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Archive for the ‘Japanese Shrines & Temples’ Category

What does Inaricho mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on November 28, 2019 at 3:28 am

(Inari town)

inaricho station

Let’s give a hearty thanks to reader Will on fire who suggested this topic on Twitter. You should follow him and if you don’t already follow me, you should. I share lots of Japan-related news, pix, and just vent from time to time. It’s good fun[i]. Also, Twitter and Facebook are great ways to suggest new place names that you’re curious about. Anyhoo, let’s get into it, shall we?

Here’s the original post:

Where is Inarichō?

OK. So, let’s do this. Anyone who’s ever taken the 銀座線 Ginza-sen Ginza Line to 上野 Ueno Ueno or 浅草 Asakusa Asakusa has passed by 稲荷町駅 Inarichō Eki Inarichō Station. With Asakusa becoming an ever-increasing tourist trap[ii], chances are high that most people who visit 東京 Tōkyō will pass by here, though chances of them getting off the train are slim. In general, old timers might refer to this area as 下谷 Shitaya which literally means “the lower valley.”[iii] However, these days Inarichō is located in 台東区 Taitō-ku Taitō Ward, an area famous for its traditional 下町 shitamachi low city vibe[iv].

Further Reading:

inaricho station ginza line.jpg

The Ginza Line stopping at Inaricho Station

Let’s Look at the Kanji

Inari, the primary rice deity

machi, chō
town, city;


The origin of this place name is pretty basic. It’s named after a local 稲荷神社 Inari jinja Inari shrine. As I mentioned before, the old timers may call this area Shitaya. This term refers to the areas that lie beneath 上野山 Ueno Yama the Ueno Plateau – the low city areas of 浅草 Asakusa Asakusa, 本所 Honjo Honjo, and 深川 Fukagawa Fukagawa. To this day, these areas are famous for their non-fancy, traditional atmospheres.

And like I said, there was an ancient Inari shrine in the area. When a train station first opened here in 1927, they chose the name Inarichō “Inari Town” because this particular neighborhood was historically known by that name – the shrine being the area’s only claim to fame. That’s the long story short[v].

shitaya shrine.jpg

There’s Always More to the Story

The shrine that started the whole thing still exists and is called 下谷神社 Shitaya Jinja Shitaya Shrine and according to their records it was established in 730 by what were basically regional tax collectors. They collected rice tax on behalf of the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in 京都 Kyōto Kyōto[vi]. At this time, eastern Japan was barely under the control of the imperial court. The court’s legend says that a certain samurai warlord named 平将門 Taira no Masakado Taira no Masakado decided to call himself “Emperor of the East.” Historical records point more at regional territorial disputes, but Masakado became a bit of a folk hero in Edo as an easterner who stuck it to the man.

taira no masakado painting

Anyhoo, depending on how you slice up the dates, Masakado’s unsuccessful uprising came to an end when he was unceremoniously beheaded in 940[vii]. Shrine records say that one year before, in 939, a certain 藤原秀郷 Fujiwara no Hidesato Fujiwara no Hidesato rebuilt the shrine complex to pray for the defeat of Masakado because he was a dick like that. Religion is dumb but praying for someone’s death is pretty gross. As a result of his defeat, Taira no Masakado became a symbol of eastern pride, especially in Edo, while Hidesato came to be seen as a toadie of the distant and rarified court in the west. However, Masakado is still famous throughout the country, while Hidesato is a footnote in history books. The fact that he gets a paragraph on JapanThis! is probably the most attention he’s gotten in a thousand years. Yeah, fuck that guy. I’m #TeamMasakado all day long, baby.

And for those of you who follow Japanese baseball, the east/west rivalry pre-dates the 東京ジャイアンツ Tōkyō Jaiantsu Tōkyō Giants and 阪神タイガース Hanshin Taigāsu Hanshin Tigers[viii] by more than a thousand years. Masakado’s uprising wasn’t the beginning, but it was definitely an incident in which eastern Japan, and Edo in particular, finally grew a pair and realized they could be contenders in a country controlled nominally by a bunch of snooty aristocrats in Kyōto who claimed to be the descendants of 神 kami deities, rather than samurai bad asses from the hinterland. But, just to set the record straight, here at Japan this we know that Edo-Tōkyō is cooler. Always has been. Always will be[ix].

Further Reading:

rice plants.jpg

Inari, God of Rice

So, the etymology of Inarichō is very straightforward. Shrine to Inari. Station gets a name. All good. So, who is Inari? Longtime readers probably already know this, but if you’re new to JapanThis! or want a refresher, I’ll give a quick breakdown.

On the most basic level, 稲荷神 Inari no Kami[x] Inari is the 神 kami deity of rice production. His[xi] name is made of two characters 稲 ine/ina rice and 荷 ri something you carry. The kanji clearly imply “rice harvest.”[xii] When the cult of Inari began isn’t known, but we can assume it dates back well into prehistory[xiii]. Rice fields take a lot of time and manpower to build[xiv]. Rice represents food. Surplus rice means money. Large scale rice production requires protection and is a symbol of status because in a world of haves and have nots, the haves can feed more loyal subjects than their neighbors.

rice paddy japan

Hopefully, you can see where this is going. By the time we get to 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai the Warring States Period[xv], you have samurai warlords all around the country making all kinds of territory grabs to control agricultural production (read: money and power). An underlying religious component is that since ancient times, powerful clans often venerated Inari for profitable harvests. The Warring States 大名 daimyō feudal lords often adopted their local Inari as a tutelary kami.

In the Edo Period (1600-1868), when the shōgun’s capital was in… umm… Edo, hence the name, an institution called 参勤交代 sankin kōtai alternate attendance was established. This required the various daimyō to maintain palaces in Edo to take part in the shōgun’s government. Most of them, through a process called 分霊 bunrei splitting a kami, would re-enshrine their local Inari in Edo. Because the area presumably had thousands of Inari shrines to begin with, the addition of new Inari shrines by more than 200 daimyō during the Edo Period, this particular kami became the most recognizable deity in the capital and probably all of Japan[xvi]. I’ve said this many times in many articles, the Edoites had a proverb, 伊勢屋、稲荷に、犬の糞 Iseya, Inari ni, inu no fun which essentially means “you can’t go anywhere in Edo without seeing shops named Iseya, Inari shrines, and dog shit.” To this day, you can still find shops called Iseya everywhere – maybe as many or more Inari shrines. Dog shit… not so much. And, for those of you who are fans of spatial anthropology, know that when you see free-standing Inari shrines in Tōkyō, there’s a good chance you’ve arrived at a former daimyō’s palace.

Further Reading:


fushimi inari taisha kyoto

Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine in Kyoto

Inari and Foxes

Anyone who has visited 伏見稲荷大社 Fushimi Inari Taisha Fushimi Grand Shrine in 京都 Kyōto Kyōto knows exactly what to expect of an Inari shrine. In fact, if the image of this shrine isn’t burned into your brain, you need to learn a little more about Japan. No shame, though. We all start somewhere. And so, while a vermilion 鳥居 torii gate is common[xvii], the most striking feature is the shrine being flanked by two semi-tame 狐 kitsune foxes, often holding objects in their mouths, such as scrolls, toy balls, or jewels.

inari kitsune.jpg

The association of Inari with foxes is strong, but the origins are unclear. Obviously, in the Japanese countryside, you’d probably find foxes near rice fields. But as Shintō and Buddhist teachings aren’t very dogmatic or standardized between sects and regions, the link between Inari and foxes is not set in stone – although Inari shrines without fox guardians are almost unheard of. Most people think Inari is a fox, or at least the avatar of Inari is a fox. Others believe foxes are merely emissaries of Inari, as the kami doesn’t possess a physical body. I personally don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer to why foxes are associated with Inari other than the fact that you find foxes in the countryside. I tend to think that foxes are messengers of Inari and not Inari himself[xviii]. That said, Inari and foxes – white foxes specifically – are inextricably tied together.

ginza line 1927

Ginza Line in 1927, somewhere between Asakusa and Ueno, which means there’s a 50/50 chance this is Inaricho Station.

Inarichō Station

Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, Inarichō is a station name. Despite the area being known by locals as Inari-chō, it’s not an official postal address. The neighborhood is located in 台東区東上野三丁目に Taitō-ku Higashi Ueno 3-chōme 3rd block of East Ueno, Taitō Ward. Only the station name preserves this traditional appellation.

In 1927, 東京地下鉄道 Tōkyō Chikatetsudō the company that would become today’s 東京メトロ Tōkyō Metoro Tōkyō Metro that we all know and love opened 稲荷町駅 Inarichō Eki Inarichō Station. Even though it’s gone under many renovations over the years, the station is pretty much the same one that we got in the 1920’s for the 銀座線 Ginza-sen Ginza Line. Essentially an unofficial local nickname based on an Inari shrine in former Shitaya Ward, which is now Taitō Ward birthed a train station name. It could have faded into obscurity, but it didn’t. The train station preserves that legacy.

shitaya shrine entrance.jpg

Entrance to Shitaya Shrine

In Conclusion

Sadly, the etymology of Inarichō is not particularly exciting. But I hope long time readers enjoyed the reiteration of who Inari is and I hope knew readers learned something knew and useful. Coincidentally, I spent the evening tonight at a fashionable tea café called Inari Tea in 恵比寿 Ebisu Ebisu[xix]. It’s nowhere near Inarichō Station, but as Inari shrines are everywhere, it’s impossible to avoid this kind of reference to the auspicious rice god. Inari is a super common place name, so if you see an area named after Inari, I think you can assume its named after the rice god or is at least referencing it. And why not? White foxes are super cute!

Further Reading:


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Explore Edo-Tōkyō With Me Japan This Guided Tours
(It’s not for tourists, it’s for history nerds!)


[i] By the way, iTunes forced my computer to reboot and MS Word didn’t save a good 20-30% of the original article. So I apologize for this being so brief. There was actually a lot more to say, but computers suck. Or at least my computer sucks.
[ii] Still worth a visit, mind you.
[iii] And believe me, we’ll be talking about that later.
[iv] This may be a topic for another day, but Taitō Ward is comprised of former 下谷区 Shitaya-ku Shitaya Ward and 浅草区 Asakusa-ku Asakusa Ward. However, the name Shitaya is still used casually by locals for the lowlands in Taitō Ward, but only appears officially in the block names (eg; 下谷一丁目 Shitaya Icchōme 1st Block, Shitaya and so on).
[v] It’s important to remember that today Inarichō is not a postal address, it’s only a station name. Today this area is 東上野三丁目 Higashi Ueno San-chōme 3rd Block of East Ueno. That said, it used to be a place name.
[vi] More about that in a moment.
[vii] OK, I made up the “unceremoniously” part. The imperial court went to great lengths to put down Masakado’s rebellion and… I don’t know… there might have been some “ceremony” surrounding his execution. Or maybe he died in battle and was beheaded ex post facto. We don’t really know.
[viii] If you don’t follow Japanese baseball, this has traditionally been the biggest rivalry. Basically Tōkyō vs. those losers in Ōsaka.
[ix] And yes, I’m shit posting. If you don’t like it, go read that other website about Ōsaka and Kyōto place names. Oh, riiiiiiight….
[x] Also read as Inarishin. Also known by other names like 稲荷大明神 Inari Daimyōjin. In common speech this kami or his shrines can be referred to as 御稲荷様 o-Inari-sama or more casually 御稲荷さん o-Inari-san.
[xi] Actually, Inari’s gender is somewhat ambiguous. Unimportant might be a better way to think of it.
[xii] Though, it should be known that different kanji were used throughout history, but most of them did include a reference to rice. Many historians (I don’t know about linguists), seem to think the name derives from 稲成 ine-nari becoming rice, hence “rice growing.” I’d like to speak to a Japanese diachronic linguist about that one, though. Not sure if I believe it.
[xiii] Just a reminder, “prehistory” means “before written documents.”
[xiv] The kanji 男 otoko man is actually made of two characters rice paddy and power. This doesn’t refer to the manpower required to build rice paddies, rather the power acquired by controlling rice paddies and the power required to protect them.
[xv] Sengoku Period on Samurai Archives.
[xvi] But make no mistake about it. The cult of Inari was pervasive. It had been popular since time immemorial.
[xvii] Non-vermilion gates also exist.
[xviii] But whatever. We’re talking about religion. All of this is made up bullshit anyways lol.
[xix] If you know your Japanese beers, you know YEBISU. Same thing.

What does Harajuku mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples, Travel in Japan on April 7, 2016 at 3:01 pm

(first post town, more at “rest spot on the plain”)

harajuku stupid

Let this image sink in for a minute.

I get emails about the blog. Not a shitload, but I get them from time to time. However, it’s rare that I get blindsided by an email.

That said, I love getting blindsided by emails, so let’s check this out.

I recently moved to Japan and I’m living in Yoyogi. I spend a lot of time in Harajuku. Because I’m studying Japanese now I’m interested in the kanji for Shinjuku and Harajuku. You’re article on Shinjuku was amazeballs and it got me thinking. But I can only find information on Yoyogi and Shinjuku. I searched your website and can’t find anything about Harajuku. Do you have a plan to write about Harajuku? Love the blog. Looking forward to your next article!

I was outraged! I must’ve written about Harajuku 100 thousand times at least.

Well, OK, not 100 thousand times, but I know I’ve written about Harajuku at least 100 times. And I set out to prove this reader wrong, goddammit.


But She was 100% Correct

I searched my own site like crazy, convinced that I’d covered the subject before. After all, it’s such a simple one; I knew I had to have written about it! But after a good 15 minutes of scavenging my own work for a single article about Harajuku, I realized that I’ve mentioned Harajuku and the surrounding areas many times, but I’ve actually never written about the etymology of Harajuku itself.

Dear reader, I stand corrected, and this glaring omission is going to be remedied today – right freaking now. Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention[i].

As for some related articles, you might want to check later:


Japanese vs English google seach

Your image of Harajuku probably depends on your ethnicity, culture, and language. The image of the left was the first image that came up on a Google image search in Japanese. The image on the right is the first image that came up when I searched in English.


First Let’s Look at the Kanji

hara, gen

origin, source, beginning; field, plain

shuku/juku, yado

inn, post town

At first glance the word 原宿 Harajuku looks like it means “first post town,” but its actual etymology is “post town on the plains.” You’ll see what I mean in a minute.

Like many place names in the Kantō area, we don’t get a lot of solid information about this place until the Kamakura Period[ii]. Prior to this period elite culture had flourished in Kyōto and western Japan under the imperial court. Kantō cities like Kamakura or (god forbid) Edo[iii], were nothing before the rise of samurai culture in the East under the 源氏 Genji Minamoto clan[iv]. With their rise in the East, came a rise in literacy in the East and much better record keeping.

harajuku station taisho period.jpg

Harajuku Station in the Taishō Period (1920’s), when it was brand spankin’ new.

What Little We Know

It’s said that the 鎌倉街道 Kamakura Kaidō Kamakura Highway going from 相模国 Sagami no Kuni Sagami Province[v] to 大州 Ōshū (roughly modern 岩手県 Iwate-ken Iwate Prefecture) had a post town in the area. But, if you’ve read my article about Shinjuku, don’t get any big ideas. This “town” wasn’t much more than a scattershot collection of farms just barely subsiding on their (luckily) fertile land. Until quite recently, this was the boondocks.

Specifically, it seems to have been a 宿駅 shukueki relay station[vi] for horses. The Kantō area was famous since time immemorial for horse rearing. The highlands near modern Harajuku seem to have been horse grazing areas in the 11th Century. The area was referred to as a 原 hara field/meadow, so 原宿 Harajuku literally meant “field inn.”

But I want to emphasize that it was basically just a horse relay station. This wasn’t a place to eat, sleep, take a bath, and get your dick wet. For the casual traveler in this area, you were lucky to find a little shelter from the elements and a clean dirt floor to sleep on. There wasn’t even a proper village here for most of its existence.


Minamoto no Yoshiie was held up as the paragon of samurai values by Minamoto no Yoritomo, founder of the first shōgunate. The family’s reverence of his ideals and beliefs (true or not) came to permeate all of samurai culture. As a result, he’s one of those mysterious people who affected Japanese culture in a way that would have blown his mind if he could rise from the dead and read about himself on the internet today.

I mentioned the rise of the Minamoto clan in the east, and usually we talk about 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo the first Kamakura shōgun. But today we’ll talk about an earlier family member, 源義家 Minamoto no Yoshiie also known as Hachimantarō.[vii] During the 後三年合戦 Gosannen Kassen Gosannen War[viii] which was fought in the 1080’s, Yoshiie set up a camp in this area. Today this day in 神宮前2丁目 Jingūmae Ni-chōme 2nd block of Jingūmae there is a hill called 勢揃坂 Seizoroi-zaka which means “hill where troops are mustered.” The hill is also known as 源氏坂 Genji-zaka Genji Hill – Genji, of course meaning “the Minamoto clan” (but you already knew that).


The hill isn’t much to look at today, but if you do a Google image search in Japanese it’s mostly pictures of amazing looking food. I’m gonna follow up on this.

In the Edo Period, the high grounds were home to daimyō residences and high ranking samurai, while the sides of the hills went to low ranking samurai. The lowlands were fields for growing rice and other types of farming. Keep in mind, this area was on the outskirts of the shōgun’s capital. There really wasn’t much action out here at all.


Farmers cleaning off rice in the area. Why is Mt. Fuji so prominent? Because there was NOTHING in this area in the Edo Period.

So What is Harajuku Today?

Today, Harajuku is kind of a cultural clusterfuck. 15-20 years ago, the bridge leading from 原宿駅 Harajuku Eki Harajuku Station to 代々木公園 Yoyogi Kōen Yoyogi Park (in front of  明治神宮 Meiji Jingū Meiji Shrine) was the spot that saw コスプレー kosuprē cosplay evolve from a hobby to a kind of freaky anime-based exhibitionism[ix]. Photographers, tourists, and foreign gamers/anime fans began descending upon the area to experience Japanese cosplay firsthand or even try to participate in the emerging cosplay culture. As cosplay became more mainstream and otaku culture changed, the Japanese レイヤーreiyā ‘layers (slang for cosplayers) disappeared from Harajuku and “the bridge” came to be populated by foreigners copying a 15 year old, outdated practice. The police cracked down on the crowds of foreign cosplayers, but sometimes you can still see a few foreigners hanging out posing for pictures.

Harajuku is also known as a kind of hair salon mecca. In addition to famous hair salons there are also many small boutique shops. The area was traditionally famous for its street fashion, but Gwen Stefani made the area stupid and to the best of my knowledge these days it’s mostly tourists (both international and from the Japanese countryside).

harajuku station today.jpg

Harajuku Station today. Hasn’t changed at much.

Architecturally speaking, Harajuku Station is interesting because the building dates back to 1901 and it looks like a typical station of the time. Unfortunately, at the time it was build this area was pretty undeveloped and the station can barely handle the amount of traffic it gets. It’s just wall to wall people on the weekends and national holidays. Another interesting aspect of the station is a separate pair of train tracks and platform for the 御召し列車 o-meshi ressha emperor’s private train[x]. The imperial family uses the tracks to visit Meiji Shrine at 御正月 o-shōgatsu the New Year holiday because it leads to a super-secret backdoor.

Harajuku-Kyutei-Platform (1).jpg

OK, it’s not so super-secret… But people like you and me can’t use it.

meiji jingū - damn son

Meiji Shrine is a large shrine, but its architecture is very restrained in contrast to the grand shrines/temples of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. That said the amount of land allotted to the shrine speaks volumes of how rural this area once was and how much money the Imperial Household Agency has.

