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What does Tachiaigawa mean?

In Japanese History on January 18, 2019 at 2:52 pm

(Tachiai River; more at water meets water)


Tachiaigawa in the Edo Period and today

It’s been about a year since I updated the site. A whole fucking year [i]. Long time readers will remember the time I got rivered and almost abandoned the project altogether. Well, I started an article one year ago that, on the surface, seemed so simple, but actually turned into a nightmare. So, I’ve decided to take smaller bites and get things up and running again. I also apologize for keeping everyone waiting and hope I didn’t have anyone worrying. Also, a note about footnotes. WordPress changed the backend editor, so there is a chance the footnote links may not work.

So without further ado, let’s talk about a place in Tōkyō that foreigners don’t often go. Actually, a lot of Tōkyōites have never heard of this area either. It lies on 東海道 Tōkaidō the Eastern Sea Route[ii], just past the former post towns of 北品川宿 Kita Shinagawa-shuku North Shinagawa Post Town and 南品川宿 Minami Shinagawa-shuku South Shinagawa Post Town, between the former fishing village of  鮫洲 Samezu and 鈴ヶ森死刑所 Suzugamori Shikeijo Suzugamori Execution Grounds. Of course, I’m talking about 立会川 Tachiaigawa[iii]. In the Edo Period, travelers leaving the capital for Kyōto would have probably lodged in either Shinagawa Post Town or 川崎宿 Kawasaki-shuku Kawasaki Post Town[iv], but they definitely would have passed this rural seaside area, called 大井村 Ōi Mura Ōi Village at the time.

Further Reading:

suzugamori at night (1 of 1)

Suzugamori Execution Grounds at night. Ooooooh, spooooooky.

Let’s Look at the Kanji

tatsu, tachi
stand, rise, set up

au, ai
meet, join

kawa, -gawa

There are several creative theories that try to explain the origin of this place name, yet none of them are particularly convincing to me. I have my own pet theory which is not creative and seems super-obvious, but before we talk about the explanations people have put forward over the years, I want to talk about the geography of the area.

Until the late 1950’s, the coastline of  江戸湾東京湾 Edo-wanTōkyō-wan Edo/Tōkyō Bay was more or less the same. The neighborhood called Tachiaigawa was outside of the old city limits on the Tōkaidō Highway and lay directly on the beach at a place where a distributary of the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River called the Tachiai-gawa which flowed into Edo-Tōkyō Bay[v]. Until 1903, when 立会川駅 Tachiaigawa Eki Tachiaigawa Station opened, the area was not called Tachiaigawa. In fact, this is just a local term. In the Edo Period, this area was just considered 荏原国大井村 Ebara no Kuni Ōi Mura Ōi Village, Ebara Province[vi]. Even today, Tachiaigawa is not an official postal code. These days, this is 南大井一丁目 Minami Ōi Itchōme 1st block of South Ōi. The only thing you have to remember is that the Tachiai River has flown and continues to flow through this area. That’s key to its etymology.

samurai battle

Theory 1: There was a Samurai Battle here

This theory posits that the name derives from the combination 太刀 tachi long sword 会 ai meeting 川 kawa river (ie; the river where long swords met). And sure, since the 弥生時代 Yayoi Jidai Yayoi Period (let’s say from 300 BCE) until the Edo Period (1603), the history of Japan was dominated by warfare, but without a specific battle connected to this location, it’s really hard to say if this is just oral tradition or false etymology. If 太刀会 tachiai meeting of long swords is a prevalent place name in other places in eastern Japan or the rest of the country[vii], I might buy into this theory. However, what would seal the deal for me is if someone could point to a specific battle at this location[viii].


Theory 2: There were Beautiful Waterfalls

It’s well a known fact that Edo Period castle towns didn’t have street names, so when people described their villages or neighborhoods to each other they used landmarks, hill names, and bridge names. It’s fair to say that either the bridges over the Tachiai River or the river itself could become an unofficial reference to the area.

The story goes that the original village lie on a calm section of the river between two waterfalls and was originally called 滝間 takima between the waterfalls, so locals began to refer to that stretch of the river as 滝間川 Takima-gawa the river between the falls which over time changed into Tachiai-gawa. I find this to be pretty unconvincing because in all my years running this site, I don’t remember a /ki/ becoming a //. Not that it isn’t possible[ix], I just can’t recall an example of that sound change in Japanese off the top of my head. Also, given the constant waterworks projects over the centuries, it would be hard to prove this.

buddha suzugamori (1 of 1)

Buddha statue at Suzugamori Execution Grounds. Recently, I’ve been going here late at night because I like creepy ghost shit. Awwwww yeah.

Theory 3: The Suzugamori Theory

I’ve written about 鈴ヶ森死刑所 Suzugamori Shikeijo Suzugamori Execution Grounds in the past[x] and in that article, I mentioned 涙橋 Namida-bashi the Bridge of Tears. For reasons of ritual cleanliness, executions were generally carried out beyond the city limits, so Suzugamori was a great place for that. People coming in and out of Edo would have seen the shōgunate’s ultimate authority, that over life and death. Also, it’s well known that 浜川橋 Hamagawa-bashi Hamagawa Bridge is generally known by locals as Namida-bashi. This was the last chance for condemned criminals to say their final farewells to their families[xi]. If this is the case, 立会 tachiai has a literal meaning of “standing and meeting.” Family and friends stood and watched their loved ones for the last time here.

namidabashi at night (1 of 1)

Namidabashi at night. Everyone’s coming home after a hard day of work at Suzugamori…

There is a corollary theory that pertains to the specifics of death sentences in the Edo Period. Condemned criminals would have been paraded through the streets as an example to all and then executed at one of the Three Great Execution Grounds of Edo. This related theory says that this river was where 御立会 o-tachiai government “involvement” happened. In short, shōgunate officials would arrive at Suzugamori to confirm the details of the condemned person’s case and observe (another meaning of the word o-tachiai) the execution. That means Tachiaigawa would mean “the place on the river where the shōgunate observed and confirmed executions.”

Because there are two theories presented, this seems to be a solid case for this etymology – on the surface. But guess who has two thumbs, writes JapanThis!, and thinks this is bullshit?

two thumbs

The Edo Period wasn’t that long ago. In fact, last year (2018) was the 150th anniversary of 大政奉還 Taisei Hōkan the shōgunate handing political authority over to the imperial court or 明治維新 Meiji Ishin the Meiji Coup (depending on which side you take). But think about it. Who the fuck would want to brag about living in a neighborhood famous for thousands of executions? To this very day, the former execution grounds of Suzugamori and Kozukappara are some of the least desirable places for real estate, with rent being cheap, and zero developers swooping in to build swanky high-rise apartments and shopping centers[xii]. In fact, the only reason people even live in areas like Tachiaigawa is because of necessity caused by urban sprawl in the post-war years. It’s the main reason the area still feels like the post-war years. Very little has changed since the 1960’s and 70’s! I doubt the execution thing would be a source of pride for the local fishermen and seaweed farmers who operated in this area from before the Edo Period until the 1950’s. Even the “Bridge of Tears” is a nickname. The official name is still “Seaside River Bridge” referring to the fact that it was literally a bridge crossing a river that emptied into the sea. Way more kosher than all that dark execution shit.

ryoma warehouse (1 of 1)

Because Tosa Domain had a huge residence here, you’ll find references to Sakamoto Ryōma and the Black Ships everywhere. For example, on this warehouse or whatever it is.

Theory 4: Where Water Meets Water

In doing this research, I remembered that time I got rivered. There were a few times I came across the kanji stand and meet. We see this in place names like 立川 Tachikawa Tachikawa and words like 合流 gōryū confluence. Without ever reviewing my previous research, it just seemed natural that a place where a river flowed into the sea would be called Tachiai-gawa. Why invoke all this stuff about samurai battles and executions?

