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Yamanote Line: Hamamatsu-chō & Tamachi

In Japanese History on February 12, 2017 at 5:11 am

浜松町
Hamamatsu-chō (beachside pine tree town)
田町
Tamachi (rice paddy town)

train

Hamamatsu-chō

So, we’re finally at the end of this series which has spanned the middle of 2016 to the beginning of 2017. I’m hoping that finishing this series will bring some closure to me and to all my longtime and future readers[i]. It’s been a wild year for me, so once again I apologize for the delay in getting this article out there for you.

Anyways… with all that said and done. Let’s get into to what is, for the time being[ii], our final two stops on the Yamanote Line. Hamamatsu-chō Station is located on Edo Bay[iii] in Minato Ward[iv]. Because both loop lines, the Yamanote Line[v] and the Ōedo Line[vi], stop here, this is the perfect location for us to really get off the train, step on to the platform, and scratch our heads.

hamamatsucho_station

Not one of Tōkyō’s more beautiful stations…

The bulks of both the Yamanote and the Ōedo lines are on solid ground, but in comparison to modern day Tōkyō, Edo was built up from a small portion of the bay towards Edo Castle, outward from which it radiated into suburbs and then in countryside. Hamamatsu-chō can be thought of as a convenient seaside suburb of Edo. In fact, not only did many daimyō have beachfront property here, the shōguns themselves had a massive villa replete with extravagant gardens, saltwater moats[vii], and duck hunting grounds. The estate was known as the 浜御殿 Hama Goten Seaside Palace, but today is called the 旧浜離宮庭園 Kyū-Hama Rikyū Tei-en Former Hama Detached Palace Garden[viii]. A short distance away[ix], is a former suburban daimyō residence that is known today as 旧芝離宮庭園 Kyū-Shiba Rikyū Tei-en[x] Former Shiba Detached Palace Gardens. While they are a mere shadow of their Edo Period glory, both plots of land are parks that bring together a mix of classic Japanese gardens and the ultra-modern skyline of Tōkyō.

hama-goten

Hama Goten in the Edo Period. Notice the castle-like fortifications.

The active word in the transformation of both palaces into public parks is 離宮 rikyū which is usually translated as “detached residence” and is a reference any residence of the imperial family that isn’t 皇居 Kōkyo, the remains of Edo Castle, where they are currently squatting. While Shiba Rikyū is a bit more modern, Hama Rikyū actually retains a decent amount of the Edo Period Garden despite all the later development.

And while much of the gardens and duck hunting areas remain intact, sadly none of the Edo Period structures are left except for some of the old stone work. Worse yet is that the magnificent view of Edo Bay has all but perished – replaced by manmade islands that are home to warehouses and industrial harbors. The once beautiful bayside views of pleasure boats cruising on the calm waters from lively teahouses[xi] under the bright hanging moon which were famed in ukiyo-e, poetry, and place names are long gone. If I seem like, I’m getting depressed and unfocused while still waxing poetic about this area that’s because… well, that’s how I am. I love this area today. It’s fucking awesome. However, I really get hung up on how over developed the area has become. I guess I’m just in a real love-hate relationship with the area[xii].

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Hama Rikyu as it looks today.

One final note: Shiodome Station, where the original Shinbashi Station was located is just a few blocks away[xiii]. If you’re in the area, you should definitely check it out[xiv]. You’re also even closer to the Ōedo Line’s Daimon Station which gives you access to Zōjō-ji’s Great Gate and the destroyed mausolea of the Tokugawa shōguns[xv] and Tōkyō Tower.

Further Reading:

tamachi-station-empty

Tamachi Station with no people in it. Weird.

Tamachi

Two commissioned pieces of artwork at Tamachi Station get overlooked everyday by droves of salarymen, salarywomen, and hung over students who schlep through this station like herds of cattle during the morning rush hour. But that artwork, a stone monument and a mosaic that’s easy to miss, are testimony to how important this area was to the End of the Tokugawa Shōgunate and the beginning of the Japanese Empire.

17383675313_32a9726bf2_o.jpg

Statue commemorating the site where Katsu and Saigō met.

What these two monuments commemorate is a famous meeting by Katsu Kaishū and Saigō Takamori. The gist of the meeting was this: Saigō intended to lay siege to the shōgun’s castle and behead the shōgun. Katsu knew Saigō was just crazy enough to try to burn the city of a million inhabitants – not just the largest city in the Japan, but arguably the largest city in the world. Saigō’s path was through war, Katsu’s was through negotiation.

The two met in a seaside teahouse here in Tamachi near the suburban palace of Satsuma Domain[xvi] and worked out a peaceful transfer of power. The newly formed imperial army wouldn’t have to fight the shōgun’s army or kill a million people by fire. The shōgun and his loyal retainers would leave the city peacefully[xvii]. The emperor was then free to enter the castle. Katsu Kaishū had negotiated a deal rarely seen in history.

KeioUniversity.jpg

A few years before the negotiation that saved a million lives, this area also saw the birth of a school for foreign learning. This institution would become Japan’s first western style university, today called 慶応大学 Keiō Daigaku Keiō University, which is now part of Japan’s Ivy League. Tamachi station will lead you directly to the campus, still boasting some Meiji Period architecture and a history deeply entwined in the tumultuous years surrounding the Bakumatsu.

One thing most people don’t think about is why did Saigō Takamori and Katsu Kashū have their meeting here. While all of this area is Tōkyō today, in their time this was actually the border of the shōgun’s capital of Edo and 荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District on the Tōkaidō Highway. If the imperial army coming from the south was going to invade Edo, they’d pretty much have to come this way.

takanawa ōkido.jpg

Takanawa Ōkido – entrance to Edo

If you do a bit of walking from Tamachi Station towards Shinagawa Station, among rows of office buildings and old temples you can find a small trace of the actual city limits. All that remains is a small stone wall overgrown with grass and weeds. Apparently, it looked much this way at the time of Saigō and Katsu’s negotiation as the three traditional entrances in and out of Edo were de-fortified about 100 years before due to a stable peace[xix].

takanawaokido01-l

The Ōkido back then

Today, Tamachi is a great place to go drinking. There are lots of izakaya and small privately owned restaurants that cater to middle aged salarymen working in the headquarters of manufacturing companies as well as students aspiring to be corporate drones. There’s an interesting, and uniquely Japanese, intersection of young and old, modern and historical here.

And on that note, I think this is a good place to finally wrap up this series on the Yamanote Line. I think I’ve made a good case that it’s more than just an ruthless drinking game and I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride.

Further Reading:

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[i] I wanna get back to place names, dammit!
[ii] A new station will supposedly be added before the 2020 Olympics. As it’s already 2017 and no construction that I know of has taken place, this now remains to be seen.
[iii] Or “Tōkyō Bay” to you noobs.
[iv] Literally “Harbor Ward.”
[v] A true “loop line.” More here.
[vi] Not quite a true “loop line.” More here.
[vii] Other than being ostentatious, this was presumably of inconsequential defensive worth. I mean, salt water may kill a freshwater fish, but a mammal with a sword doesn’t give a shit about salt water.
[viii] Originally, the 浜御殿 Hama Goten seaside palace of the Tokugawa shōguns.
[ix] Actually, closer to Hamamatsu-chō Station than the shōguns’ villa is.
[x] Originally, the residence of the Ōkubo clan and then the Kishū Tokugawa clan. After the Meiji Coup, the Arisugawa branch of the imperial family took over.
[xi] Pronounced “drinking & whoring.”
[xii] Definitely more on the “love” side, though.
[xiii] Which gives you access to the modern Shinbashi Station.
[xiv] Most Tōkyōites don’t know it exists.
[xv] Truth be told… between Shinbashi and Akabanebashi, you’ll find an area dotted with shrines, temples, and graveyards which once were overseen by the powerful priests of Zōjō-ji – all of whom reported directly to the Tokugawa shōguns.
[xvi] Today it’s the headquarters of NEC.
[xvii] Most did, but a small contingent of loyalists holed up at Kan’ei-ji, present day Ueno Park, in anticipation of a final showdown.
[xviii] All the country samurai who had been required to live in Edo were sent back to their native domains.
[xix] And a fairly rigorous system of checkpoints on the highways far away from Edo, and strategic placement of loyal daimyō surrounding the shōgun’s capital.

Yamanote Line: Yūraku-chō & Shinbashi

In Japanese History on January 12, 2017 at 1:14 pm

有楽町
Yūraku-chō (literally, “leisure town” but more at “Oda Nobumasu’s town”)
新橋
Shinbashi (literally, “new bridge”)

yurakucho

Yūraku-chō Station shot from within the former castle grounds.

Yūraku-chō

 

The area called Yūraku-chō lies in an area that used be a fortified island between the inner and outer moats of Edo Castle. In fact, the elevated train tracks supported by red brick foundations are built on the reclaimed outer moat of Edo Castle. The palaces of the daimyō most closely aligned with the Tokugawa shōguns were located here and to this day, you can still walk on a road from 数寄屋橋 Sukiyabashi[i] (literally, “tea-house bridge”) to Tōkyō Station on a road that was nicknamed[ii] 大名小路 daimyō koji daimyō alley.

This neighborhood was home to the 南町奉行 minami machi bugyō-sho office of the southern bugyō, a kind of magistrate/governor[iii]. Actually, if you go to the area today, you can see a few remains of the bugyō office. There are some stone walls[iv], plumbing[v], and a cistern[vi] preserved in the basement of the イトシア ITOCiA shopping center[vii].

old-shit

The average Tōkyōite doesn’t realize they’re sitting on an Edo Period plumbing system. One more reason to learn as much about Edo before you visit Tōkyō. Jussayin’.

My Ōsaka readers[viii] may be scratching their heads saying 有楽町 is pronounced Uraku-machi while my Edo peeps are probably saying “Ōsaka people are ridiculous; everyone knows it’s Yūraku-chō.” Both areas are written with the same kanji, and both are attributed to the same individual, a certain 織田信益 Oda Nobumasu, brother of 織田信長 Oda Nobunaga[ix]. Oral tradition maintains that the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, granted him a plot of land for his residence near Sukiyabashi Gate on the banks of the outer moat[x].

Nobumasu became a tea master and used the name 有楽 or 有楽斎 which are Uraku and Uraku-sai respectively[xi]. In the Kansai area – Kyōto and Ōsaka – it retains the Uraku reading. In Kantō, which was admittedly not as cultured as Kyōto at the time, the same characters were read as Yūraku. Which reading is correct? It seems difficult to say because while people in Edo used one reading, and people in Ōsaka used another, Nobumasu himself was native to Owari Province which used a dialect altogether different from those two. However, the reading Yūraku is more prevalent in the modern language, probably because Standard Japanese is essentially the Tōkyō Dialect. However, Uraku is most likely what Nobumasu would have expected to be referred to as.

guardo-shita

Modern Yūraku-chō is partly reasonable shopping district[xii] and partly ガード下 gādo shita drinking town under the tracks of the Yamanote Line and shinkansen. There are great casual dining and drinking establishments in the area with a lingering tinge of post-war Shōwa Period grit. The area is a comfortable middle ground between the sophisticated shopping district of 銀座 Ginza and the salaryman wasteland of 新橋 Shinbashi[xiii].

Further Reading:

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Some wasted corporate shill in Shinbashi. Love it or hate it. Shit gets real real quick in Shinbashi.

Shinbashi

 

The next station on the Yamanote Line is 新橋 Shinbashi, which literally means “new bridge.” Since I wrote my original article on Shinbashi, I’ve come across more information on the so-called “new bridge” which made what I first said unclear. But without getting into the nitty-gritty, the bridge which appeared on Edo Period maps as シン橋 Shinbashi[xiv] seems to have been an auxiliary bridge or a kind of service entrance to the castle. It wasn’t defended with a 御門 go-mon gate or 見附 mitsuke fortified approach. The area was fortified in the early 1700’s and renamed 芝口御門 Shibaguchi Go-mon Shibaguchi Gate, but the area was lost to a fire about 10 years later and never rebuilt.