Which brings me to Meiji Shrine. It’s a big shrine dedicated to the 明治天皇 Meiji Tennō Meiji Emperor of whom long term readers will know I’m not a particularly big fan. That said, the shrine is quite beautiful and definitely worth a visit. If you go on 文化の日 Bunka no Hi Culture Day, you can see an event called 流鏑馬 yabusame which is where people dress up like samurai and do mounted archery. It’s pretty fucking cool and I highly recommend it to everyone. Culture Day is on November 3rd which, incidentally, was originally the Meiji Emperor’s birfday.

yabusame doesn't mean broken shark

Yabusame doesn’t mean “broken shark” that would be 破鮫 and that’s just silly. No language needs a word for that.

Also in the area, though technically not in Harajuku, is 東郷神社 Tōgō Jinja Tōgō Shrine. The shrine is dedicated to 東郷 平八郎 Tōgō Heihachirō who was supposedly Japan’s most decorated naval officer. I don’t know a lot about the dude, but apparently his shrine was partially built as an “eff you” by the Imperial Navy to the Imperial Army. The army had erected a shrine to their hero, the general 乃木希典 Nogi Maresuke in Akasaka, so not to be outdone, the navy set up this shrine. It’s actually a really beautiful spot and it’s popular for weddings because of its photogenic traditional garden. I’ve never served in the military, but I know there are rivalries among the branches, I guess this one got us a scenic city retreat. Not bad.

togo shrine

A wedding at Tōgō Shrine

Alright. So in conclusion, I hope you’ve all enjoyed my take on Harajuku. A lot of people have a lot of opinions – both positive and negative, both reality and fantasy – but the history of the area and its etymology are pretty much straight forward.

As always, thanks for reading to the end and thanks for your support.

Next on the agenda, I’m finally getting around to my Yamanote Line series.If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check my Ōedo Line series. It’s gonna be hardcore, so I hope you’ll join me for what will literally be a wild ride!


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[i] I’d much rather update my blog than slice open my own belly, which is what samurai bloggers used to do when they were wrong.
[ii] We could roughly say the 12th century, but it’s easiest to think of this as the first shift of power away from Kyōto in the west to the Kantō region. Samurai strongmen ruled in the name of the western nobles in the east. The shift in power was a logical leap from stupid court politics to real martial control over fiefs.
[iii] What does Edo mean? What? You thought I didn’t have an article about Edo? lol
[iv] 源氏 Genji is essentially a nickname for 源氏 Minamoto-shi. The kanji is the same, it’s just more common to read it as Genji. It’s the same with the 平家 Hei-ke which is shorthand for 平家 Taira-ke. Again the kanji are the same and the meaning is the same: the Taira clan (well, technically “family,” but same thing).
[v] This area was located in central and western 神奈川県 Kanagawa Ken Kanagawa Prefecture. For the purposes of this article, it’s a reference to Kamakura – the capital of the Kamakura Shōguns.
[vi] If that word 駅 eki sounds familiar, it is. The modern word for train station is 駅 eki. The kanji was originally 驛 eki and the radical 馬 uma horse. Before trains it referred to relay station for changing horses, just as the modern term “post office” originated from places where messengers “posted” their horses.
[vii] Also known as 八幡太郎 Hachimantarō. 八幡 Hachiman is the god of war and ~太郎tarō is a suffix of a boy’s name. Hachiman was the tutelary 神 kami deity of the Minamoto clan. If you’ve ever been to Kamakura, you’ve probably visited the shrine 鶴岡八幡宮 Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū which was built by the first shōgun, Yoritomo. As a result of the Yoshiie and Yoritomo’s  devotion to this deity, it became the de factō tutelary spirit of all samurai.
[viii] This war is waaaaay beyond the scope of this article, but here’s the Wiki about it.
[ix] Now it’s a fulltime job for some people, at least that’s what my Twitter feed leads me to believe.
[x] Yes, the emperor has his own train.

I Have a Huge Announcement!

In Japan, Japanese Castles, Japanese History, Japanese Manners, Japanese Shrines & Temples, Japanese Subculture, Tokugawa Shogun Graves, Travel in Japan on March 24, 2016 at 3:45 am

Ōki na happyō (a huge announcement)


Today I have a big announcement to make. Japanese history nerds, this is something I’ve thought about for a long time. You see, I spend a lot of time walking around Tōkyō trying to see what obscure pieces of Edo I still find lingering. From time to time, I go on what I call 歴史散歩 rekishi sanpo history walks with my friends. When my friends visit from other countries I always show them around the city – often times focusing on aspects of the city that they wouldn’t otherwise get to see.

But over the years, I’ve been thinking… “Hey, why don’t WE walk around the city talking about Japanese history? How fun would it be to show people what I’ve found? How fun would it be to hang out with other people who want to see different historical spots and geek out together?”

meshimori onna

Red light districts. We can do that.

Japan This! History Walks

So today, I’m proud to announce the beginning of JapanThis! Guided Tours for History Nerds[i]. I’ve put together a small series of informal history walks that cater specifically to Japanese History Fans. Most of them focus on topics that have come up on JapanThis!.

Some of them are super nerdy, but some of them are inclusive enough to bring your friend or family. I’m working on more that expand on other aspects of the city, but I’m also working on setting up tours that go across the country and ones that even focus on particular eras! I’ve tried to make customization an option in most cases so I hope I can accommodate everyone’s budget. Also, since this is all informal, we can keep it real. I mean, if we visit any places related to Kiyokawa Hachirō, we’re gonna have to call a douche a douche.

Due to preparation, time, materials, and the possibility of changing my work schedule, there’s a very modest, suggested tip for each history walk. It’s super reasonable, so just hit me up via Facebook and we can discuss the details.

The main page for tours can be found on the menu at the top of the blog or by clicking this link. That page contains costs and recommended tips. Oh, also some comments from past customers!


You either know the Kiyokawa reference or you don’t….

I’ve developed a ranking system in terms of how geeky a course is and how much time or walking you’d have to do. At the time being I have a few courses devoted to the graves of the shōguns – all of which could be combined into a 3 day combination package if you’re into that sort of thing. However, most of what I offer now are just simple one day intensive history walks of Edo-Tōkyō[ii] and a few cultural experiences. All tours will come with printed background information so you can brush up on the history. You’ll also get a PDF version e-mailed to you with links to relevant articles so you can easily access related articles on the go. Of course, I’ll be with you the whole time to answer your questions, help you with the language, or – god forbid – talk the police out of arresting you.

Here’s a breakdown of my rating system.

What does is mean?

Geek Ranking


A low ranking means less obscure shit (you can bring a non-nerd), a high ranking means we’re going deeeeep (way off the beaten path).

Walking Intensity


I can walk for hours and never get tired. That’s a 5. Watching kabuki, that’s a 1 (or less).

Time Intensity


Are you a half-day whiney little bitch or are you ready to go ballz to the wallz?

Keep in mind, a low ranking doesn’t mean it’s boring and high ranking doesn’t mean it’s super cool. There’s no correlation. I’m just trying to make sure everyone’s on the same page as to what their getting into. If you have any questions, just ask. If you use a wheelchair or have any other difficulties with mobility, vision, or otherwise, contact me directly and I’m pretty sure I can sort you out. No problem. Everyone is welcome!



Let’s Start with the Not-So-Nerdy Tours

These are tours made for Japanese history nerd traveling with friends or family.

koishikawa korakuen

Light Crash Course in Edo-Tōkyō

Starts at Ryōgoku and finishes at Tōkyō Dome. Want to learn more about the history of Tōkyō? Have a traveling companion who is coming from zero but wants to learn a little bit? This might be the course for you!

Edo-Tōkyō Museum

The foremost museum on the history of the city. A fantastic insight into the evolution of the shōgun’s capital into one of the greatest economic powerhouses in the world.

Tōkyō Waterworks Museum

Edo was a city of 1 million people at its peak – the largest city in the world at the time by some accounts. It was also considered the Venice of East. This museum tells the story of how water played a major factor in the history of the city.

Kōraku-en Garden

This is one of the few daimyō gardens that still remain relatively intact from the Edo Period. It was on the grounds of the residence of the Mito Tokugawa. It was designed to change over the course of the 4 seasons. Bring a camera!!


Eat chanko nabe, the staple food of sumō wrestlers. Eat takoyaki, a popular snack or drinking food. Eat both. May change the order of the course, but we can do it all!

Geek Ranking: ★★✬☆☆ 2.5
Walking Intensity: ★★☆☆☆ 2
Time Intensity: ★★★★★ 5

2000円 per person (to cover admission fees)
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edo bay

One of the few places you can see the original shoreline of Edo Bay

Quirky Tōkyō Museum Tour

Tōkyō has a lot of museums. Seriously. A lot! This tour hits up 4 of the most unique museums in the city. Unfortunately, most don’t provide comprehensive English support, but don’t worry. I got your back.

Ōmori Nori Museum

Learn about nori[iv] production and even get hands on practice at the making it the way people did in Pre-Modern Japan. Also, see Japan’s first manmade beach.

Tōkyō Waterworks Museum

This is seriously one of the most underrated museums in the world. It studies the history of water in Edo-Tōkyō, in particular, how did the shōgunate provide water and sewerage for a city of a million people?!

Tōkyō Parasitological Museum

Supposedly one of Tōkyō’s most popular date sites, this science museum looks at… yup… parasites! You can even buy one of your very own and smuggle it back into your country.

Meiji University Museum

We’ll only visit the wing of the museum dedicated crime, policing, sentencing, incarceration, torture, and execution – with an emphasis on the Edo Period.

Geek Ranking: ★★★★★ 5
Walking Intensity: ★☆☆☆☆ 1
Time Intensity: ★★★★★ 5

Personal transportation cost (we’ll use the subway)
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The hands on “nori experience” is first come first serve, so it needs to be book at least 2 months in advance. Believe it or not, it fills up super quick.
Also, the museum hours change by season.
The Parasitological Museum is closed on Mondays & Tuesdays.
I’ll work closely with you to make this happen!



Ready to get yo ass cultured?

Kabuki – From Edo’s Low Style to Meiji’s High Style


Early lunch; discussion about shitamachi/yamanote culture and kabuki.


3 kabuki shows, high class Japanese sweets

Option 0

Return to hotel

Option 1

Cheap Shōwa Era dinner, drinks, & a lot of vibe in Yūraku-chō

Option 2

High end Shōwa Era tempura dinner and a lot of vibe in Ginza

Geek Ranking: ★★★☆☆ 3
Walking Intensity: ✬☆☆☆☆ .5
Time Intensity: ★★★★☆ 4

Price varies greatly depending on number of people and proximity of seats and if you add an option. Since there are many factors involved, we should discuss this in detail.
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Shōgun Courses

There are 3 of them! You can do one. You can do two. Hell, you can do all three!
And that’s not branding. We’re literally gonna look at shōgun-related shit.


Grave of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi

Edo from Ōta Dōkan to the Bakumatsu
Shōgun Graves Part 1

Starts at Dōkan’yama or Nishi-Nippori and finishes at Ueno Station spanning the 1440’s to the 1860’s. We’ll see many shrines and temples and a sprawling necropolis that will blow your mind. I’ll also get you the closest you can get to the shōguns’ graves in Ueno[v]. We’ll also see sites associated with the Battle of Ueno which destroyed much of the area in the 1860’s resulting in the building of Ueno Park.


Suwa Shrine, former satellite castle of Ōta Dōkan and Edo Period cherry blossom spot



Yanaka Cemetery and environs; graves of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, Higuchi Ichiyō, Date Munenari, and Takahashi O-den


Main hall, pagoda ruins


Graves of the Tokugawa shōguns, post-Boshin War main hall, pagoda, Tōshō-gū, Ghost Lantern, Ueno Big Buddha, Benzaiten, Shinobazu Lake, Kiyomizu Kan’non-dō, Shōgitai Grave and other sites associated with the Battle of Ueno, Saigō Takamori Statue (and possibly access to the Aoi no Ma)


See a shitamachi red light district, place where Katsu Kokichi[vi] retired and wrote his memoires

Nezu Shrine

One of Tōkyō’s most beautiful shrines


Visit an Edo Period tōfu shop or a Shōwa Period soba shop

Geek Ranking: ★★★★★ 5
Walking Intensity
: ★★★★★ 5
Time Intensity
: ★★★★☆ 4

Cost will vary if you add an option.
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Grave of Tokugawa Hidetada

A Walk from Edo Castle to Shiba
Shōgun Graves Part 2

Starts in the Outer Moat area of Edo Castle and finishes at Azabu-Jūban. Roughly follow the path the shōgun and his retinue would take from the castle to his funerary temples at Zōjō-ji . Food options exist along the way, so we can discuss by email.

Edo Castle

Hibiya Gate, Saiwai Gate, Shibaguchi Gate, Sukiyabashi Gate/Yūraku-chō, Edo Magistrate’s Office, Sotobori/Marunouchi/Daimyō Alley overview, Tiger Gate


Remains of original Shinbashi Bridge, Original Shinbashi Station, Karasumori Shrine, Shiogama Shrine, Red Brick Way, remains of Sendai Domains lower & middle residences (Date clan), site of Asano Naganori’s seppuku


Graves of the Tokugawa Shōguns, O-nari Gate, Ietsugu’s Niten Gate, remains of Ietsugu’s innermost stone wall, consolidated graves of the shōguns (there is a museum with regularly changing exhibits – if interested), cemetery for dead babies, Hidetada’s main gate, lesser known remains of Hidetada’s mausoleum, Tōshō-gū, a sakura planted by Iemitsu


Fushimi Sanpō Inari Shrine, Shin’ami-chō, upper residence of Kurumae Domain (Arima clan), Kurumae fire watchtower

Bakumatsu Murder Bridges

Site of Henry Heusken’s murder, site of Kiyokawa Hachirō’s murder

Additional Options

Tōkyō Tower; graveyard of the women of Nanbu Domain, Zōjō-ji Museum, shopping/eating in Azabu-Jūban and/or Roppongi Hills – Edo Period shops are in the area.

Geek Ranking: ★★★★★ 5
Walking Intensity: ★★★★★ 5
Time Intensity: ★★★★☆ 4

Cost will vary if you add an option.
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Grave of Tokugawa Iemitsu

A Day and Night in Nikkō
Shōgun Graves Part 3

We start at Tōkyō Station, go to Nikkō, Tochigi Prefecture for sightseeing and fun, stay in at traditional Japanese inn with a hot spring, then return to Tōkyō the next morning. This is the final resting place of the 1st and 3rd Tokugawa shōguns and the best extant example of shōgunal mausoleums. This tour is great for anyone, but especially good for people whose traveling companions aren’t history nerds but want to do some must-see sightseeing and have a really unique Japanese experience.

(Nikkō Tōshō-gū and Taiyū-in)

Grave of the found of Rin’nō-ji and origin of all Buddhist activity in the area, Roku Butenzō – the oldest Buddhist monuments in Nikkō, Rin’nō-ji – the temple controls most of the area, Tōshō-gū (grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu), Taiyū-in (grave of Tokugawa Iemitsu). Tōshō-gū is one of the top 5 spots in Japan!

Edo Wonderland

A theme park that recreates the spirit of Edo in architecture, costume, shows, and hands on experience. All of the staff is in character, so they offer guests the chance to cosplay in character! When you’re done, you can enjoy a beer or too watching the sun set over “Edo” in the mountains.

Relax in a Japanese hot spring

Have traditional dinner and a bath (or 2 or 3) in natural, geothermally heated water; get a good night’s sleep on a futon in a traditional Japanese room.


If you want, a traditional Buddhist vegetarian course meal can be arranged.

Geek Ranking: ★★★☆☆ 3
Walking Intensity: ★★★✬☆ 3.5
Time Intensity: ★★★★★ 5

There is a Japanese proverb, “Don’t say something is ‘splendid’ until you’ve seen Nikkō” because of its sublime beauty. This may not be the nerdiest destination, but it will definitely make a big impression. In a addition, a famous Kyōto and Nikkō tōfu specialty is widely available.

Final cost will vary depending on number of people, options, etc., but I’m fairly sure I can keep things reasonable, especially for groups![ix]
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Other Tours!

hama goten.jpg

Scenic Gardens, Tokugawa Palaces, and Zōjō-ji

Starts at the seaside villa remains of the shōguns, continues to the seaside villa of a high ranking retainer of the shōguns, and ends at one of 2 funerary temples of the shōguns. This is a fairly hands-off course so you’re free to explore at your own pace, but I’m available for everyone at all times.

Former Hama Palace

This was the shōgun’s seaside villa. It retains a unique salt water moat system and Edo Period hunting grounds. It also offers a beautiful view of the city and nature. We can enjoy tea and Japanese sweets a teahouse built in the middle of a lake.

Shiba Rikyū Garden

Originally a seaside fort of the Hōjō clan of Odawara, it was later a daimyō residence of the Ōkubo clan (who originated from Tokugawa Ieyasu’s homeland, Mikawa Province).


We can approach Zōjō-ji the way it was intended to be approached, from the sea. We’ll pass the Great Gate and then move on for a look at a funerary temple of the Tokugawa shōguns.


Feeling a little garden crazy? We could easily swap out Zōjō-ji for 1 or 2 other Edo Period gardens. Perfect for photographers interested in Japanese nature!

Geek Ranking: ★★★☆☆ 3
Walking Intensity: ★★★☆☆ 3.5
Time Intensity: ★★★★☆ 4

2000円 per person (to cover admission fees)
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Ready to go somewhere really dark?

The 3 Great Execution Grounds of Edo

I think this will be popular! If you want to see the dark and macabre side of Edo-Tōkyō, you’re not alone. I’m as fascinated with it as I am repulsed by it. Depending on where your hotel is, I will re-arrange the order for the most convenient order – though my personal favorite is Denma-chō→Kozukappara→Suzugamori[x].


See the killing floor, the posts for burnings at the stake and crucifixions, the well for cleaning heads before display, Namidabashi (the place families said goodbye), “Bone Street.”


See the “supposed” killing floor, monuments to Yoshida Shōin (who was a prisoner here); discuss why Yoshida Shōin was a douche.


See the killing floor of the worst prison in Edo, the Kubikiri Jizō (the last thing the beheaded saw before they died), Ekō-in (temple for the repose of the dead), Namidabashi (the place families said goodbye), “Bone Street.”

Geek Ranking: ★★★★★ 5
Walking Intensity: ★☆☆☆☆ 1
Time Intensity: ★★★✬☆ 3.5[xi]

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I’m Working on a few New Tours

Please remember, I’m just starting this up and I’m doing this all on my own. I have a lot to learn and I’m starting to reach out to other people to try and make a partnership that will help me expand my offerings to longer tours, and even nationwide tours. Imagine a 4-5 day nationwide Shinsengumi tour? How fun would that be??!

Anyways, I really think the sky’s the limit with this. In my mind, it’s the ultimate way to bond with you guys – face to face, high fives and all. And after a serious “thank you” for your support, let’s go take a look at this city – no, this country – that I absolutely love! Also, if you are looking for a more personalized experience, let me know. I’m willing to make custom tours.

Let me know what you think in the comments, and if you like this idea, share with a friend!