To quote from my article on the Meguro River:

The Shinagawa clan was a branch of the main 大井氏 Ōi-shi Ōi clan. In order to irrigate their fief, the Ōi clan dabbled in a little river manipulation. Somewhere near the place called 立会川 Tachiaigawa (the modern kanji mean something like “the place where rivers stand together/come together”), the Ōi separated a section of the river 断ち合い川 tachiai kawa rivers that cut off from each other.  This happened in the Kamakura Period. One of the branches passed by 瀧泉寺 Ryūsen-ji Ryūsen Temple in Shimo-Meguro (see my article on Meguro).

I can’t find any maps from the Kamakura Period for this area[xiii], but Edo Period maps are readily available both online and in my private collection. Although it’s underground today, you can still trace a split in the river near Tachiaigawa Station that once flowed into the 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki suburban palace of 土佐藩 Tosa Han Tosa Domain. I’m assuming this is a remnant of the Kamakura Period waterworks. And when I say you can trace the path, I mean you can literally walk the path of the river today. Like right now. I dare you to do it, you lazy fuck.

All of those other fantastic theories are great stories, but if I were a betting man, I’d venture to say the etymology of Tachiaigawa is a mix of “rivers that split off from each other” and “where the river meets the sea.” In a bayside region full of rivers, Occam’s Razor comes down hard in favor of this theory. It’s clean and simple, looks like other derivations we’ve seen before, yet doesn’t require unattested battles, unconfirmed waterfalls and irregular diachronic sound changes, or a bizarre glorification of public executions for 250 some odd years and the shōgunate’s protocol in such matters. It’s just where water meets water. Pretty sure that’s it.

Further Reading:

hamakawa daiba (1 of 1).jpg

Cannon commemorating the Hamakawa Battery. Yup, that’s right. There’s a big ol’ cannon in the middle of a playground for children. Sounds more American than Japanese…

Sakamoto Ryōma

If you get off the 京急線 Keikyū-sen Keikyū Line at Tachiaigawa Station, you’ll find yourself in a very 下町 shitamachi low city neighborhood with a distinct post-war looking 商店街 shōtengai shopping street replete with local bars, yaki-tori joints, and a big old statue of 坂本龍馬 Sakamoto Ryōma. I’m not gonna explain who he was, you can read about him here. But across the street from the station is a school and residential area that sit on the suburban palace of his native domain, 土佐藩 Tosa-han Tosa Domain – modern 高知県 Kōchi-ken Kōchi Prefecture. He most definitely spent some time walking on the Tōkaidō while serving guard duty at the nearby by 浜川砲台 Hamagawa Hōdai Fort Hamagawa in his twenties[xiv]. In Tachiaigawa, you can find a cheap knock off of a famous statue in Kōchi, which itself is a cheap knock off of the iconic photograph of Ryōma himself taken at the 上野撮影局 Ueno Satsueikyoku Ueno Photography Studio in Nagasaki some time in 1867[xv]. At any rate, nearby is a placard depicting the four 黒船 Kurofune Black Ships commanded by Commodore Perry that arrived in Edo Bay in 1853: the Susquehanna, Mississippi, Saratoga, and Plymouth[xvi].

Further Reading:

ryoma tachiaigawa (1 of 1)

Ryōma voguing Bakumatsu style

tachiaigawa at night (1 of 1)

After a day of walking the old Tōkaidō, I love grabbing dinner Shōwa-style in Tachiaigawa.

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō With Me Japan This Guided Tours
(And yes, I’ll take you through Shinagawa post town and to Tachiaigawa, or even the execution grounds. It’s not for tourists, it’s for history nerds!)


[i] Or, a hole fucking year, if you’re on #TeamIenari.
[ii] One of the 5 Great Highways. The 東海道 Tōkaidō Eastern Sea Route and 中仙道  Nakasendō Mountain Pass Route connected the shōgun’s capital of 江戸 Edo Edo (modern day Tōkyō) with the imperial capital 京 Kyō (modern day Kyōto).
[iii] Of course I am lol
[iv] I’ve actually walked from 日本橋 Nihonbashi, the easternmost starting point on the Tōkaidō (the name literally means “the bridge to Japan”), to the modern city of Kawasaki. Without visiting too many temples and shrines and walking at a brisk pace, I made the journey in a day. I think most Edo Period people would easily spend a full day and night in Shinagawa before beginning the tedious walk to Kawasaki. Shinagawa offered delicious seafood, plenty of drinking and whoring, and a non-stop variety of amazing views of 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay. Some ghoulishly curious types probably checked out the execution grounds, cuz, yeah. Humans.
[v] At various points in history and depending on the stretch of river in question, this may have been referred to as the Shinagawa River.
[vi] It was directly controlled by the 幕府 bakufu shōgunate, but it wasn’t part of Edo proper. The term 国 kuni province was basically a traditional term – as it is today – to refer to old Heian Period territories. Today, it’s nostalgic, but in the Edo Period, province names were retained for their “classical appeal” and used in court titles.
[vii] It’s not.
[viii] I can’t find anything that satisfies these criteria.
[ix] This exact sound change is quite well known and regular in Latin languages – Italian and French in particular. Latin centum /kentum/ became Italian cento /tʃento/ (one hundred) and Latin cattus /cattus/ became French chat /ʃat/ (cat).
[x] Here’s my article on Suzugamori.
[xi] If their families even bothered to show up.
[xii] The exception being 小伝馬町 Kodenmachō, which is near 日本橋 Nihonbashi whose thriving business district overshadows the grim atmosphere of the neighborhoods around Suzugamori and Kozukappara. Kozukappara was so awful that the place name doesn’t exist outside of historical landmarks. Suzugamori’s name is still attached to a park and an elementary school.
[xiii] There might not be any, but maybe I’ll visit the 品川歴史館 Shinagawa Rekishikan Shinagawa History Museum again to see if they can help.
[xiv] This is a 30-40 minute walk today. I suspect in the Edo Period it would have taken about an hour.
[xv] If I remember correctly, the statue used to stand in front of a convenience store or something as a kinda gimmick. But since the renewal of the old Tōkaidō beginning in 2008 or so, they’ve played up Ryōma’s association with the area much more and put the (I’m assuming) plastic statue on a large concrete pedestal and put him in a park next to the train station.
[xvi] Not that these ships ever actually made it to Edo. They did their business in Uraga Bay which is actually miles from Edo-Tōkyō.

What does Shiogama mean?

In Japanese History on August 5, 2015 at 4:28 am

Shiogama (salt kettle)

Shiogama Shrine looks more like ruins than an active shrine.

Shiogama Shrine looks more like ruins than an active shrine.

Today’s place name isn’t an official place name, it’s part of a park name, 塩釜公園 Shiogama Kōen Shiogama Park. The park actually takes its name from a shrine.

When I first saw this shrine, which is in such a state of disrepair that I actually thought it was a ruin, I never thought there would be much of a story behind it. The shrine precincts are in shambles, yet it’s designated as an official park of 港区 Minato-ku Minato Ward. But among the scattered ruins of this park, you can see a lot of Edo Period stonework. It has modern signage that designates it as a park, but it doesn’t look like a park that anyone would go out of their way to see[i]. I stumbled across it quite by accident when I decided to walk down a street I’d never taken before.


Anyways, turns out this decrepit little shrine has a pretty amazing backstory. The shrine’s name is derived from 鹽竈神社Shiogama Jinja Shiogama Shrine in 塩竈市 Shiogama-shi Shiogama City in 宮城県 Miyagi-ken Miyagi Prefecture. Miyagi Prefecture’s capital is 仙台市 Sendai-shi Sendai City.

But wait, “those kanji look different,” you must be saying. The first one is incredibly complex and uses kanji from before the post-WWII writing reforms. The second one updated the first character, but kept the obsolete 2nd character. A 3rd writing is used in Tōkyō, 塩釜 Shiogama, which uses 2 simplified, modern characters. But don’t worry; they’re all the same name as you’ll soon see.