After the Meiji Coup, the first station of the first train line in Japan, the Tōkaidō Main Line was built in the bordering area that’s called 汐留 Shiodome today. The station was named 新橋駅 Shinbashi Eki Shinbashi Station. The present day Shinbashi Station area was actually known as 烏森 Karasumori the Crow Forest in the Edo Period and is located a good 5 or 10 minute walk from where the original station sat[xv].

15194635287_26c2204a63_o.jpg

Karasumori Shrine

Shinbashi is a Shōwa Era shitamachi gem in Tōkyō that takes some getting used to. I’ve heard many times from other expats about how much they hate the place. To them it represents old, drunk salarymen drenched in spilt sake and shōchū who reek of cigarette and kitchen smoke stumbling through the streets and pissing down unlit basement stairways before they rudely push their way onto the crowded last train home.

18898562071_531c233f80_o.jpg

Original Shinbashi Station (reconstructed)

Not unsurprisingly, some of the rawest drinking spots in Tōkyō are located here. Like all Shōwa Period towns, it’s far more social than most of the big city. And believe it or not, it’s considered one of the best ナンパスポット nanpa supotto pick up spots for middle aged office workers of both sexes[xvi]. Some of the ママさん mama-san proprietresses of small スナック sunakku local dive bars are known to match-make solo drinkers for the night in hopes of bringing a pair of lonely hearts together… if only for the moment[xvii].

The present-day Shinbashi area was home to the 中屋敷 naka-yashiki middle residence[xviii] of the Date clan from 仙台藩 Sendai Han Sendai Domain, where the wives and children of Date Masamune’s descendants lived.

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[i] Where that sushi restaurant from Jirō Dreams of Sushi is located.
[ii] And still bears the informal name.
[iii] There were actually two machi bugyō in Edo. The minami machi bugyō was located in Yūraku-chō, while the kita machi bugyō, the northern bugyō, was located in Yaesu, near present-day Tōkyō Station.
[iv] Complete with 刻印 kokuin symbols denoting the provenance of the stone work.
[v] Repurposed as benches for shoppers.
[vi] That’s another term for a well.
[vii] Don’t ask me about the capitalization, I didn’t name the place.
[viii] Do I even have any?
[ix] The first (and craziest) of the 3 Great Unifiers of Japan.
[x] That said, the area wasn’t officially referred to as Yūraku-chō until the Meiji Period when the area was disconnected from the castle and redeveloped as civilian.
[xi] The Edo Period equivalent of a DJ name.
[xii] A refreshing alternative to neighboring Ginza, which has long been considered the standard bearer of high fashion and designer brands in Asia.
[xiii] It also melts into Hibiya and Marunouchi. The more I think about it, Yūraku-chō is like a chameleon.
[xiv] The katakana seems to have been used to clarify the reading – the kanji 新橋 could also be read Arabashi.
[xv] Needless to say, by the “original station” I’m referring to the former Shibaguchi area, which is considered the Shiodome area today.
[xvi] Yup, this is an actual thing.
[xvii] And presumably continued patronage to their bars…
[xviii] Not sure what a “middle residence” is? Have no fear, here’s my primer on the Tokugawa shōgunate’s policy of alternate attendance.

Yamanote Line: Tōkyō

In Japanese History on August 3, 2016 at 5:08 am

東京
Tōkyō

tokyo station taisho

Tōkyō Station shortly after its completion

I so just wanna say, we’ve all been there and done that because that would just be easier that repeating myself again and again… After all, my long time readers have all been there and done that. In fact, if anyone knows anything about Japanese history, it’s the fact that the Tōkyō used to be called Edo and the name was changed after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. But if there’s any lesson I’ve learned from Kevin Smith[i] and from the resurrection of the Star Wars franchise[ii], it’s this: When you’re constantly writing about the same topic, you have to be remember that even though you have long time readers, it’s always someone’s first time to learn some of these things. If someone finds this blog post 2 years from now, it could still be their first time to learn anything about the subject.

And that’s where my job gets a bit tricky[iii]. I have to keep things interesting for everyone – longtime readers and first time readers. Hoping to keep everyone happy, especially the longtime readers who probably already know most of this story.

Well, anyways, enough of that. Today, we’re going to cover the Tōkyō Station area.

TOKYO STATION 100 YEARS

Tōkyō Station during its 100 year anniversary jubilee.

Tōkyō Station Area?

Yes. Tōkyō Station is a place, but I don’t think of it as just a station. It’s also the name of the city in general, a fact that shouldn’t be overlooked. This “area” is smack dab in the center of Edo-Tōkyō and it’s kind of one of the oldest developed parts of the city. And while it’s definitely a major hub station, the area itself represents so much more.

The station faces a wide open boulevard that has an Edo Period nickname, 大名小路 Daimyō Koji Daimyō Alley. This thoroughfare bisected an island located between the inner moat and outer moat of Edo Castle[iv]. On this fortified island sat the 上屋敷 kami-yashiki upper residences of some of the feudal lords with the closest connections to the Tokugawa shōguns who lived within the inner moat. The area was 丸之内 maru no uchi inside the citadel[v]. It wasn’t just elite because of all of the daimyō living here with direct access to the shōgun that made this neighborhood unique; it was also its location. The north side of Daimyō Alley was located near the 大手見附御門 Ōte-mitsuke Go-mon Main Gate of the western citadel[vi], essentially the main entrance to the shōgun’s castle[vii].

Directly accessible from Tōkyō Station or accessible on foot if you care to walk 10-15 minutes are a plethora of famous spots:

  • Marunouchi – a financial and banking district; it was formerly a daimyō neighborhood and includes Daimyō Alley (you can walk Daimyō Alley from Yūraku-chō to Taira no Masakado’s Kubizuka).
  • Ōtemachi – a business/financial district; the name refers to the Ōtemon (main gate) of Edo Castle.
  • Sukiyabashi – a shopping district/salaryman nightlife district between Ginza and Marunouchi; tradition says it refers to a tea ceremony instructor of the upper echelons of the daimyō class[viii].
  • Masakado Kubizuka – a haunted tomb dedicated to the head of Taira no Masakado, a symbol of eastern independence from the imperial court in Kyōto.
  • Anjin Street – the last remaining direct reference in Tōkyō to the English samurai William Adams (三浦按針 Miura Anjin in Japanese). He was a close advisor to Tokugawa Ieyasu, though to increasingly lesser degrees to the 2nd and 3rd shōguns who were increasingly distrustful of foreign influences on their hegemony.
  • Yaesu – a reference to William Adam’s associate who was given samurai status but was soon forbidden access to the shōgun because he was apparently a drunk twat of the highest order.
  • Daimyō Koji – Daimyō Alley is actually still referenced on some modern maps, but it’s not an official street name.
tokyo construction

Tōkyō Station under construction

Of all the Stations in Tōkyō, Why is this one called Tōkyō?

In 1914 (Taishō 3), this was the largest and most monumental train station in the East. Architecturally, it was more European than American, but in comparison to both modes of thinking, it wasn’t just hub station for Tōkyō, it was a hub station for the new imperial state. It was designed to ensure that Tōkyō was the capital of Asia and had the infrastructure to prove it. In a move the shōgunate would have never tolerated, the station was built on the then fallow yamanote lands confiscated years ago by the imperial government (that were later purchased by the Mitsubishi Corporation) – land that once stood at the front door of Edo Castle[ix].

Long time readers may remember some of the earliest major stations in Tōkyō. The stations that stick out in my mind are Shinbashi, Shinagawa, and Ueno. These stations had all been built in the very early years of the Meiji Period and any of them could have been expanded to become the main station for the city. They were getting a lot of traffic for sure. The problem was that construction would have interrupted traffic for years. Not including the delays cause by the Russo-Japanese War, the actual construction took about 6 years. It was better to leave the other stations alone and build a grand new hub in the former daimyō lands that connected the 東海道本線 Tōkaidō Honsen Tōkaidō Main Line with the north-south running 東北線 Tōhoku-sen Tōhoku Line[x] while giving direct access areas of the former Edo Castle that were slowly being opened up to the public, sold off to real estate developers, or repurposed by governmental agencies of the Japanese Empire. In short, the station was central[xi], it linked important existing lines, and showcased the city as capital equal to the capitals of Europe and the United States[xii]. That’s a station worthy of the name “Tōkyō Station.”

The station took a bit of a hit in the 1923 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake, but it suffered serious damage in the firebombing at the end of WWII. The original building was 3 stories, but 3rd floors of the north and south wings weren’t rebuilt. Although it was repaired and train service was greatly expanded between 1945 and 2000, the station remained a shadow of its former glory until the Bubble Economy. The station was slated for demolition, but an effort to preserve the station as an historical landmark saved the brick monstrosity it had become. From that time on, more and more people became interested in the revitalization of the station and the Marunouchi area in general. Recently, the 3rd floors of the north and south wings have been rebuilt and the temporary triangle shaped rooftops were replaced with domes in accordance with the original design.

View of Tokyo Station in 2000, before renovation work

Tōkyō Station in 2000, before the most recent renovations. Note the north and south wings are only 2 stories. Both wings and the central atrium have cheesy angular roofs rather than elegant domes.

 

When I first visited Japan, some 15 years ago or so, the station looked like ass. However, today it is actually quite impressive. There are a lot of skyscrapers towering over it that detract from its original Taishō Period glory – and the fact that at the time of writing, the main approach to the station is undergoing redevelopment, doesn’t help – but if you spend a little time checking out the exterior of the building, you can clearly see the new bricks and the old bricks. When I see the restored Tōkyō Station, I’m struck by the amazing history of the area. Standing in this area – former holdings of feudal lords, a few minutes’ walk from Edo Castle – a flood of thoughts come to me. I think of Ōta Dōkan. I think of the Tokugawa Shōguns. I think of the Meiji Restoration. I think of the quirky Taishō Era that ended amid recovery from the Great Kantō Earfquake. I think of the rise of ups and downs and subsequent ups of the Shōwa Period. This area, while it looks like a central business district built around a huge garden where the emperor lives, is actually one of the most profound historical areas in Japan. Sadly, most of it doesn’t exist anymore, but Tōkyō Station is most definitely there linking the past with the present.

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[i] Writer, filmmaker, podcaster, professional geek, and a bit of an inspiration to me: Kevin Smith.
[ii] Star Wars: the Force Awakens was Mrs. JapanThis!’s first exposure to the Star Wars universe. I tried to get her to watch the originals but she wasn’t down with it at all. The Force Awakens changed everything.
[iii] That’s metaphorical. This isn’t my job. I write this for free and cross my fingers that one or two of you might decide to donate a dollar or two each month. Fingers crossed!
[iv] The outer moat was filled in after WWII and is now a major thoroughfare called 外堀通り Sotobori Dōri Outer Moat Street, despite not a drop of water in sight.
[v] 丸 maru, which literally means “circle” but in military use means “enclosure” or “encincture,” referred to a variety of fortified enclosures within the walls or moats of a Japanese castle – ie; a “citadel.” In the Edo Period, the 本丸 honmaru main enclosure usually referred to encincture that protected the living quarters of the shōgun or a daimyō (though technically speaking, this was the most secure and final defensive position, so it could also refer to a position a warlord could retreat to and try to hold out or commit seppuku before being overtaken).
[vi] That name is the formal Edo Period parlance; today the gate is just called 大手門 Ōtemon the main gate.
[vii] For you nerdy nerds, Daimyō Alley now stretches from 数寄屋橋 Sukiyabashi (the legendary home of Oda Nobunaga’s younger brother who was a tea ceremony instructor to daimyō; and 数寄屋 sukiya means a kind of tea room) to the 将門塚 Masakado-zuka burial mound of Taira no Masakado’s Head – something I talked about in this unrelated article.
[viii] A 数寄屋 sukiya is tea house for practicing tea ceremony.
[ix] Or as the imperial court liked to call it 東京城 Tōkyō-jō or Teikyō-jō Tōkyō Castle. But until the end of the war, it was usually called the 宮城 Kyūjō Imperial Castle. During the American Occupation, this title was eliminated because the first kanji has religious implications, especially to Shintō and the divine ancestors of the emperor. So it was decided that 皇居 the place where the emperor lives, was best.
[x] This train line wasn’t called the Tōhoku Line until the early 1900’s. Previous to that, these sections of track were part of a network built and operated by 日本鉄道 Nippon Tetsudō Nippon Railways.
[xi] The original proposed name was actually the 中央停車場 Chūō Teishajō Central Depot. The name 東京駅 Tōkyō Eki Tōkyō Station was chosen 2 weeks before the opening of the new station.
[xii] And superior to the capitals of Asia which were just a mess in their opinion – or they’d like you to think so.