[i] JK, actually it’s just Japan This! History Walks because that other name is long as hell and we’re just gonna be chilling out seeing some cool obscure parts of the city and geeking about Japanese history and culture.
[ii] This is 100% negotiable at the moment. Since I’m just doing this in my spare time, I maaaaaaay be able to offer you far more customizable tours. Just let me know what you want.
[iii] I don’t believe these are actual terms used in the real tourism industry…
[iv] An edible seaweed. If you eat sushi rolls, the wrapper is nori.
[v] Working on getting better access, but the area has been pretty much off limits for a long time. They don’t even allow photography in the off limits areas, even if you can get in.
[vi] Son of Katsu Kaishū, the father of the Japanese Navy.
[vii] To get a 360° view of the main structure itself, it costs 500円 per person. There is a famous peony garden on the site which costs 1200円 per person.
[viii] To get a 360° view of the main structure itself, it costs 500円 per person. There is a famous peony garden on the site which costs 1200円 per person.
[ix] Nikkō is in the mountains, so I don’t recommend winter at all. Also, the area is extremely crowded in autumn because people come to see the autumn leaves. If you want to come in the fall, I recommend booking 6 months or more to guarantee a comfortable bed and hot bath.
[x] In terms of subway use, it’s an impractical course unless you do alone or unless it’s a one-on-one tour. For groups, I have to find the most cost efficient/time efficient route for everyone.
[xi] Because a good deal of your time will be taking trains to the next execution ground. I’m good at conversation, so it won’t be boring but expect to change trains a few times lol.

Kiyokawa Hachirō & the Mystery Graves Nobody Cares About

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on April 23, 2015 at 6:25 pm

Kiyokawa Hachirō
(no meaning, it’s just the dude’s name)

Kiyokawa Hachiro - Nobody's Favorite Samurai™

Kiyokawa Hachiro – Nobody’s Favorite Samurai™

Back in April 2013, I wrote a two part series about 2 murders during the 幕末 Bakumatsu final years of the Tokugawa Shōgunate (you may want to read those 2 very short articles before this long one). The articles attracted a bit of attention (and Lorde knows I wasn’t getting any attention at the time). As a result, I landed me a strange private message. It’s a message I’ll never forget… mostly because I saved it. And if the sender is still reading, I’m sure you know who you are.

The mail was short and sweet:

Hi Sir.

I love your blog but do you know you called Kiyokawa Hachiro douche 5 times?
Can you tone down the Language?


Anyways, I’ve cherished this e-mail because I never counted how many times I’d used the word douche in the original article and even though the words shit and bitch also appeared, our concerned writer didn’t seem to care. Also they said they loved my blog. Everything balances out, right?

Well, the other day, I read a blog that mentioned the grave of Kiyokawa Hachirō. I have to be honest and say that I never thought about where the guy was buried. He was a douche, after all. Who would want to go there?

So today I decided to revisit Kiyokawa Hachirō’s story, even though I think he was a douche par excellence[i]. The story actually gets pretty deep, so I’ve included all relevant links and about 34 footnotes. So have at it.

So first, I’d like to talk about who the hell Kiyokawa Hachirō was and why he was a douche. Then, I’m going to talk about his assassination. After that, things are going to get messy as we explore new information that came to light in the 50 years after his assassination. And finally, I’m going to talk about how none of this matters and how I wasted my time researching and writing it and how you wasted your time reading because… Kiyokawa Hachirō was such a douche that he is actually reaching from the grave trying to be a douche to not just me, but you too. Make no mistake about it, dear reader. He’s totally screwing you over as you read these very words.


Shirai Akira played Kiyokawa Hachiro in the 2004 Taiga Drama

Shirai Akira played Kiyokawa Hachiro in the 2004 Taiga Drama “Shinsengumi!”


Who the Hell is Kiyokawa Hachirō?

In short, he was a racist, a murderer, and a two-faced anti-shōgunate terrorist fuckwit.

He was born in 出羽国庄内藩 Dewa no Kuni Shōnai-han Shōnai Domain, Dewa Province in present day 山形県庄内 Yamagata-ken Shōnai Shōnai, Yamagata Prefecture. His family’s rank was 郷士 gōshi which means something like “hamlet/village warrior” – a kind of high ranking commoner who was allowed rights usually reserved for the samurai class. In case of the Kiyokawa clan, they were allowed to carry 2 swords. They also ran a sake business. The rest of his boring life has little to do with this article until 1863.

The Saito House (1907) in Kiyokawa Village, Yamagata. This is where Hachiro was born.

The Saito House (1907) in Kiyokawa Village, Yamagata. This is where Hachiro was born.

Another view of the birthplace of Hachiro.  The Saito family were relatives.

Another view of the birthplace of Hachiro. The Saito family was a branch family of the Kiyokawa.

In the story that most people love to tell themselves, the Edo Period was a peaceful and magical era of fireworks, candy, and puppy dogs that lasted for about 250 years. That is, until Commodore Perry and his American goon squad rolled into 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay and fucked everything up. Under the watch of 井伊直弼 Ii Naosuke the 大老 tairō shōgunal regent, the Tokugawa shōgunate signed treaties with some western powers and began the process of opening up the country. The shōgunate knew they had no choice, but to samurai who weren’t in-the-know and perhaps to the average person on the street, Japan’s sanctity was being violated. The threat of the brutish yet technologically superior, tall and fat barbarians with big noses and stinky clothes plunged the country into chaos. Samurai from every part of Japan were proposing their own “quick fixes” and began building factions that then started fighting with each other[ii].

This is pretty much the Edo Period. I'm totally serious. It was just like this.

This is pretty much the Edo Period. I’m totally serious. It was just like this.

Much of the violence was being committed by 浪士 rōshi rōnin (masterless samurai) united under a philosophy that was abbreviated by the slogan 尊皇攘夷 sonnō-jōi “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians.[iii]” These rōnin turned to terrorism to strike out at the shōgunate, foreigners, and opposition groups in various places around the country. However, much of the violence would be perpetrated in the imperial city of Kyōto. In 1863, 公明天皇 Kōmei Tennō Emperor Kōmei summoned 徳川家茂 Tokugawa Iemochi, the 14th shōgun, to Kyōto. The meeting was part of the overall strategy to unify the imperial court with the shōgunate in hopes of quelling dissent among the rōnin and other dissident groups. The emperor, who was fiercely xenophobic[iv], was to issue a decree to the shōgun to expel the barbarians[v].

This is an actual photograph of the attack on regent Ii Naosuke by sonno-joi radicals from Mito in front of the Sakurada Gate of Edo Castle in 1860.

This is an actual photograph of the attack on regent Ii Naosuke by sonno-joi radicals from Mito in front of the Sakurada Gate of Edo Castle in 1860. A little known fact is that Naosuke was completely oblivious to the attack because he was in the palanquin using LINE to sext the cute daughter of merchant in Nihonbashi. He never saw it coming.

Sonnō-jōi Terrorists on the Rise

In 1860, Kiyokawa Hachirō and his buddy 山岡鐵太郎 Yamaoka Tetsutarō[vi], formed their own sonnō-jōi terrorist group with 14 other members – mostly students of Hachirō’s dōjō in Edo. They called the group 虎尾之会 Torao no Kai (sometimes rendered as Kobi no Kai). which means “the tiger tail association.” I don’t know much about the group’s terrorist activities except that most fingers point at them for one of the most egregious murders of the Bakumatsu. It’s generally believed that Hachirō and his douchey friends carried out the brazen murder of the innocent translator and man-about-town, Henry Heusken, in 1861. As Heusken was riding his horse home towards the American 公使館 kōshikan embassy[vii] at 善福寺 Zenpuku-ji Zenpuku Temple, Torao no Kai radicals killed him on 中之橋 Naka no Hashi “the middle bridge” in Azabu.

A photo taken at Henry Heusken's wake at Zenpuku-ji. Sadly, I think this is the only photo that exists of him. By most accounts he was a sociable guy who curious about other cultures. But like all foreigners of his day, he wasn't versed in the complex nuances of Japanese culture. No one was.

A photo taken at Henry Heusken’s wake at Zenpuku-ji. Sadly, I think this is the only photo that exists of him. By most accounts he was a sociable guy who curious about other cultures. But like all foreigners of his day, he wasn’t versed in the complex nuances of Japanese culture. No one was.

At any rate, because of the violence in Kyōto, a plan was hatched to fight fire with fire. Send a force of rōnin and low ranking samurai who were loyal to the shōgun to Kyōto before Iemochi’s entourage went. They could subdue any terrorists and hopefully inspire the bad guys to switch sides and support the shōgunate. The rules were simple: the status of the samurai was not important. They only had to be 攘夷派 jōi-ha supporters of expelling the barbarians. Since the emperor and the shōgun were pushing an idea called 公武合体 kōbu-gattai “union of the imperial court and shōgunate[viii],” including sonnō-jōi dissidents wasn’t seen as counterproductive to the overall strategy. After all, if the shōgunate was seen as supporting the imperial court (which it sorta wasn’t) and the court was supporting the shōgunate (which, except for the emperor, it sorta wasn’t), then everybody was playing on the same team… theoretically speaking.

Because of his sonnō-jōi stance, Hachirō commanded a certain respect among anti-foreigner rōnin in Edo.  Presumably because he thought he could recruit the right men quickly, 松平主税之介 Matsudaira Chikaranosuke, head fencing instructor at the 講武所 Kōbusho (the shōgunate’s official military academy in Edo) asked Hachirō to head up the group of rōnin that was to be the shōgun’s vanguard. The group was given the pretty unimaginative name 浪士組 Rōshigumi the rōnin group, or le groupe des ronins in French.

Denzu-in - a Tokugawa mortuary temple in modern Bunkyo Ward.

Denzu-in – a Tokugawa mortuary temple in modern Bunkyo Ward.

The Perfect Venue

Anyhoo, in February of 1863, an event to recruit and vet samurai for the new group was held at 伝通院 Denzū-in[ix] Denzū Temple in 小石川 Koishikawa[x] (near Tōkyō Dome). Since the time of the first shōgun, Denzū-in has been a Tokugawa 菩提寺 bodai-ji funerary temple. The shōguns weren’t buried here[xi], but the mother of the first shōgun, Ieyasu, is interred here. In fact, the temple’s name is the same name she assumed after retiring to the priesthood[xii]. There are other Tokugawa relatives enshrined at this temple. Its proximity to the 上屋敷 kami-yashiki upper residence of the 水戸徳川家 Mito Tokugawa-ke Mito branch of the Tokugawa surely guaranteed a deep and long lasting patronage[xiii].

Denzu-in is still a major temple with strong connections to the Tokugawa.

Denzu-in is still a major temple with strong connections to the Tokugawa.

It was at this event on sacred Tokugawa land that roughly 250 masterless samurai were chosen to be the 14th shōgun’s vanguard. Since the time of the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu, no shōgun had left Edo to meet the imperial court. Most of the rōnin probably saw this as a once in a life time chance. They just wanted a patron and a decent income and saw this as a chance to improve their lives. Some were just xenophobic. Some were just hungry. Let’s remember “Union of Court and Camp” and “Revere the Emperor and Expel the Barbarians” had a lot of overlapping points. It’s under these conditions that this group of mismatched rōnin set out from the Tokugawa funerary temple Denzū-in to the imperial city of Kyōto.

The grave of Ieyasu's mother.

The grave of Ieyasu’s mother (circa 2010)

SIRI Says It Only Takes 4 Days to Walk From Tōkyō to Kyōto

It took the rowdy band of rōnin about 15 days to make the trek from the shōgun’s capital. I just asked SIRI how long it would take to walk from Denzū-in to 壬生村 Mibu Mura Mibu Village (their final destination) and she said 3-4 days depending on the route. Granted, 4 days of straight walking with no sleep would have been pretty hard core in a world that didn’t have Jordans™, so let’s have an understanding that 4 days would become 8 days if we account for sleeping. Crossing rivers by ferry may have taken a day for 235 or so men and their equipment. If the group got too rowdy, a few days of drinking and whoring here and there would have added another day or two to the march. And finally, they were walking on highways made of individual stones – not smooth pavement. Even if an 8 day high speed walk from Tōkyō to Kyōto  sounds like fun to you (and it might actually be a lot of fun), you would be making a trek that is so much better than what these men undertook. In short, this was a hard trip to take.

The Tokaido Highway was the fastest.

The Tokaido Highway was the fastest.

The Nakasendo Highway was the longest route, but there were sub-highways that linked these routes. I don't know the Roshigumi's exact route and it's not really important for our story.

The Nakasendo Highway was the longest route, but there were sub-highways that linked these routes. I don’t know the Roshigumi’s exact route and it’s not really important for our story.

Surprise, Muthafucka!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

After 15 days of walking, the Rōshigumi finally arrived at Mibu Village. The men were allowed to rest for the night. The next morning, Kiyokawa Hachirō made an announcement to all of the men who had coming all this way to support the shōgun. He gathered them all in a hall and announced that he had actually lied to them about their mission[xiv]. Hachirō announced that he wasn’t just a jōi supporter; he wanted to take down the shōgunate and replace it with the imperial court. To make things worse, he told the rōnin that he had submitted a petition with all of their names on it to the emperor pledging loyalty to the imperial court. Theoretically, this meant that any rōnin who didn’t follow Hachirō could be branded an imperial traitor. But as it turned out, Emperor Kōmei wasn’t having any of this and rejected the petition outright[xv]. Hachirō and his band of rōnin found themselves in an awkward position. He openly declared his opposition to the shōgunate and loyalty to the emperor, but the emperor was like, “go fuck yourself, son.” Hachirō marched back to Edo looking like a duplicitous snake and began planning his next brilliant move: to burn down the entire city of 横浜 Yokohama because… foreigners[xvi].

wait what

Most of the rōnin were desperate dumbasses who bought into the whole sonnō-jōi fad, so Hachirō returned to Edo with most of his retinue (all of this on the shōgunate’s dime). But 19 members of the group refused to return to Edo. This tiny faction would become the infamous 新撰組 Shinsengumi[xvii]. They had just enough “expel the barbarians” in their hearts, but their interpretation of “reverence” leaned towards the shōgunate and not towards “all out reverence for the emperor[xviii].” And as I said before, at this time the shōgunate and Emperor Kōmei were trying to unify the Kyōto imperial court and the Edo shōgunate court in order to quell internal violence – and ultimately avoid a civil war.

The offspring of the Roshigumi was the almost larger than life Shinsengumi. Since the meteoric rise of Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the end of the Sengoku Period, social mobility was severely curtailed. The Shinsengumi are awesome to follow because their 13 minutes of fame were epic. The leaders came from humble beginnings and eventually earned incomes that made them financial equals with lesser daimyō. Their final 2 minutes of fame were also epic. They went down in a blaze of glory that burned so hot, their reputation barely recovered until the last 10-20 years or so when they became the poster child of the imaginary last war cry of the samurai.

The offspring of the Roshigumi was the almost larger than life Shinsengumi. Since the meteoric rise of Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the end of the Sengoku Period, social mobility was severely curtailed. The Shinsengumi are awesome to follow because their 13 minutes of fame were epic. The leaders came from humble beginnings and eventually earned incomes that made them financial equals with lesser daimyō. Their final 2 minutes of fame were also epic. They went down in a blaze of glory that burned so hot, their reputation barely recovered until the last 10-20 years or so when they became the poster child of the imaginary last war cry of the samurai.

Karma’s a Muthafucka, Yo.

Kiyokawa Hachirō’s duplicity cost him his life. In the spring of 1864, as he was crossing a bridge called 一之橋 Ichi no Hashi “the first bridge” in the 麻布十番 Azabu-Jūban area, Hachirō was intercepted by a group of 6 pro-shōgunate samurai. The leader of these samurai was a certain 旗本 hatamoto direct retainer of the Tokugawa named 佐々木只三郎 Sasaki Tadasaburō[xix]. They descended upon Hachirō and cut him down at a firebreak on next to the bridge. The exact spot had been commemorated at 一の橋親水公園 Ichi no Hashi Shinsui Kōen Ichinohashi Water Park until 2010. Sadly the park is a construction site until 2016 so you can’t visit today. That said, Sailor Moon fans (who probably don’t even read my blog), may recognize this park from said anime.

The old firebreak become a park next to a dirty river and a noisy elevated highway.

The old firebreak became a park next to a dirty river and a noisy elevated highway. But yes, this is where Sasaki Tadasburo finally ended the scourge upon intelligence that was named Kiyokawa Hachiro.

What really cracks me up is that, where Hachiro died is the place where young girls have big dreams of

What really cracks me up is that, where Hachiro died is the place where young girls have big dreams of “kawaii.”
As a privileged, self-absorbed samurai of his own day, I’m sure Hachiro would hate this spot.
No worries, mate. It’s been under construction for 4 years and looks like shit. And more people know who Sailor Moon is than you because you were a douche.

Despite his demonization by the later Meiji Regime, Tadasaburō was well within his rights to kill Hachirō – arguably he was duty-bound to do so. The oddest quirk of the story seems to be that Kiyokawa Hachirō was killed at Ichi no Hashi – literally a 3 minute walk from 中之橋 Naka no Hashi, the spot where Hachirō and his sonnō-jōi Torao group had murdered Henry Heusken in 1861. How is that for justice?

Pretty fucking poetic if you ask me.

Henry Heusken is a guy who explored the world and learned languages in a time when there was no radio, tv, or internet. He was a civilian who was murdered by that.  Kiyokawa Hachiro might have changed his life around had he lived longer. But he played the douche card from the beginning and it's a surprise he lived as long as he did.

Henry Heusken is a guy who explored the world and learned languages in a time when there was no radio, tv, or internet. He took a risk coming to Japan but was apparently fascinated by the Japanese people. He strikes me as a guy who would ask an attacker to enjoy a few drinks in the Yoshiwara and talk about their grievances before fighting. He was a civilian who was interested in people and communication and he was murdered for that.
Kiyokawa Hachiro might have changed his life around had he lived longer. But he played the douche card from the beginning and it’s a surprise he lived as long as he did.

Heusken Became a Martyr, Hachirō Remains a Douche

So, the details of the Henry Heusken’s assassination in 1861 are fairly well recorded. He apparently lay slowly dying in the street for an hour while passersby were like “whoa, look at this dying white guy” and did nothing to help him. Heusken’s assassination attracted international attention. The Americans, the Dutch, the Germans, and indeed, a few Japanese were completely outraged by his slaughter. Kiyokawa Hachirō, on the other hand, had become a kind of persona non grata among both sides. Both the shōgunate and the sitting emperor[xx] saw him as a treacherous douchebag. As such, he pretty much slipped into obscurity[xxi].

Why don't we have more pictures of Hachiro? Because no one respects him. Even Sailor Moon couldn't save his reputation for being an  asshole.

Why don’t we have more pictures of Hachiro?
Because no one respects him.
Even Sailor Moon couldn’t save his reputation for being an asshole.

So Where Is Kiyokawa Hachirō’s Grave?

This has been a mystery since the Meiji Period and 4 temples make the dubious claim that they have his grave[xxii]: 正念寺 Shōnen-ji in Azabu, 長玄寺 Chōgen-ji in Azabu, 吸江寺 Kyūkō-ji in Shibuya (but near Azabu), and 伝通院 Denzū-in in Koishikawa.

But let’s look at the assassination account. In April of 1864, Kiyokawa Hachirō was walking across the 古川 Furukawa Furukawa River in Azabu-Jūban. He crossed Ichi no Hashi “the first bridge” walking towards Naka no Hashi “the middle bridge” and 赤羽橋 Akabanebashi “the red wing bridge.[xxiii]” He was killed at the firebreak on the left side of the bridge. Allegedly, one of his supporters came back for the head and left the lifeless decapitated body in the street.

The assassination happened across the street from the palatial estate of 柳沢家 Yanagisawa-ke Yanagisawa family[xxiv]. Daimyō residing in Edo were required to clean up and bury the bodies of people who did 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide, murder victims, and homeless who died near their estates. As a result, the responsibility of cleaning up the mess fell upon the servants of the Yanagisawa[xxv]. According to tradition, the Yanagisawa took the headless corpse to their nearby family temple, Shōnen-ji, where it was buried in a 無縁塚 muen-zuka a grave for people who have no relatives to attend and maintain their graves. Most likely, the Yanagisawa were upholding their legal responsibility while trying to obscure the fact there was an anti-shōgunate traitor buried in their family cemetery. Essentially, they dumped him in an unmarked grave and kept their mouths shut about it.

