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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 Sangenjaya mean?

In Japanese History on January 14, 2015 at 6:01 am

Sangen-jaya (3 tea houses)

Sangenjaya Crossing

Sangenjaya Crossing

Today’s place name is a bit problematic when it comes to writing. This is true in both English and Japanese. The name is written in the Roman alphabet as either Sangenjaya or Sangen-jaya. I’ll talk about why this dichotomy exists later, but for the time being just know both spellings are common. The hyphen-less version is much more common, but the hyphenated version is legit. I’m going to use both versions in this article when I feel it illustrates my point. Just be aware of that.

The word is problematic in Japanese because when you type the word in to most kanji conversion systems you’ll find the word unconvertible:










If you can read Japanese, you probably can understand the mechanics of what’s going on here. If not, don’t worry. I’m going to explain everything in due time. I promise.

Anyways, Sangenjaya is located in present day 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward[i]. And now that I’m looking at more maps of the area, I’m thinking this area is going to be a real treasure trove of interesting place names for upcoming issues.

Sangenjaya on a map

Sangenjaya on a map

But First, Let’s Look at the Kanji!




counter for buildings




shop, store

The bane of many a student of Japanese is the “counter.” What’s a counter, you ask? A counter is a suffix (and its accompanying kanji) attached to the end of Japanese numbers to show that you are counting something. In English these would be the equivalent of ordinal and cardinal numbers. For example one machine is 一台 ichidai, one small animal is 一匹 ippiki, one glass of beer is 一杯 ippai, one can/bottle of beer is 一本 ippon, one order of beer is 一つ hitotsu, and one facial cumshot is 一発 ippatsu[ii]. One building or store is 一軒 ikken. Two buildings or shops are 二軒 niken. Three buildings or shops are 三軒 sangen.

Long term readers, will recognize the word 茶屋 chaya teahouse[iii]. In the Edo Period, this could refer to a variety of business models ranging from a place to get a light meal, to a shop that provided entertainment with geisha, to an outright brothel that just happened to serve tea. The name Sangen-jaya derives from 三軒の茶屋 sangen no chaya the 3 teahouses. Under a normal linguistic process known as 連濁 rendaku sequential voicing[iv], the mora ちゃ cha /tɕa/ changes to じゃ ja /dʑa/ and voilà! ちゃや chaya becomes じゃや jaya. Remember earlier when I talked about the kanji conversion on a computer, that’s why you still input ちゃ cha instead of じゃ ja, or more correctly, you put in ぢゃ ja, but this is difficult on a computer.

The area is often affectionately called 三茶 Sancha “three tea.”

Sangenjaya Station

Sangenjaya Station

So What’s Up With The 3 Teahouses?

I’m glad you asked. In the Edo Period, the area around 三軒茶屋交差点 Sangen-jaya Kōsaten Sangenjaya Crossing[v] was home to 3 teahouses. The intersection is actually where a road bifurcated and became the 大山道 Ōyama Michi Ōyama Path and 登戸道 Noborito Michi Noborito Path. These roads lead towards a series of established temple and shrine pilgrimage routes. The area wasn’t a post town, but travelers would diverge here and so it seemed as good a place as any to get a quick meal, some refreshing tea, and maybe a prostitute or two[vi].

The 3 teahouses are well attested on maps and so the original locations are known.


Ishibashi Shop


Kado Shop


Tanaka Shop

All of the shops are family names followed by the suffix for “shop” or “store.” The name of Ishibashi-ya is a bit more complicated, though. The shop was originally called 信楽 Shigaraki, but the name was later changed to 石橋楼 Ishibashi-rō. It’s often listed as Ishibashi-ya, probably to make it conform to the other 2 shops.

The location of the 3 teahouse at the end of the Edo Period.

The location of the 3 teahouse at the end of the Edo Period.