Yamanote Line: Akihabara & Kanda

In Japanese History on July 15, 2016 at 4:53 am

秋葉原
Akihabara
(Akiba’s field)
神田
Kanda (holy rice paddies)

Dempagumi

Denpagumi Inc. is an idol group born out of Akihabara’s otaku culture. They perform at a local venue called Dear Stage.

This is the stretch of the Yamanote Line that I’ve been dreading from the beginning. The reason is twofold: Akihabara is a loaded place name that carries a lot of baggage and it’s not my cup of tea[i]. Kanda is also loaded, but I haven’t done a proper article on it yet. That makes it one of the most overdue place names on JapanThis!. But for all intents and purposes, Akihabara and Kanda are historically kinda the same place. In fact, while the name Kanda may date back to the Heian Period or earlier, the name Akihabara wasn’t even necessary until the 1890’s when a train station was opened here. And that’s the real bitch, now isn’t it? I can refer you to my thorough article on Akihabara (the new place), I yet I can’t do much about Kanda (the old place) because I haven’t covered it yet.

So rather than go in deep this time, I’m just going to give a light description of the areas and make a promise to cover Kanda in depth before the end of the year and then update this article with a link the new article.

kanda-takemura

Before there was Akihabara there was Kanda

Originally, the whole area from平将門首塚 Taira no Masakada no Kubizuka Taira no Masakado’s Head Mound[ii] in 大手町 Ōtemachi[iii] to 駿河台 Surugadai (originally 神田山 Kandayama Mt. Kanda) was called 神田 Kanda in general. This changed over the centuries, but for our purposes today, this is good enough. That was Kanda and you can see it originally referred to a large and relatively vague area.

KANDA
Early in the Edo Period – about 1613 – Edo’s main fish market was established in Nihonbashi on the border of Kanda. It was said to stink to high hell and was remained an important fixture of daily life in Edo-Tōkyō until it was destroyed in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake[iv]. Also bordering Kanda was Denma-chō, home of one of Edo’s prisons and execution grounds.

By the late Edo Period, a number of very famous 剣術 kenjutsu fencing dōjō’s had come to operate in the area. These schools had close ties with the upper echelons of samurai and were some of the richest and most distinguished schools in the shōgun’s capital. With the arrival of Commodore Perry and his black ships in 1853, the shōgunate immediately established the 講武所 Kōbusho in the area. This was its official military academy to prepare elite samurai for a possible showdown with the west and teach whatever western military strategies and tactics they could get their hands on.

kanda vegetable market

Kanda’s shitamachi. This photo makes it clear how tightly integrated the shitamachi and yamanote were with each other. Much of the area looks shitamachi today despite having yamanote origins during the Edo Period. Most of this image is a holdover from the Tasishō and Shōwa Periods.

In the Fine Tradition of People Getting Shit Wrong on Wikipedia

Let’s see how the editors of a typical English language article on Wikipedia fare on the topic of Akihabara, shall we?

One of Tokyo’s frequent fires destroyed the area in 1869, and the people decided to replace the buildings of the area with a shrine called Chinkasha (now known as Akiba Shrine (秋葉神社 Akiba Jinja), meaning fire extinguisher shrine, in an attempt to prevent the spread of future fires. The locals nicknamed the shrine Akiba after the deity that could control fire, and the area around it became known as Akibagahara and later Akihabara.

The city was barely even Tōkyō in 1869[v], but that’s just being nitpicky so I’m not going to go there.

“The people decided to replace the buildings of the area with a shrine called Chinkasha.” Umm, no they didn’t. The fire in question burned down about 17 blocks of commoner housing. The whole area wasn’t rebuilt as a shrine. That would have been a pretty major shrine if it were in this part of town. And 鎮火社 chinka-sha isn’t the name of a shrine; it’s a category of shrine. Chinka-sha means “fire extinguisher shrine.” No, it doesn’t. 消火 shōka means “extinguish a fire.” 鎮火 chinka means “extinguished fires” with the implied Edo Period notion that more than one fire has occurred.

The locals set up a minor, impromptu shrine that honored the area and mourned the loss of life and property. This wasn’t proper shrine like you’d usually think of. Maybe something made of stones or just wherever people decided to leave offerings that may have grown over time[vi]. Furthermore, the area wasn’t rebuilt for many years because it was designated as a 火除地 hiyokechi firebreak – an empty field that, should a fire break out again, wouldn’t be breached thus protecting the surrounding blocks.

“[The] locals nicknamed the shrine Akiba after the deity that could control fire[vii].” I don’t know if they nicknamed it that or not, but through a ritual called 分霊 bunrei the dividing of a 神 kami spirit, 秋葉大権現 Akiba Daigongen[viii], a Buddhist/Shintō syncretic deity related to fire was installed in the small shrine in 1870. This is really when the place name began to take place. That said, the name could have been lost to time, had a train station not been built in the area. As this area was essentially Kanda, the train company had to come up with a unique name. It was for the purpose of public transportation and zoning that the place name Akihabara ever came into existence[ix].

The explanation of the writing lacks any nuance at all, so I’ll just leave it alone. Ugh.

meiji bridge akihabara kanda river.jpg

This looks like a really expensive Meiji Era bridge, which makes me think it’s actually from the Shōwa Period.. going with my gut instinct because it’s Akihabara and I don’t care so much lol. But that tunnel on the right side… that’s a total rape tunnel isn’t it? Gross. Board it up!

I have to say I was totally dreading writing this mash up of these 2 places. But now that I think about it, they were pretty easy to bring together without getting outside the scope of this series. This also makes a good launch pad for us when I finally get around to discussing Kanda. Like I said, I think Kanda is going to be a bit of an epic article.

For me, I’m just happy that there are only 5 more stations until we make a full circle on the Yamanote Line. I’m thinking about how to break these up in terms of stations. In order to keep up the 2 stations per post, I may include the “ghost station” that is planned between Tamachi and Shinagawa is still just a glimmer in the eye of the JR East. I’m sure they’ll build it – the plan is before the 2020 Olympics – but, honestly, there doesn’t seem any immediate need for it. Worse yet, this station would serve to condense more of Japan’s population in Tōkyō at a time when it should probably be developing urban centers outside of the capital. Anyhoo, that would be a place marker because I can’t write about it until it’s actually built and active as a station lol.

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[i] But even that’s not completely true; there are things about Akihabara that I like. Mainly, maids. Oh, and the giant sex shop. Oh, and the Oculus Rift demo software with the bikini girl on the beach. Oh, and that really good kebab shop whose name I can’t remember. Oh, and the ruins of a samurai residence. Oh, and… oh. That’s all.
[ii] The allegedly haunted burial mound of the head of Taira no Masakado.
[iii] Ōtemachi refers to the district located in front of Edo Castle’s 大手御門 Ōte Go-mon Main Gate. Now it’s pretty much just a banking and finance district.
[iv] The replacement was Tsukiji Market, which is being moved to Toyosu this year and is a huuuuuge controversy.
[v] The name of the city changed from Edo to Tōkyō in 1868.
[vi] There seem to be no surviving pictures of the shrine.
[vii] Akiba isn’t the only kami who has power over fire.
[viii] Or Akiha Daigongen.
[ix] If you read my original article, you’ll see there were a lot of different ways to refer to this area before the train companies and government standardized things.

Yamanote Line: Ueno & Okachimachi

In Japanese History on June 29, 2016 at 10:37 am

上野
Ueno

16991357795_70e9650c4a_o.jpg

Close up of the restored sukibei of Ueno Tōshō-gū. A sukibei is a kind of fence that goes around the main halls of a shrine built in the gongen-zukuri style.

Long time readers will know that we’ve just rolled into one of my favorite areas of Tōkyō.

Ueno is an access point to a myriad of fantastic spots connected to Japanese history. I’ve covered it numerous times before so I’m just gonna keep it brief this time. In short, the place name Ueno refers to the area immediately surrounding Ueno Station in the vocabulary of a typical Tōkyōite. However, prior to the arrival of trains, Ueno was – strictly speaking – the high ground above the station that is now 上野公園 Ueno Kōen Ueno Park. The lowlands below the park are very 下町 shitamachi low city and betray their commoner origins. The high ground was 山手 yamanote high city and wasn’t so much a “city” per se as much as it was religious center based around 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji Kan’ei Temple one of 2 funerary temples of the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family. The name 上野 Ueno itself means “high field” and is a reference to the 上野台地 Ueno Daichi Ueno Plateau.

ueno daibutsu

The Ueno Daibutsu (Big Buddha), sometimes called the Edo Daibutsu, before it was toppled by the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake.

The plateau was also home to swaths of 武家屋敷 buke yashiki samurai residences and a handful of  大名屋敷 daimyō yashiki daimyō residences. This is in direct conflict with the area’s modern image of being 下町 shitamachi low city. And while it certainly has a feel of old, traditional Tōkyō, Ueno is located on the Yamanote Line for a reason[i]. Despite the station being located in the old lowland commoner district, the term traditionally referred to the elite high ground.Most of the confusion deals with a shift in the usage of the terms and the fact that the high ground here is still very traditional.

ueno park hanami

Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) in Ueno is pretty much a mad house and it gets crazier and crazier every year. Pretty sure the shōgunate wouldn’t approve.

In Ueno today, you can find bits and pieces of the Tokugawa mortuary temple, Kan’ei-ji, the 書院 shoin room where the last shōgun, 徳川慶喜 Tokugawa Yoshinobu put himself under self-imposed house arrest as an act of submission and loyalty to the emperor, numerous temples and shrines, and the battleground of the 上野戦争 Ueno Sensō Battle of Ueno, in which a volunteer samurai militia loyal to the shōgunate fought the imperial rebels in a one day battle that resulted in the destruction by fire of the main hall of Kan’ei-ji and many of its other buildings. The bulk of Kan’ei-ji’s land holdings have become Ueno Park which is famous for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing and for years has been one of the crazier hanami spots – most likely because about 80% of the trees in the park are cherry blossoms. If you can look past the big crowds and drunk zombies stumbling around everywhere, the sheer number and density of 桜 sakura cherry blossoms is stunning.

Further Reading:

drought shinonazu pond.jpg

In 1960, there was a drought so bad that Shinobazu Pond, in the lowlands under the Ueno Plateau actually went dry. The pond had been famous for unagi and lotus. The lotus plants remain, but the drought killed off the unagi. These 3 boys may have killed them all. Look at those stone cold killers toss an unagi into the air to its certain death. Ueon and Okachimachi still have many unagi restaurants but the unagi isn’t local anymore.

御徒町
Okachimachi

I think my original article on Okachimachi pretty much sums up the origin of this place name. 徒 kachi were the very bottom rung on the ladder of 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the Tokugawa shōguns. Long story short, they were samurai but they essentially lived like commoners. That is to say, they lived in the lowlands in barracks similar to (and often adjacent to) the 長屋 nagaya row houses for poor commoners in the 下町 shitamachi low city. In Edo, they were the “white trash” of the samurai class – not through their own fault, though. Class was hereditary. Commoners afforded them the usual courtesy a samurai deserved, but the rest of the samurai class thought very little of them.