There's a lot of this just scattered all over the place.

There’s a lot of this just scattered all over the place.

The Backstory

Shiogama Shrine in Miyagi enters the historical record in the 9th century and came to be associated with the 平泉藤原氏 Hiraizumi Fujiwara-shi Fujiwara clan of Hiraizumi[ii]. In the Edo Period, the 伊達家 Date-ke Date family became the shrine’s main patrons. In 1600, the warlord 伊達政宗 Date Masmune[iii] had been awarded a large and profitable seaside fief that would come to be called 仙台藩 Sendai Han Sendai Domain.

The 4th and 5th lords of Sendai Domain, 伊達綱村 Date Tsunamura and 伊達吉村 Date Yoshimura, repaired and expanded the shrine from 1695-1704. It became a major shrine in the area at this time and was closely connected to lords of Date and the domain’s ruling class. Most of the institution’s present greatness dates from this 9 year development project.

Cherry blossoms at Shiogama Shrine in Miyagi Prefecture.

Cherry blossoms at Shiogama Shrine in Miyagi Prefecture.

The Real Story Starts Here

In 1695, Date Tsunamura had the 神 kami deity of Shiogama Shrine divided[iv] and brought to Edo to be enshrined on the premises of Sendai’s massive 上屋敷 kamiyashiki upper residence which was located at present day 汐留シオサイト Shiodome Shio Saito Shiodome Shio Site[v]. The shrine stood on the private upper residence of Sendai for just over 160 years.

Then, in 1856, the shrine was relocated to the 中屋敷 nakayashiki middle residence in the 芝口 Shibaguchi area of Edo[vi]. This is the current location of the shrine today. It has stood at its present location for just under 160 years.

Layout of the upper residence of Sendai Domain.

Layout of the upper residence of Sendai Domain.

Just to put the relocation in perspective. 1856 was 3 years after Commodore Matthew C. Perry barged into 浦賀湾 Uraga Wan Uraga Bay demanding the Tokugawa Shōgunate open up the country for trade. It was 2 years after his return with diplomats insisting the shōgunate sign treaties. It was 12 years before the Meiji Coup succeeded in ousting the Tokugawa and establishing the Empire of Japan.

After the Meiji Coup, the daimyō were sent back to their domains. It’s in these early Meiji years that Shiogama Shrine became popular with the common people. Previously, they probably didn’t have much access to it because it sat on a daimyō’s private property[vii]. The 神 kami deity housed in the shrine is associated with 安産 anzan safe childbirth[viii]. Once the public had access to such a “powerful” kami formerly horded by the ancestors of Sengoku rock star, Date Masamune, the popularity of the shrine skyrocketed.

Shiogama Shrine in Shinbashi in the Meiji Period.

Shiogama Shrine in Shinbashi in 1901 (Meiji 34).

Shrine Decline

They say the shrine was completely leveled in the 1923 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake. One of the positive outcomes of the earthquake was the immediate creation of evacuation areas. As a former daimyō residence, the surrounding area was presumably flat and open[ix]. Shiogama Shrine was designated as disaster evacuation spot. I’m not clear if the entire estate was made an evacuation area or just the shrine area, but by late 1923, the City of Tōkyō created 町立盬竃公園 Chōritsu Shiogama Kōen Shiogama Park of East Tōkyō City.

In the 1940’s, the Tōkyō Bay area suffered horrific aerial attacks by the Americans. The so-called 東京大空襲 Tōkyō Daikūshū Firebombing of Tōkyō[x] brought the city of rivers and wood to her knees. Historical and religious intuitions that had once had deep pockets were forced out of necessity to sell their real estate holdings[xi]. It seems that this was the death knell of this particular shrine. Its 9th century origins and connection to the Sengoku warlord Date Masamune weren’t enough completely restore this once thriving shrine.

Most of the shrine looks like this today.

Most of the shrine looks like this today.

The Shrine Today

In 1971, the small block containing the shrine and the park became 区立塩釜公園 Kuritsu Shiogama Kōen Shiogama Park controlled by Minato Ward. The kanji were officially changed in accordance with the kanji reforms of the post war era (remember the buggy kanji issue I mentioned before?).

The shrine is still active, but Tōkyōites don’t know about. It’s minor as fuck. Also, as I mentioned before, it’s in such a state of disrepair that no one would visit it unless they were interested in really obscure shit… which yours truly happens to be interested in. Obsessively so. lol.

But the shrine is shambles. The park area is tiny and includes nice seats and signage explaining the history of the area. But the shrine itself, which occupies a larger area, is a mess. I’m just going out on a limb and guessing the shrine gets a tax break and the family running it can get by, but Minato Ward is maintaining the smaller park area.

dirty shrine

The Kabuki Konnektion

Earlier I mentioned the 4th lord of Sendai, Date Tsunamura, brought the kami of Shiogama to Edo. He has been immortalized in the world of 歌舞伎 kabuki in a play called 伽羅先代萩 Meiboku Sendai Hagi. It’s the story of the 伊達騒動 Date Sōdō Date Disturbance which was a succession dispute that lasted from 1660 to 1671.

The 3rd lord of Sendai, 伊達綱宗 Date Tsunamune was a big fan drinking and whoring[xii] who spent all his time and money in the Yoshiwara. He was deposed by a faction of uptight clansmen for his negligence and dissolute ways[xiii].


Long story short, the 2 year old Date Yoshimura was made lord of Sendai and 10 years of infighting within the clan began. The shōgunate was finally asked to step in and resolve the issue before things got out of control. Well, in 1671, things did get out of control – swords were dawn, one samurai was killed, and one retainer’s family was abolished and his family executed. Ultimately, the young Tsunamura’s right to rule was reaffirmed by the shōgunate.

Because the shōgunate censored stories about the scandals of elite samurai, the story had to be “disguised” when put into kabuki form. The stage version was set in the Muromachi Period and given an esoteric title. The name, Meiboku Sendai Hagi, is made of 3 words evocative of the events. 伽羅 meiboku (normally read kyara) is a kind of wood used to make clogs. It’s said that Tsunamune wore clogs made of this material when going to the Yoshiwara. 先代 sendai means predecessor, as in the former head of a daimyō family. So Meiboku Sendai means the “former ruler who wore wooden clogs.” Sendai also sounds like Sendai Domain – I see what you did there. The last word, 萩 hagi Japanese clover, is a flowering plant that is famous in Sendai.

In short, the play presents Tsunamura as a just ruler replacing a Tsunamune, a corrupt ruler. I don’t know a lot about kabuki, but it seems there are many variations of this particular story. If you’re interested, you can read more about it here.

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[i] Unless you’re a Japanese history nerd, of course.
[ii] Who were the Fujiwara?
[iii] Who was Date Masamune?
[iv] The dividing of kami is done through a process called 分霊 bunrei which literally means “sharing a spirit.”
[v] Present day 東新橋一丁目 Higashi-Shinbashi 1-chōme 1st Block of East Shinbashi.
[vi] Present day 西新橋三丁目 Nishi-Shinbashi 3-chōme 3rd Block of West Shinbashi. The area was also called 愛宕下 Atagoshita at the time. The name Shibaguchi persists in shop names and in the parlance of locals, it is not an official place name today. The area near 愛宕神社 Atago Jinja Atago Shrine does preserve the name Atago officially.
[vii] Some daimyō made their tutelary shrines accessible to locals, I’m not sure to what extent – if any – the general populace had access to before Sendai’s middle residence had been vacated.
[viii] This term is broad and includes protection for the baby during gestation and birth, protection for the mother during pregnancy and labor, and protection against birth defects or being “sickly.”
[ix] Today it is most definitely flat, but crowded with small post-WWII shops, homes, and businesses. There is a large park and school on the former daimyō residence as well.
[x] Literally “the Great Air-Raid.”
[xi] Even the richest and most beautiful funerary temples of the Tokugawa shōguns had to finally sell off their properties and consolidate whatever holdings they could hold dear.
[xii] And let’s be honest, who isn’t?
[xiii] A bunch of effin’ killjoys, if you ask me.