In the Edo Period, the area called Sangenjaya today was comprised of the former 中馬引沢村 Naka-Umahikizawa Mura Naka-Umahikizawa Village,  下馬引沢村 Shimo-Umahikizawa Mura Shimo-Umahikizawa Village, and 太子堂村 Taishi-dō Mura Taishi-dō Village in former 武蔵国荏原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara District, Musashi Province[vii]. It seems that by the 1800’s, the popular name Sangen-jaya was already well known in the area. However, the name didn’t officially exist until quite recently. The birth of the official place name Sangen-jaya coincided with the 1932 creation of Setagaya Ward.

Ishibashiya in 1877 (Meiji 10).

Ishibashiya in 1877 (Meiji 10).

In the Meiji Period, the area became famous for シャボン屋 shabon-ya shops selling western soaps[viii], 立飲屋 tachinomi-ya shops where you drink while standing[ix], 駄菓子屋 dagashi-ya cheap candy and snack shops, and 魚屋 sakana-ya fish mongers[x]. Today, it’s a rather affluent area with many bustling restaurants and bars. Parts of the neighborhood are crowded with Shōwa Era buildings and shops and so the area is popular with people who enjoy that type of atmosphere. Less than 10 minutes by train from 渋谷駅 Shibuya Eki Shibuya Station, it attracts a lot of university students looking to get their drink on[xi].

Sangenjaya at night

Sangenjaya at night

Where Are The Teahouses?

In the Meiji Period, Kado-ya went out of business and Tanaka-ya was lost in a fire. In 1936, Ishibashi-ya moved across the street and changed its name to 茶寮イシバシ Saryō Ishibashi which means something like “Tea Room Ishibashi.” The first floor was a 洋食喫茶 yōshoku kissa a café specializing in yōshoku, Japanized western dishes. The second floor was a banquet hall that served yōshoku for large events and parties. In 1945, the family running the shop was evacuated due to the destruction incurred by the American firebombing of Tōkyō.

2 photos of the interior of Saryō Ishibashi.

2 photos of the interior of Saryō Ishibashi.

I don’t know the details, but according to local legend Tanaka-ya re-emerged at some time in the Sangenjaya area. It didn’t come back as a teahouse but as a ceramics shop. The modern shop is called 田中屋陶苑 Tanakaya Tōen Tanaka Ceramics. The shop uses the family name and is the only surviving business with any connection to the Sangen-jaya place name[xii].

Tanakaya Ceramics

Tanakaya Ceramics

Teahouse Postscript?

Lastly, I want to share a link. This guy made a map of where the teahouses were. Then he went to the area and photographed the spots as they look today. It’s pretty cool! You can find his blog here.

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[i] Yes, I have already written about the etymology of Setagaya.
[ii] #TeamIenari
[iii] Long term readers will most likely remember this from my article on O-hana-jaya.
[iv] I’ve covered rendaku so many times, I don’t really feel like getting into it again. If you’re interested, read about it in Wikipedia.
[v] “Crossing” is Japanese English for “intersection.”
[vi] Or three.
[vii] And believe me, we’ll get to those gems in due time.
[viii] Interestingly, this word シャボン shabon derives from the Portuguese word sabaõ which means the word dates back to the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai Warring States Period.
[ix] Today the term means a kind of casual bar or izakaya where you stand and drink. But in this case, these were actual 酒屋 saka-ya sake shops, but they didn’t only sell alcohol, they set up tables or counters for customers to taste sake and casually drink in the store.
[x] Remember, this was quite far from the center of Edo-Tōkyō and the bay.
[xi] If you’re looking for the more carnal pleasures, worthy of the teahouse legacy, you might be able to find some discreet メンズエステ menzu esute men’s spas – essentially a massage with a happy ending.
[xii] I can’t find any information linking the Tanaka family running the ceramics shop to the Edo Period tea house family. So keep in mind, the name Tanaka is like Smith, Johnson, or Williams. A cursory Google search for 田中陶器店 Tanaka Tōki-ya brought up a shop with the same name in 佐賀県 Saga-ken Saga Prefecture as the first hit. Saga is an area famous for ceramics. I’m not saying there’s a connection – I can’t – but the presence of this Tanaka-ya should be viewed with a little skepticism until further evidence comes to light. If any of my readers knows anything about this, I’d love to hear from you.