 

okachimachi 1955

Okachimachi in 1955. The elevated train tracks for the Yamanote line are still there, but the other buildings are long gone. I’m guessing that tree is gone too.

In the Edo Period, there was a small barracks town in this area. It was essentially home to many 御徒o-kachi the polite term for this class of hatamoto. Keep in mind, the commoners would never dare refer to them by their rank to their face (they were considered just barely samurai by their own class)[ii]. But to the commoners in the area, it looked good to have samurai in the neighborhood. Sure, these weren’t daimyō or high ranking shōgunate officials, but they were still samurai. I don’t know if this affected property values in the Edo Period, actually, I sort of doubt it did, but really I don’t know. That said, what would you be more proud of having across the street from your house; a bunch of cheap yukata makers and green grocers or some sword wielding samurai?

Hopefully now you can sort of imagine why the title of low ranking samurai would have held so much sway among their commoner neighbors after the abolition of the samurai class in 1868 (which would have meant the destruction of the barracks and those kachi had to fend for themselves in the real world). Still, it sounded cool to have had samurai in the neighborhood once the samurai were all but gone.

mizushōbai

2 girls eating a late night dinner in Ameyoko-chō in summer, 1955. It’s unclear if they’re hostesses, prostitutes, or both. Anyways, it’s a pretty hot shot lol.

Between Okachimachi and Ueno Station, there is an area called アメヤ横丁 Ameya Yoko-chō which has a somewhat obscure etymology, but by most accounts seems to be a reference to a post war black market area where American military surplus was sold off to Tōkyōites living in the burnt out capital. アメ屋 ame-ya is said to be short for アメリカ屋 Amerika-ya America shops. 横丁 yoko-chō means something like alley or side street/town. When visiting Ueno, I think it’s great to stop off here for a few drinks and 焼鳥 yakitori grilled chicken to soak in the shitamachi vibe, reflect on history, and chat with local salarymen who are generally drunk enough to engage foreigners in conversations. It’s a really cool part of town and if you take my guided tour of this part of Tōkyō, chances are we’ll end up here for drinks at the end of the day.

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[i] There has been confusion over the years as to what the terms 山手 yamanote high city and 下町 shitamachi low city mean and to which parts of town the terms apply. The area from Tabata to Okachimachi is a leading factor in this confusion.
[ii] They were called 御侍様 o-samurai-sama sir samurai by commoners.

Yamanote Line: Nishi-Nippori, Nippori, & Uguisudani

In Japanese History on June 14, 2016 at 4:05 am

西日暮里、日暮里、鶯谷
Nishi-Nippori, Nippori, Uguisudani

shitamachi yamanote line

Now we’re entering the most well known shitamachi (low city) area of Tōkyō.

So, yeah. It looks like we’re 10 articles deep into this series exploring Tōkyō via the 山手線 Yamanote-sen Yamanote Line and we’ve already covered 17 of the current 29 stations[i]. That’s pretty good. We’ve covered more than half the of loop in record time. We’re making much better time than my series on the 大江戸線 Ōedo-sen Ōedo Line[ii]. Today, let’s try to bang through 3 more neighborhoods and round that number up to 20 stations.

All right, buckle up and let’s do this!

Further Reading:

0000

Dōkan’yama – the hill and plains below are very much visible today.

西日暮里
Nishi-Nippori

Nishi-Nippori means West Nippori and it’s not a real place name. It’s just a train station name. Later I’ll talk about what Nippori means, but let’s talk about what the station gives you access to. First and foremost is an area called 道灌山 Dōkan’yama which literally means Dōkan Mountain. It’s allegedly the site of a 出城 dejiro satellite fort built by the warlord 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan to protect 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle[iii]. The plateau still gives a commanding view over the valleys below and it’s clear why this location was important from a military standpoint. Its steep slopes were naturally defensible and you had a view of the entire Kantō Plain, Edo Bay, and Mt. Fuji.

1990 nippori fujimizaka.jpg

Mt. Fuji as viewed from Dōkan’yama in 1990.

By the Edo Period, Dōkan’yama had become a popular 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing spot. Edoites could enjoy the same view of the Kantō Plain, Edo Bay, and Mt. Fuji – minus the fort and plus the cherry blossoms. Several 浮世絵 ukiyo-e woodblock prints document the beauty of the area[iv].

I’ve Covered All of this Before:

ueno toshogu

This area has deep ties to the Tokugawa Shōgun Family.

日暮里
Nippori

OK, I promised to tell you what Nippori means, but I kinda lied. The name is actually a bit of a mystery. You can read my original article about the etymology here. The name is most likely 当て字 ateji kanji used for its phonetic values rather than meaning. This hints at a particular ancient or possibly prehistoric name[v]. The oldest writing was 新堀 which just means “new moat” or “new canal,” the present writing is 日暮里 which means “village where you can spend the whole day.” This latter spelling became codified in the early Meiji Period and was more or less a marketing ploy. People had been visiting the area as tourists for almost a hundred years, the locals wanted to keep ‘em coming. In the days when you had to walk everywhere, the journey from central Edo to Nippori was basically a day trip – the equivalent of a modern Tōkyōite’s trip to Kamakura today[vi].

kannonji yanaka.jpg

Kannon-ji a temple whose chief priest was related to 2 of the 47 rōnin. The rōnin may have stayed here while plotting their revenge or while feigning ascetic practices (or both). At any rate, the most interesting thing about the area are the traditional Edo Period stone and mortar walls.

The area called Nippori is usually considered 下町 shitamachi low city by most Tōkyōites. It’s urban but residential, gritty, and really traditional and old fashioned. However, this image of shitamachi is relatively recent. In fact, it’s a post WWII view of the area.

nippori 1963.jpg

Nippori Station in 1963. You can see the area is still suburban, but the plains below Dōkan’yama are giving way to the urbanization that would forever change the nature of this section of Tōkyō.

As I said earlier, Dōkan’yama is a hilly plateau where a samurai warlord lived. That’s the very definition of the 山手 yamanote high city. That said, for much of its existence, this area was country during the Edo Period. Some samurai families lived on the hills and plateaux in the area. Some daimyō and rich people had second houses out here as well in the Edo Period. But the first real growth in the area was fueled by the establishment of 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji Kan’ei Temple in 上野 Ueno with the express purpose of being a funerary temple of the Tokugawa Shōguns[vii]. After a series of fires and natural disasters during the rule of the 11th shōgun, 徳川家斉 Tokugawa Ienari, many temples and shrines were moved from central Edo out here to the suburbs. They had less chance of falling prey to conflagrations, the so-called 江戸の華 Edo no Hana “flowers of Edo.”[viii]

kaneiji

Kan’ei-ji, one of the funerary temples of the Tokugawa Shōguns. Because of wars, very little remains of this once vibrant and important religious center.

Nippori Station gives you direct access to 谷中霊園 Yanaka Rei’en Yanaka Cemetery. This is the largest necropolis in Tōkyō and is home to pre-Edo Period graves right up to present day. Although the cemetery is generally considered a single entity, it’s actually 2 separate cemeteries. On the Nippori side, it is a state maintained cemetery formerly owned by 天王寺 Ten’ō-ji Ten’ō Temple, on the Ueno side, it’s a privately owned graveyard overseen by Kan’ei-ji. The two sprawling cemeteries eventually blended into one[ix]. The differences between the properties aren’t marked, but are instantly visible if you have a keen eye for detail in Japanese cemeteries. You’ll see almost every type of Japanese grave from so many eras here. It might seem morbid, but actually, it’s one of the most peaceful and interesting places in Tōkyō. It’s fitted with playgrounds and picnic areas and has so many famous graves that it’s one of the main destinations for Japanese history lovers. It’s also my most requested tour – go figure!

Wanna Know More?

jizo

Taking the Yamanote Line this direction, we fall into increasingly religious lands culminating in the graves of the shōguns. But once we descend from the Ueno Plateau we will immediately find ourselves in a very different place.

鶯谷
Uguisudani

Uguisudani is a place name that means “nightingale valley” and evokes a bucolic image of the time when this was once a favorite destination of Edoites who wanted to enjoy the calls of birds. In fact, Uguisudani Station plays recordings of nightingales on the train platform. Although the name has long been preserved by locals, there isn’t an official postal code designated Uguisudani. There area is actually called 根岸 Negishi and Uguisudani is just the station name. The enjoyment of the natural and mellifluous songs of birds in a simpler time before TV and the constant barrage of 24/7 media is a poetic and beautiful image.

1917 uguisudani station

Uguisudani was so remote that it isn’t until 1917 that we get a photo of the are. You see the station (as in the modern town) on the low ground. The hill behind the station is the Ueno Plateau. Station was built in 1912, by the way.

The legend goes that a certain potter and ceramic artist from Kyōto named 尾形乾山 Ogata Kenzan visited the chief priests of nearby 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji the Tokugawa Funerary Temple in the area[x]. Having heard from the priests that the nightingales of Edo sang in an uncouth accent or dialect, he brought nightingales from Kyōto that could “sing proper” and released them in the area. He hoped the birds would flourish and that their songs would bring peace of mind to the priests of Kan’ei-ji and the spirits of the departed shōguns that rested on the top of the Ueno Plateau.

uguisu

This is an uguisu (I’ve translated it as “nightingale” but it’s also translated as “Japanese bush warbler.” No matter what you call it, it’s a song bird and is considered a harbinger of spring. Uguisu are often mentioned in haiku or shown in art to depict the beginning of spring. Here one is shown resting among plum blossoms, another signal that spring is right around the corner. The two go hand in hand.

The 2 stories we have are part of the standard narrative and there’s not much we can say about how accurate they are, but they definitely seem to corroborate each other. Another etymology – much less well known – is also in circulation. Uguisudani is located in a strikingly noticeable valley beneath the Ueno Plateau where the shōguns were buried and where many samurai and daimyō lived. Many artists who preferred the Edo Period equivalent of the Bohemian life kept second homes in the 下町 shitamachi commoner district of present day Uguisudani[xi]. Because this was the periphery of the city and far from home, the low city catered to the more carnal desires of its moneyed inhabitants. If this theory is to be believed, there are 2 explanations being floated around. One, the reference to the beautiful song of the nightingale actually derives from the 喘ぎ声 aegigoe cries of pleasure of prostitutes heard throughout the neighborhood. Or two, the story of Kenzan bringing nightingales who could “sing proper” was a case of relocating prostitutes fluent in the Kyōto dialect and manners to the area to service the priests of Kan’ei-ji who just weren’t down with the unsophisticated Kantō girls of the Early Edo Period.

uguisudani sex industry.jpg

Say “Uguisudani” to any Tōkyōite and they’ll probably think this. But the truth is, the area has a very rich cultural history. PS: This isn’t an indorsement or anything of this business, it’s just a random Google search, ok?

I like the first explanation. People came here for bird watching. And indeed, people did come to this area for day trips to visit temples and shrines and to do 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. The bird watching thing makes sense. On the other hand, if you exit Uguisudani Station today, you are in the heart of a very notorious love hotel district replete with a vibrant and sometimes over the top sex industry. For a town that wasn’t a post town, it’s quite remarkable how much of a sex industry exists here.

No matter which etymology you believe[xii], the elevation and difference between the high city and low city is obvious. A walk through the maze that is Uguisudani speaks volumes about its low city heritage, but also its long standing reliance on the sex industry, and until recently the yakuza[xiii].

I love Uguisudani. It’s one of the last bastions of shitamachi culture. Sure, it’s clinging to the post-WWII Shōwa culture, but even that represents Edo’s commoner culture in so many ways. I try to come here as often as I can.

