s when the 享保之改革 Kyōhō no Kaikaku Kyōhō Reforms became law. But preceding these reforms there were a string of actions that attempted to return the government to solvency. One such act was when the shōgunate decided to relinquish control of Eitaibashi in 1719.

Yusho-in is undoubtedly one of the greatest monuments of Edo.  Sadly, the mausoleum was firebombed into oblivion and does not exist today.

Yusho-in is undoubtedly one of the greatest monuments of Edo.
Sadly, the mausoleum was firebombed into oblivion and does not exist today.

For whatever reason, the shōgunate saw the upkeep and maintenance of the bridge as a money pit. However, the local townspeople freaked out when they heard about this. After all, they depended on the bridge for their livelihoods. Accordingly, they petitioned the shōgunate for the right to maintain and control the bridge themselves. The shōgunate agreed to the arrangement and the bridge was privatized for about 88 years.

Let's talk about parties. Then let's talk about the structural integrity of wooden bridges.

Let’s talk about parties.
Then let’s talk about the structural integrity of wooden bridges.

However, on September 20th, 1807 tragedy struck. Every 12 years Tomioka Hachiman-gū has a special 御祭 o-matsuri festival. The tradition continues today and thousands of people descend upon the area to participate in this crazy Edo Period festival. In 1807, so many people gathered on the bridge at the same time that the bridge collapsed into the river. It was so horrific that we actually have documents describing the collapse in vivid detail and the event is preserved in 落語 rakugo[xv]. About 1400 people died (or were reported missing)[xvi].

Nightmare situation...

Nightmare situation…

The shōgunate once again realized the importance of the bridge and – perhaps not trusting the local townspeople to manage things – rebuilt it and maintained authority over the new structure. This wooden bridge remained in use until it started to fall into serious disrepair after the Meiji Coup in 1868.

The closest thing I can find to a picture of the wooden bridge.

The closest thing I can find to a picture of the wooden bridge.

In 1897 (Meiji 30), the decaying wooden bridge was demolished, and a new site 100 meters downstream[xvii] was chosen as the site of the first iron and steel truss bridge to span the Sumida River. This bridge being one of the first of its kind in Japan was a sort of experiment in engineering. The main structure was built of iron and steel, but bases were built out of wood.

The first modern, steel version of the bridge.

The first modern, steel version of the bridge.

In 1904 (Meiji 37), the bridge was adapted to allow trolley service to pass through and tracks were laid for the 東京市街鉄道 Tōkyō Shigai Tetsudō Tōkyō City and Suburbs Railway[xviii]. The Meiji Period steel and iron structure served its purpose nobly until September 1st, 1923 when a major earfquake brought the capital city to its knees. This was none other than the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earthquake. It seems that the tremors didn’t break the bridge. However, the wooden bases on which the heavy metal structure rested caught fire and when their integrity was compromised, the entire bridge once again collapsed.

In the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earfquake.

In the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earfquake.

Reconstruction began immediately as the bridge was vital to the city’s infrastructure. A new, blue, arch-shaped European style bridge was completed in 1926. This is the structure that stands today.

Originally the bridge was red as a warning to ships. But now the bridge is blue

Originally the bridge was red as a warning to ships. But now the bridge is blue

The Shape of the Modern Bridge

The Meiji Coup was carried out by emperor-worshipping psychopaths from Satsuma and Chōshū. As they tried to modernize Japan they looked for Western examples that fit their emperor-centric world view. Prussia and the German Empire had definitely caught their eyes since they possessed cutting edge western technology, a seemingly modern system of governance, and – most importantly – an emperor at the top of the pyramid. When seeking to design a bridge suitable of the Emperor’s Great Capital[xix], the Japanese Imperial Government fixated on a bridge crossing the Rhine called the Ludendorff-Brücke Ludendorff Bridge[xx], an iron and steel truss bridge featuring a unique arch shape[xxi]. The Ludendorff Bridge served as a template for many of the arch-shaped bridges built at the time, first and foremost, Eitaibashi.