This is a typical muen-zuka. I took this picture at Zendō-ji in Gunma. You've probably seen similar sights at really old temples with a lot of land.  BTW, if you click this picture, it will take you to my Flickr page. If you're interested in my photography, please check it out.

This is a typical muen-zuka. I took this picture at Zendō-ji in Gunma. You’ve probably seen similar sights at really old temples with a lot of land.
BTW, if you click this picture, it will take you to my Flickr page. If you’re interested in my photography, please check it out.

So What Happened to the Head?

The standard narrative says that a certain 石坂周造 Ishizaka Shūzō cut off Hachirō’s head and took it to the residence of 山岡鐵太郎[xxvi] Yamaoka Tetsutarō, a friend of Hachirō’s. They preserved the head in sugar. Then Tetsutarō put the head in a sack and ran with it to 伝通院 Denzū-in in 小石川 Koishikawa for emergency burial.

Wait? Did you just say Denzū-in?

If you thinking I’m repeating myself, you’re not crazy.

Is this the temple named after the first shōgun’s mother? Was this some kind of irony? Was it some twisted insult on the part of anti-shōgunate terrorists? Was this a kind of Edo Period “your mom” joke?


Yamaoka Tetsutarō the Pickle Delivery Guy.

Yamaoka Tetsutarō the Pickle Delivery Guy.

There Was a Deeper Treachery Afoot

Why was Hachirō’s head brought to a Tokugawa funerary temple? Well, it appears the chief priest of an affiliated temple called 処静院 Shojō-in, a certain 琳瑞 Rinzui, was the reason. He idolized 徳川斉昭 Tokugawa Nariaki the batshit crazy[xxvii] lord of 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain.  He was also a supporter of 尊皇憂国 sonnō yūkoku “imperial reverence and patriotism” and 尊皇攘夷 sonnō jōi “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians” – 2 decidedly anti-shōgunate philosophies. He allowed Hachirō to use Denzū-in as the meeting place to begin the Rōshigumi’s long march to Kyōto. Despite having close connections with the Tokugawa, he allowed and encouraged 水戸学 Mito Gaku Mito Learning to spread – the idea that the shōgun was subordinate to the emperor. Rinzui flew under the radar for a pretty long time.

But eventually Rinzui paid for his double dealings with his life. Once the connection between the monk and other sonnō jōi terrorists was understood, pro-shōgunate samurai assassinated him in 1867. The shōgunate then abolished his temple, Shojō-in, forever.

A couple signs a stone monument here and there is all that remains of Shojo-in.

A couple signs a stone monument here and there is all that remains of Shojō-in.

The End of Shōnen-ji

(Not to be confused with the aforementioned Shojō-in)

The Yanagizawa funerary temple, Shōnen-ji, had existed since 1752. But after the Meiji Coup, most daimyō families left Edo (now called Tōkyō) and returned to their old fiefs. Naturally, many of them lost connections with their funerary temples in the city. Many temples formerly associated with the daimyō clans became derelict. Shōnen-ji met its end in 1894 (Meiji 27) when it was overtaken by nearby 長玄寺 Chōgen-ji. The temple grounds were to be sold off, the buildings razed, and the graves and temple records would have to be moved. The temple grounds were purchased by the Police Department of Tōkyō City to build a police station. The police department paid for the demolition and moving costs. Nothing was said in city council records about specific graves or the muen-zuka. It’s at this point that the grave of Hachirō’s headless body faded into oblivion.

Incidentally, the remains of Shōnen-ji and the subsequent police station, are now the now the 元麻布三丁目緑地 Moto-Azabu 3-chōme Ryokuchi The Old Azabu 3-chōme Green Space, sometimes called the ビオトープ biotōpu biotope, a small natural habitat for plant and animal life.

I don't even know if this space still exists. If it does, it's not much to look judging by this picture.  But this is the remaining

I don’t even know if this space still exists. If it does, it’s not much to look judging by this picture.
But this is the remaining “green area.”

Anyhoo, 1912 (Meiji 45[xxviii]) was the 50th anniversary year of Kiyokawa Hachirō’s death and for some bizarre reason some people got it in their minds that the duplicitous d-bag deserved to honored. At 伝法院 Denbō-in Denbō Temple in 浅草 Asakusa, they posthumously[xxix] conferred upon Hachirō the imperial court rank of 正四位 shōshi’i (senior 4th rank)[xxx]. In attendance was an old man named 柴田吉五郎 Shibata Kichigorō who claimed to have witnessed Hachirō’s execution when he was 11 years old. If his story is true, he was the sole witness of the assassination – or at the least the longest living person with any firsthand knowledge of the incident.

Kichigorō said that as Hachirō crossed Ichi no Hashi, 6 samurai appeared as if they had been waiting for him. They greeted him in a friendly manner with 「清河先生! 」 “Kiyokawa Sensei!” But as soon as he acknowledged them, the 6 samurai descended upon him and violently cut him down. The assassins then fled the scene disappearing as quickly as they had appeared. At the time, the boy didn’t know who the victim was. It was only a month or two later that he heard that the victim was somewhat well-known guy and learned his full name.

Sure, this sounds like any Edo Period assassination, but what Kichigōrō said next blew the lid off of the whole story of Hachirō’s death. He said that Hachirō hadn’t been decapitated and that the body was completely intact when servants of the Yanagisawa clan cleaned up the mess on the street. The whole body was then interred by the Yanagisawa at Shōnen-ji.

Believe it or not. This is an actual photograph of the attack.

Believe it or not.
This is an actual photograph of the attack.

An Old Man’s Memories of a Childhood Event

Is this information even worthwhile? After all, it’s well known that the witnesses of a crime may have wildly varying stories in court. Human memory is an imperfect thing. If you asked me what grade I was in or what I liked at age 11, I wouldn’t be able to tell you without Googling some things first. So, yeah, we have to take Kichigōrō’s statements with a grain of salt. But that said, he lived his whole life in 宮村町 Miyamura-chō Miyamura Town in the Azabu area. As a townsman of Miyamura, he was active in the local community. In particular, he was active at Chōgen-ji.

Chogen-ji today is pretty much just a cemetery. But I plan to follow up on this story on my Flicker account.

Chogen-ji today is pretty much just a cemetery.

So Get This.

Back in 1893 (Meiji 26), Chōgen-ji’s take takeover of Shōnen-ji began. The person put in charge of transfer of the temple archives and graves was Shibata Kichigorō[xxxi]. He was involved in many aspects of the merger. His biggest task was processing the remains of about 30,000 ashen and skeletal remains with no families to care for them. Chōgen-ji didn’t have space for all the unclaimed graves, so Kichigorō also was charged with transporting them to Kyūkō-ji in modern Shibuya Ward to a new muen-zuka. Among the remains, Kichigorō’s team discovered a 甕 kame earthenware funerary urn with the name Kiyokawa Hachirō written on it. The remains had been cremated, so it’s not known if they had found headless or “headful” remains.

The same year, a relative of Hachirō’s named 斉藤治兵衛 Saitō Jihei[xxxii], heard about the discovery and went to Kyūkō-j. Since his family had been maintaining the grave of Hachirō’s head at Denzū-in, he asked them to exhume Hachirō’s urn and remove it from the unmarked grave at Kyūkō-ji so he could bury it under the grave stone marking the supposed burial spot of his head at Denzū-in.

The burn remains were most likely interred in a jar not unlike this.

The burn remains were most likely interred in a jar not unlike this.

So What Really Happened to Kiyokawa Hachirō’s Head and Trunk?

Well, we don’t know. As I said, the Yanagisawa clan cremated the body and put it in a mass burial. They probably wanted nothing to do with him but were just fulfilling their obligation in the eyes of the law. They probably also didn’t want anti-shōgunate rōnin coming to their family temple to honor a guy who was clearly a dick. Silently burying him where only the monks attended the grave was probably a good move. Whether they buried a corpse with or without a head can’t be said, but it doesn’t really matter because the “alleged head grave” at Denzū-in was marked and was considered the “official grave.”

The grave of the headless body was soon lost to the sands of time until Shibata Kichigōrō told his side of the story. And when the cremated remains where interred at the “official” marked grave at Denzū-in, it seems like nobody bothered to check for a pickled head – or if they did, no one wrote it down for us.

The only picture I can find of Saitō Jihei - the only relative to take responsibility for Hachirō's grave and body.

The only picture I can find of Saitō Jihei – the only relative to take responsibility for Hachirō’s grave and body.

To be honest, Kiyokawa Hachirō has never been at the top of anyone’s “cool samurai” list. I’ve met a lot of Bakumatsu fans and it’s usually the same names that come up. But if anyone says, “I love Hachirō,” then I’ll be a monkey’s uncle[xxxiii]. By that I mean, pretty much nobody gave a shit where his grave was except for a few relatives. If Shibata Kichigōrō hadn’t said anything to the right people or had died before 1912, this wouldn’t even be worth writing about.

But there is one closing thought I’d like to share with you before signing off. The Japanese enshrine their dead. The short explanation of this is simple: you don’t even need a body for a grave in the Japanese tradition. This is also why there are multiple graves for hundreds[xxxiv] of individuals throughout the centuries.

This is Yasukuni Shrine. It is a product of the Meiji Coup. It's a product of Mito Learning. It's a product of Japan's coming to terms with an international world as it dragged itself kicking and screaming into a new world.  It's also creepy as all hell.

This is Yasukuni Shrine. It is a product of the Meiji Coup. It’s a product of Mito Learning. It’s a product of Japan’s coming to terms with an international world as it dragged itself kicking and screaming into a new world.

What does that mean to you?,

Well, you just wasted your time reading about the location of the missing grave of some douchebag samurai that nobody cares about only to find out that in the eyes of the Japanese; the exact location of the body is a complete non-issue. But don’t feel too bad. I’m the asshole who actually researched all this pointless crap.

Thanks Kiyokawa Hachirō. You truly are the douche who keeps on giving.

Even from beyond the grave.

Follow Up:
I visited Denzū-in and shot some video!



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[i] French joke much?
[ii] You can read more about the Bakumatsu here. Even though this link looks like a weak Wiki, it’s not. Follow up on the links they recommend.
[iii] In Japan, the term sonnō-jōi originally referred to revering the Tokugawa and expelling the Christians.
[iv] And was most likely being manipulated by anti-shōgunate courtiers.
[v] The title shōgun is actually short for 征夷大将軍 sei’i tai-shōgun “great general who subdues the barbarians.” The title is one of those little ironies of history that fucked over the shōgunate in the end. The original name was created in a different world and there was no realistic way Japan could expel these “barbarians.”
[vi] Tetsutarō seems to have been his nickname; most sources refer to him by the name 鉄舟 Tesshū. While Kiyokawa and Yamaoka may have shared the jōi (expel the barbarians) component of sonnō-jōi, Yamaoka apparently leaned more towards the shōgunate. He was on good terms with 勝海舟 Katsu Kaishū and actually supported the last shōgun, 徳川慶喜 Tokugawa Yoshinobu, in a military capacity. Yamaoka lived through these turbulent years only to die of cancer in 1888 (Meiji 21).
[vii] This term is regularly translated as “legation” in most English publications because that term gives some nuance to how tenuous the positions of the embassies actually were at the time. But in light of the ambassadorial continuum that has existed in Japan since that time, I’m comfortable translating this word as embassy. The usual modern Japanese word is 大使館 taishikan.
[viii] It’s often translated as “union of court and camp” because 幕府 bakufu shōgunate literally means “the shōgun’s battlefield encampment.
[ix] Ironically, the temple is where Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mother is buried. The temple’s name is actually her Buddhist name.
[x] This is very near the 上屋敷 kami-yashiki upper residence of 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain. Long time readers will recognize Mito as one of the undisputed sources of the sonnō (imperial reverence) component of the sonnō-jōi movement.
[xi] The shōguns were buried here.
[xii] Before that she was known by her court title of 於大の方 Odai-no-kata. After their husbands died, it was common for women to “retire” to the priesthood – something that became a codified fact of life for women in the 大奥 Ōoku women’s quarters of 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle under the Tokugawa.
[xiii] I hope warning lights are flashing in your mind.
[xiv] Suck on that, bushidō. Here’s the first episode of a 2 or 3 part series on how bushidō is bullshitto from the Samurai Archives Podcast.
[xv] Emperor Kōmei supported the shōgunate and the concept of “union of court and camp.”
[xvi] The largest foreigner settlement in Eastern Japan was in Yokohama at the time.
[xvii] The 19 members were made of 2 factions, the 芹沢派 Serizawa-ha Serizawa faction and the 近藤派 Kondō-ha Kondō faction. Read more about the Shinsengumi here.
[xviii] Revering the shōgun could be interpreted as revering the emperor because one mode of thought stated that the shōgun was granted his authority by the emperor.
[xix] Long time readers of JapanThis! should know this name well by now. Later in the decade he would have close ties with the Shinsengumi. Although it has never been proven, he is the most likely suspect in the assassination of 坂本龍馬 Sakamoto Ryōma. Furthermore, if he was the assassin of Sakamoto Ryōma, he might have been a bigger douche than Kiyokawa Hachirō. That would mean that – and most likely does mean – that Tadasaburō sold the Shinsengumi down the river. To make the indictment worse, it meant that Kondō Isami was dishonorably executed for the assassination of Sakamoto Ryōma. All of this is somewhat questionable, but basically, he was a shady dude.
[xx] Please note I said “sitting emperor” and not “imperial court.” To be sure, there were members of the court who would have loved to see Hachirō
[xxi] And to be perfectly honest, if it wasn’t for the meteoric rise of the Shinsengumi, he would be one of the more obscure agents of the Bakumatsu; simply the murderer of Henry Heusken.
[xxii] A major distinction between Christianity and Buddhism and Shintō is that the Abrahamic religions require for a grave. Buddhism and Shintō don’t require a body. Enshrinement will suffice every time. So if a places claims to have a grave of someone, if it was formally enshrined, they have a legitimate claim to a grave. Today, I just want to talk about the body.
[xxiii] Read the real story of Akabanebashi here.
[xxiv] Long time readers will recognize this as the estate of 松平時之助 Matsudaira Tokinosuke, the jerk who built 六義園 Rikugien (an amazing garden) and ruined the 喜多見氏 Kitami clan (originally the Edo clan). You can read his story at the end of this article.
[xxv] This was an actual law; if a person died or was killed in front of a samurai’s residence, they had to clean up the mess and make sure that proper funerary rites were carried out.
[xxvi] Also known as 山岡鉄舟 Yamaoka Tesshū. Tesshū is a bit of a complicated guy. He was asked to lead the Rōshigumi with Hachirō. Tesshū was a progressive guy, but he clearly knew about Hachirō’s intention to change the mission of the Rōshigumi. However, it seems that by the time he was told or figured it out, it was too late for him to stop the madness. He later served the last shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, and accompanied him to Shizuoka when he retired.
[xxvii] He’s a good article on Nariaki by Rekishi no Tabi.
[xxviii] This event happened in the last year of Meiji. From July 1812, the year was known as Taishō 1.
[xxix] Well, duh. Obviously it was posthumous.
[xxx] Don’t ask me about court rank. I don’t know much about it at all because it’s boring.
[xxxi] I don’t know whether this was a coincidence or whether he asked for the appointed, perhaps feeling some personal connection to Hachirō as a result of witnessing his death.
[xxxii] I don’t know the connection.
[xxxiii] A very clean shaven monkey’s uncle, but a monkey’s uncle nonetheless.
[xxxiv] Thousands? Could be, I’m not actually counting. That’s just a stupid number I threw out there to illustrate a point.

What does Gohongi mean?

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

Gohongi (5 trees)

Yūtenji Station provides access to Gohongi.

Yūtenji Station provides access to Gohongi.

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


Let’s Look at the Kanji!


five thin, cylindrical thingies



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

Sign in front of the Moriya Kaikan.

Sign in front of the Moriya Kaikan.

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

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

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

genki no yoi wakamono demo tōru koto wo osoreta

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

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

The area may have looked something like this.

The area may have looked something like this.

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

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

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

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

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

So What Can I See or Do in Gohongi?

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

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

The Kōshin-tō of Gohongi

The Gohongi Koshinto-gun.

The Gohongi Koshinto-gun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Yūten-ji boasts its fair share of trees.

Yūten-ji boasts its fair share of trees.


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

Setagaya and its Freaky Horse Fetish

In Japanese Castles, Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on January 19, 2015 at 2:34 am

What’s Up with Setagaya and Horses?
No, seriously? What’s up wit dat?


Horse girl

So while I was researching my last article on 三軒茶屋 Sangen-jaya, I came across a few interesting place names that I’d never heard of – granted I rarely go to 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward[i] — but nonetheless I was obviously intrigued.

I saw a lot of references to horses on the map. “I’ll do all the horse names!” I thought. “Surely they’re all related,” I thought. “I can hit all these place names in one article,” I thought. Then the stories started getting longer and longer. “Did I get myself into another River Article Debacle?” I wondered. I really may have, so I’ve decided to go with the local legends over the hardcore etymology this time just to spare everyone the headache and hopefully to get some good folklore out this.

As I said, the one unifying factor is that all of these place names are horse-related. So let’s take a look at what names we will cover today.



Current Status


horse pulling ravine

This place name survives in abbreviated forms

horse hitching

This place name survives as Komatsunagi Shrine and as an elementary school name


horse stopping

The name survives as Komadome Hachiman Shrine


horse ravine

Survives as a postal code and a university name, etc…


gray haired horse burial mound

The name survives as a landmark

So just let that sink in a little bit before we continue. Take a few seconds to imagine what you think the etymologies might be. Do you think there is any connection? Do you think it’s all a coincidence? If you’re a long time reader and you remember other horse and animal related etymologies, do you think there will be any similarities to those?

These horses are decked out in the latest spring line up from Prada.

These horses are decked out in the latest spring line up from Prada.


OK, Let’s Get Started

I mentioned in the last article, that present day Sangen-jaya is comprised of several former villages. Two of those villages were parts of the 3 areas of a Kamakura Period region called 馬引沢 Umahikizawa.

Kami-Umahikizawa Mura

Upper Umahikizawa Village

Naka-Umahikizawa Mura

Middle Umahikizawa Village

Shimo- Umahikizawa Mura

Lower Umahikizawa Village

This is a similar pattern that we see with the classification of daimyō residences in Edo.


upper residence


middle residence


lower residence

With daimyō residences the designation of upper, middle, and lower seems to refer to their importance in relation to the Tokugawa Shōgunate. The upper residence would be nearer to Edo Castle and is where most of the administrative affairs would be carried out. The lower residence was more like a villa. I give a little more detail in my article on sankin-kōtai.

With place names, things are a little different – these are references to the areas of a village’s location on a river. 上 kami (up) refers an upstream location, 中 naka (middle) refers to a midstream location, 下 shimo (down) refers to a downstream location. In this case, what river might we be speaking of? It’s a river that was called the 蛇崩川 Jakuzure-gawa Jakuzure River. This is a wild name, in my opinion. The kanji mean something like “snake death river.” I dunno. But my guess is the kanji aren’t important to this story, and maybe I’ll tackle them later – but if you’ve got an image of a dangerous river, then great. Let’s take it from there.

Great strategist and general -- but worst horse rider EVER.

Minamoto no Yoritomo. Great strategist and general — but worst horse rider EVER.


What does Umahikizawa mean?