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[i] A third major hub station is planned and expected to be in preparation before the 2020 Tōkyō Olympics.
[ii] The term 大江戸 Ōedo means “the greater Edo area” and refers to the shōgun’s capital as well as the surrounding areas that absorbed its unique culture. Here’s my series on the Ōedo Line.
[iii] In Dōkan’s time, I wouldn’t use the term “castle.” It was basically a robust, fortified residence. The image of a typical Japanese castle didn’t come to Edo Castle until the arrival of the Tokugawa in about 1600.
[iv] I’m a huuuuuuuuge love of ukiyo-e, so please check out this book.
[v] Prehistoric just means before a reliable written history existed.
[vi] From Nihonbashi to Nippori would have taken an Edoite about 2-3 hours. Today it would be about 15 minutes by train. From Edo to Kamakura would have been a 2 day walk at bare minimum. However, today you could probably make the walk in 10 hours, but by train it’s roughly 45 minutes.
[vii] Its counterpart was 増上寺 Zōjō-ji Zōjō Temple in Shiba. Here’s my article on Shiba. (It’s old)
[viii] This might seem strange but fights among couples and neighborhood fires were called “Flowers of Edo.” Lovers’ quarrels were seen as unsightly and everyone ignored them so as to not get involved and then the couple would make up and “bloom again.” Likewise, the constant fires of the low city were seen as embarrassing but they saw quick rebuilding and investment in destroyed neighborhoods which also saw the areas “bloom again.”
[ix] After WWII, much of the land of the land surrounding the old Tokugawa mausolea was sold off as family burial plots to average citizens.
[x] At that time, roughly the Genroku Period, the chief priests of Kan’ei-ji were a branch of the imperial family in Kyōto. It’s implied that Kenzan’s visit to the area was due to his connections with the imperial court.
[xi] This practice was uncommon if you had the means. It was a way to escape the family and keep what we would call a “private studio” today. Likeminded artists, writers, and merchants would also be in the area and this was good for networking.
[xii] I’m not sure I’m convinced by any, to be honest.
[xiii] There used to be Taiwanese and Chinese prostitutes who were street walkers – totally illegal in Japan, but it was overlooked. In the build up to the 2020 Olympics, they’ve disappeared. There also used to be yakuza all over the place on the street corners and in the shops, but recently I haven’t seen them so… some of the really interesting vibrancy of Uguisudani may be temporarily fading.

Yamanote Line: Ōtsuka, Sugamo, Komagome, Tabata

In Japanese History on June 5, 2016 at 7:39 am

大塚
Ōtsuka

Old Otsuka Station.jpg

Ōtsuka Station prior to the firebombing of Tōkyō

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten off the Yamanote Line at Ōtsuka Station. Sure, I’ve seen it on maps and I’ve definitely passed the station many times[i]. The area is primarily residential, but is also home to a variety of restaurants, cafés, and izakaya[ii]. If the hustle and bustle of Ikebukuro or Shinjuku isn’t to your liking, you can probably find something to eat near this station.

The place name literally means “the big mound.” The word for mound is usually associated with graves or memorial monuments. In this case, it’s said that there was a 古墳 kofun ancient burial mound[iii] located in the area[iv]. Long time readers will know that in the Heian Period and Kamakura Period, local Kantō strongmen adopted the place names of their territories as family names to distinguish their particular branches of the old western noble families. The story goes that a certain provincial warlord of 豊嶋郡小石川村 Toshima-gun Koishikawa Mura Koishikawa Village, Toshima District adopted the name Ōtsuka. It’s not clear where they were based and the family’s pedigree and provenance is obscure[v], but at any rate, the name Ōtsuka stuck and the name 大塚村 Ōtsuka Mura Ōtsuka Village eventually appeared on a map in 1629[vi].

 

OTSUKA KOFUN

If there was a kofun at Ōtsuka it may be impossible to discover because many eastern kofun were so small compared to their western counterparts.

The concept of a “great mound” was not limited to this area. In fact, Ōtsuka is a very common place name all around Japan. There’s even a Paleolithic trash dump[vii] in Ibaraki Prefecture that bears the name Ōtsuka and a well-known kofun in Tōkyō’s Setagaya Ward that also bears the name. Because of this commonality, there are many families called Ōtsuka. In fact, it’s the 82nd most common name in Japan.

Fans of J-Pop may be familiar with the singer, 大塚愛 Ōtsuka Ai[viii]. She got a little negative attention when she released her 2004 album, Love Jam, which featured strawberry jelly splattered across her face and hair on the album cover. The album artwork got a lot of attention after a huge billboard was put up in Shibuya in the direction of 道玄坂 Dōgenzaka[ix], a hill that leads to Shibuya’s red light (famous for, yes, drinking & whoring, love hotels, and swinger bars). Passersby instantly connected the splattered “love jam” imagery with a genre of porn that had recently become mainstream – that is to say, bukkake.

love_jam

Ōtsuka Ai is a Japanese pop star.

 For those of you who appreciate a little blasphemy, I’m about to make a connection you probably never thought of. In 2002, the largest Japanese pornography company, Soft On Demand (SOD), released a video[x] starring one of the hottest actresses at the time, 堤さやか Tsutsumi Sayaka. The video in question jokingly suggested that the term bukkake derived from a quasi-religious term, 仏賭 bukkake, which means something like “gambling on Buddha” or “Buddha gambling.”[xi]

LOVE_JAM_DVD

Yeah, that’s pretty much bukkake…

Fuck, I lost my train of thought.

Oh, right. Buddhism.

gokoku-ji

Miraculously, Gokoku-ji is one of the few temples that survived the firebombing of Tōkyō.

So anyhoo, one of Tōkyō’s major temples is located in Ōtsuka. Its name is 護国寺 Gokoku-ji Gokoku Temple. The temple was built by decree of the 5th shōgun, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi and dedicated to his mother, 桂昌院 Keishō-in[xii]. The temple houses the grave of a certain English architect who launched a new era in aristocratic and state-related architecture in the post-Edo Period. His name was Josiah Conder and we’re gonna talk about him later in the article.

I’m gonna take a break to admire Sayaka’s brilliant corpus of work, and then I’ll meet you all at the next station[xiii].

TSUTSUMI SAYAKA

巣鴨
Sugamo

The most commonly touted origin of this place name is that because it was a wetland area, there were many 鴨 kamo geese living in the area. 巣 su means nest and so the idea goes that this area was a bunch of 鴨の巣 kamo no su goose nests. The problem is that the order of the kanji doesn’t quite work out. If the name were Kamosu (goose nest) instead of Sugamo (nest goose), this etymology would hold up. The fact of the matter is that this word is probably much older than the historical record, so it’s most likely 当て字 ateji kanji used for phonetic reasons rather than meaning[xiv]. A future article discussing the other possible origins of this place name is forthcoming, either immediately after this Yamanote Line Series or in the late summer.

TOGENUKI

The sign tell old people where to go…

Sugamo is usually famous for 2 things. First and foremost, it’s famous for old people. Old people loooooove this place. Secondly, it’s famous for drinking and whoring[xv].

Wait. What?

SUGAMO FUZOKU

An expat and Japanese friend of mine worked in Sugamo briefly. The amount of money they made weekly was crazy. Neither of them have any regrets.

Yeah, the area has a thriving sex industry. There’s not much to say about it because it is what it is. It’s not as big as what’s found in Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, or Minowa[xvi], but it is a very well-known destination for those looking for paid sexual adventures.

SUGAMO AKA PANTSU

Selling “red underwear” Japan’s finest, at that!

But what’s more noticeable is the sheer amount of senior citizens and the shops catering to them[xvii]. The most noticeable product being sold is 赤パンツ aka pantsu red underwear. In many Asian countries, red is an auspicious color thought to bring health and good fortune to anyone, but the elderly often need more good luck than most when it comes to health which make red underwear a funny and well-meaning present for aged loved ones. Also, there are a few shops specializing in 漢方 kanpō, traditional Chinese herbal medicine[xviii]. On top of all that, you can find a lot of great traditional foods in the area. I had soba at a restaurant in the area that was fantastic. They made the noodles by hand in the store window and blended different types of buckwheat from around Japan to achieve different tastes and textures[xix]. There are also shops specializing in Japanese sweets that downplay the sweetness – not that traditional J-sweets are sweet by western standards. But the idea is that old people lose their sense of taste, so eating subtle sweets with green tea is thought to exercise the mind and the taste buds[xx].

WAGASHI

So, just why are all these old people descending upon this area in droves? And why are all these shops catering to the elderly? The reason is simple, really. This particular niche market is an outgrowth of the presence of 高岩寺 Kōgan-ji Kōgan Temple which is home to a particular object of reverence, the とげぬき地蔵尊 Togenuki Jizō-son spirit who takes away your maladies. The traditional belief is that through some sort of sympathetic magic, if you wash the part of statue that corresponds to the ailing part of your body[xxi], the Jizō will absorb your pain and thus you will be cured.

Sugamo Jizo
Sugamo is crawling with old people and all of them stop by Kōgan-ji. This is truly a sight to see. And by all means, visit the temple and wash the statue. However, if you’re actually sick, see a doctor. Last I checked, statues don’t cure diseases or fix baldness[xxii].

Jussayin’

rikugien

Rikugi-en

駒込
Komagome

OK, so, yeah, I’ve written about Komagome in the past. And I’ll say right now that we don’t know the etymology of this place name for sure. It seems to be quite ancient and falls in line with other horse-related place names in the area. The Kantō area was traditionally famous for horse breeding in the Heian Period and earlier. Horse breeding is also closely associated with the rise of the samurai in the East[xxiii].

 

yanagisawa

Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, also known by his honorary court title, Matsudaira Tokinosuke.

There are quite a few reasons a history fan might want to explore Komagome. The first reason to come here is to visit 六義園 Rikugi-en, one of the few remaining daimyō gardens in Tōkyō. The garden was built by 柳沢吉保 Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, who was made lord of Kōfu Domain by the 5th shōgun, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi – the so-called “dog shōgun.”[xxiv] Yoshiyasu seems to have been a tastemaker of his day – an arbiter of elegance, if you will – but he was also a spiteful little prick hell bent on destroying the reputation of Tsunayoshi’s former lover. Oh, sorry. I forgot to mention that after the shōgun broke up with his old sidedick, 喜多見重政 Kitami Shigemasa, Yoshiyasu became the shōgun’s new favorite and got all sorts of new status and rank as a result. If you’ve ever been dumped and shit on by your ex and his/her new partner, you probably haven’t even had it this bad. Yoshiyasu set out to destroy Shigemasa[xxv].

 

furukawa teien.JPG

The Old Furukawa Gardens

Another reason to go to Komagome is to visit another garden called the 旧古川庭園 Kyū-Furugawa Teien Old Furugawa Gardens. This garden was the former property of a Japanese aristocrat whose name isn’t really important for this article[xxvi]. What is important is that the residence that still stands here today was built by a guy named Josiah Conder. Known as ジョサイア・コンドル Josaia Kondoru, but sometimes as コンドル暁英 Kondoru Kyōei in Japanese, he has come to known as the father of Japanese architecture. He was an Englishman who taught at the University of Tōkyō and built many prestigious buildings in Japan, including the 鹿鳴館 Rokumeikan, a party hall for elite Japanese to entertain foreign dignitaries. They could hobnob with foreign elite and learn about all things western while showing off how western they could be[xxvii].

conder kimono.jpg

Josiah Conder culturally appropriating the fuck out of a kimono. Oh wait, I almost forgot, cultural appropriation doesn’t exist. Whew.

The Rokumeikan was Conder’s magnum opus, but it was actually located quite far from here. That said, here in Komagome, Josiah built the western style residence of Meiji Era businessman 古河市兵衛 Furukawa Ichibei – hence the name Old Furukawa Gardens. To modern westerners, this house isn’t anything special. However, in 1917, just 6 years after the death of the Meiji Emperor, a western-style manor like this was still a rarity. Tucked away on a former daimyō residence, the average Tōkyōite would have been very unfamiliar with this architectural mode[xxviii]. The only people who set eyes upon this home before the 1950’s were top industrialists, diplomats, politicians, and military leaders.

Oh, and now you can go back to Ōtsuka Station to visit Gokoku-ji to visit his grave.

Awkward.

josiah conder grave.jpg

Grave of Josiah Conder. Yeah, it’s pretty much crap.

