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Posts Tagged ‘ebara’

What does Tennōzu Isle mean?

In Japanese History on April 8, 2020 at 8:46 am

天王洲 I S L E
Tennōzu Isle (island of the sandbar of the heavenly king)

So, COVID-19 is Still a Thing

I hope everyone is staying at home as much as possible. Deaths worldwide are up 13,000 since the last article. Yeah, so… you know what? Today we’re going to look at a popular man-made island in 東京湾 Tōkyō Wan Tōkyō Bay that is connected to a 神 kami god who has the power to protect mankind from disease epidemics. So, how ya like dem apples, Corona-chan?


Tennozu Isle at dusk

Tennōzu Isle

It’s dusk, on a hot summer’s eve and you’re strolling along a fashionable boardwalk on a rectangular man-made island. Couples and families bounce in and out of the galleries, restaurants, and creative spaces that line the boulevard as bridges tower overhead. Enjoying the sea breeze in the wind, you pause to take in the flittering lights that dance across the waterfront. It doesn’t seem so hot anymore. The salt water in the wind soothes you. Looking down to where the sea splashes up against the land, you spot something familiar – something old. Everything fades into the background as you squint to get a better look at… yes, yes, you can see them clearly now. This is the only thing that matters now.

Edo muthafuckin’ Period stone walls, bitch. Focused on what must be done now, you grunt with satisfaction and begin rolling up your sleeves and hock a loogie into the water. A seagull perched on a rooftop above inhales deeply, opens its beak wide, and releases a single stream of fire writhing like a whip. You growl to the stone walls, “Oh yeah, baby. You ready for this? You think you’re ready? You better be. That’s right. You know you love it. It’s time to get nerrrrrdy. Awwwwwwww yeah.”

The seagull flies away aaaaaaaaaaaand… SCENE!


First Let’s Look at the Kanji

ten, ama/ame

heaven, sky



su, –zu

sandbar, mid-ocean sandbank

Today’s place name is a combination of two words: 天王 tennō heavenly king and 洲 su sandbar. It has a spiritual connotation which could better be translated as “sandbank sacred to the heavenly king.” In this case, the heavenly king is a reference to 牛頭天王 Gozu Tennō – a syncretic deity with Shintō, Buddhist, and Hindi aspects[ii]. He is the god of plagues, pestilence, and pandemics, who has the power to bring epidemic destruction as well as take it away and protect from it. Soon after the importation of this Indian deity through Buddhism, the Japanese came to equate him with the kami of storms and seas, 須佐之男命 Susano’o no Mikoto. The center of Gozu Tennō worship is 八坂神社 Yasaka Jinja Yasaka Shrine in 京都 Kyōto.

Obviously, Tennōzu Isle glaringly includes an English word. In Japanese, island is shima/-jima and so theoretically we could’ve gotten *天王() *Tennō(zu)jima Tennōzu Island, but let’s face it. That sounds dumb. So, the cool English word “isle” is used in ローマ字 rōma-ji romanization rather than 片仮名 katakana the simplified syllabary, which would be アイル airu. Also, the area is officially known as 天王洲 I S L E, but at the train station name is written only in Japanese characters as 天王洲アイル.

Anyways, the keen reader has probably figured out that water is pretty important to this story. We’ve got the sandbar in the middle of the ocean, a mashup kami who deals with the seas, and a reference to an island. Keep the water theme in the back of your mind.


Tennozu Isle during the Bakumatsu

The Etymology

Before any artificial islands were built here, there was a large sandbar formed by the accumulation of sediment. It was well known by fisherman who worked in 江戸湾 Edo Wan Edo Bay for centuries.