Ōedo Line: Roppongi

In Japanese History on July 6, 2015 at 6:03 am

Roppongi (6 Trees)

the pong

In the Edo Period, this plateau was the home of many daimyō residences. Today it’s has a reputation as the place where foreigners who can’t speak Japanese and are in Japan for a minute hang out. That reputation especially applies to the area near 六本木交差点 Roppongi Kōsaten Roppongi Crossing. It’s a kind of shitty area, in my opinion. There are a lot of people on the streets trying to lure people into restaurants of varying repute. Some are fine, but the good ones don’t need to pull in people off the street. Remember that if you visit this area.

Mōri Garden, a step back into the Yamanote of the Edo Period.

Mōri Garden, a step back into the Yamanote of the Edo Period.

That said, Roppongi Hills and Roppongi Mid-Town are actually quite upscale shopping and relaxing areas. They have movie theaters, art museums, restaurants, gardens, and high end shopping. At Roppongi Hills, the Mōri Garden is said to be the vestigial garden of the Mōri clan who had a palace on this land in the Edo Period. If you venture off the main thoroughfare from Roppongi Crossing, you’re bound to discover a plethora of tiny izakayas and restaurants that only the locals know.

But to be honest, if you’re a tourist or short term resident of Tōkyō, I’d rather not send you to Roppongi. It’s our Mos Eisley Space Port. But I can’t deny that it is very foreigner-friendly. There’s a Hard Cock Café and shop staff at stores and restaurants can usually speak English. Just be careful of people trying to lure you into shady establishments. I don’t disapprove of drinking and whoring at all. I just think there’s a risk of getting ripped off or straight shaken down in Roppongi – especially if you’re not fluent in the language and aware of the usual MO’s as compared to this area. Additionally, if you’re a tourist, go do something interesting that you can only do in Japan. Roppongi is the least Japanese place you can visit in Japan.

Roppongi,,,  lol


Oh, I almost forgot the name. There are quite a few theories about the origin of the word Roppongi[i]. As I mentioned, the name means “the 6 trees.” The most accept etymology is that “the 6 trees” is a reference to 6 daimyō (feudal lords) who maintained palaces in the area. These 6 feudal lords had kanji relating to trees in their family names. If you’re interested in the whole story, you should visit my main article about Roppongi below.

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This article is part of an ongoing series that starts here

[i] And in fact, there is actually another place name in Tōkyō, 五本木 Gohongi the 5 trees. You can see my article here.

Ōedo Line: Kuramae

In Japanese History on June 15, 2015 at 4:00 am

Kuramae (in front of the warehouse)

Location of the original

Location of the original “kura” (warehouse).

The name means “in front of the warehouse” and is a reference to the shōgunate owned a giant rice warehouse used to pay the stipends of the retainers of the Tokugawa. Think of the area as the ATM of Edo. Conveniently located on the Sumida River, the area was home to a ferry that took the freshly paid samurai to the Yoshiwara for epic benders of drinking and whoring. The Meiji government took control of the warehouse and reused the land for new government buildings as rice was no longer used the basis of the Japanese monetary system.

Like most warehouses in the Edo Period, this one was located on a river which was the cheapest, fastest, and easiest way to transport heavy material like rice. In this case, we’re talking about the Sumida River.

This is a famous ukiyo-e print of a man with one shoe on/one shoe off making a snowman is set at Kuramae. You can see the small canal in the midground. I believe that's the Sumida River in the background.

This is a famous ukiyo-e print of a man with one shoe on/one shoe off making a snowman is set at Kuramae. You can see the small canal in the midground. I believe that’s the Sumida River in the background.

There is a commemorative sign where the warehouse once stood and you can see the river the ferries used to go to the Yoshiwara. You also can take a leisurely walk to 両国 Ryōgoku, an area that should be on every tourist’s to-do-list because… it’s freaking awesome (I’ll talk about it tomorrow).

If there’s no warehouse left and there’s just a sign, is there any reason to actually go there? There might be. In the area is a very old shop called 浅草御蔵前書房 Asakusa O-kuramae Shobō Asakusa O-kuramae Bookstore. The same Asakusa O-kuramae is the Edo Period name of the place and shobō is an old word for bookstore[i]. The store sells Edo Period and Meiji Period books, maps, and other printed documents – in particular those that are related to Edo-Tōkyō!

Now that's what I call a bookstore!!!

Now that’s what I call a bookstore!!!

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This article is part of an ongoing series that starts here.

[i] The modern word is 本屋 hon-ya. The modern word is “book store” while the old word literally means “writings/documents room.”

Ōedo Line: Shinjuku Nishiguchi

In Japanese History on June 2, 2015 at 2:09 am

Shinjuku Nishiguchi (Shinjuku West Exit)

Shinjuku Nishiguchi is used to refer to a huge area. This is just one small part.

Shinjuku Nishiguchi is used to refer to a huge area. This is just one small part.

The name derives from the Shinjuku Station. This is more or less a shopping, business district, and drinking area. The station gives you reasonably quick, but not direct, access to 歌舞伎町 Kabukichō, a red light district famous for drinking and whoring. There are a few temples and cemeteries in the area, but nothing particularly famous. If gritty Shōwa Era yaki tori shops are your thing, you might want to check out 思い出横丁 Omoide Yokochō which translates as something like “Memory Lane.” It’s a series of alleys with tiny, cramped specialty shops that offer yaki tori, ramen, sushi, and a few other dishes at reasonable prices. The streets might be old and dirty, but the shops are sanitary and the atmosphere is thick – definitely worth a visit at night. The Omoide Yokochō area has an English website.

Omoide Yokocho

Omoide Yokocho

Oh, and just a heads up. Shinjuku was on the outskirts of Edo. It was more of a post town than part of the capital proper. The name actually means “new post town” and refers to the creation of a new station that serviced the 甲州街道 Kōshū Kaidō Kōshū Highway and the 青梅街道 Ōme Kaidō Ōme Highway. Post towns were notorious for catering to the prurient proclivities of horny travelers. One has to wonder if Shinjuku’s very active sex industry is a legacy of that tradition.

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What does Mishuku mean?

In Japanese Castles, Japanese History on January 31, 2015 at 5:40 am

Mishuku (three post towns)

Mishuku Shrine

Mishuku Shrine

The other day we looked at 五本木 Gohongi and 2 years ago we looked at 池尻 Ikejiri. Next to Ikejiri, there lays a relatively obscure neighborhood called 三宿 Mishuku.  One would think there isn’t much to say about this place and to be honest, there isn’t a lot to say[i]. But I’m gonna try my best to show you that this area actually has some historical value. On the surface, the name seems to mean “3 post towns” because the first kanji means “3” and the second kanji means “lodging.”

A typical Edo Period post town.

A typical Edo Period post town.

Own the Moan!

In the past we’ve seen Shinjuku, Shinagawa, Narai-juku and Senju – all of which were post towns – and longtime readers will know that a whole lotta drinking and whoring went down in these kinds of places. All over Japan you’ll see place names with 宿 shuku/juku in the name and 9 times out of 10, these were post towns. But this time, it seems that this isn’t quite the case[ii].

Ready to get it on with some post town prostitutes...

Ready to get it on with some post town prostitutes…


Let’s Look at the Kanji!

lodgings, dwellings

OK, so admittedly, there could have been 3 inns in the area at some point in history. That said, no Edo Period maps indicate anything of the sort[iii] and prior to the Edo Period, this area rarely appeared in maps because it was so country. And while the village did sit on an important road during the final years of the Kamakura Period, by the late 1300’s[iv] the area was more or less irrelevant. The road system soon became cut off from the “national[v]” road system and was just used by local peasants doing whatever boring shit it is that peasants do[vi].

mishuku map


So What Do We Know About the Area?