But Edo Period bridges had a slightly rainbow shape. It could also be argued that this was a justification for traditional Japanese architecture and a return to traditional shapes during a period of heightened nationalism.

The German model of many of Sumida's bridges.

The German model of many of Sumida’s bridges.

In the build up to the 1964 Olympic Games, much of the rebuilt city was covered up or completely overhauled. The first to get the axe was the trolley network which was susceptible to bad weather, flooding, snow, earthquakes, and car accidents[xxii]. An overall trend towards subways and new train technology took root. In 1972, the trolley was shut down and since then access to Eitaibashi has been limited to automobile and pedestrian traffic. Today you can’t see Mt. Fuji, Mt. Tsukuba, Mt. Hakone, or Chiba. So there.


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[i] Check the last 2 articles, bitch.
[ii] I couldn’t find any pre-Edo Period info on the island, but long time readers will be familiar with the use of auspicious kanji in place names. One could suppose 永代 eitai forever is a reference to a hope for abundant and prosperous fishing.
[iii] The 3rd Tokugawa Shōgun.
[iv] I’ve written about this area before. See my May 2013 article on Monzen-Nakachō.
[v] The kanji literally means “roads connecting cities” or “commercial roads.”
[vi] 109 yards
[vii] This aspect of pre-modern Japan is still preserved in the celebration of 七五三 shichi-go-san 7-5-3 wherein families celebrate their children having made it to 3 years old without dying and then 5 and 7 years old – child mortality rates being sky high for children under 10 years old in the Edo Period.
[viii] Some not so subtle propaganda for ya.
[ix] I’m using his court title “Protector of Kōzuke Province” because his actual name 吉良義央 is the source of some confusion. The traditional and most common reading is Kira Yoshinaka, but there seems to be evidence that the actual reading is Kira Yoshihisa. Using his court title avoids the confusion as his honorary title is very well known.
[x] But as usual, the popular narrative is at odds with historical records. Samurai Archives has an excellent description of the historical account of the 47 Rōnin as opposed to the hysterical account of the 47 Rōnin. I highly suggest reading the Samurai Archives’ article. In their discussion forum, the incident has been described as a “feudal driveby.” It’s a hilarious description, but it’s funny because it’s true.
[xi] I made up the Japanese term here. The Japanese do not call this group “the 47 Rōnin,” instead they use the term 赤穂浪士 Akō Rōshi the masterless samurai of Akō Domain.
[xii] ISIS/Taliban much?
[xiii] Those are the dates of his reign. He was born in 1684 and died in 1751. Say what you will about him, but he is a truly transitional shōgun – even shōgunal burial architecture reflects this change. He’s the last of the exciting shōguns (the next interesting one would be the last shōgun, Yoshinobu, 100 years later).
[xiv] I have an article about that here!
[xv] A kind of Edo Period traditional storytelling.
[xvi] Yes, 1400 people were on the bridge at the same time. That’s how big this festival is.
[xvii] The current site of Eitaibashi.
[xviii] I can’t find an official English translation of the company name but that’s what it literally meant. This company was the forerunner of the modern 東京都電車 Tōkyō-to Todensha literally, Tōkyō Metropolitan Electrified Cars, but in sad reality, only one line remains of the original trolley network.
[xix] Don’t even get me started… ugh!
[xx] The namesake of the German bridge is Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff. Ludendorff was a nationalist to the core and a supporter of Germany’s imperialism. For a while, he even supported Hitler and the Nazis, but apparently was too old for all that newfangled Nazism. Even if he wasn’t a Nazi, he still seems like a bit of douche bag.
[xxi] Hence the Shōwa government’s obsession with this shape. But to be honest, the German bridge has almost medieval brick and mortar turrets defending the entrances, so the final Japanese design is much more appealing, IMO.
[xxii] Subways were now coming into vogue.