The story goes that one day in 1751, a fisherman cast his nets across the sandbank, but when he tried to pull it back aboard, there was something heavy weighing it down. He soon realized that he had caught a wooden carving of the face of Gozu Tennō. Realizing that this was “miracle” – which was a more common occurrence than you’d think[iii] – the people began referring to this place as Tennō’s Sandbar. The people of 品川 Shinagawa gathered round and took the sacred object up the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River to 荏原神社 Ebara Jinja Ebara Shrine which protected all of 荏原国 Ebara no Kuni Ebara Province. Gozu was enshrined as Susan’o and came to be worshipped as a triune kami. Furthermore, the locals began celebrating 天王洲祭 Tennōzu Matsuri Tennōzu Festival every spring by parading 御神輿 o-mikoshi portable shrines decorated with the 神面 shinmen sacred visage of Gozu Tennō down to the bay. There, in a rite called 海上渡御 kaijō togyo[iv] they would return him to the sandbar whence he arose to present himself to the good people of Shinagawa.


Notice the divine face on this portable shrine.

It’s a good story and I suppose it does a decent job of explaining the etymology of this place name. Except, according to Ebara Shrine itself, Gozu Tennō was enshrined as Susano’o all the way back in the Kamakura Period – June 19th, 1247, to be precise. Priests at Yasaka Shrine[v] in Kyōto perfumed a ritual called 勧請 kanjō and split the spirit of Gozu Tennō and sent it all the way across the country to Ebara Shrine. That’s about 500 years before the Edo Period story I just told you!


Gozu Tenno

So Which is Correct?

Who the fuck knows? But clearly, there’s a strong association between Ebara Shrine and the sea and the local people who make a living off the bay – and I suspect that has to do with the sea god aspect of Gozu Tennō. In the 1200’s, the villages around Edo experienced a boom, so it makes sense that with a little finagling and a little help from the Minamoto court in Kamakura, the shrine could convince the priests of Yasaka Shrine to share a bit of their juju with Shinagawa, both areas were now fairly connected via the 古東海道 Ko-Tōkaidō ancient Tōkaidō trail[vi].

By the Edo Period, Shinagawa was home to the busiest and most prestigious post town on the shōgunate’s most prominent highway. Even to this day, the modern road is littered with temples and shrines once made rich by travelers coming and leaving the bustling capital. It isn’t hard to imagine an overly zealous Ebara Shrine priest taking a boat out one moonless night in 1751, then tossing a wooden carving of Gozu Tennō’s face into the shallow waters covering the sandbar in hopes that some dumb ass fisherman is gonna find it the next day and show it to the other mud-grubbing, low-tide-smelling lemmings of the village. Ebara Shrine would blow the fuck up over night. Every local, every traveler, every priest and monk from far and near would want to throw a few coins in the collection box just to get a look at the miracle face mask, know what I’m sayin’?



Tennozu Isle today


From Baby Sandbar to Big Boy Island

Tennōzu was just a sandbar only known to fishermen for most of its history. Then in 1851, Commodore Perry arrived in Edo Bay demanding the shōgunate open up for trade and international relations. He gave them time think about it, vowing to return in a year to accept Japan’s agreement to his terms, or he would bombard the shōgun’s capital. Understandably, the government lost its collective shit and ordered the construction of 11 man-made islands to serve as 台場 daiba cannon batteries to prevent Perry’s 黒船 Kurofune Black Ships from getting to close to the city. The government chose Tennō’s Sandbar as the most efficient spot to build 第四台場 dai-yon daiba Battery #4. Work was completed in 1853, but a fire broke out and burned down the wooden structures. The shōgunate abandoned the island, its stone sea walls being the only indicator that it had once been an artificial island, much less a sandbar.


Oaki Daiba in the Taisho Period. You can see the factory buildings.

In 1873 (Meiji 6), a shipbuilder named 緒明菊三郎 Oaki Kikusaburō bought former Daiba #4  and renamed it 緒明台場 Oaki Daiba. Then, with a little investment by the 中将 chūjō vice-admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 榎本武揚 Enomoto Takoyaki[vii], a pro-Tokugawa loyalist turned Meiji statesman, he began expanding the island to use as a shipyard. Kikusaburō made a killing building boats, and the island was still is use during 日清戦争 Nisshin Sensō the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895; Meiji 28-28) and 日露戦争 Nichiro Sensō the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905; Meiji 37-38).