If you recall from my article on Ikejiri, most of modern 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward originally consisted of marshes and swamps until the Edo Period. Fans of the blog will surely remember that the Meguro River flows through this area. Really hard core fans will remember that one of the rivers that feed into the Meguro River is the Kitazawa (where the name Shimo-Kitazawa comes from). Swamps, rivers, ravines, wetlands… I think you can see where this is going[vii].



A Land Rich with Water

This brings us to our etymology. The general consensus is that the original writing was 水宿 Mishuku – a uniquely classical rendering of these kanji. Usually when we see 宿 shuku inn used as a suffix we can use its 音読み on’yomi Chinese reading and we can also assume it means “post town.” But the first kanji is 水 mizu which means “water.” Its standard 訓読み kun’yomi Japanese reading is usually “mizu.” In place names, however, can sometimes be read as ミ mi instead of ミズ mizu. So does this mean “water post town” or does this mean “three post towns?”

waterworld samurai style


Let’s Look at the Kanji Again

mi, mizu
pregnant, replete with

This old way of writing gives us a completely new way of looking at this place name. This different way of writing suggests a terrain wherein 水が宿る mizu ga yodoru the water is teeming[viii]. This older writing seems legit according to what we know about the area prior to the Kamakura Period. The old kanji were difficult to read and were replaced with the current ones[ix].

The "castle" may have looked something like this...

The “castle” may have looked something like this…


So Why Does This Place Name Survive At All?

There was a castle here. In its day it was called 三宿城 Mishuku-jō Mishuku Castle. There used to be a temple here called 多聞寺 Tamon-ji Tamon Temple and so sometimes the castle is called 多聞城 Tamon-jō Tamon Castle. It was a 支城 shi-jō satellite fort of 世田ヶ谷城 Setagaya-jō Setagaya Castle[x]. When and who built the first fortified residence here is unclear, but the fort sat on a plateau that is now home to 多聞小学校 Tamon Shōgakkō Tamon Elementary School.

Top of the plateau. The school is on the right.

Top of the plateau. The school is on the right.

In its day, the fort gave the lord of the manor a fantastic view of the area. To the west, you could observe the primary fortification of the fief, Setagaya Castle, but to the north you would see the 北沢川 Kitazawa-gawa Kitazawa River and to the south you would see the 烏山川 Karasuyama-gawa Karasuyama River. To the east, you would see the confluence of the two rivers merging into what we today call the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River[xi]. That is to say, you were looking at a flood plain dominated by 3 rivers – a land that was “teeming with water.” The fact that there were 3 waterways may also explain the change of change from 水 mizu water to 三 mi three.

The lord of the manor would have had a view similar to this.

The lord of the manor would have had a view similar to this… or not.

The existence of Mishuku Castle was well-known for centuries, but the place name 三宿村 Mishuku Mura Mishuku Village wasn’t recorded until 1625, during the reign of the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu. In 1889 (Meiji 22), 7 villages were combined to make up a larger administrative unit called 世田ヶ谷村 Setagaya Mura Setagaya Village which included an area called Mishuku. The current postal code designating Mishuku 1丁目 icchōme block 1 and 2丁目 nichōme block 2 dates from 1965 when the current postal code system was established.


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[i] I’ve never even been there myself.
[ii] Guess dis ‘hood ain’t ownin’ the moanin’ til 6 in the mornin’. Too bad. Woulda made a much more interesting story.
[iii] Even in the Edo Period, the area doesn’t appear on some maps because it was so minor.
[iv] The Muromachi Period saw the power base move away from the east (Kamakura) and back to the west (Kyōto).
[v] And, yeah, I use the word “national” loosely.
[vi] Because fuck the peasants. Am I right?
[vii] And I promise you that it’s not going to another river series.
[viii] Literally, an area that is “pregnant with water.” Also, just as 荒川 Arakawa’s 川 kawa is not a suffix, 水宿三宿 Mishuku’s 宿 shuku is not a suffix either.
[ix] The current kanji are 読みやすい, right??? (If you can’t read that, then study a little more Japanese, OK?)
[x] As you should know from my article about Setagaya’s Freaky Horse Fetish, you’ll know that the 吉良氏 Kira-shi Kira clan controlled this area in the 1300’s and we can be sure that the Kira clan controlled this fort at some point.
[xi] See my article on the Meguro River.

The Arakawa River

In #rivered, Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on June 26, 2014 at 5:53 am

Arakawa (raging river)

This is the headwaters of the Arakawa in Saitama Prefecture. The water is crystal clear.

This is the headwaters of the Arakawa in Saitama Prefecture. The water is crystal clear.

Welcome to my 3rd installment of my 8 part series on the Rivers of Edo-Tōkyō[i]. My second article, which was about the 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River, literally tore me a new hole. It broke me. I thought rivers would be an easy topic, but they’re not. Researching this article broke my brain again. And my apologies for publishing so late. I had to step away and come back with a fresh perspective.

That said, every article I write enhances my view of the Edo-Tōkyō continuum more and more. I’m only 3 rivers deep into this series and I feel like I’m slowly starting to wrap my head around things. I probably shouldn’t have started with the 3 most incestuously confusing rivers in Kantō. But there’s no looking back, is there? Yes, I’m an idiot. (But this shouldn’t be news to any of you, my dear readers)

Just like “Sumida” became 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River and 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward, there is an 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River and an 荒川区 Arakawa-ku Arakawa Ward[ii]. I touched on this briefly in my article on the Sumida River. And I promise to talk about this later. There are going to be a few big surprises as we go on, but before that let’s do the etymology.


By the time you get to the border of Saitama and Tokyo in the city of Kawaguchi, the river is filled with garbage and  derelict boats. Some people actually fish here.

By the time you get to the border of Saitama and Tokyo in the city of Kawaguchi, the river is filled with garbage and derelict boats. Some people actually fish here.


The Name of both the River and the Ward are the Same.

So let’s look at the kanji first so we know we have a base point from which to start.


wild, rough, rude; devastating




Unlike most etymologies we’ve encountered at JapanThis!, there actually seems to be some sort of consensus about this river’s name. I’ve looked all over and I can’t find an alternate or older way of writing the name of the river. The name of the river seems to have been written 荒川 Arakawa since the Heian Period.


Senju no Ohashi (the great bridge of Senju) in the Edo Period.  Remember this name, we're coming back to Senju in a bit.

Senju no Ohashi (the great bridge of Senju) in the Edo Period.
Remember this name, we’re coming back to Senju in a bit.


Etymology of the River


araburu kawa

unruly, wild, malevolent river

arareru kawa

stormy, short-tempered river


This river was part of the Tone River watershed. As mentioned in my previous article, the Tone had a reputation for being uncontrollable and wild. Not only did the river periodically flood, these floods often changed the course of the river. As such, the Arakawa was a dangerous and scary river. There’s a pretty strong case to be made that the kanji are literal in this case.


Changes made to the river courses in the Pre-Modern Eras.  Some of the reference points I've added in English refer back to the last 2 articles.

Changes made to the river courses in the Pre-Modern Eras.
Some of the reference points I’ve added in English refer back to the last 2 articles.


Why do we say Arakawa River and Arakawa Ward and not Ara River and Ara Ward?

You just asked the $100k question, son! If you didn’t care about why Sumida Ward and Sumida River use different kanji, if you can’t read or speak Japanese, or you fucking hate grammar with every fiber of your body, you might want to skip to the next section. If you’re a Japanese grammar nerd, then stick around because you might dig this.


OK, so one of these is not like the other one. Sesame Street style, see if you can spot the difference.