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 does Azumabashi mean?

In Japanese History on January 1, 2015 at 3:18 am

Azumabashi (my wife bridge, but more at “Azuma Bridge”)

Azumabashi?! What the fuck is Azumabashi?! Ohhhhhh!!! That bridge!!! Now I remember!

Azumabashi?! What the fuck is Azumabashi?!
Ohhhhhh!!! That bridge!!!
Now I remember!

Today we’re going to look at one of Tōkyō’s most iconic bridges in one of Tōkyō’s most popular tourist destinations near 浅草 Asakusa and 東京スカイツリー Tōkyō Sukaitsurī Tōkyō Skytree. Stand on the bridge and take in the sight of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. I guarantee you’ll be in awe of the river that gave life to this part of the city. You can watch it flow out into the bay that also made this area an important part of town as far back as the Kamakura Period.

5 bridges spanned the Sumida River in the Edo Period. Azumabashi was the last one built. In 1769, a local merchant and priest headed a group that petitioned the shōgunate to build a privately held bridge as an alternative to the 竹町の渡し Takechō no Watashi Takechō Ferry Crossing[i]. The shōgunate approved the project and after 5 years of construction, the first wood bridge was completed in 1774 during the reign of Tokugawa Ieharu[ii].

Two geisha on Azumabashi throwing a bunch of crap into the river or something. Littering is bad, mkay?

The bridge was initially called 大川橋 Ōkawabashi Ōkawa Bridge a reference to the 大川 Ōkawa Big River, one of the popular names of the Sumida River[iii]. Edoites, who seemed to have nicknames for freaking everything, casually called it 東橋 Higashibashi (which can also be read as Azumabashi) which literally means “the east bridge.” Interestingly, it was a toll bridge. It cost 弐問 ni mon 2 mon[iv] per person to cross… unless you were a samurai, then it was free. Bitches love samurai.

Remember. Ukiyo-e isn't about truth in advertising, it's about a feeling... much like Japanese advertising today. Those boats are about to crash into the bridge and lives will be lost if you read this painting literally.

Remember. Ukiyo-e isn’t about truth in advertising, it’s about a feeling… much like Japanese advertising today.
Those boats are about to crash into the bridge and lives will be lost if you read this painting literally.

Anyhoo, the “East Bridge” was said to be extremely well built. In fact, in 1786 the Sumida River flooded; one bridge was damaged and 2 others completely destroyed, but the East Bridge withstood the flood and didn’t sustain any damage. As a result, shōgunate rewarded the people who designed and built the bridge. It’s said that around this time, the kanji and pronunciation 東 higashi/azuma (east) were informally changed to 吾嬬 azuma which means “my wife” but can also refer to the east. The name is a reference to a nearby shrine called 吾嬬神社 Azuma Jinja Azuma Shrine.

The view of Senso-ji and Mt. Fuji from a boat.

The view of Senso-ji and Mt. Fuji from a boat.

In 1876 (Meiji 9), the bridge was renovated and the name was formally registered as 吾妻橋 Azumabashi Azuma Bridge[v]. Coincidentally, this was the last wooden incarnation of the bridge. In 1885 (Meiji 18), there was a massive flood that ripped the 千住大橋 Senju Ōhashi Great Senju Bridge from its base and sent the bridge down the river at full speed until it smashed into Azumabashi causing irreparable damage. Daaaaaaang.

I can't find an actual photo of the wooden bridge. This is the latest illustration I could find of the wooden bridge (from the Meiji Period).

This is the latest illustration I could find of the wooden bridge (from the Meiji Period).

This is the last photo I could find of the wooden bridge.

This is the only photo I could find of the wooden bridge.