What does Kameari mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Sex on April 7, 2014 at 10:00 am

Kameari (we’ve got turtles, yo!) l_01 It’s been a few weeks since my last update and so I sincerely apologize for the delay, but I have a good excuse. My 7 or 8 year old PC, ピノコちゃん Pinoko-chan Pinoko, finally died. Loads of data, including several works-in-progress went missing. I had to buy a new computer and my new machine is Windows 8. It’s a total departure from previous incarnations of Windows, so not only am I setting up a new computer, I’m actually learning how to deal with the new OS[i]. So anyways, so much has happened since my last update. If you only read the blog, I just want to make sure that you know you can get different updates from me via Facebook and via Twitter. I treat Facebook like the Japan This Plus. I treat Twitter like Japan This On Crack. Either way, you can customize how much you want to deal with me based on those criteria. If you can’t get enough of me, then by all means subscribe to all. If prefer me in small doses, then just keep doing what you’re doing. Also, leave comments whenever you want to! I really love those.

Kameari Station

Kameari Station

OK, so let’s get into today’s Tōkyō place name. Today we’re talking about 亀有 Kameari in 葛飾区 Katsushika-ku Katsushika Ward. It’s an interesting place name because it’s easy to speculate about the etymology because of the kanji. .




existence, possession

Judging by the kanji, one would think this is a place where there were many turtles. But you’d be wrong. First of all, it’s 亀有 kameari not 亀居 kamei. Anyone who’s studied even a little basic Japanese knows that the language makes a distinction between the existence of things that move 居る iru be and things that don’t move ある aru be so this rules out turtles being in the area. Aru can be used for possession, though. So if you guessed “having turtles” people wouldn’t fault you and you might be in line with what people generally think when confronted with the name. However, it seems that this is not actually the case. There’s a bit of mystery here.

cute turtles    .

What We Do Know?

The place was originally written 亀無 Kamenashi “turtle” “without/not having” and 亀梨 Kamenashi “turtle” “Japanese pear.”
The name was mysteriously changed in 1644 to 亀有 Kameari turtle having.


The first theory that I came across, seems plausible. The story goes that there were no turtles here (or even if there were, they weren’t the source of the name). The name is actually a reference to the shape of the terrain. This is something we see time and time again in place names (valleys, mountains, plateaux, hills, slopes, etc.). We don’t just see this in Japanese place names, but all over the world[ii].

Anyhoo, this theory suggests that at the confluence of the 古隅田川 Ko-Sumida-gawa Old Sumida River[iii] and the 葛西川 Kasai-gawa Kasai River there was a mound – built up over time by the accumulation of detritus from the rivers. The shape and the colors of the foliage on the hill made it look like a turtle’s shell. This theory purports that the origin of the name was 亀を成し kame wo nashi making a turtle/turning into a turtle. By scribal error (or a later adjustment) 亀成 became 亀無 Kamenashi having no turtles – perhaps it was easier to read. Reality check. Just for the record, 亀成 Kamenashi “making a turtle” isn’t an attested form.



The deus ex machina for this legend is that the local villagers thought the spelling was inauspicious. Well, everyone knows that having a bunch of turtles is so much better than not having any turtles at all. Nobody wants to look like a bunch of losers with no turtles. Rather, they were the people who had turtles. Lots and lots of turtles. All of the turtles because… who the fuck knows? So they asked the shōgnate to change the name from 亀無 Kamenashi (no turtles) to 亀有 Kameari (we got fuckloads of turtles up in this biatch).

This sounded fishy, so I had to go digging around a little more. My first stop was 亀有香取神社 Kameari Katori Jinja Kameari Katori Shrine[iv]. They claim that the name first appeared in the Kamakura Period.




This was easy to verify, as the words 亀梨 and 亀無 Kamenashi are first mentioned in 2 documents. The area is referred to as 下総国葛西御厨亀無村 Shimōsa no Kuni Kasai Mikuri Kamenashi Mura Kamenashi Village, Kasai Mikuri, Shimōsa Province in 1398 in the 下総国葛西御厨注文  Shimōsa no Kuni Kasai Mikuri Chūmon Shimōsa Province’s Kasai Mikuri Annotation[v], a document of the Kamakura Shōgnate. It was mentioned again in 1559 in the 小田原衆所領役帳 Odawara Shū-Shoryō Yakuchō Register of the Territories and Peoples of Odawara, a document of the 後北条氏 Go-Hōjō-shi Late Hōjō Clan who controlled this area until Toyotomi Hideyoshi annihilated them in 1590/91[vi].