Romanization English


Sumidagawa the Sumida River


Tonegawa the Tone River


Fuji-san Mt. Fuji


Edo Machi the city of Edo


Arakawa the Arakawa River


Can you spot the difference?

.Except for Arakawa, all of those examples follow this pattern:

Japanese Romanization


river name + river suffix


mountain name + mountain suffix


city name + city suffix


prefix + suffix (ie; inseparable)

So the typical pattern is “name + river/mountain/lake suffix.” However, ara by itself is not a word. Ara by itself is not a name. In fact, in this case, it’s a prefix. Therefore ara can’t be spilt from kawa and kawa can’t be split from ara. (This leads some people to say that “Arakawa” was originally a nickname or just a normal word in itself meaning “a raging river” – indeed there are Arakawa rivers all over the country).

Furthermore, the convention for signposts and naming will split the words from river/lake/mountain. So Tonegawa can easily be split into Tone and kawa – which is then rendered into English as “the Tone River.” If we split ara from kawa we get a non-word (a freestanding prefix) plus the word for river[iii]. I can’t think of an equivalent name in English, but imagine trying to convince someone that Opportunity should be split into two separate words Op and Portunity. It’s just weird, man.

But keep in mind, as Japanese has no spacing between words and this is just a convention (not a law) for romanization of Japanese words, there are occasional exceptions[iv]. Also, the Japan River Society, while having no real ability to affect laws, has strong opinions on the matter (Japanese only).

Totally random fact, but I've been told that fishing in the clean sections of the Arakawa is spectacular.

Totally random fact, but I’ve been told that fishing in the clean sections of the Arakawa is spectacular.


Etymology of the Ward

☆ Short Answer:
Name of the ward is derived from the 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River. The ward was officially created in 1932 and named after the river.

☆ Long Answer:
You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?
OK, this is pretty complicated, especially because I haven’t described the course of the river or its history yet. So you’re going to get some spoilers. But that’s fine because this is history and there aren’t really spoilers – just shit you don’t know yet.

The name of the ward comes from the Arakawa River flowing through the northeastern part of Arakawa Ward. But – surprise! – the river flowing through the northeastern part of the Arakawa Ward, is called the Sumida River.


The Imabuchi Flood Gate. There are actually two of them now. Take a good look at these gates and think about what they do. Then continue reading.

The Imabuchi Flood Gate. There are actually two of them now. The red one is the original. The big blue one is the new one.
Take a good look at these gates and think about what they do. Then continue reading.

Say What?!

From 1924-1930 a project was undertaken to create a man-made river to drain excess water from the Arakawa River and dump it into the 江戸川 Edogawa Edo River which would then expediently flushes it all out to sea. This feat of civil engineering is sometimes credited with keeping Tōkyō relatively flood-free since 1916 (fingers crossed!)[v].

This construction of this man-made canal meant the Arakawa was split into 2 discrete waterways:

 The so-called 荒川放水路 Arakawa Hōsuiro Arakawa Drainage Canal began at 岩淵水門 Iwabuchi Suimon Iwabuchi Floodgate in 北区 Kita-ku Kita Ward and then meandered through 足立区 Adachi-ku Adachi Ward, 葛飾区 Katsushika-ku Katsushika Ward, 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward, 江戸川区 Edogawa-ku Edogawa Ward, and 江東区 Kōtō-ku Kōtō Ward.

 The other waterway, the Arakawa went from the Iwabuchi Floodgate in Kita Ward to create the borders of Adachi Ward and Arakawa Ward, then marked the borders of Arakawa Ward and Sumida Ward, then to mark the borders of Sumida Ward and 台東区Taitō-ku Taitō Ward, then Sumida Ward and 中央区 Chūō-ku Chūō Ward, then to mark the borders of Chūō Ward and Kōtō Ward where it dumped out into Tōkyō Bay.

This aerial shot shows the old red floodgate (up top), the new blue floodgate (center). It also shows clearly where the Sumida Rivers begins (old Arakawa) and the new course of the Arakawa (old drainage canal).

This aerial shot shows the old red floodgate (up top), the new blue floodgate (center). It also shows clearly where the Sumida Rivers begins (old Arakawa) and the new course of the Arakawa (old drainage canal).

In 1965, the Arakawa Drainage Canal was formally designated as the official path of the Arakawa River. This meant the stretch of the Arakawa from Iwabuchi Floodgate to Tōkyō Bay was designated as the 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River, which you can read about here. That stretch of river had had the unofficial nickname of Sumida River since the Edo Period and since it delineated many borders of Sumida Ward, the changing the name seemed obvious.

But because of this new, formal re-designation of the Arakawa’s “main path,” it meant that the border of the 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward and 荒川区 Arakawa-ku Arakawa Ward was no longer the Arakawa River, it was the Sumida River.

Yes, that’s right, folks. The Arakawa River does not flow through (or even touch) Arakawa Ward – at least not officially[vi].

The old Iwabuchi Floodgate is affectionately called Akasuimon "Red Floodgate." It is not longer used and some crazy river people like to go there for sightseeing.

The old Iwabuchi Floodgate is affectionately called Akasuimon “Red Floodgate.” It is not longer used and some crazy river people like to go there for sightseeing.

Arakawa Ward’s Dark Secrets

Prior to and during the Edo Period the area was made of rural, agricultural communities in 豊島郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District (this was never part of Edo). The area was only associated with peasant farmers until 1651, the first year of 4th shōgun Tokugawa Ietsuna’s rule. In this year, the shōgunate built 小塚原死刑場 Kozukappara Shikeijō Kozukappara Execution Ground in the village of Minami Senjū. Around this time, the area of Minami Senjū came to have a heavy association with the 穢多 eta outcastes (literally “abundances of filth”)[vii] in the Edo Period. These were people at the bottom of the social class structure who did “unclean work” such as execution, clean up and disposal of dead bodies, leather work, butchery, etc. Minami Senjū’s reputation as a village of “unclean” people and a place of death and torture has tarnished the area for centuries[viii]. Also, it didn’t help that it was one of the most mismanaged execution grounds of the shōgunate.

Every time a construction project is launched or the rail companies try to expand, the remains of executed humans are excavated. The bones are rarely found attached to anything, indicating animals tore the corpses apart and scattered the bones. Heads tend to be founded together, clearly indicating execution.

Every time a construction project is launched or the rail companies try to expand, the remains of executed humans are excavated. The bones are rarely found attached to anything, indicating animals tore the corpses apart and scattered the bones. Heads tend to be founded together, clearly indicating execution.

Present day Arakawa Ward is also home to 浄閑寺 Jōkan-ji Jōkan Temple, often called 投込寺 Nagekomi-dera the “dumping temple.” I mentioned this briefly in my article on Yoshiwara, but this was where most licensed prostitutes were interred. The name seems to imply that dead prostitutes were just impiously dumped at the temple gates at all hours of the day throughout the Edo Period, but this is probably not the case. In 1855, there was a major earthquake which burned down much of Yoshiwara[ix]. As a result, the corpses of the girls were wrapped in sheets – or whatever facilitated easy transport – and they were dumped in a massive heap in front of the temple. At any rate, the sight of the pile of bodies of young girls (mostly 12-20 years old) made an impact on the local people and the nickname stuck. At any rate, thinking of girls sold off by their families to be sexual slaves and then dumped at a crappy temple in the countryside because no one else would take them is pretty fucking depressing.

You can see funerary urns packed on top of one another in the repository for dead prostitutes. These aren't just Edo Period 'tutes, but also girls who died en masse during the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Tokyo Firebombing in WWII.  It's estimated that more than 25,000 Yoshiwara girls are interred here.

You can see funerary urns packed on top of one another in the repository for dead prostitutes. These aren’t just Edo Period ‘tutes, but also girls who died en masse during the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Tokyo Firebombing in WWII.
It’s estimated that more than 25,000 Yoshiwara girls are interred here.