Legend states that in 1189, 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo[ii] traveled back and forth on his favorite horse through this area on his military expedition from his capital in 鎌倉 Kamakura to 大州平泉 Ōshū Hiraizumi[iii]. The purpose of the expedition was to destroy 藤原泰衡 Fujiwara no Yasuhira and put an end to the Northern Fujiwara Clan once and for all[iv]. As he approached a deep stream with an extremely fast current[v], his horse became unsure of its footing and hesitated. Yoritomo, who was plagued by a lifelong battle with bad luck in horses[vi], pressed the horse to cross the ravine. The horse tried to proceed but the ground gave out from underneath it and the horse fell into the stream, either breaking its legs or suffering some other fatal injury, despite Yoritomo’s efforts to save his beloved horse. Heartbroken and teary-eyed, the general ordered his men to pull (引く hiku) the horse (馬 uma) out of the ravine (沢 sawa) and bury it on the other side. A variation of this legend states that after the tragic death of his favorite horse, Yoritomo ordered his men to lead (引いて渡る hiite wataru) their horses (馬 uma) across the ravine (沢 sawa) lest they lose their war horses as well. And so the place came to be known as 馬引沢 Umahikizawa horse pulling river.

This is a "sawa" and I bet you wouldn't want to ride a horse across it...

This is a “sawa” and I bet you wouldn’t want to ride a horse across it…

How Does This Place Name Survive?

As the village grew, it came to have 3 distinct quarters. One was upstream, one was midstream, and one was downstream. I showed you these place name earlier. 上馬引沢 Kami-Umahikizawa survives today in abbreviated form as 上馬 Kamiuma “up horse.” 下馬引沢 Shimo-Umahikizawa survives as 下馬 Shimouma “down horse.” These are both official postal addresses, but to the best of my knowledge, 中馬引沢 Naka-Umahikizawa hasn’t survived. But an interesting tidbit, in nearby 多摩市 Tama-shi Tama City, there is an area called 馬引沢 Umahikizawa, but it’s completely unrelated.

This also counts as umahiki (leading a horse).

This also counts as umahiki (leading a horse).


What Does Ashige-zuka Mean?

A mere 4 minute walk from Shimouma, there is an oval shaped, earthen mound in the middle of the street called 葦毛塚 Ashige-zuka. This is a compound word composed of two elements: 葦毛 ashige a gray haired horse and 塚 tsuka a mound. Legend claims that this is the spot where Minamoto no Yoritomo’s horse was buried. We’ve talked about burial mounds quite a few times at JapanThis!, but I think this is the first time we’ve had one allegedly built for a horse.

I wasn't kidding. It's literally in the middle of the road!

I wasn’t kidding. It’s literally in the middle of the road!


What does Komatsunagi mean?

If you take an 8 minute walk back to Shimouma and you’ll find a place called 駒繋神社 Komatsunagi Jinja Komatsunagi Shrine. Let’s continue our story there.

As I mentioned before, Minamoto no Yoritomo was cursed with all manner of bad horse luck. Being a typical superstitious 12th century samurai, he took the death of his favorite horse before an important battle[vii] as a terrible omen. After the burial mound was finished, a mysterious woman appeared. She told the general about the local 氏神 ujigami tutelary deity named 子之神 Nenokami[viii]. According to the woman, Nenokami wielded great power in the area and had the ability to exorcise any evil influence from the accident. She led him to a nearby humble, unnamed shrine[ix] dedicated to Nenokami and then disappeared. Yoritomo prayed to the kami and then continued his march north to Ōshū Hiraizumi.

Yoritomo and his stupid hat.

Yoritomo and his stupid hat.

At Ōshū, Yoritomo’s army crushed the Fujiwara army, thus annihilating his last major obstacle to power. This particular battle paved the way for him to become shōgun[x]. Marching back to Kamakura victorious, he stopped by the Nenokami shrine to give thanks. After all, being a superstitious 12th century samurai, that’s just what you do. Before approaching the shrine, he tied (繋ぐ tsunagu) his horse (駒 koma) to a pine tree (松 matsu)[xi]. He then threw some cash at the local people to build a proper shrine to Nenokami. After that, he proceeded to his capital in Kamakura.

Komatsunagi Shrine as it looks today.

Komatsunagi Shrine as it looks today.

The tree where he tied his horse came to be known as the 駒繋之松 Komatsunagi no Matsu Horse Hitching Pine and the new improved shrine came to be called Komatsunagi Shrine. If you visit the shrine today, they have a tree that they claim is the 3rd generation of the tree Yoritomo tied his horse to[xii]. Sadly, they never say what happened to the mysterious, disappearing woman.

I want some plot resolution, dammit.

The shrine claims that this is the original pine tree that Yoritomo used.

The shrine claims that this is the original pine tree that Yoritomo used.


What does Komadome mean?

Let’s take a 25 minute walk back to Sangen-jaya[xiii]the article that started all of this – and a 250 year or so jump into the future. Now we’re in the throes of the Sengoku Period – way before the rise of 3 Great Unifiers[xiv]. Edo has been in what you could call a “dark age” ever since the transfer of power from Kamakura back to Kyōto[xv]. Local militarized noble families rise and fall here and there. And among these local nobles, warlords have begun making land grabs and power grabs. Many of these clans come and go, too. One of the ascending powers in Kantō at this time were the 後北条 Go-Hōjō the Late Hōjō[xvi].

So our story is of a somewhat obscure noble who was in the service of the Hōjō, a certain 吉良頼康 Kira Yoriyasu. Much about him is unknown[xvii], but we do know that he served both the 2nd and 3rd successive Hōjō lords, 北条氏綱 Hōjō Ujitsuna and 北条氏康 Hōjō Ujiyasu[xviii]. So while he wasn’t a major player, he was playing with some big time ballers. You can think of him as Jay-Z’s longtime friend who gets invited to parties, but isn’t allowed on the red carpet.

This picture was long said to be Kira Yoriyasu, but recent research suggests that it's actually Takeda Shingen.

This picture was long said to be Kira Yoriyasu, but recent research suggests that it’s actually Takeda Shingen.

If you recall from my article on the etymology of Edo, from the Heian Period to the Kamakura Period this area was controlled by the 江戸氏 Edo-shi Edo clan太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan took over the Edo clan’s fort in 1457[xix]. Dōkan was a retainer of the 上杉氏 Uesugi-shi Uesugi clan[xx] and so after his assassination in 1486, the Uesugi assumed direct control of the castle[xxi]. However the castle was of little importance to their clan and so it seems to have been lightly defended – if defended at all. And so, when the Hōjō came into the region, Edo Castle[xxii] fell easily in 1524[xxiii] and one of the generals who followed the Hōjō into Edo was our new friend, Kira Yoriyasu.

The Kira clan had controlled various fiefs in the area since 1366, and Yoriyasu was given control of Setagaya Village sometime around the attack on Edo Castle. He ruled from 世田ヶ谷城 Setagaya-jō Setagaya Castle[xxiv]. Yoriyasu’s appointment didn’t last long because the Uesugi eventually struck back and burned the castle to the ground in 1530 and Yoriyasu was transferred elsewhere[xxv]. However, in his time as the lord of Setagaya, he managed to leave behind a bit of a local legend.

The fringed orchid is often associated with Setagaya Ward because of a version of Yoriyasu's legend. Unfortunately, we're not going to go into that part of the story today.

The fringed orchid is often associated with Setagaya Ward because of a version of Yoriyasu’s legend. Unfortunately, we’re not going to go into that part of the story today.

The legend states that in the women’s quarters of Setagaya Castle, there was a lot of jealous infighting between his 正室 seishitsu legal wife and his 12 側室 sokushitsu concubines[xxvi]. On the day of birth of Yoriyasu’s first son something went terribly wrong.

As was normal for the day, the lord of the estate was out doing his do (hunting, by some accounts) when suddenly his wife went into labor alone[xxvii] – also normal for the day. Tragically, however, the boy was stillborn – meaning the Kira family line could have ended there. To avoid bad luck, the boy was enshrined at nearby 駒留八幡神社 Komadome Hachiman Jinja Komadome Hachiman Shrine. Because of this, the enshrined kami is sometimes referred to as 若宮八幡 Waka-no-miya Hachiman Young Prince Hachiman which could be interpreted as “little warrior.” At any rate, the rumor mill went into full swing that the boy had actually been smothered to death by a jealous concubine[xxviii].

The enshrinement of the stillborn son seems to have benefitted the family, as they continued to hold extensive lands until the 1590’s and the clan continued until the 元禄時代 Genroku Jidai Genroku Period, which coincided with the reign of 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi[xxix]. In the beginning of the Edo Period, the Kira clan was given 旗本 hatamoto status, ie; they became direct retainers of the shōgun family – not bad at all, but they weren’t a daimyō family as is sometimes thought. One of Yoriyasu’s descendant’s was 吉良上野介 Kira Kōzuke-no-suke[xxx] – the guy usually portrayed as the bad guy in the story of the 47 Rōnin[xxxi]. The family was disgraced and more or less dropped out of history at that point.

Oh ffs, not these clowns again???!

Oh ffs, not these clowns again???!

That’s A Neat Story, But WTF Does It Have To Do With Komadome?

Oh sorry, right. I sorta went off on a tangent there, didn’t I? Actually, the etymology of this shrine doesn’t really have much of a story behind it. It involves a certain samurai courtier of the Kamakura Shōgunate named 北条左近太郎 Hōjō Sakotarō[xxxii]. In 1308, he became a priest and wanted to establish a temple to 八幡 Hachiman the Japanese god of war[xxxiii]. This particular kami was favored by Minamoto no Yoritomo and his shōgunate and so shrines to Hachiman were very popular at this time. According to legend, Hachiman came to Sakotarō in a dream and said, “Dude, listen to your favorite horse and it will totally tell you where to enshrine me.” So he rode east from Kamakura until his exhausted horse (駒 koma) stopped (留まった tomatta) near Setagaya Village and refused to go any further. He totally realized that this was totally the spot. He immediately dismounted his unsurprisingly fatigued horse and decided to build a shrine at that spot and so the shrine is now called 駒留八幡神社 Komadome Hachiman Jinja Komadome Hachiman Shrine – the Hachiman Shrine where the horse totally stopped.

Komadome Shrine as it looks today.

Komadome Shrine as it looks today.


What does Komazawa mean?

This is the most boring place name ever – not unlike 大田区 Ōta-ku Ōta Ward[xxxiv]. 駒沢 Komazawa is an amalgamation of the surrounding places with 駒 koma horse and 沢 sawa ravine that was created in 1889 (Meiji 22) with the formation of Meguro Ward. There is another nearby but non-equine place name, 野沢 Nozawa, which features the kanji 沢 sawa. Easiest place name ever.

This picture has absolutely nothing to do with this article.

This picture has absolutely nothing to do with this article.c


Are These Etymologies True?

Your guess is as good as mine, but these all date back to the Kamakura Period and Sengoku Period which is when we first start getting reliable information from the Kantō area. This is also a time when previously existing place names get written down for the first time and transcribed into kanji. Maybe these events transpired. Maybe they didn’t. But what we can say for sure is that in this area, local legends popped up and many of them were affiliated with horses and the rising prestige of the samurai class in Kantō. In these place names we can see the areas surrounding Edo begin to blossom.


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[i] Aaaaaaaaaaaaand, once again, longtime readers know that I’ve already written about Setagaya here.
[ii] Please tell me you know who Minamoto no Yoritomo is. I’m assuming you do. But if not, check out this fine article about him at Samurai Archives.
[iii] An area in present day 岩手県 Iwate-ken Iwate Prefecture.
[iv] Fans of 源義経 Minamoto no Yoshitsune, will recognize this name. He’s the son of 藤原秀衡 Fujiwara no Hidehira who helped hide Yoshitsune when Yoritomo was trying to kill him. The Fujiwara betrayed Yoshitsune – as Fujiwara do – and it was Yasuhira who attacked Yoshitsune forcing him to kill his wife and daughter and then commit seppuku. The less dramatic version of his demise is that Yoshitsune may have just straight up been overwhelmed and was just cut down in battle by Fujiwara forces. The details of his death are disputed – and in my opinion, irrelevant.
And for those of you scratching your heads at all these names, check out this article at Samurai Archives.
[v] Presumably the Jakuzure River, or an earlier incarnation thereof.
[vi] Shōgun Yoritomo died in 1199 when he was thrown off his horse lol.
[vii] A “baddle,” if you will. (sorry, bad joke)
[viii] This kanji looks like the kanji for “child” but is actually the Chinese Zodiac sign of the rat (or mouse, whichever you prefer). That’s why the reading is ネ ne and not コ ko. Another reading is Nenogami.
[ix] Since this was a local deity in the countryside, we can assume there were tiny, almost impromptu shrines of this scattered all over the area.
[x] Another detail that seems to be in dispute: some claim Yoritomo was made shōgun by the emperor, others claim he just took the title for himself.
[xi] Obviously, this is a different horse than the one that died before the battle because… well, ghost horses hadn’t been invented yet.
[xii] There is some evidence for local worship of Nenokami. If you walk 40 minutes into nearby 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward, there is minor shrine called 高木神社 Takagi Jinja Takagi Shrine which also houses Nenokami. In fact, the area surround Takagi Shrine was more or less “officially” called 子ノ神 Ne no Kami up until 1889 (Meiji 22). The name was abolished with the creation of Meguro Ward in 1932. I’ve also found a shrine in 川崎市 Kawasaki-shi Kawasaki City that enshrines Nenokami.
[xiii] And Kamiuma.
[xiv] 織田信長 Oda Nobunaga, 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and of course 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu. If you don’t know who these people are, get the fuck off my blog.
[xv] And Kamakura’s power doesn’t seem to have been very long lasting anyways.
[xvi] Why were they called “late?” Let me google that for you, bitch.
[xvii] For example, we don’t know when or where he was born. We know his legal wife was the daughter of Hōjō Ujitsuna but we don’t know his name. We know he had legitimate male heirs, but he adopted a son and made him head of the Kira Family… but we don’t know why. These early years of the Sengoku Period are very messy.
[xviii] Actually Kira Yoriyasu’s original name was 吉良頼貞 Kira Yorisada. He received the kanji 康 yasu from Hōjō Ujiyasu.
[xix] The Tokugawa Shōgunate considered the massive fortification and new moat system the birth of Edo Castle.
[xx] This particular branch of the Uesugi were the 扇谷上杉家 Ōgigayatsu Uesugi, if you’re into that sort of thing.
[xxi] Technically speaking, the castle was Uesugi property and Dōkan was merely supervising it for them.
[xxii] Also called 千代田城 Chiyoda-jō Chiyoda Castle back in those days.
[xxiii] Please read more about the Late Hōjō here at Samurai Archives.
[xxiv] Let’s use the term “castle” loosely here and think of it more as a fortified noble residence on a hill. The estate (or castle) didn’t survive the fall of the Hōjō and the coming of the Tokugawa. And if you’re in Tōkyō now and saying to yourself, “Whaaaaaa?? There’s a Japanese castle in Setagaya?” then by all means, go and  read this page about it at – your one stop shop for all your Japanese castle needs.
[xxv] Even if he held the “castle” for 5 years, I’m guessing that’s a pretty good run at that time.
[xxvi] The name 常盤 Tokiwa is often cited as both wife and concubine but the historical record is ambiguous. Also, there are several variations of this story. If you’d like to read more about it, I actually tracked down a guy who translated 3 variations into English here.
[xxvii] ie; not really alone, but not with Yoriyasu. She would have been in the women’s quarters of the fort – most definitely surrounded by the other women. The “joy of birth” wasn’t something often enjoyed together in feudal Japan.
[xxviii] Or by some accounts, a concubine bore the child and the jealous wife murdered it.
[xxix] The 5th Tokugawa shōgun.
[xxx] Kōsuke-no-suke is actually his court title; his real name was 吉良義央 Kira Yoshihisa.
[xxxi] Longtime readers know my opinion of this story.
[xxxii] I’m not sure about the reading of his given name. Also this dude is a “real Hōjō,” not a “Late Hōjō” of the Sengoku Period who adopted the name.
[xxxiii] Calling him “the Japanese god of war” is a bit of simplification, but you can read more about Hachiman here.
[xxxiv] Which, of course, you know I’ve already written about here.

What does Suijin Ōhashi mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on January 2, 2015 at 1:00 am

Suijin Ōhashi (water god big bridge, more at “Great Suijin Bridge”)

Suijin Ohashi. Not one of Tokyo's more famous bridges.

Suijin Ohashi.
Not one of Tokyo’s more famous bridges.

This bridge was named after a ferry crossing, that was in turn named after a shrine, 水神社 Suijinsha or 水神宮 Suijingū Suijin Shrine. The shrine was located at the confluence of the 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River[i] and the 利根川 Tone-gawa Tone River[ii] and was located directly on the riverbank. After this confluence, the merged river was called the 墨田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River[iii]. The origins of the shrine are lost to time, but one legend[iv] holds that in 1180 Minamoto no Yoritomo put his army to camp in this area and paid his respects to the shrine. Yoritomo is said to have felt the presence of the 神 kami spirit that lived in the river and threw some cash at the humble shrine so it could get a facelift[v].

Suijin Shrine it's former glory. Note the torii on the riverbank. That was one possible landing point for the Suijin Ferry.

Suijin Shrine its former glory. Note the torii on the riverbank. That was one possible landing point for the Suijin Ferry.

The kami was popularly referred to as 水神様 Suijin-sama or 水神さん Suijin-san (literally “water spirit”). Over the years, the shrine itself went by various names: 浮島神社 Ukijima Jinja[vi] and 浮島宮 Ukijimagū Ukijima shrine or 水神社 Suijinsha and 水神宮 Suijingū Suijin Shrine[vii]. The shrine was famous among the people who worked on the river. It was also popular with the girls who worked at the tea houses that served the horny boatmen[viii].

At the bottom right you can see Suijin no Mori (Suijin Grove) and if you look carefully you can see Suijin Shrine (labeled Sumidagawa Jinja here). The river is flowing by and in the distance you can see Mt. Tsukuba. Also notice the yaezakura (double cherry blossoms).

At the bottom right you can see Suijin no Mori (Suijin Grove) and if you look carefully you can see Suijin Shrine (labeled Sumidagawa Jinja here). The river is flowing by and in the distance you can see Mt. Tsukuba. Also notice the yaezakura (double cherry blossoms).

The shrine was so popular with the locals and that the whole area came to be referred to as just 水神Suijin. One of the oldest ferry crossings on the Sumida River was built here and was called 水神渡し Suijin Watashi Suijin Crossing[ix]. In the Edo Period, the area along the river and near the shrine was famous with locals for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. The Suijin Crossing allowed Edoites great access to the area. The ferry crossing was active until the bridge was built and put the traditional ferrymen out of work…… wait for it……….… in 19-fucking-88!!

Yes, that’s right, kids. Taking a ferry across the river was an alternative to using the bridge until the late 80’s.

A typical river ferryboat.

A typical river ferryboat.

The last ferry crossing still in use on the Sumida River is used to transport employees of Nippon Kayaku (Japan Pharmaceuticals).

The last ferry crossing still in use on the Sumida River is used to transport employees of Nippon Kayaku (Japan Pharmaceuticals).

The bridge was built in 2 stages. Initially, a pedestrian bridge was built in 1988 as an evacuation route in the event of a fire or natural disaster[x]. As the areas on both sides of the bridge developed, it became clear that a pedestrian-only bridge spanning a wide river wasn’t really good use of a bridge (ie; nobody was really using it). So they expanded the bridge and added 2 car lanes to allow traffic to flow both directions in 1996.

See the elevated highway in the background? We're going to talk about that in a minute.

See the elevated highway in the background?
We’re going to talk about that in a minute.

Today the shrine is near the river, but not on the river.
So what gives?