The next time the place is mentioned is in 1644 during the reign of the 3rd shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu on a map drafted by the Tokugawa Shōgnate called 正保改定図 Shōho Kattei Zu Map of the Shōho Reforms. This map inexplicably has the area formerly referred to as 亀無 Kamenashi “no turtles” labeled as 亀有 Kameari “we’ve got turtles, yo.”



OK, also I’ve been burying the lead about this whole turtle thing. Why were Japanese people so concerned about turtles? I can’t say if they really were or not, any more than I can say the average Roman was really concerned about Vesta or the average Christian is concerned about Little Baby Jesus, but what I can say is that the reference would have been universally recognized across Japan.  Within the syncretic Shintō world view, a turtle was a symbol of 長寿 chōju longevity[vii]. It was an auspicious creature and the kanji was equally auspicious. This is at the heart of why people say the “no turtles” name was changed to “yes, turtles!”[viii]


Why Are You Talking About Maps and Documents That I’ll Never Bother Looking At?

Basically, so you don’t have to. And, also because the name change is very strange, IMO. As I mentioned earlier, we have a clear change in 1644 from 無 nashi having none to 有 ari having some. But there appears to be no official account of this change[ix]. That said all the sources I’ve checked seem to repeat the story that the local villagers petitioned the shōgnate for this change or that the shōgnate itself saw 無 nashi as in auspicious and opted for something more positive. From this point on, the area is consistently referred to as 亀有 Kameari and not 亀無 Kamenashi. In the late Edo Period, Kameari Shrine began decorating the shrine precinct with turtles. Many shrines are guarded by a pair of 狛犬 koma inu guardian dogs, but Kameari Shrine is protected by 狛亀 koma-kame guardian turtles. The earliest extant set of guardian turtles dates from about 1860 – literally the closing years of the Tokugawa Shōgnate.


Koma kame


Alternate Theories

So, is the story above true? Long time readers’ bullshit detectors should be going off by now, but 4 things are definitely true in regards to the historical record.

    The kanji 亀 kame turtle has always been present
    In the Edo Period, a seemingly clear phonetic change in the kanji occurred
③    In the Edo Period, Kameari Katori Shrine began promoting “having turtles” with statuary
    Your mom

There are some other theories out there that… well… should at least be looked at. The biggest mystery for most people is the kanji change in 1644 under the Tokugawa Shōgnate. In short, if I may repeat myself, the standard theory claims that the change is based on the fact that Kamenashi was an inauspicious name because 長寿の亀がない chōju no kame ga nai there is/are no avatar of long life. Turtles were seen to be symbols of long life.  From the 1300’s-1600’s no one gave a crap about changing name phonetically, despite this being such an inauspicious name. The closest thing to a name change is the writing 亀梨 Kamenashi turtle pear, which doesn’t make much sense, but is clearly not talking about a lack of something.



The Mito Kōmon Did It Theory

Mito Kōmon visited the area and changed the name because if you don’t have turtles of long life, you suck. So more turtles of long life for everyone! Everyone loves Mito Kōmon, right?[x] This theory is based on the fact that the lords of Mito and their entourage would pass through the area to do falconry in Kasai. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m tired of stories of shōguns and famous daimyō passing through areas and just renaming shit willy nilly[xi].


The Ainu (or Somebody Else) Did It Theory

OK, and here’s the least popular theory, but for me it might be the most likely. The area was known since time immemorial as カメナシ Kamenashi and the kanji were originally ateji[xii]. If this theory is correct, it would suggest that the all of the kanji are useless in determining this place name. It may also allude to a non-Yamato people living in the area. It also throws us into absolute conjecture mode – which means we’ve exhausted our discussion of the etymology of this place name.



Who Gives a fuck about Kameari?

A lot of people, actually. I don’t read manga or watch anime[xiii], but the average Japanese person probably knows about this area because of manga and anime.