In 1868, 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture was established and this area the Toshima District was included in the newly created Tōkyō. In 1932, the area called Arakawa Ward was formally incorporated into 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City[x]. Even by the 1930’s, the area’s image hadn’t improved.

The reason for this is that with the Meiji Coup came industrialization. The industrial revolution in Europe and the US was a filthy and polluted affair. Japan was no different. In Meiji Japan, many factories were built along the Arakawa River (present day Sumida River). This area was chosen for a number of reasons. First, the river allowed for the transport of raw material into the factories and distribution of finished products. Garbage and waste of the factory could be dumped into the river. Factories were dirty and produced unnatural smells and smoke and waste, so it was better to put these outside of the city center. As a result, other businesses and factories associated with “unclean” work were relocated to the area along the present day Sumida River. Of course, the people working these jobs were none other than the recently “liberated” and “integrated” 部落民 burakumin, the new polite word for the outcastes and their descendants. Burakumin villages lined the Arakawa river system. And what about good ol’ Minami Senjū? (Nowhere near the Arakawa River, by the way.) Well, the execution ground was shut down early on by the Meiji Government, but the area still bore a massive stigma. Its inhabitants continued doing “unclean” work that was forbidden in the city center, ie; leatherwork, slaughtering animals, butchery, and disposing of corpses.

Old burakumin slum on the river. If the river flooded, guess who got fucked over first?  Yup. These people.

Old burakumin slum on the river. If the river flooded, guess who got fucked over first?
Yup. These people.


To the surprise of most Tōkyōites, some traditionally burakumin areas in Tōkyō still exist. There seems to be some controversy as to whether these areas are populated by the descendants of actual burakumin. Privacy laws and anti-discrimination laws have wiped identifiable burakumin village names from maps and postal addresses. Even the infamous 山谷 San’ya area, whose name persists in the minds of locals, does not exist as a modern place name.  Many of these areas are still economically depressed. Many of these areas can be found in Arakawa and 足立区 Adachi-ku Adachi Ward and Taitō Ward. I’ve been in some of these areas and you can tell something is off (a lack of signs identifying the area and a “silence” on your GPS is one sign that you’re there).

River areas, while vital, were always lower class in Pre-Modern Japan. Sumida, Arakawa, and Adachi bore the brunt of that burden until a nostalgia kicked in after the 60's when people pined for traditional Japan. There's still an emotional tug of war between super modern Japan and traditional Japan.

River areas, while vital, were always lower class in Pre-Modern Japan. Sumida, Arakawa, and Adachi bore the brunt of that burden until a nostalgia kicked in after the 60’s when people pined for traditional Japan. There’s still an emotional tug of war between super modern Japan and traditional Japan.

If someone really wants to know precisely where an Edo Period burakumin village used to be located, it’s not hard to find that information. However, villages after the Edo Period are harder to pinpoint due to the sensitivity of the issue. And the reality of the situation is that in most parts of Japan, there isn’t any discrimination towards them. In fact, there’s almost no way of finding out who is a descendant of this class; it’s also not important to most people these days anyway. Also most of the old villages have just melted into the metropolis of Tōkyō since the 1960’s. As I mentioned before, there’s a lot of doubt if the descendants of the burakumin populate these areas anymore. The only thing that is certain is that many of those traditional areas are still economically depressed.

Most Tōkyōites are generally repulsed by discrimination against the burakumin and may be shocked to hear the “they even exist anymore” (in many ways, this is an Ōsaka problem, not a Tōkyō problem). So don’t get the idea that there is rampant hatred and oppression of these people. There isn’t. It’s just part of the history of this area. Some of it from the Edo Period, most of it from the Meiji Period – but it’s part of a dark legacy that happens to be encapsulated within the confines of modern Arakawa Ward and has kept the ward less well off than some its counterparts in the Tōkyō Metropolis. Also, don’t think that things aren’t changing. There’s a lot of gentrification going on in Tōkyō’s shitamachi and blue collar districts. Families who want to live in a タワーマンション tawā manshon skyrise apartment but want to save money can find reasonably priced, spacious, modern apartments in the heart of a shitamachi neighborhood. That’s a combination of yamanote living in the heart of a traditional Shōwa Era neighborhood. It’s like having the best of both worlds and paying half the price for it.

Savvy real estate developers have seized upon the love for the water and the beautiful view that post Bubble developers didn't give a shit about. They've re-imagined Tokyo as a low city with semi-high-rise apartments. The open space and "low city" feeling creates a modern Tokyo lifestyle deep in the heart of the Edo's last dying gasps for air.

Savvy real estate developers have seized upon the love for the water and the beautiful view that post Bubble developers didn’t give a shit about. They’ve re-imagined Tokyo as a low city with semi-high-rise apartments. The open space and “low city” feeling creates a modern Tokyo lifestyle deep in the heart of the Edo’s last dying gasps for air.

But I Digress…

Back to the river. The Arakawa River originates on 甲武信ヶ岳 Kobushigadake Mount Kobushi which is in the Saitama Prefecture side of the border of Saitama, Nagano, and Yamanashi. That region is called Chichibu which is a reference to 秩父国 Chichibu no Kuni Chichibu Province which existed from the Taika Reforms until 1868[xi]. As mentioned before, at Iwabuchi Suimon, the river splits in two. The old river become the Sumida River, the more recent river path become the Arakawa. From there, the river merges with the Edo River and empties into Tōkyō Bay.

Let's go back to the headwaters of the Arakawa. It's a beautiful, clean source of water.

Let’s go back to the headwaters of the Arakawa. It’s a beautiful, clean source of water.

Taming Of the Raging River

At the beginning of the Edo Period the river followed the course that is now called the 元荒川 Moto-Arakawa Old Arakawa in Saitama. This river isn’t connected to the modern river today, but the Old Arakawa still flows from 行田 Gyōda to 越谷 Koshigaya where it merges with the 中川 Nakagawa. Today the river is essentially a drainage ditch. This stretch of what was once a might river lies with the boundaries of former 忍藩 Oshi Han Oshi Domain, a name that we’ve seen in the last two articles.

Again, as mentioned in previous articles, typhoons and torrential rains caused the Tone and Arakawa rivers to flood seasonally with disturbing regularity which would devastate Edo’s shitamachi areas. So, in the early 1600’s the shōgunate began massive river projects in order to protect the shōgun’s capital from flooding as well as the administrative centers along the Tonegawa Watershed. Major work on the river continued until the late 1960’s. The overall effect was that the Tone River ceased flowing south into Edo and was gradually diverted east toward Chiba over the centuries. This eventually created the two current river paths of the Sumida River and the (modern) Arakawa.

With all the manipulation of the waterway and the levees and the space between the river and the communities lining the river, one might think the Japanese have tamed the Arakawa River. This may not be the case, though. Even though the last devastating flood was in 1916, officials in Tōkyō are worried that the metropolis still isn’t prepared enough if the Arakawa (or any other river, or even the bay itself flooded). The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on Louisiana and Hurricane Sandy on New York as well as the tsunami in Tōhōku raised more than a few eyebrows in Tōkyō and there has been a renewed interest in buttressing anti-flooding measures in the interest of saving lives and safeguarding existing infrastructures. If you’re interested in reading more about this renewed interest in taming Tōkyō’s rivers, here’s article from 2008 that talks about some worst case scenarios and here’s another article from 2013 that describes the progress made and what still needs to be done to keep Tōkyō safe.