All of that stuff is cool, but if you ask me, there is a much cooler place to see. It’s totally obscure and admittedly it’s not much to see today, but it’s one of those places where you can play your Japanese history nerd card if you’ve actually been.

 

16476060739_ae8d9e1e71_z

I keep telling you people “There’s a little bit of Edo still remaining in Tokyo.You just have to know where to look and what you’re looking at.” This is as Edo as it gets.

So, yeah, if you ever make a friend from Komagome and you’re hell-bent on impressing them, you can try asking them about the Edo Period home of the Komagome Village Headman – which actually still exists today and is still owned by the same family[xxix]. It’s a private residence, so I don’t recommend ringing the doorbell or trying to open the gate[xxx]. The compound is walled off and – to the best of my knowledge – always closed to the public. But from the outside, you can see the original Edo Period gate and fence which are in excellent condition. This gives you a real firsthand view of what residences of samurai or high ranking commoners would have looked like at the time. In central Tōkyō, this is almost unheard of today. That said, I bet most residents of Komagome have no idea this place exists.

Further Reading:

TABATA STATION

Tabata Station – the highlight of Tabata

田端
Tabata

So we’ve been all over the place today, haven’t we? Something like 4 stations in just one article, right? Fuck, my head is spinning. Yet, here we are in a place most people have never heard of called Tabata.

Tabata is pretty much a no man’s land on the Yamanote Line. Its 商店街 shōtengai shopping street is a byproduct of the Shōwa Period, but on the surface, this neighborhood isn’t much more than a residential area built up during the post war years. However, it does have a distinctly Shōwa Era 下町 shitamachi low city feel.  An artist friend of mine lived here while he got his master’s degree in fine arts. I came over to his place for a birfday party once and that’s was my most in depth exposure to the area.

tabata shopping street.JPG

In the picture above you can see the plateau and field. This is the shopping street. Look at how much fun everyone is having.

The place name is ancient and is thought to mean something like “plateau on the edge of the fields.” There is a plateau and the area was rural until quite recently so, this etymology seems legit[xxxii]. In 1889 (Meiji 22), the Tōkyō University of Fine Arts was established in Ueno. This saw an influx of writers and artists to the surrounding areas. Tabata became particularly well known for a concentration of influential Meiji Era authors who lived in the newly developing area and it earned the nickname 文士村 Bunshi Mura Writers Village. Although the area isn’t a mecca for authors anymore, it’s still home to reasonably priced housing that appeals to graduate students of the Fine Arts University and artists trying to make a names for themselves.

Akutagawa Ryunosuke.jpg

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke – I’m an artist, bitch.

Unless you want to check out the topography to compare the elevations of the former plains and the plateau, I can’t think of any reason to ever come here[xxxiii]. However, if you’re really into Meiji Era Japanese literature, the 田端文士村記念館 Tabata Bunshi Mura Kinenkan Tabata Writers Village Museum is located near the station[xxxiv]. The museum features memorabilia related to 芥川龍之介 Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, the so-called Father of the Japanese Short Story. Ryūnosuke was a mover and shaker of the new Meiji Era literary movement. He combined Sino-Japanese traditions with western traditions. He was also suffered from some kind of trauma or severe depression and killed himself at age 35. He also had some pretty wild hair going on.

Further Reading:

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[i] And by many times, I’m including a few early mornings after drinking all night and immediately falling asleep on the Yamanote Line and just going around in circles for hours until waking up and realizing I was still on the train. Ahhhh, my first years in Japan – those were the days lol.
[ii] Usually defined as “Japanese style pubs,” but more drinking/eating establishment that focus on individual groups than an open free-for-all like western style pubs.
[iii] What’s a kofun? Click here to find out.
[iv] Where is this kofun located? Good question. I have no idea if its existence is confirmed.
[v] They are generally referred to as 小名 shōmyō minor feudal lords. The term is literally the opposite of daimyō: 小名 shōmyō minor name, 大名 daimyō major name.
[vi] This was in the early years of the rule of the 3rd shōgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu.
[vii] You can call it a shell mound (cuz it was full of discarded shells) or a midden.
[viii] She’s a great performer, and because of her use of double entendre and veiled references to sex, it’s not surprising that people made the connection between her poster and bukkake. Many are convinced it was a deliberate and calculated marketing decision. I do want to say that the album Love Jam features one of the great summer songs of Japan, 金魚花火 Kingyo Hanabi (Goldfish Fireworks). I love this song.
[ix] A place name that I haven’t covered yet. Sorry.
[x] The video was entitled ロリタザーメン Rorita Zāmen Lolita Semen and was apparently so popular that it was re-released in 2004. You can preview/buy this classic video here. Don’t ask how I know all of this.
[xi] This was a 100% pure fabrication on the part of the production company. Bukkake is actually a non-sexual term that refers “pouring onto something.” The famous example that is usually cited is the ubiquitous dish, ぶっ掛け饂飩 bukkake udon. When making this dish, you pour the broth on to the noodles in a bowl.
[xii] Keishō-in is the Buddhist name she took after retirement. Her actual name was 御玉 O-tama.
[xiii] By the way – and this is no joke, while looking for a pic of Tsutsumi Sayaka, I googled her name in Japanese a picture of the cover art for Ōtsuka Ai’s Love Jam came up. Apparently I’m not the only one making this connection. The only difference is I’m using etymology and history to masquerade as an educator of some sort lol.
[xiv] What’s ateji? Here you go. This article is constantly updated and recently it’s turned to dogshit. Don’t blame me for what you read, but in general used to be pretty good.
[xv] It’s famous for a third thing, Sugamo Prison, but was actually located in present day Ikebukuro. I’m not posting a link to the articles on Sugamo because I’m not you’re bitch. Just use the search function or google (it was in the previous article, btw).
[xvi] Minowa = Yoshiwara.
[xvii] It seems there’s a ピンサロ pinsaro pink salon (a blowjob shop) that caters to the fantasy of men who fancy getting blown by women in their 60’s and 70’s. Not my cup of tea, but definitely rocking the Sugamo image like a boss lol.
[xviii] Apparently, the testing and manufacture of Japanese kanpō is highly regulated, but I don’t trust it. If medical marijuana gets approved – which has proven uses, I might trust it. But if they won’t even take that step, then I’m just 100% suspicious of these leafy, bad-tasting concoctions.
[xix] The shop keep claimed the blends were developed in the Edo Period and Meiji Period to cater to the varying tastes of samurai from outer provinces stationed in Edo during sankin-kōtai duty. He said Edo’s soba didn’t taste good to the provincial samurai/merchants, but shops that blended exotic buckwheat strains appealed to both provincials and Edoites alike. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it may have a kernel of truth in it.
[xx] This clearly isn’t backed up by science, but it seems to make sense from a “keep your mind as active as possible for as long as you’re alive” standpoint.
[xxi] Note, I didn’t say “body part,” but “part of the body.” That’s because this is just a statue. Ain’t no real healing happening here.
[xxii] I’ve tested the baldness cure first hand. Sadly, didn’t work.
[xxiii] Early samurai were generally mounted warriors; however by the Edo Period horseback riding was restricted to the highest echelons of the samurai class.
[xxiv] Informed by his Buddhist principals, shōgun Tsunayoshi issued several decrees protecting living creatures beginning with dogs because he had been born in the Year of the Dog. If the stories are to be believed, huge kennels had to be built to house all of the stray dogs that began to overrun the city. Anyways, this earned him the nickname 犬公方 inu kubō the dog shōgun.
[xxv] You can get the whole story here.
[xxvi] His name was 陸奥宗光 Mutsu Munemitsu, if you care.
[xxvii] Here’s what Wiki has to say about the Rokumeikan.
[xxviii] Remember, most of the city was still more or less Edo – still a wooden city, but now with trains and trolleys.
[xxix] The family is called 高木 Takagi.
[xxx] Trespassing!
[xxxi] In their time, they were called 御雇ひ外國人 o-yatoi gaikokujin.
[xxxii] Some have suggested the place name is actually prehistoric. If that’s the case, we can never know the true origin of the place name.
[xxxiii] Besides my friend’s birfday party, the only time I ever came here was for a stupid one night stand. That was cool and all. Since it was on the Yamanote Line, it made it easy to get the fuck outta there and go home the next morning ASAP, if you know what I mean.
[xxxiv] Hopefully you can read Japanese literature in Japanese because this museum apparently has no English exhibitions.

Yamanote Line: Takadanobaba, Meijiro, & Ikebukuro

In Japanese History on May 24, 2016 at 3:10 am

高田馬場
Takada no Baba

untitled

Grave of Chā no Tsubone, concubine of Tokugawa Ieyasu, often referred to as Lady Takada.

Takada no Baba, or “Takadanobaba” as JR East likes to write it, was a quiet village called 戸塚村 Totsuka Mura Totsuka Village in the Edo Period. While this area was rustic (or suburban at best) at that time, today it’s a buzzing party town that caters to the students of 早稲田大学 Waseda Daigaku Waseda University[i]. As soon as you exit the station, you’ll find a sea of 居酒屋 izakaya Japanese style pubs and restaurants. But just a heads up about drinking in Takada no Baba: These are university students – most of them are lightweights under pressure to overdrink by their peers and 先輩 senpai upper-classmates. They can be loud. They can be obnoxious. They can be oblivious to everything because… they’re lightweights. They stumble around like zombies on the weekend. They pass out on the floors of restaurants. They walk zig-zag and side-puke on the street. They’re basically Japanese salarymen in training. It ain’t pretty.

waseda party school.jpg

Takadanobaba (or just Baba, as locals call it) in a nutshell.

The name Takada no Baba means “Horse Grounds of Takada Domain.” In the Edo Period, a 馬場 baba horse grounds was a spot, usually a long rectangular shaped spot, for practicing horsemanship and mounted martial arts. While mounted attacks with swords on bound bales of hay was one sort of training, the most interesting practice was a martial art called 流鏑馬 yabusame. This is mounted archery and it looks fucking bad ass. If you are in Japan and have a chance to watch yabusame, I highly recommend it.

As I mentioned earlier, the area was called Totsuka and that was the original name for the station, but it was rejected in favor of the more noble sounding Takada no Baba. Takada no Baba conjured up an image of the area’s connection with the daimyō and samurai class in general – a decidedly 山手 yamanote high city connotation. However, the location of the old horse grounds is not in the immediate station area. The city blocks preserve the shape of the horse grounds and can be found in 戸塚一丁目 Tostuska Icchōme 1st block of Totsuka near 甘泉園公園 Kansen’en Kōen Kansen’en Park, which was part of the 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence of the 清水家 Shimizu-ke Shimizu Clan of Satsuma Domain.

TAKADA NO BABA no BABA.jpg

If you compare the Edo Period maps with a modern map, you can see that the the shape of the horse grounds ⑦ is completely intact. I dare say the Shimizu compound (located to the right of the baba) is still intact. This is what I looooooove about Tōkyō!!! Edo is still here when you know what you’re looking at.

Long time readers may be scratching their heads. Why was Satsuma Domain’s lower residence located next to a horse ground named after Takada Domain (which was located in present day Niigata)? It’s purely coincidence. According to legend, the horse grounds were established in 1636 by the 3rd shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu to honor 茶阿局 Chā no Tsubone, the mother of 1st shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s 6th son. She either loved the area for relaxing in nature or she was a fan of mounted archery (probably the latter). When her and Ieyasu’s son became the daimyō of Takada Domain, she came to be addressed as 高田殿 Takada-dono Lady Takada[ii]. If this theory is correct, and it seems to make sense, the real meaning of the name Takada no Baba is something like the Chā no Tsubone (ie; Lady Takada) Memorial Horse Grounds.

Additional Reading:

rich assholes in tokyo.jpg

While most of Tokyo lives in economy class, the 1% live in Mejiro

目白
Mejiro

MEJIRO TEMPLE

Mejiro means “white eyes” as is commonly thought to be a reference to a Buddhist statue housed at 金乗院 Konjō-in, a nearby temple. The statue has white eyes, but this most definitely a reflection of the place name, not the origin of the place name. In my original article, I went into the etymology pretty thoroughly and so I only have a few things to say about the area today.