But it’s the setting for こちら葛飾区亀有公園前派出所 Kochira, Katsushika-ku Kameari Kōen-mae Hashutsujo This is the Local Police Station in Front of Kameari Park in Katsushika Ward.[xiv]. This manga has been running for more than 30 years[xv].  Statistically, I think it’s the 4th best-selling manga of all time, but don’t quote me on that. It’s affectionately referred to as  こち亀 Kochi-Kame (you can quote me on that) and statues of major characters from the story can be found on the streets near the station.

The area used to be known as the site of the factories of the Japanese pharmaceutical company 三共 Sankyō[xvi] and the famous Japanese electronics company日立 Hitachi, the people who bring much joy to women all over the world due to misuse[xvii] of their best-selling Hitachi Magic Wand. Today, the area is a shitamachi shopping district surrounded by a quiet residential area. Today the name survives as a station name, 亀有駅 Kameari Eki Kameari Station and as 2 postal addresses, 亀有 Kameari Kameari (5 blocks) and 西亀有 Nishi Kameari Kameari West (4 blocks).

The Hitachi Magic Wand

The Hitachi Magic Wand



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[i] I’m not even shitting you when I say I had to google how to shutdown my computer.
[ii] Not to say humans are fucking unoriginal at naming places, but there are common themes around the world. [iii] The river’s course is different today.
[iv] Shrines and temples tend to pass down great stories and for the same reason they keep awesome collections of maps and documents.
[v] To be honest, I don’t know how to translate this text’s name because 注文 chūmon usually means “order” as in “order at a restaurant,” but it has a secondary meaning of “explanatory text.” Sorry, I don’t know more about it.
[vi] Famously, this power vacuum was filled by Tokugawa Ieyasu – ever the hero of any story told from a Tōkyōite’s perspective.
[vii] ie; long life, yo.
[viii] Coming back to this later. So keep this in mind, OK?
[ix] Even if we accept the pre-Edo Period kanji of ~成 nashi making, ~梨 nashi pear, and 無 nashi nothing at face value, at least the pronunciations are the same. The 1644 change is truly remarkable.
[x] I don’t. I hate him, and in a small way blame the theocratic oligarchy of post-Meiji Japan on him.
[xi] Please bear in mind I own copyrights for the “Captain Japan Did It Theory,” the “Mito Kōmon Did It Theory,” the “Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory,” and the “Tokugawa Yoshimune Did It Theory.”
[xii] Phonetic use of kanji.
[xiii] This isn’t entirely true. I read some manga and watch some anime.
[xiv] I don’t know if that’s a good translation of the title. If there’s an official translation, please let me know.
[xv] Apparently, it’s also an anime series and has been re-done as movies, tv series, and it’s even been reimagined in live action as a tv show and on stage!
[xvi] Today the company is known as 第一三共 Daiichi-Sankyō.
[xvii] Or Miss Use, as I like to say.

What does Koishikawa mean?

In Japanese History on March 19, 2014 at 8:15 am

Koishikawa (pebble river)

Tokyo Dome

Tokyo Dome

Koishikawa is a small area located within 文京区 Bunkyō-ku Bunkyō Ward. If you’ve ever been to 東京ドームTōkyō Dōmu Tōkyō Dome for a Giants game or a concert, you’ve been to Koishikawa.

First, let’s talk about the kanji of this name. They’re really quite simple, actually.







The area first comes on to the radar in the Muromachi Period. It was a somewhat undefined area within 武蔵国豊島郡小石河村 Musashi no Kuni Toshima-gun Koishikawa Mura Koishikawa Village, Toshima District, Musashi Province and it was originally written as  小石河 Koishikawa. The old kanji have exactly the same meaning as the modern kanji. The reason the area pops up in the annals is because a new temple was founded here in 1415. That temple’s name is 伝通院[i]  Denzū-in Denzū Temple. It might have just been another boring ol’ temple in the area, except they were the landholders of an extremely large area. The name is generally said to derive from a river that passed by the front gate of the temple. The river had many pebbles in it and so it was calle小石河 Koishi Kawa Koishi River (Pebble River)[ii].