From 1925-1939, further land reclamation projects expanded the island ever more. Although no longer used as a shipyard, the site became home to bayside factories, warehouses, and distribution centers. This changed the look of the former sandbar and daiba forever. The former nickname, Oaki Daiba was gradually forgotten and the traditional name Tennōzu came back into use.


Edo Period stone walls. Awwww yeah.

Fast forward to about 1985, a group of 22 landholders designed the diabolical 東品川二丁目マスタープラン Higashi-Shinagawa Ni-chōme Masutā Puran Master Plan for the 2nd Block of East Shinagawa[viii]. It included a plan to redevelop the area as a stylish boardwalk with a waterfront view, including a new station for the super-spiffy 東京モノレール Tōkyō Monorēru Tōkyō Monorail. It’s during this expansion that the island took its final, rectangular shape which can still be seen today. Two sides (the northwest corner) of the former pentagonal daiba are still visible, this is where you can see the Edo Period seawalls.

The developers thought Higashi-Shinagawa 2-chōme was too long and re-christened the project 天王洲I S L Eマスタープラン Tennōzu Airu Masutā Puran the Tennōzu Isle Master Plan. Now, remember, this was the height of the Bubble Economy, and one of many fads at the time was studying English just because it was popular. Suddenly, 和製英語 wasei eigo Japanese English meant to be understood by Japanese speakers only began popping up everywhere. This place name is a product of that fad. Tennōzu Isle sounded like Tennō’s Isle and rolled off the tongue easier than Tennōzu-jima (both “Tennō’s Island”) [ix], but it looked foreign and exotic – perfect for a population of passively English-literate Tōkyōites with money burning holes in their pockets.


kaijo togyo

To this day, Ebara Shrine celebrates the Tennōzu Festival and local worshippers still perform the kaijō togyo ritual, returning the Oxhead Heavenly King to the sandbar he first appeared at. This tradition is said to protect the area from floods, hurricanes, and most importantly for us, massive epidemic outbreaks.

I hope you found this bite-sized JapanThis! article informative. I tried to avoid as many rabbit holes as possible, and I hope I’ve succeeded. We’re not out of the dark on this coronavirus bullshit yet, so please stay home, wash your hands, and stay six-feet apart from everyone. Call your loved ones and take care of yourself. Also, if you see a fire breathing seagull, get the hell away from it.


Further Reading:


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[i] This is an older kanji still used in place names or to seem old timey. Modern Japanese tends to use , but this kanji can also mean “state” or “province,” so the older kanji is good for clarity in place names.
[ii] Gozu literally means “ox head” and is probably a reference to Mt. Oxhead in Southern India.
[iii] Longtime readers will remember all the other time people were just finding random Buddhist statues in the water. It’s a pretty hilarious trope. I can picture monks whose temples are lacking funds, dumping statues in the water to create “miracles” and drum up a little business for themselves.
[iv] Transferring a sacred object to the sea.
[v] Also known as 祇園神社 Gion Jinja Gion Shrine.
[vi] I use Ancient Tōkaidō and 旧東海道 Kyū-Tōkaidō former Tōkaidō (“old Tōkaidō”) to distinguish between the very well organized and regulated Edo Period highway. Ancient refers to the road as it slowly developed over centuries.
[vii] OK, ya got me! He’s real name is Enomoto Takeaki. You can read more about him here.
[viii] Well, let’s be honest. It wasn’t actually diabolical.
[ix] Though, the more natural Tennō-jima doesn’t sound bad. Just doesn’t pop like the Japanese/English hybrid.

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 Meguro mean?