In the Edo Period, the Tone River was diverted eastward to the Pacific Ocean and so for much of the Pre-Modern and Modern Eras, there was no confluence here. However the Sumida River (or what is now called the Sumida River) has always been here. But that’s not the only thing that changed, in 1872 (Meiji 4) the name of the shrine was changed to 隅田川神社 Sumida-gawa Jinja Sumidagawa Shrine[xi].

Sumidagawa Shrine today.

Sumidagawa Shrine today.

But until recently, the shrine was still located on the river. When the unsightly elevated highway that is 国道6号 Kokudō Roku-gō National Highway 6 was built in the 1960’s, the shrine was moved about 150 meters to the east, partly to protect the shrine from being so close to the river and mostly to make way for the highway. This highway expansion, like all of the other elevated highways in Tōkyō, became an instant eyesore and destroyed the scenery of this once historic area. This area was once so famous for its view of the river, of cherry blossoms, and of far off 筑波山 Tsukuba-san Mt. Tsukuba that even 歌川広重 Utagawa Hiroshige painted it. Judging from its former fame and from the splendid representation by Hiroshige, it’s kind of a tragedy we lost this one. All we have now is a fairly obscure – and fairly ugly – bridge and the shrine that started it all is an afterthought of a bygone era living under a filthy, noisy highway.

Supposedly this is the torii that once stood on the riverbank (from the B/W photo above)

Supposedly this is the torii that once stood on the riverbank (from the B/W photo above)

Just a quick note, if I may. Part of what inspired me to right this article is an old post by blogger, Rurōsha, who is a lover of the Sumida River and of Tōkyō’s 下町 shitamachi low city. If you love Tōkyō’s rivers and shitamachi, you may like her blog. She gives a little more info about the shrine and her impressions of it.

Also, I visited the site the other day and took these pictures.


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[i] Here’s my article on the Arakawa.
[ii] Here’s my article on the Tone.
[iii] Yes, the kanji is “wrong” intentionally. More about that in my article on the Sumida River here.
[iv] Another, much more ridiculous legend, says the shrine was established by 日本武尊 Yamato Takeru no Mikoto Yamato Takeru, ie; Captain Japan. Long time readers should be able to guess my feelings on this theory.
[v] Keep in mind, this is a local tradition preserved by the shrine. There are no documents that verify Yoritomo’s visit.
[vi] Ukijima (or Ukishima) means something like “floating island.”
[vii] There are shrines called Suijinsha and Suijingū all over Japan.
[viii] Is it just me? Or does “Horny Boatmen” sound like a great band name? Somebody get on that stat!
[ix] There are traditions that say 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo and later 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan had built bridges here but these fell into disrepair, once again giving rise to a ferryboat system. I can’t say if this was true or not.
[x] I’m assuming this was in reaction to a string of destructive earthquakes in Japan in the 70’s and 80’s. They were nothing as bad as the 1995 Kōbe Earthquake or cataclysmic 2011 Tōhoku Earfquake, but still there was a lot of damage done and a lot of people died.
[xi] Judging from the Hiroshige print, I’m guessing Sumidagawa Shrine had become a popular name for the shrine by the late Edo Period..

What is the Tsukishima Area?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples, Travel in Japan on December 9, 2014 at 2:19 am

Tsukishima Chiiki
(Moon Island Area)

Tsukishima Matsuri

Tsukishima Matsuri

First of all, happy holidays to you! I hope you’re all able to stay warm during this winter season.
My last article on the Edo Period fishing island of Tsukudajima, raised the unavoidable problem of what to do about all the landfill that extended the island substantially southwest along the coast of the bay. I could have broken up each neighborhood into small articles, but that would have taken a long time. Separately, they might not be as interesting to read. So I decided to combine all of them as an early クリトリスプレゼント Kuritorisu purezento Christmas present to you all. It’s also a present to myself so I can relax during the coming 御正月 O-shōgatsu New Year Holiday. This year I’ve burnt the candle at both ends and it’s finally caught up with me. I can’t wait to relax.

Today we have a lot of ground to cover so let’s get right into it, shall we? Today we’re going on a whirlwind tour from Tsukiji to Tsukuda to Tsukishima to Kachidoki to Toyomi-chō ending in Harumi looking towards the future.

Today's course!

Today’s course!


Tsukiji (landfill, literally “fabricated land”)


man-made, fabricated



The word “tsukiji” means fabricated land. Modern Japanese uses a different word for landfill today, 埋立地 umetatechi which means something like “built up land.”

The name means landfill because, that’s exactly what it was. After the 明暦大火 Meireki Taika Meireki Conflagration[i] in 1657, the first landfill efforts were conducted in this area. The shōgunate began extending the area from 鉄砲洲 Teppōzu Rifle Sandbar[ii] southward. At the time, Teppōzu was where the mainland was closest to 佃嶋 Tsukudajima Tsukuda Island. The new expansion was simply called 築地 Tsukiji “fabricated land.”

Teppozu in the Edo Period. They say the name of the landfill is because it looks like a matchlock rifle. I think it looks more like a katana cuz a curved rifle sounds dangerous.  Anyways, the gray areas are commoner towns, the large white areas are daimyo, the small white areas are samurai residences. That's Tsukuda Island to the right. The tiny red areas in Teppozu are land owned by the Teppozu Shrine.

Teppozu in the late Edo Period. They say the name of the landfill is because it looks like a matchlock rifle. I think it looks more like a katana cuz a curved rifle sounds dangerous.
Anyways, the gray areas are commoner towns, the large white areas are daimyo, the small white areas are samurai residences.
That’s Tsukuda Island to the right. The tiny red areas in Teppozu are land owned by the Teppozu Shrine.

An interesting side note about the name Teppōzu. It survives only in the name of a shrine. In 1624, 鉄砲洲稲荷神社 Teppōzu Inari Jinja Teppōzu Inari Shrine was built in the area. The shrine is famous for a wacky winter festival which culminates in 寒中水浴 kanchū suiyoku ritual purification by taking a group bath in freezing water (that link is video of this year’s event, btw). The shrine was moved to 八丁堀 Hatchōbori in 1868.

Look, ma! It's a bunch of people freezing in a pool of ice cold water in the middle of December!!

Look, ma! It’s a bunch of people freezing in a pool of ice cold water in the middle of December!!

Anyways, after the fire in 1657, the 浅草御坊 Asakusa Gobō (a residence for priests of 浅草本願寺 Asakusa Hongan-ji Asakusa Hongan Temple) was rebuilt on part of the reclaimed land. Later, a temple and cemetery were built next to gobō that served the needs of the inhabitants of the area. A local town and economy sprung  around the temple, called a 門前町 monzen-chō in Japanese[iii], and the area began to flourish. Eventually some 武家屋敷 buke yashiki samurai residences and 大名屋敷 daimyō yashiki daimyō residences were built in the area as well.

The temple that was built here was named 築地本願寺 Tsukiji Hongan-ji Tsukiji Hongan Temple (a branch temple of the and because of its unique architecture is a local landmark. It was a traditional Japanese temple until it was destroyed in the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. The present concrete structure is a weird mix of Western Neo-Classicism, Southeast Asian Buddhism, and fascist architecture that looks like a basilica/cathedral mated with a temple and shat out a concrete baby. That said, it’s a unique building and it’s pretty hard to miss.

Not sure if fascist government buildings. Or 1930's train station.

Not sure if fascist government building…or 1930’s train station.

Tsukiji Hongan-ji was built by 伊東忠太 Itō Chūta and was completed in 1934. I don’t know much about Chūta who designed this monstrosity, but he seems to have been the darling of the Japanese Empire. His designs, in my humble opinion, are just clownish. He took the soul out of traditional architecture in an attempt to westernize it. But that’s just my opinion and I can’t deny that his influence was huge. In the Post WWII era, you’ll find many buildings built by his students and architects influenced by him, including so-called traditional buildings. But just to give you an idea of some of his other work: he designed the 遊就館Yūshūkan the biased, pro-imperial museum at 靖国神社 Yasukuni Jinja Yasukuni Shrine. The building boasts a style that would look great on the dead Kim Jong-il or Joseph Stalin.

Oh, and he designed this:

He did this in Kyoto. Kyoto!! I rest my case.

He did this in Kyoto.
Kyoto!!I rest my case.

I’m sorry. My bitching is almost finished. I have one more thing to complain about this temple. You see, it has another claim to fame. The funerary ceremony[iv] of “rock[v]” musician, Hide[vi], was held at Tsukiji Hongan-ji[vii]. Many people with bad taste in music consider him the Curt Cobain of Japan. After he killed himself in 1998, his bad fashion sense and inability to do rock, metal, or industrial music properly launched an entire fashion and music movement in Japan[viii]. The movement came to be called ヴィジュアル系 vijuaru-kei visual style – usually called V系 V-kei today. As far as the bands go, they’re ridiculous looking post-gal style clown shows.

Spend a little more time rocking out and making music with integrity and a little less time doing your hair for a good purikura session.  I mean, if you want people to take you seriously... Clowns.

Spend a little more time rocking out and making music with integrity and a little less time doing your hair for a good purikura session.
I mean, if you want people to take you seriously…

Back to the History – Foreigner Zones

Sorry, got off track there but I had to get off my chest while researching this.

So, way back in 1869 (Meiji 2), foreigners still weren’t a common site in Japan and given the animosity towards and even violence against foreigners since the 1850’s that had been commonplace[ix], the major ports of Japan often had special “foreigner towns” set up where non-Japanese could live peacefully without having to deal with any BS from the locals[x]. And so in 1869 (Meiji 2), a 居留地 kyoryūchi foreign settlement[xi] was established in Teppōzu. The area had foreign schools, churches, and buildings associated with the newly born international spirit of trade. The American School in Japan was established in the foreign settlement in 1902 (Meiji 35).

tsukiji foreign settlement

The Tsukiji Settlement in 1894 (Meiji 27). You can clearly see the traditional 2 story buildings of the Edo Period in the surrounding areas. I imagine this sort of unique neighborhood with its unique architecture and strange inhabitants must have been a mind blowing experience for Meiji Era residents of Tokyo.

Also, I don’t want to paint the Japanese as being completely racist here. These settlements were born out of a necessity of the Bakumatsu. Radical samurai were indeed trying to assassinate any foreigners they deemed as a threat – they were straight up terrorists. The Japanese had a highly complex hierarchy that was unfamiliar to the newly come foreign embassies. The foreign nations had negotiated for exemption from things like kowtowing to daimyō processions and beheadings and such because… well, they couldn’t wrap their heads around it[xii]. The shōgunate assigned samurai bodyguards to protect the foreigners and established “foreigner zones” to keep them safe. In the new “Meiji Chill Out™[xiii]” foreign settlements, many established before the coup, were areas where commerce and official business could be conducted in a kind of creole and mash up of styles that was conducive to everyone. The Christian westerners could get their Jesus on in peace and educate their kids in their parents’ languages. They didn’t have to learn Japanese to survive. A foreigner could sit in a chair and not the floor. A Japanese person could wear foreign fashion and not take any shit for it. Fair enough [xiv].

Was Meiji Fashion the birth of cosplay?

Was Meiji Fashion the birth of cosplay? That’s not a rhetorical question.

With the establishment of an imperial navy, the area became an education center for naval officers. Beginning in 1888 (Meiji 21), present day 築地 Tsukiji was the home to the 海軍経理学校 Kaigun Keiri Gakkō the Naval Administration School of the Japanese Empire. The school operated on that property until the end of WWII. The founder of the Japanese Navy and one of the real visionaries of the late Edo Period, 勝海舟 Katsu Kaishū, even served as a professor in the area[xv].

Navy Training. No boat style. Awwwwww yeah!

Navy Training.
No boat style.
Awwwwww yeah!

The area began a kind of transformation after the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923. Most of the old Edo Period buildings were burnt to the ground, but the area didn’t modernize overnight. Of course, the Naval Academy was rebuilt as soon as possible. But Edo’s fish market, which had also been burnt to the ground, needed to be rebuilt. The Nihonbashi market was no longer as convenient as it had once been, so it was decided to relocate the fish market to Tsukiji. The construction of a “modern” market facility opened in 1935. The modern Tsukiji Market has been a work in progress ever since. There is a great debate about moving it now, much to the dismay of the locals. So far the market remains in its place and if you want some ridiculously delicious 江戸前寿司 Edomae-zushi Edo-style sushi, then get your ass there.

Edomae Sushi

Edomae Sushi


Tsukuda (cultivated field)

A view of Tsukuda Island from the north. The wooded area is Ishikawa Island. The unwooded, developed area is the commoner town.

A view of Tsukuda Island from the north. The wooded area is Ishikawa Island. The unwooded, developed area is the commoner town.

So, the other day I wrote about this location. Directly across from Teppōzu was a fishing island called 佃島 Tsukudajima Tsukuda Island. Located on this island, was the official fishing concession of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. The original article is long and really is the background for this article. I highly suggest you read it.

The island was expanded southwards by landfill. Whether the shōgunate or whoever was in charge of the building project knew or cared where the name “Tsukudajima” came from isn’t really important. By this time, a folk etymology had come about where people thought that Tuskudajima’s “tsuku” was related to 築地 Tsukiji’s tsuki build, fabricate and the daily word 作る tsukuru make, build. So the new landfill’s name was bound to be affected by this collision of roots. Which brings us to our nest place name…

Tsukuda at night

Tsukuda at night


Tsukishima (moon island)







In the Edo Period, there were no televisions or movies or love hotels with jacuzzis and 25 channels of porn. One possible option for date night was heading down to 月之岬[xvi] Tsuki no Misaki Cape Moon to watch the moon rise over the bay. Restaurants, tea houses, and other types of businesses lined the bay in 三田 Mita that offered rooms with a view of the bay for this very purpose[xvii]. 月見 tsukimi moon viewing is a famous past time of “Old Japan” and so I don’t feel much need to go into it any deeper. Even to us, the moon is a pretty spectacular thing to behold. Unfortunately, the coastline of Edo Bay was immediately built up by the new Imperial Government after the Meiji Coup. As a result, the area called Tsuki no Misaki was built over and faded into oblivion.

There are many places called Tsuki no Misaki around the coastlines of Japan. If I'm not mistaken, this is one from the outskirts of Edo in Shinagawa.  But this is what a party room would look like on Edo Bay.

There are many places called Tsuki no Misaki around the coastlines of Japan.
If I’m not mistaken, this is one from the outskirts of Edo in Shinagawa.
But this is what a party room would look like on Edo Bay.

A new landfill build up was begun in 1887 (Meiji 20) and completed in 1892 (Meiji 25). This extended Tsukuda Island southwards significantly. As I’ve shown, 築地 Tsukiji was a place name that existed on the mainland from the Edo Period. 佃 Tsukuda was also a place name. And there was ample reason to mix up the “tsuki” of Tsukiji and the “tsuku” of Tsukuda and the “tsuki” Tsuki no Misaki.

In 1892, the 東京市参事会 Tōkyō-shi Sanjikai Tōkyō City Council gave the new landfill the name 月島 Tuskishima “Moon Island” and although we don’t have the exact reason written down, it seems fair to say the name is a mash up of 月の岬 Tsuki no Misaki (Moon Cape) and 佃島 Tsukudajima (Tuskuda Island) and Tsukishima (Landfill Island→Moon Island), obviously opting for the kanji 月tsuki moon over the kanji 築 tsuki landfill for esthetic reasons.

For most of its history, Tsukishima has been decidedly 下町 shitamachi low city. But in the last 15-20 years the area has seen an influx of タワーマンション tawā manshon sky rise apartments. Some long time and some short term residents of Tsukishima and Tsukiji have been fighting hard to prevent over development of the area. Tsukishima is famous as the もんじゃの街 monja no machi monja town. Monja-yaki is a local Tōkyō delicacy… that was once described to me as “something that looks like barf on an iron grill, but taste really yummy.” That was not encouraging to hear, but since monja-yaki and okonomi-yaki are usually considered a kind of Wonder Twins of Japanese shitamachi cuisine, I have to say that to my palate, monja is way more flavorful. In Tsukishima, you can go to the もんじゃストリート monja storīto monja street and find monja-yaki of every type, from the most simple Shōwa style to the most cutting edge styles. If you ever come to Tōkyō, a visit to Tsukishima and a little dabbling in the world of monja-yaki is a must. I’ve heard there are about 70 monja shops in the area.

Monja Street.

Monja Street.

If we move a little farther south on the new land fill, things become a little complicated. We start seeing names like 晴海 Harumi and 勝ちどき Kachidoki.



Kachdoki (a victory cry)

Hey, look, more crap theologico-fascist style from the 30's.

Hey, look, more crap theologico-fascist style from the 30’s. I wonder if Ito Chuta built this?


win, victory


war cry

As soon as they had time to think about city planning, the Meiji Government had plans to connect present day 築地 Tsukiji with 佃島 Tsukudajima (Tsukuda), home of the area’s most powerful fishing concession in Edo Bay[xviii]. But government money was tight and fishermen have boats, so fuck it. The fishermen could just take a boat over and deliver fish the way they had for hundreds of years. Tuskuda’s location was ridiculously good and the rivers of Edo-Tōkyō were sufficient.

However, in 1905 (Meiji 38), a ferry crossing was established that connected Tsukiji with Tsukishima. Boats would taxi people and goods from the mainland to Tsukuda/Tsukishima. Who was using this particular crossing? Well, presumably the 海軍経理学校 Kaigun Keiri Gakkō Naval Administration School in Tsukiji and what were they doing at Tsukishima… let’s just say they were getting fresh seafood.

The sign commemorates the ferry crossing.

The sign commemorates the ferry crossing.

However, after the 日露戦争 Nichiro Sensō Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), the Naval Administration School set up an 碑 ishibumi  memorial to commemorate the 旅順陥落 Ryojun Kanraku Fall of Port Arthur. The name was the 勝鬨ノ碑 Kachidoki no Ishibumi Victory Cry Monument. The location was the landing of the ferry crossing and as such the ferry crossing was called the 勝鬨渡し Kachidoki Watashi Kachidoki Crossing.

In 1915, the sail boats or oar-driven boats came to be replaced by steamships, which could carry much more cargo to and from Tsukiji and Tsukuda/Tsukishima. Tōkyō’s population was exploding and as such the traffic from Ishikawajima, Tsukuda, Harumi, etc., was so heavy both ways, a bridge was built.

In 1933 (Shōwa 8), Tōkyō finally got around to building that bridge they’d been putting off for so long. Construction was finished in 1940 (Shōwa 15)[xix]. This being the peak of Japanese nationalism, I’m sad to say, that the “Victory Cry Monument” seemed as good a namesake as any for the bridge. And voilà! We have a 勝鬨橋 Kachidoki-bashi Kachidoki Bridge. The bridge was built as a draw bridge to accommodate large military steam ships passage. To the best of my knowledge, the bridge doesn’t open these days.

C'mon, kiss!! Do it!! You know you want to!

C’mon, kiss!!
Do it!! You know you want to!

Incidentally, today the name isn’t written 勝鬨 kachidoki, but 勝どき kachidoki. The reason is that after WWII, major reforms in Japanese spelling were made and the kanji 鬨 toki was removed from the list of 当用漢字 tōyō kanji general use kanji so there was no choice but to write it in hiragana.

Let’s move down to the next section of landfill, shall we?

From the air, Kachidoki look a lot like Edo, except with skyscrapers.

From the air, Kachidoki look a lot like Edo, except with skyscrapers.


Toyomi (abundant sea)

Where slipping into shipping companies happen territory...

We’re slipping into shipping companies happen territory…

Toyomi is the southernmost and smallest section of the original manmade island. It lay directly across from the former 浜御殿 Hama Goten Seaside Palace, a villa of the Tokugawa[xx]. The view from this villa would have been a magnificent view of Edo Bay – possibly good for viewing a moon or two. The park is absolutely beautiful, but the view of the bay is blocked by landfill and skyscrapers.