In 1887 (Meiji 20), a modern truss bridge built of steel was erected. This was the first of its kind on the Sumida River – evidence of how important the bridge had become over the years. Originally built for pedestrians, a signal system and tracks were later installed to allow pedestrians and trolley service to utilize the bridge. In 1923, the wooden portion of the bridge was burnt away in the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake. The bridge was maintained in a temporary state on a shoestring budget while Tōkyō rebuilt herself. Finally, in 1931 the current steel and concrete bridge was built and stands to this day.

The truss bridge. It looks like shit to modern eyes, but I imagine Meiji people walking through it like a kid in a car wash.

The truss bridge. It looks like shit to modern eyes, but I imagine Meiji people walking through it like a kid in a car wash.
Notice they have viewing walkways on both sides of the main thoroughfare. That was for viewing the city and the far off mountains.

Azumabashi after the Great Kanto Earfquake.

Azumabashi after the Great Kanto Earfquake.

So What About That Shrine?

The bridge takes its name from an ancient shrine called 吾嬬神社 Azuma Jinja Azuma Shrine on a road and river route to the east of the bridge. Apparently, it was quite a splendid shrine with excellent pedigree in those days. However, today it’s a shadow of its former glory.

Azuma Shrine (labeled Azumasha).

Azuma Shrine (labeled Azumasha). The shrine was located in a large grove of trees called Azuma Mori (Azuma Forest).

The shrine claims a mythological provenance. It’s located in 墨田区立花 Sumida-ku Tachibana – said to derive from 弟橘姫 Ototachibana-hime Princess Ototachibana, wife of 大和武尊 Yamato Takeru, or as I like to call him, Captain Japan[vi]. In Japanese mythology, Captain Japan embarked on a triumphant 東征 Tōsei Eastern Expedition to conquer Eastern Japan in the name of the Emperor. Long story short, his wife, Princess Ototachibana, had to throw herself into the sea to appease the 神 kami spirits of the Pacific Ocean to ensure Captain Japan’s safe passage. When her personal effects washed ashore, people would bury them in small mounds called 吾妻塚 azumazuka “my wife mounds.” Many of these mounds became 吾妻神社 Azuma Jinja Azuma Shrines, literally “my wife shrines.” These mounds and shrines can be found all over Japan. Oh, and in case you’re wondering what kind of personal effects the shrine claims to have washed ashore in the area, it was a small shred of her clothing[vii].

Hi! I'm Yamato Takeru but you can call me Captain Japan.

Hi! I’m Yamato Takeru but you can call me Captain Japan.

Azuma Shrine today

Azuma Shrine today

Alright, so that’s it. The first article of the year. Hope you liked it!


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The Takechō Ferry was where most men would begin their trip to Yoshiwara. Even though the bridge was built, ferry service seems to have continued right up to 1876 (Meiji 9).
[ii] For those of you scratching your head, he was the 10th shōgun.
[iii] The name Sumida River wasn’t officially applied to the whole river until after the Edo Period. See my article here.
[iv] I’m not sure how to convert mon into modern currency, but this was just pocket change at the time. Samurai Archives has a great article on currency and it mentions that 8 mon would buy one piece of low quality sushi (today that would be about ¥100-¥120 yen). 16 mon would get you a bowl of soba (today that would be about ¥200-¥400 in front of a train station for shitty soba). Now the part I’m curious about, 300-500 mon would get you one night with a prostitute in 宿場町 shukuba machi a post town (today 40 minutes at a ピンサロ pinsaro pink salon in 静岡県沼津市 Shizuoka-ken Numazu-shi Numazu City, Shizuoka would set you back between ¥4000-¥8000 depending on the quality of the establishment and girls). I have no idea if comparing those things is even realistic, but whatever…
[v] If you’ve been a long time reader, you’ll be aware that the Tokugawa Shōgunate wasn’t really in the business of going around assigning official names to things.
[vi] Rest assured, I’ll go into more detail when I write about Tachibana.
[vii] Is it just me or does this sound like people were venerating trash that washed up on the beach?

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