In Japanese History on August 12, 2013 at 2:58 am

(Black Eyes)

Meguro Hanami Etymology

The Meguro River, as it passes through Naka-Meguro.
A famous spot for hanami in Tokyo.

Sorry for my lateness in updating. The O-bon holiday is about to kick off now in Tōkyō and I’m juggling three projects in addition to my regular responsibilities. A doctor actually told me to give the blog a rest for a while. It’s not so much his advice as much as it’s my own lack of time that has created an unusual silence over here at Japan This. But don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. The blog will continue. And I apologize for the slow pace as of late.

But I feel like that last series on Edo’s Three Execution Grounds was a great place to take a break. And I uploaded a few filler pieces since then which actually got a lot of hits and brought a lot of new readers to Japan This. That’s always fantastic, in my opinion! The more the merrier.

I shouldn’t be wasting my time (or yours, dear reader) with mindless pleasantries, so without further ado, let’s take a look at why Meguro is called Meguro.



While Naka-Meguro is great, there probably isn’t much of a reason to get off at Meguro Station on the Yamanote Line.
and OMG, this is the most annoying graphic ever….


First thing you should know.

There is no consensus on the etymology of this place name. It appears to be fairly ancient; possibly dating back to the 800’s when the culture of the Yamato hegemony was more or less finalized in Honshū. In the early Kamakura Period (circa 1190), the name 目黒氏 Meguro-shi Meguro clan first appeared in shōgunate records. We can assume this was a noble family from the Kantō area, either originating in the Meguro area of 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni’s Musashi Province 荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District or a noble family who controlled the area (or both). Either way, the place name does not derive from the Meguro clan. The Meguro clan’s name derived from the place name. BTW, the family claimed descent from the 藤原氏 Fujiwara-shi Fujiwara clan.

Following the old Japanese tradition of naming of villages based on their locations along rivers and roads, there were (and still are) a 上目黒 Kami-Meguro Upper Meguro (upstream), a 下目黒 Shimo-Meguro Low Meguro (downstream), and a 中目黒 Naka-Meguro (goldilocks, baby, goldilocks)[i].


Hopefully you can see the path of the river and the placement of the upper, middle and lower Meguros. This type of place naming was typical of pre-modern Japan.

Hopefully you can see the path of the river and the placement of the upper, middle and lower Meguros.
This type of place naming was typical of pre-modern Japan.


OK, It’s Etymology Time, Y’all.

One common story is that the name derives from a temple called 瀧泉寺 Ryūsen-ji in Shimo-Meguro. In the Edo Period this temple was part of series of temples dedicated to a Buddha known as Acala, who is called 不動 Fudō, “the unmovable one” in Japanese.  The temples, as a group were known as the 江戸色不動 Edo Goshiki Fudō The 5 Colored Immovable Buddhas[ii]. The problem with this theory is that these temples and this grouping are products of the Edo Period. So it’s unlikely the name has anything to do with this[iii].


If you've seen one Buddha, you've seen them all. Please meet Acala, another demon-looking Buddha.

If you’ve seen one Buddha, you’ve seen them all.
Please meet Acala, another demon-looking Buddha.



The oldest secular etymology has an agricultural origin and strikes me as more believable[iv]. This theory suggests that the area was originally used as a pasture for grazing animals – horses in particular. The word 馬 uma horse had a dialectal variant me that when combined with 畦 kuro embankment between fields became mekuromeguro[v]. These “meguro” referred to dirt embankments and barriers that prevented horses and other grazing animals from running away.


Meguro - A Horse Embankment?

It’s not very exciting, but this is what the theory suggests.


As this was an era when literacy wasn’t high and ateji was the norm, the place name came to written as 目黒 Meguro Black Eyes which could be easily read – rather than 馬畦 Meguro Horse Embankment which is almost unreadable without an explanation.

The problem with this etymology is that it suggests a small area.  However, the areas that contain Meguro names in modern Tōkyō and in the Edo Period hint at a massive area – much larger than a grazing field.