That said, in 1963 a new landfill expansion was completed and the name was decided by the residents via questionnaire. The name is a mix of the following kanji:


abundant, rich, bountiful, excellent


sea, ocean, waters



The meaning of 豊海町 Toyomi-chō is essentially “bountiful sea town” and looks quite charming on paper.

The first kanji is particularly auspicious. For one thing, the character appears in the name of 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the second of Japan’s so-called 3 Great Unifiers. It also appears in the Tōkyō place name 豊島 Toshima, which I wrote about in 2013. The area owes a lot to the bountiful waters of Tōkyō Bay. For all of its history it’s been a wharf for fishing boats and a home to a whole gaggle of refrigerated seafood warehouses.



Harumi (clear seas)

Oh look! You can see Tokyo Tower from here!

Oh look! You can see Tokyo Tower from here!

The last area we’re going to look at is a second landfill island built to the east of the other places we talked about.

First, let’s look at the kanji.




sea, ocean

晴海 Harumi is a perpendicular, man-made island that lies directly east of Tsukishima, Kachidoki, and Toyomi. Building out the land fill began from Tsukuda in the middle of the Meiji Period and was finally completed in 1929.

In 1939, the residents of the island voted to divide the area into six 丁目 six chōme blocks and named it 晴海町 Harumi-chō Harumi Town. The idea being that they lived on the bay and they always hoped for 晴れ海 hare umi tranquil waters. Recently built landfill was merged with the older area and the number of chōme was reduced to 5. The suffix 町 chō town was also eliminated. The future of Harumi should be interesting. The 選手村 Senshu Mura Olympic Village for the 2020 Tōkyō Olympics is planned to be built in Harumi 5-chōme.



So In Conclusion…

Happy Holidays to all of you! As always, I would just be talking into an insane vacuum if it weren’t for you. Every like, re-tweet, share, and comment means a lot to me because I know there are some other people who really love Japanese history and really love Tokyo out there. Much love to each and every one of you! Stay warm and I’ll see you in 2015!


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[i] I wrote an article about fires waaaaaaay back in 2013. You can read it here.
[ii] This is a topic for another day, but my understanding is this area had nothing to do with rifles and was a reference to the long narrow alleyways. Could be wrong, but it’s not important for this article.
[iii] I have an article discussing monzen-chō here.
[iv] A kind of Buddhist wake.
[v] And I use the term “rock” loosely…
[vi] His name isn’t pronounced /haɪd/ like English “hide and seek,” but /çide/ following the Japanese pronunciation. His real given name was 秀人 Hideto. He was the guitarist or some shit for a crap band called X-Japan.
[vii] His actual grave is in Kanagawa. Apparently, it is routinely “vandalized” by fans.
[viii] Emphasis on fashion, not art.
[x] And I’m sure that most Japanese didn’t want to deal with them either. After all, their arrival had caused, like, almost 2 decade of chaos, the collapse of the government, and a cultural revolution. You know. That kind of thing.
[xi] This word is the same word used in Modern Japanese for “Indian reservation.” So this could be seen as a “foreigner reservation.” Sometimes another word was used 居留区 kyoryūku “foreigner zone.” In PC Japanese, the word is usually prefixed with 外国人居留地 gaikokujin kyoryūchi foreigner’s settlement using a polite word for foreigners.
[xii] This didn’t always work out as planned, though.
[xiii] My term for the new Japanese openness to foreign cultures. Feel free to use it, but be sure to write it as The Meiji Chill Out™. The ™ is crucial.
[xiv] Not unlike the modern scenario where rich foreigners staff embassies in free housing and live in nice neighborhoods and don’t learn the language, culture, or bother integrating at all. Ooops, did I say that outloud?
[xv] I wrote a book review about Katsu Kaishū! (ps: I’m starting to doubt this claim because he would have been 80 years old about this. Maybe he worked at a different location at an earlier time… I don’t care enough to look it up.
[xvi] Also written 月の見崎 Tsuki no Misaki.
[xvii] Alright, it wasn’t just for date night. Entertaining of officials and merchants and other types of social functions could be carried out here.
[xviii] OK, I guess we can call it Tōkyō Bay now…
[xix] Which seems like an awfully long time to build a bridge.
[xx] Today it’s generally referred to as 浜離宮庭園 Hama Rikkyū Teien Hama Detached Palace Garden, and was property of the Imperial Family until it was gifted to the city as a public park.

What does Akihabara mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples, Japanese Subculture on November 12, 2014 at 3:26 am

Akihabara (“autumn leaf field,” but more at “field of Akiha”)

shinsengumi akihabara cosplay maid

I’m gonna get all this “moe” shit out of the way first, then get into the serious history.
That said… A Shinsengumi cosplay cafe… really?
Sounds like a place for a JapanThis meet up! lol

For a certain segment of the population, Akihabara is ground zero for the ultimate experience in Japan. This certain segment of the population is generally referred to by the term オタク otaku – geeks, nerds, in other words people with very specific interests. You won’t find many Japanese history nerds here, though.

In the case of Akihabara, one image is a manga and anime based wonderland inhabited by メイド meido maids, Tōkyō’s coolest gamers, and cutting edge IT specialists. The other image is an IT business district overrun by the biggest losers in Japan who can’t get girlfriends so they collect figures and become obsessed with 抱き枕 dakimakura cuddle pillows and フィギュア figures and are so socially retarded that they have to resort to going to メイド喫茶 meido kissa maid cafes where girls clean their earwax and trim their nails over a cup of tea at inflated prices. Oh, and single, middle aged salarymen who are obsessed with the idol group, AKB-48, who is based in the area.

The reality is somewhere-in-between and not-even-fucking-close.


Old School Akihabara

Before it became the otaku paradise it is today, Nakano, Akihabara were the centers of Tokyo's porn industry (due to their proximity to Shinjuku and Ueno, respectively). Both areas have changed over the years, but blatant  exhibitionism in Akihabara (like in this photo) is rare - replaced by legit cosplay acts. In Nakano, there are still certain off-the-radar spots where you may still encounter some porno-filming shenanigans.

Before it became the otaku paradise it is today, Nakano/Akihabara were the centers of Tokyo’s porn industry (due to their proximity to Shinjuku and Ueno, respectively). Both areas have changed over the years, but blatant exhibitionism in Akihabara (like in this photo) is rare – replaced by legit cosplay acts. In Nakano, there are still certain off-the-radar spots where you may still encounter some porno-filming shenanigans. I rarely go to Akihabara, but I haven’t seen something like this in 10-11 years.


A Little Backstory

When I first visited Japan 12 or 13 years ago, Akihabara was a very different place. My friend, Kai, first brought me there. We walked from Uguisudani to Akihabara. He wanted to show me Electric Town, but most of all he wanted to show me a massive, multiple-story porn shop – easily the largest porn shop I’ve ever seen in my life. We’re talking a Tower Records of sex. Needless to say, it was fucking awesome.[i]

Anyhoo, my friend pointed out to me that the town wasn’t just famous for electronics and porn, but it had a gritty, Shōwa Era feeling but it was slowly being cleaned up and taken over by massive commercial interests. He was absolutely correct. 13 years later, Akihabara is a completely different town. There are massive electronics retailers (the tiny specialist shops are still there, though) and skyscrapers and cutting edge IT companies in the area. Some specialist electronics shops have given way to specialist shops centered on オタク文化 otaku bunka otaku/nerd culture. 13 years ago it was still very specialized (for example, the porn shop had a whole floor dedicated to any genre you can imagine), but today there is a more unified theme. Tech, gaming, anime, and computers reign supreme[ii].

Sometimes I think it’s a saccharine technophile dreamland, but today let’s look at what this neighborhood was before it became 電気街 Denki-gai Electric Town and before it became the otaku mecca it is today.

People lived here in the Edo Period and after. Before there were maids and before there was ever electricity, people lived here.

So let’s see Akihabara before its recent transformations.


Once you leave the station area, you enter the Showa Era mess that is Electric Town. This is where Akihabara can be a lot of fun.

Once you leave the station area, you enter the Showa Era mess that is Electric Town. This is where Akihabara can be a lot of fun. (and see, I promised the pictures would get more normal…)


Let’s Look at the Kanji

This place name is made up of three kanji. None of which are particularly helpful in deducing the origin of this place name.







Also, the location is difficult to nail down. In 台東区 Taitō-ku Taitō Ward there is an official postal address 秋葉原 Akihabara. But the area considered Akihabara by most people is the area immediately surrounding 秋葉原駅 Akihabara Eki Akihabara Station, whose official postal code is in 千代田区 Chiyoda-ku Chiyoda Ward[iii]. The 電気街口 Denkigai-guchi Electric Town Exit of the station is located in Chiyoda Ward, but it spills over into Taitō Ward.

Aki - Autumn/Fall; Ha - Leaves; Hara - source/field

aki – autumn/fall
ha – leaves
hara – source/fieldEnd of Story!

The reality of the situation is that the The place name dates from the Meiji Period. In short, in the Meiji Period, the blocks that make up the immediate Akihabara Station area burned to the ground. The government decided not to rebuild, as this area had long been prone to fires. A small Shintō shrine called a 鎮火社 chinka-sha fire prevention shrine was built on the vacant lot. The 神 kami spirit enshrined there – or believed to be enshrined there – was 秋葉大権現 Akiha Daigongen[iv]. The sprawling vacant lot was referred to as a 原 hara “field.” Thus this was Akihabara – “Akiha’s Field.”

But there is so much more to this story.

Let’s take a trip back to the Edo Period.

Here is a Meiji Era map of the area after the surrounding areas had been built up. Business was still conducted along the main roads, it was only the inner area that wasn't rebuilt.  (I have a photo later)

Here is a Meiji Era map of the area after the surrounding areas had been built up. Business was still conducted along the main roads, it was only the inner area that wasn’t rebuilt.
(I have a photo later)


The Edo Period

In the beginning of the Edo Period, a few 大名 daimyō feudal lords built their 藩邸 hantei daimyō residences near the area in order maintain a good relationship with the new shōgun, 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu. The area had access to water[v] and quick access to 江戸城 Edo-jō. However, the area was apparently prone to fires and by the time the policy of alternate attendance – 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai – was implemented, most daimyō had moved elsewhere. There were still a few samurai residences in the area, and in nearby 御徒町 Okachimachi[vi] you could find residences and barracks for low ranking 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the 将軍家 shōgun-ke shōgun family and nearby there were still a few daimyō mansions.

By the late Edo Period, the area was a small collection commoner residences and merchants. The term 町 machi/chō town was used because under the Tokugawa regime similar businesses tended to be grouped together, residences of families with similar incomes also tended to be grouped together, but most modern people would just think of these as blocks. But each block had its own name. 神田佐久間町 Kanda Sakuma-chō, is an example of name of one block that persists to this day. But in short, in the Edo Period this area was considered part of Kanda.

The white area shows the presumed extent of the damage of the fire.  The red stars mark the shogun's road from Edo Castle to Ueno.

The white area shows the presumed extent of the damage of the fire.
The red stars mark the shogun’s road from Edo Castle to Ueno.

An important road, the 下谷御成街道 Shitaya O-nari Kaidō ran through the area. As I mentioned in an earlier article, 御成 o-nari is a word that refers to the presence of the shōgun. An 御成御門 o-nari go-mon is the shōgun’s private gate. An 御成御街道 o-nari o-kaidō is the shōgun’s private road. The Shitaya O-nari Kaidō was the private road of the shōgun to travel back and forth from 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle to 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji Kan’ei Temple. The stretch of present-day 中央道 Chūō Dōri “Main Street” from 上野一丁目 Ueno Icchōme and 上野二丁目 Ueno Nichōme to the Kanda River follows the path of the Shitaya O-nari Kaidō.

The bridge over the shogun's road in 1937 (Showa 12). The city still retains its 2 story structure in the shitamachi. Notice the dome off in the distance? That's Holy Resurrection Cathedral. We'll talk about that later.

The bridge over the shogun’s road in 1937 (Showa 12). The city still retains its 2 story structure in the shitamachi.
Notice the dome off in the distance? That’s Holy Resurrection Cathedral. We’ll talk about that later.

Today, the 総武線 Sōbu-sen Sōbu Line passes through the area on elevated tracks. There is a non-descript bridge that spans Chūō Dōri. And even though the word o-nari became irrelevant after the collapse of the shōgunate, this bridge preserves the name of the O-nari Kaidō. To this day it is called the 御成街道架道橋 O-nari Kaidō Kadōkyō the O-nari Kaidō Overpass Bridge[vii], even though this particular O-nari Kaidō doesn’t exist anymore.

The bridge today. Not sure what the shogun would think of this...

The bridge today.
Not sure what the shogun would think of this…


In the Meiji Period

The real history of Akihabara begins in the Meiji Period.

In 1869 (Meiji 2), there was a major fire in this part of Tōkyō[viii]. The area we’ve been discussing, which was roughly 17 blocks of Edo Period real estate was completely burnt to the ground. I can’t find numbers on the casualties, but 17 blocks of cramped residential apartments, each unit housing at least 2, possibly 3 generations of a family is an absolutely horrible tragedy. As mentioned earlier, the new Meiji Government decided not to rebuild and designated the area as a 火除地 hiyokechi firebreak. The idea is that if other areas burned, the fire would stop spreading once it hit the 野原 nohara field.

Here you can see the fire break. There is a huge clearing surrounded by buildings. The origin of Akihabara.

Here you can see the fire break. There is a huge clearing surrounded by buildings. The origin of Akihabara. (click to enlarge)

On the field (or near the field, I’m not clear which), a small type of shrine called a 鎮火社 chinka-sha was established to protect the area from further conflagrations. The name of this type of shrine literally translates as “extinguished fire shrine[ix].”

Details are fuzzy, but it seems that the local people incorrectly assumed that the main 神 kami deity of fire protection of the Edo Period had been enshrined here. But it seems like the chinka-sha was nothing more than an empty shack until 1870, when a kami was enshrined here – and it was kami the people assumed had been installed.

So who is the kami in question?

Akiha Daigongen is actually a Buddhist name. This kami's original Shinto name is Hinokagutsuchi-no-Okami. Try saying that 3 times fast.

Meet Akiha Daigongen. His name is Buddhist. His original Shinto name is Hinokagutsuchi-no-Okami.
Try saying that 3 times fast.

His name is 秋葉大権現 Akiha Daigongen, a beaked and winged Shintō-Buddhist syncretic deity who is crowned with an aura of fire. The kami was affectionately called 秋葉様 Akiha-sama or 秋葉さん Akiha-san Mr. Akiha[x] and this name could also be applied to a temple or shrine where he was enshrined.

Initially, I thought some Meiji hijinks were going down, possibly connected to the 1868 神仏判然令 Shinbutsu Hanzenrei Order Separating Kami and Buddhas. Part of the government’s efforts to separate Japan’s two fused religions was a specific order banning applying the Buddhist title 権現 Gongen or 大権現 Daigongen to Shintō kami. That would put Akiha Daigongen – as syncretic as they get – in direct violation of the law. But as I thought about it a little more; there were big changes going on in Tōkyō and across the country and realistically, only a year passed before Akiha Daigongen was enshrined into the chinka-sha and the name changed to 秋葉社 Akiha-sha Akiha Shrine. I think people were busy and it just to a long time to transport the priests and necessary implements from the main Akiha Shrine in Shizuoka to Tōkyō[xi].

Sorry autumn leaves have no connection to this place name...

Sorry autumn leaves have no connection to this place name…

So, What’s the Etymology?

The burned out area left as a fire break was officially called a 火除地 hiyokechi, literally “fire prevention land” but to the commoners of Edo – erm, I mean Tōkyō – it was just a 野原 nohara field. When you have roughly 17 blocks of burnt out land in the middle of an urban center, it’s a landmark – especially in a city like Edo-Tōkyō. Streets don’t have names, so giving directions is primarily down by landmarks.

As far as landmark names go, “that burned out field over there” leaves much to be desired. So the people latched on the Akiha Shrine, which is a much more pleasant name given the deadly reality of fires in Japanese cities at the time. Several names were in use before standardization.

秋葉之原 Akiha-no-hara
秋葉っ原 Akihabbara
秋葉ヶ原 Akiha-ga-hara, Akiba-ga-hara
あきばはら Akibahara
あきばっぱら Akibappara
秋葉原 Formal writing; pronunciation is ambiguous.But this is the spelling used to day.


What’s Up With the AKIHA and AKIBA Thing?

The readings for 秋葉 are /akiha/ and /akiba/. Both are used throughout the country. The main Akiha Shrine in Shizuoka uses the /ha/ sound, but there are shrines that use /ba/. It seems that both /akibahaɽa/ and /akihabaɽa/ were used as readings of 秋葉原 and this is most like the source of the affectionate nickname アキバ Akiba used by otaku. And here I thought it was a diminutive slang term. Go history!



I want to visit Akiha Shrine

OK, good for you. You can.

You just can’t do it in Akihabara.

I don't want to break your otaku heart, but this shrine has very little going for it today...

I don’t want to break your otaku heart, but this shrine has very little going for it today…


The chinka-sha was built in 1869. It was renamed the Akiha-sha in 1870 (Meiji 3), and in 1888 (Meiji 21) was moved to present day 台東区松ヶ谷 Taitō-ku Matsu-ga-ya Matsugaya, Taitō-ku and became 秋葉神社 Akiha Jinja Akiha Shrine.

You might be thinking, why the hell would you move a shrine to another place? Well, this happened all the time – Kichijō-ji and Yanaka, I’m looking at you! – but in this case, it happened because of the area’s next big step: a freight train station was to be built here. Due to its proximity to the Kanda River, the area was a major lumber town. Lumber distribution had traditionally made use of Edo’s vast river network prior to trains. Once the train network was in place, merchants could increase their reach.

In 1890 (Meiji 23) the train station was opened under the hiragana name あきはのはらえき Akiha no Hara Eki Akiha no Hara Station. Since 1870, various informal names had appeared on maps, but this was the first time the area had an official sign. The hiragana is a testament to the confusion caused by the kanji and the casualness of the name – it was just a burned out field by the river after all.

Since people don’t really use freight trains so much, over time the local people’s reference to the neighborhood was based on the formal kanji use, which was today’s 秋葉原. This kind of kanji is ambiguous as to pronunciation, but it seems fairly clear that the final 2 contenders were /akihabaɽa/ and /akibahaɽa/.

1960's Akihabara Station was all about distribution. High end electronic parts came in and out of here and gave birth to Electric Town.

1960’s Akihabara Station was all about distribution. High end electronic parts came in and out of here and gave birth to Electric Town.

However, until re-administration of the Tōkyō in 1964 there had never been an official place name using the kanji 秋葉原. In that year, two traditionally shitamachi towns in Taitō Ward named 松永町 Matsunaga-chō and 練塀町 Neribei-chō officially became 秋葉原 Akihabara. The names of those towns date back to the Edo Period. Again, it’s interesting to point out that the official Akihabara is in Taitō Ward, while the station and much of the original burned out field where the name began are in Chiyoda Ward.

So that is the end of the story of Akihabara. The evolution of the name isn’t preserved step by step, but we’ve got signs, maps, and finally an official government endorsement of a place name. In Tōkyō, this is place name gold.

Speaking of gold...  This is the main shrine in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Speaking of gold…
This is the main shrine in Shizuoka Prefecture.

But I Want To Talk About The Main Shrine in Shizuoka…

Will you humor me for a few more paragraphs? I’m comparing an Edo Period map with a modern map and I want to go on, but I think it’s more interesting if we return to Akihabara’s namesake for a moment.