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[i] Wanna start from the beginning? You can catch up by reading my first post.
[ii] There are 荒川 all over the country. Wikipedia actually has a disambiguation page (Japanese only).
[iii] Yes, there is an adjective 荒い arai but an adjective doesn’t make a place name in Japanese, it has to be something connected to the word. For example, 新宿 New Post Town isn’t written as Shin Juku or even Shin-juku, but Shinjuku. The two elements are inseparable.
[iv] The opposite also happens when many Japanese romanize the end of a phrase like おいしそうだよ oishisō da yo as oishisō dayo because many people consider da yo to be a cluster (one word, if you will), though a prescriptive grammarian would insist that they be separated as da is a copula and yo is an emphatic particle. I tend to take the prescriptive approach when I Romanize Japanese because I’m a jerk like that.
[v] That’s because the impetus to build the Arakawa Drainage Canal was the last major flood in, you guessed it, 1916.
[vi] Just to remind you… Arakawa Ward was created in 1932, reaffirmed in 1945, and it became a 特別区 tokubetsu-ku Special Ward 1947. All of this happened while the Arakawa River marked the border of Sumida Ward and Arakawa Ward.
[vii] By the way, this term “eta” is highly offensive in modern day Japan. For most people, in particular those who know they are descendants of this class, the carries the weight of the worst racial slurs you can imagine. The term seems to be used quite freely outside of Japan when talking about this group of people prior to the Meiji Coup in 1868. But don’t use it in Japan. Instead, you should use “burakumin.”
[viii] Even if most people don’t know about this today.
[ix] Remember, Yoshiwara was surrounded by a moat and there were essentially only two ways in and out. As a result, the Yoshiwara was a death trap in the case of fires. The prostitutes were indentured servants and were forbidden to leave without special permission. Clients and tea house owners could leave, but for the working girls, crossing the threshold without permission could have meant torture or “accidental” death. Of course, staying within the confines of the pleasure quarters during a fire could have meant “torture” or accidental death as well. Catch-22. Whatcha gonna do?
[x] Longtime readers will be familiar with this. Tōkyō Prefecture contained a much larger area than Edo proper. One of those areas, an “expanded Edo” – if you will – was Tōkyō City. The prefecture and city were abolished in 1943 and the whole are became 東京都Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis. The former Tōkyō City roughly corresponds to the modern 23 Special Wards.
[xi] Chichibu’s major connection to Edo-Tōkyō is actually its contribution of a cadet family of the 平家 Heike the Taira clan. Learn more about this in my article on Why is Edo called Edo?

What does Ohanajaya mean?

In Japanese History on February 27, 2014 at 4:59 am

Ohanajaya (Tea Shop O-Hana)

map of ohanajaya


Today’s topic isn’t very complicated, so let’s get right down to business. It’s essentially made of 2 words.



A girl’s name, this is the precursor of the Shōwa era modern Japanese name, 花子 Hanako, literally “Flower Child/Flower Girl.”


A teahouse
A place where you could get some relaxation and most likely do a little drinking and whoring. Yes, you could also get a cup of tea.


“But wait,” you say, “that spells O-hana Chaya.”

Well, under a normal (and somewhat irregular) linguistic process known as 連濁 rendaku sequential voicing[i], the mora ちゃ cha /tɕa / changes to じゃ ja /dʑa/ and voilà! You have O-hana Jaya[ii].

Today, the area called Ohanajaya refers to three 丁目 chōme “blocks” located within 葛飾区 Katsushika Ward. There is a small train station called お花茶屋駅 Ohanajaya Eki Ohanajaya Station that services the 形成本線 Keisei Honsen Keisei Main Line. The station has two exits. The south exit is 宝町 Takaramachi[iii] and the north exit is お花茶屋 Ohanajaya[iv]. Ironically, Ohanajaya Station is actually located in Takaramachi.
Go figure.

Ohanajaya Station

Ohanajaya Station


In the Edo Period this was the straight up boonies – literally, the outskirts of Edo. The area was located on the 曳舟川 Hikifunegawa Hikifune River which was also known as the 葛西用水 Kasai Yōsui the Kasai Waterway or Kasai Kanal[v] which flowed from present day Katsushika Ward to present day Sumida Ward. In fact, its terminus in Sumida is where present day Hikufune is located[vi]. In the early years of the Edo Period, it was a 上水 jōsui a drinking water supply; however it soon was demoted to a common waterway for small boats. Apparently it was a quite scenic spot, as it is depicted in many surviving works of art.

The river was filled in during the preparations for the Tōkyō Olympics in 1964 and subsequent development has completely obscured the river’s original path.

The Hikifune River.

The Hikifune River.

So… About the Etymology

From the name, we can tell that it was clearly named after a teahouse. There’s no reason to doubt the kanji in this case because it seems to be a very straight forward Edo Period name. There is a bit of a problem in that there are multiple explanations for the name, all of which are closely related, but with one simple problem: Most of these explanations invoke a shōgun. So take all of this with a grain of salt.

Why would a shōgun be invoked here? Well, the fact that the Tokugawa family came to this area for falconry is well known[vii]. But the frequency with which these stories come up (always involving a “cool shōgun,” it just seems like they were just moseying around Edo pointing at things and renaming them at will. Sure, they had that power. Do I think they spent their time that way? Not really.


I just re-named that rock over there. And that teahouse. I saw a small fish I liked and I renamed that.  A shogun's work is never done.

I just re-named this rock.
And that teahouse over there.
I saw a small fish I liked and I renamed that too!
A shogun’s work is never done.

The “Yoshimune Did It” Theory

It is said that the 8th shōgun, wise and good Tokugawa Yoshimune[viii], often came here for falconry. On one occasion, he had a severe stomach ache. For some reason, there were no nobles living in the area and his entourage brought him to a local teahouse[ix] and he was nursed back to health by the daughter of the proprietor. Her name was O-hana. And in celebration of his recovery, he ordered the area be named O-Hana Chaya.


Yoshimune came out for falconry. He had a stomach ache. He was nursed back to health by O-hana. He performed tea ceremony with her and gave her a 茶釜 chagama tea kettle. The shop became famous for this visit and they displayed the chagama in the shop[x]. Because this was O-hana’s tea kettle the shop became known as O-hana Chaya.




The “Yoshimune Had Nothing to Do with It” Theory

The oldest, the most frequented, or the only teahouse in the area was named O-hana. Shops all over the world have all kinds of names and Edo Period Japan was no different. In fact, using a person’s given name for a teahouse was quite common. Anyhoo, this theory suggests that this shop was the most famous, most frequented, or (possibly) oldest teahouse in the area. It being such a rustic place there’s no reason to doubt that the area was famous for a certain shop. We’ve seen this before.

This is my theory because it seems the most plausible.  Of course, there is no remaining shop. But this is simple and clean and just plain common sense.

Also, given the manners of the day, I don’t think there was much obligation on the part of a shōgun to do tea ceremony with commoners. While there is an image of Yoshimune loving the common people, I just don’t imagine the real guy hanging out with a bunch of dirty townspeople in the countryside drinking tea. Yes, it would happen in 暴れん坊将軍 Abarenbō Shōgun, but that was a TV show for senile people.


"You go, girl!"

“You go, girl!”

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[i] What the hell does sequential voicing mean? In short, it’s a sound change and that’s good enough for most people. If you really want to more, check out the Wikipedia article.

[ii] Wait, what the hell’s a mora? Mora (plural: morae) is a Latin word that is used to describe syllables. It’s not exactly the same as a syllable in English. Unless you’re going deep into Japanese Linguistics (or linguistics in general), that’s all you need to know. However, if you really want to know more (and you probably don’t), here’s the Wikipedia article.

[v] It looks cooler with the K.

[vi] And if you think this is an upcoming topic, you’d be right. And you’ve probably been reading this blog too long. Nerd!

[viii] Wise Yoshimune, as Rekishi no Tabi jcalls him. Wise, indeed, but apparently not wise enough to waste a fuck ton of money on the opulent tomb of 6 year old Tokugawa Ietsugu who literally did nothing as shōgun.

[ix] The term chaya (teahouse) is a little ambiguous, but this very well could have been a house of “ill repute.” The legend says nothing of the place other than “teahouse.”

[x] This undoubtedly caused all the towns people who saw it to say すごーい!sugoi! great!

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