At the beginning of the Edo Period, this area was quite rural and characterized by small farms and 町家 machiya those traditional wooden Japanese houses with a business on the first floor and home on the 2nd floor. That is to say, it was primarily 下町 shitamachi low city. However, by the middle of the Edo Period, most of the agricultural lands had become populated by satellite temples, 武家屋敷 buke yashiki samurai residences, and 大名屋敷 daimyō yashiki daimyō residences.

One of the gates of the middle residence of Mito Domain. (Destroyed by firebombing in WWII)

One of the gates of the middle residence of Mito Domain.
(Destroyed by firebombing in WWII)

When the 御茶之水堀割 O-cha no Mizu Horiwari Ochanomizu Waterway was built at the beginning of the Edo Period, it connected the Koishi River and Sumida River – all of this was part of the larger 神田上水 Kanda Jōsui Kanda Waterworks. Today there is no Koishi River, but the portion of the Kanda River that was made from the old river is known.

Once we get into the Edo Period, the area completely transformed. To understand the area, we have to understand the nature of this transformation. There were two major factors responsible for this monumental change. Firstly, Denzū-in’s relationship with the shōgunate changed and secondly, the policy of 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai alternate attendance[iii] was formalized. These changes placed some of the shōgunate’s most prominent allies into the area and enhanced the area’s association with political influence and religio-cultural prestige[iv].



How did Religion Change the Area?

As I mentioned before, Denzū-in was founded in 1415. Originally, it was a massive temple complex, but today its former landholdings are spread out all over the area. When the temple precinct was completely intact, it was the said to be the 3rd 徳川将軍家菩提寺 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke no Bodai-ji family temple of the shōgun family[v].  In the original configuration, 茶阿局 Chā no Tsubone, the main wife of Tokugawa Ieyasu was interred in one of the satellite temples[vi]. However, since the temple lands were split up in the Meiji Period, the grave of his mother, 於大方 O-dai no Kata[vii], has been Denzū-in’s major claim to fame. But the former precinct’s cemeteries still exist and you can find the children, grandchildren, and some concubines of the Tokugawa Shōgun Family buried in this area. Most of these people, of course, are people you’ve never heard of – rich, privileged Edo Period nobles who lived in the confines of the castle but had little or no impact on history[viii].

Cha no Tsubone's grave.

Cha no Tsubone’s grave.

O-dai no Kata's grave.

O-dai no Kata’s grave.


Why Were There so Many Elite Graves in the Area?

Originally characterized by agriculture, the area soon found itself home to high ranking samurai officials (think middle to upper management ) and some of the largest 藩邸 hantei domain headquarters (think senior management, embassies, and heads of state). The Tokugawa Shōgun Family’s patronage of the local temples as cemeteries also increased the prestige of the area.

In 1629, an expansive garden was built on the land granted to the 水戸徳川家 Mito Tokugawa-ke the Mito branch of the Tokugawa Family. The project was completed under the auspices of 徳川光圀 Tokugawa Mitsukuni, popularly known as 水戸黄門 Mito Kōmon[ix] the Yellow Gate of Mito – vice-shōgun and second hereditary lord of 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain[x].  The garden was built in the middle of Mito Domain’s sprawling 中屋敷 naka-yashiki middle residence[xi]. This private garden was built for the enjoyment of the lords of Mito and was absolutely not open to the common riff-raff of Edo. It was typical of Japanese elite of the Edo Period to build and maintain these sorts of gardens for relaxation (remember, they had no TV, internet, or AKB). It’s one of a small handful of Edo Period gardens still remaining in Tōkyō. The fact that this park more or less survived the fires of Edo, the Meiji Government confiscations, the Great Kantō Earthquake, the Firebombing of Tōkyō , and urban sprawl is a miracle of history.

You can see how large the Mito estate was and the garden directly in the center.

You can see how large the Mito estate was and the garden directly in the center.