Honestly, I haven’t spent any time in Mejiro. In fact, if I ever went there, I really don’t remember. It’s an upscale, residential neighborhood and my image of the area is that if you don’t live there, there’s not much reason to go there. The station only has a single exit – a rare attribute for a train on the Yamanote Line.

aso taro can't read kanji.jpg

Think kanji is difficult? So does this guy… and he became Prime Minister!

The area is home to 学習院大学 Gakushūin Daigaku Gakushuin University, arguably the snobbiest university in Japan. Members of the imperial family, descendants of the former Tokugawa shōgun family, and 宮崎駿 Miyazaki Hayao grace their illustrious list of graduates. Then again, certified nutjobs like 三島由紀夫 Mishima Yukio, 麻生太郎 Asō Tarō, and 小野洋子 Ono Yōko also went here. Pedigree and wealth is the name of the game here. The lower residence of the Owari Tokugawa[iii] was located in this area has been converted into a planned community that takes advantage of the traditional aspects of the old 山手 yamanote high city. There’s a lot of greenery and privacy. Land ownership is encouraged[iv] over renting/buying high rise apartments in order to protect property values and give the residents a sense of security, tranquility, and – let’s face it – isolation.

Mejiro seems like the sorta place I’d like to walk through the streets just getting drunk and rowdy, yelling at people, doing coke, smoking cigarettes, pissing on buildings, and humping trees and cars just to make people feel uncomfortable[v]. Punk’s not dead.

Additional Reading:

ikiebukuro piss.png

Dude passed out shoes off in the foreground. Pay no attention to the old guy pissing on his own luggage in the background. This is Ikebukuro.

池袋
Ikebukuro

Today, we’ll finish with Ikebukuro.

God, where do I start? First keep in mind that the word 山手 yamanote means high city and used to refer to elite, high ground where samurai and feudal lords lived. But the meaning eventually came to mean areas west of the outer moat of the Imperial Palace (former Edo Castle). This shift in meaning pretty much rendered the terms yamanote and 下町 shitamachi low city (commoner districts) meaningless in many cases. On the surface, Ikebukuro seems to be living proof of this. But yeah, Ikebukuro has always been a lowland area, both geographically and metaphorically.

IWGP

Scene from an old drama called Ikebukuro West Gate Park.

Ikebukuro is essentially the Armpit of Tōkyō. A lot of people say Minami Senju is the Armpit, but at least Minami Senju has some deep history. Ikebukuro is crowded, smells awful, and excels at sucking. The area was countryside until the 1950’s and for history nerds, there’s no reason to visit this place that I can think of. The name Ikebukuro literally means “pond bag” but is actually a reference to the land between 2 bodies of water. This area was essentially a marsh or wetland and the original village built in the area was called 池袋村 Ikebukuro Mura Ikebukuro Village – the village between 2 lakes (probably used for rice farming).

埼玉 池袋 ださい

Stay classy, Ikebukuro.

Being a wetlands area, for a long time I thought that the only reason Ikebukuro was on the Yamanote Line was because it connects 新宿 Shinjuku and 大塚 Ōtsuka, which were both home to 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki palatial “lower residences” of daimyō. But upon closer inspection, it seems there was a concentration of 武家屋敷 buke yashiki samurai residences in the area. Even though it was rural and marshy, the presence of samurai families in a location west of Edo Castle qualify parts of Ikebukuro as yamanote in both the Edo Period and modern day definitions. But strictly speaking this area was not part of the shōgun’s capital. This would have been 武蔵国豊嶋郡 Musashi no Kuni Toshima-gun Toshima District, Musashi Province and it was pretty much rural until recently.

districts of Musashi Province

Districts of Musashi Province. Toshima District is the gray one on the northwestern most portion of Edo-Tōkyō Bay.

As I mentioned in the introductory article of this series, the Yamanote Line evolved out of an original train line connecting Shinagawa and Akabane (on the border of Tōkyō Metropolis and Saitama Prefecture).

In the 1950’s, to avoid overcrowding in central Tōkyō, the so-called 都心 toshin city center, development began in several 副都心 fuku-toshin sub-centers. Ikebukuro was one of these and later, so was 大宮 Ōmiya in Saitama. 2 trains provide direct access from Ōmiya to Ikebukuro which means it’s really easy for rural Saitama-folk to get access to the capital. Since the Bubble Years, Ikebukuro has come to be associated with Saitama. That is to say, Tōkyōites generally don’t have a good impression of Ikebukuro. The reason is simple: Saitama is to Tōkyō what New Jersey is to New York.

sunshine titty ikebukuro

Sunshine City is a multi-building shopping/entertainment complex built on the remains of Sugamo Prison (where WWII war criminals were kept). To my knowledge, nothing of the prison remains.

Sunshine City is the area’s main claim to fame. It’s a large shopping development that is one of the most architecturally bland structures in Tōkyō. It features, I dunno, a half-assed aquarium, a half-assed planetarium, and a half-assed museum of Ancient Asian History[vi]. There’s an observation deck where, on a clear day, you can take a picture of the boring, dirty, and smelly shopping area called Ikebukuro. Amazing, huh?

To Read About the Place’s Boring Etymology:

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[i] Waseda is a fairly prestigious school in Japan, but gained the image of a party school when it was rocked by a scandal in the early 2000’s. A student club was organizing huge parties executing coordinated rapes and gang rapes female attendees. Luckily, some of the organizers and participants were arrested and jailed, but who knows how many people got off free or how many other victims there are that have never come forward? It’s pretty fucking disgusting.
[ii] This is a reflection of a linguistic taboo in Pre-Modern Japan about referring directly to a person by name. This taboo is still evidenced in modern Japanese culture by a tendency to avoid words like “you” when referring to people you’re not close with. Names are OK with honorific suffixes like ~さん -san or ~さま -sama, but sometimes even the polite あなた anata you is avoided. Calling her Chā or even Chā no Tsubone (which is a title) would have been presumptuous.
[iii] Does Nagoya Castle ring a bell?
[iv] A very costly option in Tōkyō.
[v] For the record, while I do enjoy a drink now and then, I absolutely HATE smoking and I don’t do coke. In fact, I rarely even drink Coca-Cola, lololol. I prefer tea, thank you very much.
[vi] OK, full disclosure. I’ve never seen the aquarium, planetarium, or museum, but they sound a little lame. If you’ve been, let me know your impressions in the comments section.

Yamanote Line: Shin-Ōkubo

In Japanese History on May 12, 2016 at 5:52 pm

新大久保
Shin-Ōkubo

koiu eki na no da.jpg

こういう駅なんだなw

Welcome back to my series exploring Tōkyō’s famous Yamanote Line. So far we’ve visited 9 stations. That means we have 20 more stations to go![i]

Due to the nature of JapanThis!, one of the benefits of doing a series on loop train lines that go around the old city is that chances are I’ve already written about most of these places. I can give a few details here, point out an old article if you want more details, and move on to the next topic.

However, I’m sad to say that I haven’t yet covered 大久保 Ōkubo or its more famous cousin 新大久保 Shin-Ōkubo. It’s been put on the “to do list” for 2016, so I’ll give it an in depth exposé worthy of the area later. We’ll get into all the history then. I promise. But for today, we’re just going scratch the surface of the area immediately surrounding 新大久保駅 Shin-Ōkubo Eki, literally “New Ōkubo Station.”

Like other Japanese place names such as 中野 Nakano and 新中野 Shin-Nakano or 大阪 Ōsaka and 新大阪 Shin-Ōsaka, this 新~ shin- means “new” and is generally affixed to the names of bus stops and train stations to differentiate it from the original station. Yes, there is an Ōkubo Station that opened in 1895 (Meiji 28), but Shin-Ōkubo Station opened in 1914 (Taishō 3), ergo “New Ōkubo Station.”

There’s no history in this article. History geeks will have to wait until the official Shin-Ōkubo article comes out. Well, that’s not totally true, but…. you’ll see what I mean if you read to the end. I also think some people are going to get pissed off about some things I’m going to say.

korea town tokyo.jpg

You’ve spent some time learning Japanese and suddenly you’re presented with Hangul (Korean script) and you can’t read a word of it. No worries.

If I Get Off the Train at Ōkubo Station, What Can I Expect?

You can expect Korea Town.

k pop goods.jpg

Korea Town?

Did I stutter? Yes, Korea Town. There are quite a few areas in Tōkyō that could be considered Korea Towns, but the largest, most famous, and most deeply entrenched Korea Town is without a doubt Shin-Ōkubo.

jk relations.jpg

But I Thought Korea and Japan Hated Each Other…

I dunno, maybe their governments and some nationalistic fucksticks do, but open-minded and internationally-minded people in both countries generally feel a cultural bond[ii].  In fact, Korean food is extremely popular in Japan and Japanese food is extremely popular in Korea. But, while there are plenty of excellent Korean restaurants in Tōkyō, ground zero for all things Korean is Shin-Ōkubo[iii].

 

korean plastic surgery - possibly racist

Korea is famous for its widespread cultural acceptance (and some argue encouragement) of plastic surgery.

Where’d All These Korean Folks Come From?

When the Japanese Empire occupied 朝鮮 Chōsen Joseon (what is now modern South Korea and North Korea[iv]), many Koreans emigrated by force or by choice to Japan. However, after Tōkyō’s destruction by American firebombing raids at the end of WWII, many ethnic Korean families chose to stay and helped rebuild this section of Tōkyō and planted firm roots in the area. The result was a peculiarly Korean neighborhood that maintained a strong ethnic identity and generally manifested as a cluster of Korean restaurants, Korean speaking Japanese residents, Korean schools[v], and an access point to Korean media in the form of music, TV, and film.

kusanagi_kaiken

裸になって、何が悪い? It’s a timeless question…

When I first came to Japan in 2003, this was kind of a quiet area famous for Korean food – 삼겹살 samgyeopsal Korean BBQ, in particular[vi]. A few years later, there was a boom in Korean soft culture. Korean dramas, movies, and eventually pop music got huge in Japan. Restaurants got television spots and then Shin-Ōkubo became the place to go. For a time, it seemed like every other week, 草彅剛 Kusanagi Tsuyoshi, arguably one the most irritating members of the irritating boy band, SMAP, was on TV visiting restaurants in Shin-Ōkubo and giving his opinions about them. His Korean is apparently impeccable – he’s even interviewed a South Korean president – and every restaurant he gave a thumbs up to became an instant hot spot. The once sleepy Korea Town became one of the hottest spots for Tōkyōites who wanted to get as close as they could to Korea while they saved up to buy airplane tickets for the 2 hour flight to go to Real Korea. Restaurants that once had people on the street trying to drag in customers, now had 1-2 hour waiting lists and no reservation policies[vii]. The average Japanese person on the street, especially the average middle aged woman, was in love with Korea. Never mind what the asshole politicians were saying, the average person was enamored with Korea. Korean language schools were booming. Korean models, idols, and even history became a big thing here.

육개장

육개장 (Yukgaejang) is one of the most delicious soups in the world. High 5, Korea!

 

Trends are trends. Bubbles are bubbles. And politics, nationalism, and buffoonery run rampant all over this fine planet of ours. Korea was all the rage in Japan. That is until it wasn’t.

More precisely, until conservative agitators in Korea started playing the victim card and pointed at a contested territory – more like a quickly eroding cluster of rocks in the ocean, actually – bringing up an old claim that these “islands” were Korean and Japan was trying to hold on to its empire by claiming these “islands.”[viii] And I can’t blame Korea only. As soon as Korea started bitching, the conservatives in Japan’s government also started bitching.

abe shinzo 魚顔.jpg

魚顔 (sakana-gao) “fish face” is a apparently a requirement for Japanese parliament. That and having  a war criminal grandfather.