The main shrine that houses Akiha Daigongen is located in 静岡県浜松市 Shizuoka-ken Hamatsu-shi Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture and called is called 秋葉山本宮秋葉神社 Akihasan Hongū Akiha Jinja Akiha Mountain Main Shrine Akiha Shrine[xii]. The name Hamatsu should ring a bell as this is where Tokugawa Ieyasu ruled from 1570-1586[xiii]. As such the shrine was well patronized by the Tokugawa. In December they celebrate the 火祭り Hi Matsuri Fire Festival. The shrine boasts a collection of 浮世絵 ukiyo-e paintings and a collection of swords donated by such notable Sengoku warlords as 武田信玄 Takeda Shingen, 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and 加藤清正 Katō Kiyomasa.

By the way, there are roughly 800 Akiha/Akiba Shrines scattered throughout Japan. There are more of these than there are Tōshō-gū.

The Akiha Fire Festival. Where Shinto priests play with fire inside wooden structures. Ummm... ok...

The Akiha Fire Festival.
Where Shinto priests play with fire inside wooden structures.
Ummm… ok…

What’s Left Today?

Finding bits of Edo in Tōkyō isn’t hard, but it takes a careful eye and you really have to know what you’re looking at and looking for. But given Akihabara’s reputation as the technology epicenter of Japan – possibly Asia – and that it was burnt to the ground in the early Meiji Period, you’d think there’d be little left of the Edo Period there. But you’d be wrong.

What could this possibly be?

What could this possibly be?

When they began construction on the 秋葉原UDXビル Akihabara UDX Building in 2006, the construction company discovered some suspicious stones. An archaeology team was called in who quickly realized this was an 石垣 ishigaki stone wall from the mid-Edo Period. Given the quality of the construction and location, they were able to determine this was the remains of a 武家屋敷 buke yashiki samurai residence. The stone work was painstakingly excavated and re-assembled and the design team scrambled to incorporate the walls into the design of the building. Today, the average person probably wouldn’t recognize them, but the traditional stonework and random stones here and there on the street level of this ultramodern sky rise date from the Edo Period. There is a small sign describing the wall.

I'm not even kidding. With minimal effort you can find a piece of Edo in Akihabara.  Bet you didn't see that coming!

I’m not even kidding. With minimal effort you can find a piece of Edo in Akihabara.
Bet you didn’t see that coming!

The monument displays a picture during the excavation

The monument displays a picture during the excavation

I Want to Finish By Revisiting a Photo

Take a look at the Akiha no Hara (Akiha's Field), then note the rebuilt buildings around it. Why are those buildings there?  To answer that question, look at streets. You can see street cars. The street cars were the predecessors of buses    and were active in this area. Business was good, and station front property was (and is) the hottest real estate.  That said, in the bottom left-hand corner note the traditional wooden Edo Period bridge....

Take a look at the Akiha no Hara (Akiha’s Field), then note the rebuilt buildings around it. Why are those buildings there?
To answer that question, look at streets. You can see street cars. The street cars were the predecessors of buses and were active in this area. Business was good, and station front property was (and is) the hottest real estate.
That said, in the bottom left-hand corner note the traditional wooden Edo Period bridge….

The panoramic photo was taken from the 東京復活大聖堂 Tōkyō Fukkatsu Taiseidō Holy Resurrection Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox cathedral built in the 1890’s[xiv]. I don’t know the details of this photo, but my guess it was taken shortly after construction was finished. So this is mostly likely the only photo of the area. It’s pretty amazing.

So, otaku people. Stuff that up your proverbial pipe and smoke it.

The Church of the Holy Resurrection - once the tallest building in the area, now it's obscured by skyscrapers.

The Church of the Holy Resurrection – once the tallest building in the area, now it’s obscured by skyscrapers.


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Cuz we all love sex. Awwwww yeah!
[ii] This is seen by the old school otaku of 中野 Nakano as the ultimate sell out. They will proudly tell you that true spirit of otaku culture is alive and well in Nakano and that Akihabara is a fucking clown show.
[iii] I have an article about that, by the way.
[iv] This chinka-sha seems to have been built informally and later enshrined, but it’s not clear.
[v] The 神田川 Kanda-gawa Kanda River was nearby.
[vi] I have an article about Okachimachi here, bitches.
[vii] I could go a lot deeper into the history of the bridges, but that would take me back down the river rabbit hole. I could go on about the history of Chūō Dōri, but that would also take me back down the river rabbit hole. No thank you. Not going there now. No way. I have river rabbit hole trauma.
[viii] The name of the city was changed from Edo to Tōkyō the year before.
[ix] Though, interestingly, if you pop the word into Chinese Google Translate, it comes up as “town fire company.” Not sure if that’s accurate, cuz Google Translate is usually a trainwreck.
[x] Mr. Akiha doesn’t really convey the nuance of the Japanese, but I can’t think of a better translation.
[xi] You’re off the hook on this one, Meiji government. But I’m watching you.
[xii] Yes, I know the name is redundant, but don’t blame me. I didn’t name the place.
[xiii] He then relocated to 駿府城 Sunpu-jō Sunpu Castle.
[xiv] The cathedral is more commonly referred to by its nickname, ニコライ堂 Nikorai-dō Nikolai’s Church. The name is a tip of the hat to the church’s founder, St. Nikolai of Japan.

Fukagawa Shichi Fukujin

In Japanese Holidays, Japanese Shrines & Temples on January 6, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Fukagawa Shichi Fukujin Meguri (Walking Tour of the Fukugawa 7 Gods of Good Luck)

The Fukagawa 7 Fukujin Course

The Fukagawa 7 Fukujin Course

I hope everyone had a safe and happy (and delicious) winter holiday. I’ve been out of the country and haven’t updated JapanThis! for a few weeks. Did you miss me?[i]

At the beginning of every new year, Mrs. JapanThis and I do a traditional walking tour of the 七福神 shichi fukujin the seven gods of good luck. There are shichi fukujin walks all over Japan. This kind of pilgrimage[ii] seems to have begun in the late Muromachi Period (1333-1573)[iii]. The practice was brought from Kansai to Kantō and grew in popularity during the Edo Period when most of the old temples and shrines associated with the 7 gods of good luck had become settled. Prior to the Edo Period, the exact set of deities wasn’t standardized. This lack of standardization has resulted in some shichi fukujin walks including an 8th deity of varying provenance. Occasionally, you’ll actually see a 八福神巡り hachi fukujin meguri walking tour of the 8 gods of good luck. But more often than not, these are a distinct set of 7 deities and when represented in a group, they should be immediately recognizable by any Japanese person[iv]. Anyways, as most of the shichi fukujin pilgrimages became settled in the Edo Period and the popularity of these walks during the new year holiday increased, it should be no surprise that most of these are found in the heart of Edo. There are more than 20 possible shichi fukujin walks in Tōkyō alone[v].

Tōkyōites walk a lot, but in the Edo Period, people walked everywhere and for much greater distances – even in the dead of winter. An average pilgrimage in Tōkyō will require anywhere from 2 to 3½ hours of walking. Every route is unique, but generally people do it from Jan. 1st to Jan. 6th[vi]. Each route is well-organized and you can buy 七福神色紙 shichi fukujin shikishi stamp board for about 1000 (roughly $10) and at each stop you can get a stamp for 100 or 200 (roughly $1 or $2). Temples and shrines that are not major destinations are usually closed except for special events, so the week or two after the new year is big business for them. That’s why the routes are well-marked with flags and there are maps available everywhere.

Shikishi are decorate pieces of cardboard used to collect signatures for special events. Here you can see the name of each shrine/temple in black and then a red ink stamp pressed over it confirming that you actually visited the temple/shrine. At the bottom, in gold, you can see the 7 gods of good luck riding on the the takarabune "treasure ship."  Awwwww yeah.

Shikishi are decorate pieces of cardboard used to collect signatures for special events.
Here you can see the name of each shrine/temple in black and then a red ink stamp pressed over it confirming that you actually visited the temple/shrine.
At the bottom, in gold, you can see the 7 gods of good luck riding on the the takarabune “treasure ship.”
Awwwww yeah.

Today is the first day that most Japanese companies started work after the holiday, so there were two kinds of people we mostly encountered: salarymen and old people. As it was the first day back at work for most Japanese companies, people are still feeling pretty lazy and any excuse to get out of the office and walk around is welcome and so groups of co-workers tend to be permitted to visit a shrine near the office to pray for success in business. I doubt they’re allowed to do the whole shichi fukujin meguri, but visiting a shrine dedicated to a god of good luck makes much more sense than visiting a shrine for, say, 安産 anzan safe delivery of babies. There are lots of old people because… well, they don’t have to work and Japan is just crawling with old people anyways.

I’m not going to go into detail about each of the 7 gods because you can look them up in Wikipedia or here is a nice description of them. But I am going to list each of the 7 gods and the shrine or temple with which they are affiliated. Now, I say affiliated because many times these gods are not the main deity venerated at a certain temple or shrine – they may be part of a small shrine attached to another larger religious structure[vii]. As it so happens, except for 1 structure, most of the sites of the shichi fukujin in Fukagawa are very minor, simple buildings. They’re probably only open a few days a year to perform certain religious duties and the rest of the year, the family who owns the property is engaged in other work that has nothing to do with the temple/shrine[viii]. Keep in mind that this list is for Fukagawa only, the names of the temples and shrines of another course will be totally different.



Shrine/Temple Name


longevity 深川神明宮

I always think of this guy as the bearded old man with a big head. This shrine participates in the famous Fukagawa Mizukake Festival.
amassing wealth, good harvest 円珠
Daikoku is one of the more famous of the shichi fukujin, but the temple in Fukagawa is TINY. Daikoku is enshrined in what is essentially a round Buddhist style shack.
love & respect; bountiful food 富岡八幡宮

This is one of the most important shrines in Edo-Tōkyō. I mentioned it here. However, the small shrine to Ebisu seems like an add-on. It’s located on the left, back-side of the main hall. Read more about the Tōkyō place name, Ebisu, here and here. Also, if I’m not mistaken, Ebisu is the only of the 7 gods of good luck who is of native Japanese origin.
selflessness & generosity 深川稲荷神社

Inari Jinja
This shrine is tiny. I think I’ve mentioned Inari before. Inari is generally an auspicious kami and shrines to this deity are all over Japan. It’s my understanding that the cult of Inari spread under the sankin-kōtai system because this kami was popular with daimyō. In the Edo Period, Inari became popular with the common people too.
risk taking; gambling 龍光院
This is a tiny temple in a residential area that almost blends into the background. It looks just like any other modern building on the block.
being rich & famous; the glamorous life 冬木弁天堂

Another small shrine, but this one has an older, traditional feel. The name of the shrine is interesting. It literally means “Fuyuki’s place to venerate Benzaiten.” Fuyuki was the name of a family of lumber workers who supposedly lived here and had a small shrine to Benzaiten. Benzaiten is sometimes depicted as a slutty, music playing, and jealous bitch. It’s often said if couples visit her shrines together, she’ll get jealous and the couple will break up.
popularity, happiness & prosperity 心行寺
This temple is doing its own Buddhist thing, but has a small “shack” dedicated to the veneration of Fukurokuju. It seems like they only open it for viewing a few times a year, including the new year holiday.

So, as I said earlier, Mrs. JapanThis and I have done many shichi fukujin walks. This year we decided to do the Fukagawa Shichi Fukujin Meguri. Fukagawa is a very shitamachi area and even boasts a fantastic museum called 深川江戸資料館 Fukagawa Edo Shiryōkan Fukagawa Edo Museum which reconstructs a block of Edo Period Fukagawa and brings a little bit of Edo to life – highly recommended. Because the area was in the heart of Edo, it wasn’t surprising to find out that it’s one of the easiest shichi fukujin courses. It took us no more than 2 hours to walk the whole thing. They started us at Monzen Nakachō Station[ix] and marked the entire path with flags so that we didn’t need any maps or any GPS (even if we did get lost, there were groups of old people being led by cute tour guides waving flags – they’re easy enough to follow).


“Mon’naka” Station.
Every time I visit an area I’ve written about it’s like seeing an old friend.
Hello, old friend!

Then we entered Tomioka Hachiman-gū. At the entrance was a massive stone lantern. Its size reminded me of the Monster Lantern in Ueno Park – but the Monster Lantern is much bigger. Still, it’s pretty cool to see a stone lantern of this size. We ventured around to the left hand side of the 本殿 honden main hall of Tomioka Hachiman-gū and found a small grove with 3 stalls housing 3 kami, the middlemost kami was Ebisu.

The giant stone lantern at the entrance to Tomioka Hachimangu.

The giant stone lantern at the entrance to Tomioka Hachimangu.

The main hall of Tomioka Hachimangu!

The main hall of Tomioka Hachimangu!
Notice the group of salarymen walking together.

The torii that leads to the shrine dedicated to Ebisu.

The torii that leads to the shrine dedicated to Ebisu.

The actual shrine to Ebisu is basically a wooden shed behind Tomioka Hachimangu.

The actual shrine to Ebisu is basically a wooden shed behind Tomioka Hachimangu.

The next stop on the Fukagawa Shichi Fukujin Course is Fuyuki Benten-dō, home of Benzaiten, the only female kami (女神 megami) of the 7 gods of good luck. It’s a very small temple and today it was filled with old people standing around and looking very confused… until the tour guide told everyone to make a single file line and pay their respects. We got our stamp and got out of there as quickly as possible so as to beat all the old people to the next stops on our course.


The shrine to Benzaiten is so small and the grounds so narrow that it is literally wedged between to small apartment buildings. If it weren’t for the flags announcing the 7 fukujin walk, you might not even notice it!

Next stop was Shingyō-ji where Fukurokuju-son is enshrined. The temple itself isn’t’t much to look at, but the interesting thing is the Buddhist style stall in which Fukurokuju is venerated, it’s a good example of syncretism in Japanese religion (ie; foreign religions like Buddhism naturally mixed with the native Shintōism).

Entrance to Shingyoji. Again, if you didn't know what you were looking for, you probably wouldn't even bat an eye at this temple.

Entrance to Shingyoji.
Again, if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you probably wouldn’t even bat an eye at this temple.

This is the shrine to Fukurokuju.  The shape of this structure is distinctly Buddhist.

This is the shrine to Fukurokuju.
The shape of this structure is distinctly Buddhist.

Here's a statue of the little bugger himself.

Here’s a statue of the little bugger himself.

Along the way, we passed a famous 和菓子屋 wagashi-ya Japanese sweets shop called 伊勢屋 Isei-ya. We picked up some 大福 daifuku and went on our merry way.

Iseya has been in business since 1907 (Meiji 40) and has quite a good reputation in Tokyo for quality Japanese sweets.

Iseya has been in business since 1907 (Meiji 40) and has quite a good reputation in Tokyo for quality Japanese sweets.

Our 4th stop was Enju-in which houses and enshrinement of Daikokuten. As I mentioned before, most of the shichi fukujin are commonly recognized when seen together, but separately, it may be hard to remember who is who. Ebisu, Benzaiten, and Daikokuten are the most recognizable, I think. Daikokuten’s gig is granting wealth – not just wealth, but ever accumulating wealth. There is a famous chain of “pawn shops[x]” called Daikokuya. The one near my house specializes in high end wallets and bags (Hermes, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, etc…), I can’t help but think there is a connection. Anyhoo, the temple itself is non-descript and if it hadn’t been for the flags lining the path, I might have had a hard time finding the place.

A paper lantern with the name "Daikokuten" written on it.

A paper lantern with the name “Daikokuten” written on it.


Again, if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d probably never look twice at this temple.

During my winter vacation, I visited Arizona. Feeling a bit stir crazy one day, I took a 2 hour walk just to see what I could see – and I saw nothing. But walk for 10 minutes through the heart of Edo-Tōkyō and you’ll see lots of things! As we were moseying along, we stumbled across a solitary grave near an intersection. Turns out, this was the grave of Mamiya Rinzō. He was a map maker and a spy for the Tokugawa shōgunate. He made maps of northern Japan and the Kuril Isla— and wait, did you just say “spy?!

Yes, I did.

In 1826, the Dutch doctor and botanist, Phillip von Siebold was caught collecting maps of northern Japan (drawn by a member of the imperial court in Kyōto, no less). But the Tokugawa shōgunate was all about very limited access to the country[xi]. Furthermore, they insisted on keeping the imperial court out of the business of real politics and especially out of the limited international exchanges possible at the time. So this was quite a big deal to the government in Edo. Today, most of us look back at it and laugh but really this was some North Korea-style shit, right? Well, North Korea shit could get you killed but luckily for von Siebold, the shōgunate didn’t want to create an international riff, so they effectively deported him and that’s the end of story.

But who was the douchebag who told on von Siebold like a little bitch? Oh, it was Mamiya Rinzō from 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain[xii]. Make what you will of that.

Grave of Mamiya Rinzo.

Grave of Mamiya Rinzo – Tattletale extraordinaire.


Plaque in front of Rinzo’s grave.

Then, we moved on to Ryūkō-in. This is where Bishamonten is revered. It’s another less than memorable temple.

Ryūkō-in - yet another non-descript temple.

Ryūkō-in – yet another non-descript temple.

A makeshift sign for the season that says "Bishamonten."

A makeshift sign for the season that says “Bishamonten.”

After that, we headed to Fukagawa Inari Shrine to see Hotei-son. This shine is literally crammed into a tiny corner of a residential intersection. I bet this is the most action this place gets all year.

It's hardly fair to even call this a shrine.

It’s hardly fair to even call this a shrine.

Finally we hit up Shinmei-gū which was larger than the last few places, but not so big. They had their o-mikoshi (portable shrine) on display with pictures indicating that they participate in the mizukake matsuri which is generally spearheaded by Tomioka Hachiman-gū[xiii].

Torii and entrance to Shinmeigū. The premises were quite large, but the architecture and space weren't much to look at.

Torii and entrance to Shinmeigū. The premises were quite large, but the architecture and space weren’t much to look at.

So, having done quite a few shichi fukujin walks, I was really looking forward to the Fukagawa walk because it’s so famous. But it was a bit of a letdown compared to the others. The highlights were definitely Tomioka Hachiman-gū (because of its size and importance to Edo-Tōkyō) and the grave of Mamiya Rinzō (which just pissed me off). But all in all, I got a lot of good exercise, quality time with Mrs. JapanThis, and best of all, I got a future place name to research. Check this shit out:

Bakuroyokoyama FTW!!!

Bakuroyokoyama FTW!!!

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[i] It’s a rhetorical question; I don’t need my inboxes flooded with “no” e-mails.

[ii] For lack of a better word.

[iii] This is the most liberal reckoning I can think of for this era. Various scholars will assign different dates for the beginning of the Muromachi Period depending on how they are trying to frame certain topics. I probably won’t even mention the Muromachi Period again in this article, so let’s leave it at that for now.

[iv] And I reckon most foreigners who have spent a few years in Japan would recognize them too.

[v] And according to Wikipedia, there are at least 10 more in the Kantō area.

[vi] Some routes are officially open as late as Jan. 15th.

[vii] Not unlike in Europe where a church may be dedicated to a certain saint, but the relics or bodies of various other saints and holy people may be also be located on the premises.

[viii] That is too say, they have a real 9-5 most of the time.

[ix] Again, if you’re interested in the etymology of the place name Monzen Nakachō, I recommend you read my article here.

[x] Again, for lack of a better word.

[xi] Some say it was 開国 sakoku a closed country, others say it was under 海禁 kaikin a policy of limited access by sea.

[xii] The same Mito Domain that produced Mito Gaku and the grand douche daimyō extraordinaire, Tokugawa Nariaki. Oh yes, Mito Han. JapanThis! loves to hate on Mito Han almost as much as Satsuma and Chōshū.

[xiii] More about this next summer…

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