Mito’s neighbor was 加賀藩  Kaga Han Kaga Domain, whose middle residence was even more massive. (Much of Tōkyō University’s Hongō Campus sits on the former site of this palatial residence). I’m gonna come back to Kaga Domain and Mito Domain’s park in a minute[xii]. (And don’t forget about the footnotes, we’ve just passed the 12th one!!)

But yeah, the Mito Tokugawa[xiii] were one of the biggest landholders in Edo. Their middle residence comprised most of what is generally called Koishikawa today – including all of Tōkyō Dome. In comparing Edo Period maps and modern maps, it seems like the entire garden isn’t preserved, but for the most part it’s still intact[xiv].

The seimon (main gate) of Mito's middle residence.

The seimon (main gate) of Mito’s middle residence.

A Little More About the Area

Of course, the area is most famous for Tōkyō Dome.

Next to Tōkyō Dome is 東京ドームシティアトラクションズ Tōkyō Dōmu Atorakushonzu Tōkyō Dome City Attractions which is generally referred to by people over 30 as 後楽園遊園地 Kōrakuen Yūenchi Kōrakuen Amusement Park, the site’s name until 2003. Sadly, the area’s third claim to fame is actually its namesake, 小石河後楽園 Koishikawa Kōrakuen, the park built by Tokugawa Mitsukuni. It’s sad to think how few people living in Tōkyō even know about the park! I’m not even kidding when I say that I’ve probably met more people who’ve never heard of Kōrakuen than people who know it. Or maybe I’m socializing in the wrong circles…

Also located in the area (near Myōgadani Station) is 小石川植物園 Koishikawa Shokubutsuen Koshikawa Botanical Garden. This land was home to one of the shōgunate’s 御薬園 go-yakuen medicinal herb gardens.

Another famous building on the premises was the 小石川養生所 Koishikawa Yōjōsho the Koishikawa Recuperation Facility. It was established in the middle of the Edo Period[xv] by the 8th shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, as a state-funded free medical facility for those who couldn’t afford medical attention. I’m not clear on the details, but I envision a mix between a free clinic and an all-out hospital. The Meiji Government confiscated the lands and gave them to the newly established 東京大学 Tōkyō Daigaku Tōkyō University and the university has maintained the lands ever since. I haven’t been there myself, but it sounds like a pretty awesome garden, actually.

Model of the Recuperation Facility (with roof cut away).

Model of the Recuperation Facility (with roof cut away).

Oh, we’re at the Meiji Period now?

Yeah, we’re at the Meiji Period.  The donation of the herb farm and Recuperation Facility to Tōkyō University was in 1877. About 10 years later, the government figured out a new civil administration system and in 1889 小石川区 Koishikawa-ku Koishikawa Ward was created.

In the Shōwa Period – 1947, to be precise – Koishikawa Ward was abolished and present day Bunkyō Ward was established. Today the name survives as five 丁目 chōme blocks within Bunkyō Ward – some of which, but not all of which, exist where the former Mito palace stood. Modern Koishikawa does not correspond to the old Mito holdings.

Map of modern Koishikawa. You can see the Botanical Garden above it. At the very bottom, you can see the Korakuen and Tokyo Dome, just on the other side of the border.

Map of modern Koishikawa.
You can see the Botanical Garden above it.
At the very bottom, you can see the Korakuen and Tokyo Dome, just on the other side of the border.

So what’s the Etymology?

koishi kawa

pebble river


little Ishikawa

As I mentioned before, the most popular etymology is that as most of the area was originally under the control of 伝通院[xvi] Denzū-in, the area got its name from the river that ran past the front of the temple. That river supposedly had many 小石 koishi pebbles in it. So it was called 小石川 Koishikawa the Small Pebble River.

A second theory exists. That theory derives the name from 加賀国石川郡 Kaga no Kuni Ishikawa-gun Ishikawa District, Kaga Province. Yes, that would be home of 加賀藩 Kaga Han Kaga Domain who had their enormous middle residence right next door to Mito’s residence. When they built their 藩邸 hantei domain headquarters here, they had to transfer the clan’s tutelary kami, 白山権現 Hakusan Gongen here. According to this theory, the area was 小石川 Ko-Ishikawa Little Ishikawa. This isn’t too far-fetched, as the sheer size of this residence would have required a fairly large staff. So there would have been large community of people from Ishikawa living, working, and being out and about in the area. If this theory is true[xvii], nearby 白山駅 Hakusan Eki Hakusan Station has a similar origin – which will be addressed in the next article.