I’m keeping this territory dispute minimal because it’s super fucking boring. However, these grumblings happened around the same time China was grumbling about another cluster of contested rocks in the ocean[ix]. Both of these issues came up a lot in the mainstream Japanese news and the whole China/Korea/Japan bickering about shit that happened before most people born in Asia ever lived reached fever pitch. China sucks at exporting soft culture because, well, it’s China and it’s better at forging and plagiarizing than innovation. Korea, on the other hand, has a total cottage industry – learned from Japan – centered on pop culture, music, and visual media. In short, Japanese people aren’t interested in Chinese soft culture, but they couldn’t get enough Korean soft culture. This meant that when the territorial disputes flared up again, many people in Japan felt betrayed by Korea or became disinvested in Korean pop culture. Up to this point, many people had looked the other way while anti-Japanese conservatives from Korea were pushing to change the name of the Sea of Japan to the East Sea[x]. But that’s just one example.

liancourt.jpg

The Liancourt Rocks, as you can see, are just a cluster of stupid rocks.

It’s debatable, but I’d argue that the tipping point came when a certain South Korean soccer player named 박종우 Park Jong-woo got cocky during the 2012 Olympics and made a political statement violating Olympic rules by holding up a banner that basically said “The Liancourt Islands are Korean.” Park’s actions didn’t cause the Korea Town Boom to come crashing down, but it happened at a time when the political climate among Japan, Korea, and China were spiraling down, down, down. The Korean soft culture bubble had probably already burst, but this soccer player’s irresponsible behavior on a truly international stage and in direct conflict with the Olympics’ message of global peace and fair competition wasn’t lost on Japanese consumers. Consumers voted with their wallets.

korea nationalism soccer stupid.jpg

Meaningless rocks in the ocean. I’m all about that! (I also lost my shirt)

At the peak of the boom, K-Pop idols were releasing Korean and Japanese language editions. Korean performers weren’t just touring Japan regularly; they were participating in K-Pop festivals that brought all of the top Korean groups together in elaborate showcases. These days, only a handful of groups produce Japanese language editions – there isn’t any demand for them anymore. Korean TV dramas, originally fodder for lonely Japanese housewives and spinsters but later the preferred genre for females of all ages, have once again become a niche style associated with lonely women in their 30’s-40’s.

Thanks For All the Racism, But What Does This Have To Do With Shin-Ōkubo?!

Right, so let’s reframe everything I’ve told you because I don’t want people to finish reading this article and think, “Goddammit, Asia is fucking racist as fuck[xi].” I also don’t want you to think that Japan and Korea (and China, for that matter) are sworn enemies with fickle and petty feelings about each other[xii]. Governments are to blame. Media is to blame. And yeah, some individuals are to blame. The thing that I want to point out is that, Japan fully embraced Korean pop culture to such an extent that Korean record labels and production companies were customizing and localizing everything with Japan as a priority. Some K-Pop idol groups like 2NE1, were being promoted by Korean media as the next big global music phenomenon. Korea was huuuuuuuge for a few years, not only in Japan – but Japan was a portal from which K soft culture spilled over to the west like a metaphorical retweet. And in those years, getting into a good restaurant in Shin-Ōkubo on a weekend was a struggle.

I like some K-Pop, but I can get that stuff online. I also love Korean food, but that’s something I can’t download. When the bubble burst, Korea Town became accessible again. Shin-Ōkubo started to become cool again – old school cool. I wouldn’t have recommended this neighborhood 5 years ago, but I think it’s safe for me to say it’s worth checking out again these days.

 

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[i] Actually, by 2020, there will be 30 stations. I’ll create a place marker article so we can discuss that when it happens.
[ii] Any animosity between the 2 countries tends to do with history as Japan took Korea and made it part of the 大日本帝国 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Empire of Japan. Easy to see why Korea may have some animosity.
[iii] But here’s a little secret for those of you who actually read the footnotes. The Embassy of South Korea is located in Minami Azabu and there is a small Korean supermarket and restaurant there that is famous for being authentic to the point of being boring to Koreans because it’s so authentic. Haven’t tried myself, but I’ve seen it and, yeah, it looks legit.
[iv] In Japanese, North Korea is called 北朝鮮 Kita Chōsen North Joseon using the old name, while South Korea is called 韓国 Kankoku, these reflect the names each modern country uses for itself.  Neither country thinks of itself as “North Korea” or “South Korea” – rather they are just the real Korea and the other is a poseur. North Korea uses the old name (which Japan also uses), 조선 Chosŏn (Chōsen in Japanese, Romanized as Joseon). South Korea uses 한국 Hanguk (Kankoku in Japanese, Romanized the same way).
[v] Including some with North Korean leanings.
[vi] Samgyeopsal is essentially 焼肉 yaki niku grilled meat, but Korean style. There’s some debate about whether samgyeopsal and yaki niku are the same thing. Personally, I don’t care. They’re both yummy and the Japanese version is clearly influenced by the Korean style, but it’s definitely not dependent on it.
[vii] Unless you booked a month or more in advance!
[viii] These useless, crappy sea rocks are called the Liancourt Rocks in English, 竹島 Takeshima Bamboo Islands in Japanese, and 독도 Dokdo Isolated Islands in Korean. In case I haven’t be clear enough, let me reiterate these are just a bunch of stupid rocks.
[ix] These being another cluster of stupid rocks claimed by not only Japan and China, but also Taiwan. Taiwan itself being claimed by China while claiming itself as independent.  The islands are called the 尖閣諸島 Senkaku Shotō Senkaku Islands in Japanese, 钓鱼岛及其附属岛屿 Diàoyúdǎo jí qí fùshǔ dǎoyǔ in China, and 釣魚台列嶼 Diàoyútái liè yǔ in Taiwan. They have an English name, the Pinnacle Islands, but most English maps label them with the Japanese name, the Senkaku Islands.
[x] Essentially, a move to theoretically emasculate Japan in Asia. The logic is that Japan is an island east of the Asian continent and not part of Asia. Admittedly, some conservative Japanese don’t consider Japan part of Asia (and those people tend to use “Asia” as a derogative term). But let’s be honest, Korean Konservatives just wants to re-define the water between Korea and Japan as the East Sea to emphasize East of Asia = East of Korea and China and 100% not Japan.
[xi] Sure, there are some racists in Asia. There are racists everywhere, unfortunately. Asia isn’t unique in this sense.
[xii] This argument could be made lol. But I think it’s too simple.

Yamanote Line: Harajuku, Yoyogi, & Shinjuku

In Japanese History on May 10, 2016 at 4:54 am

yamanote line new train

Welcome back to my ongoing series exploring Tōkyō’s Yamanote Line. We’re pretty much in one of the most important stretches of the loop. We’ve just been to Ebisu and Shibuya and we’re bound for Shinjuku.

“So, why are you cramming 3 train stations into 1 article?” you ask. That’s a good question. The reason is this: I have a pretty solid article from back in the day on Yoyogi and recently I’ve written about both Shinjuku and Harajuku. All three articles contain the historical and etymological info you’ll need if you want to dig deeper. Since this article is about viewing Tōkyō via the Yamanote Line, I’m going go light on the history and focus on my impressions of these areas.

Read About These Areas in Detail:

takeshita street.jpg

原宿
Harajuku

Harajuku is one of the most famous neighborhoods in Tōkyō. The name is a reference to an ancient relay station where messengers could change horses in what was once one of the most remote parts of Japan. But for the last 30 some odd years, Harajuku has been a sort of ground zero for Japanese fashion. Tōkyō fashion is a serpentine ghost that haunts a certain space for a while and then whisks itself away to a new shelter where it settles or reinvents itself. This means that Harajuku’s flame doesn’t burn as bright as it once did, but the area is still very much associated with shopping and fashion.

The station gives access to such iconic spots as:

  • Meiji Jingū (shrine dedicated to the Meiji Emperor[i])
  • Takeshita Dōri (an ally of stylish clothing boutiques)
  • Omotesandō Hills (a stylish shopping mall on ‘roids)
  • Yoyogi Park (one of Tōkyō big 3 “party parks[ii])

meiji jingu.jpg

Long time readers of JapanThis! know that I’m not the biggest fan of the imperial family or the Meiji Coup in general. That said, 明治神宮 Meiji Jingū (which means “Meiji Shrine”) is something you should check out at least once.

Yoyogi Park is a great park and hosts a variety of events around the year. It attracts a bohemian crowd and, well, it’s just a fun park. It’s super crowded on holidays and weekends, but so are Tōkyō’s other huge parks on major train lines.

Further reading:

yoyogi park.JPG

代々木
Yoyogi

Yoyogi is most famous for 代々木公園 Yoyogi Kōen Yoyogi Park which I mentioned earlier. The park is a pretty awesome place to chill out in the summer and fall, but because it always draws a rather bohemian crowd. It’s particularly fun in the spring for 花見 hamami cherry blossom viewing, but the pathways around the park are nice for people wanting to go for a stroll or even jog. When my friend and author Ashim Shanker got accepted to Harvard, we chose Yoyogi Park as the place to catch up over a can of beer and say goodbye before he returned to the US to make something of himself[iii]. We’d hung out in the park a few times back in the day when we were coworkers, so it only seemed natural. I guess what I’m saying is that great parks make great memories.

Anyhoo, the park itself is located on a plateau where some daimyō, notably the 井伊家 Ii-ke Ii clan had their 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence (ie; suburban palace). The name literally means “Generations of Trees” and most likely refers to a forest that existed here in the past. Interestingly, on the grounds of Meiji Jingū, there is a tree called the 代々木村ノ世々木 Yoyogi Mura no Yoyogi Yoyogi Village’s Generations Old Tree which marks the spot of Utagawa Hiroshige’s famous 浮世絵 ukiyo-e painting of a tree in the area. Few people know of this spot, but it’s there.

past_and_present_01.jpg

Dude, I Just Remembered…

All of this talk of Yoyogi Park, just reminded me! The best access point to Yoyogi Park is not by Yoyogi Station, it’s by Harajuku Station which is located at the official entrance of the park. So, if you want to visit Yoyogi Park, go to Harajuku Station. I repeat: If you want to go to Yoyogi Park, go to Harajuku Station, not Yoyogi Station.

Why? Well, because other than the park, I’m not sure what else to say about the Yoyogi Station area. It’s just a bunch of companies, restaurants, and convenience stores. You’ll also have to walk quite a distance to get to the park from here because your friends are probably waiting to meet you at Harajuku Station.

Related articles:

shinjuku kabukicho

Shinjuku™

新宿
Shinjuku

If I had a $1.00 Patreon donation for every time I mentioned Shinjuku, I think I could quit my day job. Unfortunately, that’s not the case so I scrape by and stay up late at night pondering how you can explore Tōkyō via the Yamanote Line lol.

Anyways, Shinjuku is a huge business district, a 都心 toshin city center, if you will. It was originally a post town for travelers going in and out of the city. Much like its modern incarnation, the old post town was a notorious destination for those hell-bent on drinking and whoring. It’s also the capital of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis.

That’s all I’m going to say about Shinjuku because if you want to know more, check out my most recent and fairly definitive article on the subject below. Peace out!

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Shinjuku:

 

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[i] And his wife, 昭憲皇太后 Shōken Kōtaigō, usually translated as consort, empress consort, empress or dowager. Without getting into the details of the title kōtaigō, which is peculiar to the imperial family, there are a few reasons why these other words are preferable to “wife.” She was married to the 天皇 tennō emperor, but she did not share any of his political power. If the emperor died, she could not finish out his reign until her death (as is the case in England). Just as the shōguns and daimyō had concubines to ensure hereditary succession of male bloodlines, the emperors did too. Shōken was actually barren and all 15 children of the Meiji Emperor were born by concubines. So, yeah, it’s easiest to just say she was his wife, but these other titles get thrown around to better describe her actual position in Japanese society and in the imperial court.
[ii] The other 2 being Inokashira Park and Ueno Park.
[iii] Meanwhile, I’m stuck here just writing this trainwreck of a blog lol.

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