However, since we know the name of the river pre-dates the Edo Period, I think that this place name is a mixture of both. Kaga Domain’s residence being put here was probably just a coincidence – unless it was a sort of オヤジギャグ oyaji gag played out in real life by the shōgunate[xviii] – and the locals made a connection between samurai from Ishikawa and the river name.

The walls surrounding Korakuen are new, but they give you an idea of what how a daimyo residence would have looked from the street level.

The walls surrounding Korakuen are new, but they give you an idea of what how a daimyo residence would have looked from the street level.




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[i] Also written 傳通院.
[ii] This is the most popular theory.
[iii]A quick primer on what Alternate Attendance means is here.
[iv] By the way, religio-cultural isn’t a word. I just made that up.
[v] The most famous being Kan’ei-ji and Zōjō-ji. See my articles here.
[vi] Chā no Tsubone’s grave is located at nearby 宗慶寺 Sōkei-ji. The temple is located here.
[vii] Her name is written a variety of ways: 於大方, お大の方, 於大, , . The word Kata is more of a title than an actual name – although she may have been called O-dai casually by her family. I also came across an alternative writing, 御大方 O-daihō, so go figure….
[viii] If any university student is looking for a graduation thesis to write in English, an interactive Tokugawa family tree that matches with graves, birthplaces, and residences would be a much appreciated resource for anyone interested in Japanese history and you’d be remembered forever. Just sayin’.
[ix] And often punned as 水戸肛門 the Sphincter of Mito.
[x] But to yours truly, he will forever be known as the douchebag who established 水戸学 Mito Gaku Mito Learning – a philosophy which viewed a divine emperor as the  ruler of Japan. It viewed the first Ashikaga shōgun, 足利尊氏 Ashikaga Takauji as an imperial rebel who unlawfully usurped control of Japan. Under this mode of thought, Tokugawa Ieyasu and his descendants, while legitimately being conferred the title of shōgun by the emperor, were actually subservient to the emperor and his court in Kyōto. The shōgunate paid lip service to this arrangement, but in reality they were in complete control and the emperor and his silly court were subservient to Edo. At the end of the Edo Period, this philosophy, which was quite unique to Mito, was used by rebel factions as a basis for overthrowing the Tokugawa Shōgunate. The last shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was actually a member of the Mito branch of the Tokugawa family. Had the Mito Gaku philosophy ended with the Edo Period, it would have only mattered during the Bakumatsu. But as the idea of an Emperor-centric Japan spread to legitimize the new Meiji State, the emperor’s divinity was emphasized, and Japan began going down a theocratic path bound for a head-to-head collision with WWII. Fuck Mito Gaku. And fuck Mito Kōmon.
[xi] What’s a “middle residence?” Please read my article here.
[xii] Kaga Domain was the fief of the 前田家 Maeda-ke the Maeda family. Their Sengoku Period superstar was 前田利家 Maeda Toshiie, one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s arch-rivals. But while we’re talking about gardens, one of the most amazing gardens in Japan is 兼六園 Kenrokuen near 金沢城 Kanazawa-jō Kanazawa Kastle. The Kaga Maeda and Mito Tokugawa seemed to have competed a little in garden building. Oh, also, Kaga Domain was fairly small, but it was one of the richest.
[xiii] Hey!!! Who the fuck were the Mito Tokugawa??? They were the Tokugawa living in present day Ibaraki.
[xiv] If you can read Japanese, this guy has some map comparisons that activate when you rollover the images.
[xv]It was established in 1722 as part of the 享保の改革 Kyōhō Kaikaku Kyōhō Reforms, to be exact.
[xvi] Also written 傳通院.
[xvii] And we’re gonna talk about this more in the next article.
[xviii] Which I don’t think it was. But who knows…

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