So if we are to go with this theory, I might suggest that the Meguro clan was not actually descended from the Fujiwara clan, but was merely a local strong arm in the area that managed to pull sway over a larger area. They connected with the Imperial court or possibly later with the Kamakura shōgunate and they assumed the name of their place of origin. After establishing control over their little part of the Ebara District, their name was the only legacy to survive the Sengoku Period.

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[i] Although, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen these 3 divisions, please see my article on Shimo-Kitazawa for a related explanation of this type of naming.
[ii] 5 colors is a cute Edo Period way of saying “various.” Religions are gimmicky wherever you go, aren’t they?
[iii] Remember the name was documented in the 1190’s, a good 400 years before the Edo Period.
[iiii] As always, keep a grain of salt handy, please.
[v] The kanji 畦 kuro, with its alternate reading, aze, survives in the modern word 畦道 azemichi a walking path (possibly also functioning as a property line) the divides rice paddies.

What does Setagaya mean?

In Japanese History on July 8, 2013 at 6:47 pm

Setagaya (Valley of the Eternal Rice Paddy)

All of Setagaya looks like this.  Every last bit of it. And they have flying monkeys too...

All of Setagaya looks like this.
Every last bit of it.
And they have flying monkeys too…

This place name is ancient. So take all of this with a grain of salt. But the generally accepted theory is as follows.

瀬戸 seto usually means a strait, as in the Strait of Gibraltar[i], but in Old Japanese, it could also be applied to 谷地 yachi a narrow marsh in a valley. In the old dialect of the area, it’s said that word seto was pronounced seta and written 瀬田 seta. Old Japanese had two possessive particles. Modern Japanese uses の no, but Old Japanese also used が ga. It survives in place names all over the country, the most famous being 関ヶ原 Sekigahara[ii], which literally means “the checkpoint gatehouse’s prairie/field.” Thus 瀬田ヶ谷 seta ga ya meant something like 瀬田の谷地 seta no yachi “the narrow marsh in the valley’s narrow marsh in the valley,” which I would have said was a totally ridiculous name, if they had asked me. But they didn’t.

Eventually, the first kanji was swapped out with 世 se “generation, world” because it’s an auspicious character. 世田 sounds like rice paddies that are bountiful forever, hence my translation of “Valley of the Eternal Rice Paddy.” Also, is a standard ateji character. It was so common in phonetic renderings that the shorthand form of became katakana セ se.

The first attestation of the name is in 1376 as 世田谷郷 Setagaya-gō Setagaya Hamlet. By the Edo Period, the town was listed as 世田谷村 Setagaya Mura Setagaya Village and this name lasted until the Meiji Era. In the Edo Period it was not part of the city of Edo, but of 荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District of 武蔵国 Musashi no kuni Musashi Province[iii]. In 1871, when the 廃藩置県 haihan-chiken[iv] the abolition of domain and establishment of prefectures was enacted, the eastern section of what is now Setagaya Ward was absorbed into 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City within 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture. In 1936, the boundaries of present day Setagaya Ward were pretty much fixed. It became a special ward of the newly created Tōkyō Metropolis in 1946 and lived happily ever after.

Maneki Neko

Maneki Neko

Oh wait, I forgot something kinda cool.

So that cat is called 招キ猫 maneki neko, it’s kind of a good look charm for businesses in Japan. 招く maneku means to invite or beckon and 猫 neko means cat[v]. There are a few origin stories for this good luck charm. One involves Setagaya Ward.

The story goes that once upon a time, there was an impoverished temple called 豪徳寺 Gōtoku-ji. Even though the head priest of the temple had barely enough food for himself, he took in a white stray cat and cared for him. Nice guy.

The temple isn't impoverished anymore.  They have a huge market share of the crappy cat statue market in Tokyo.

The temple isn’t impoverished anymore.
They have captured a huge share of the crappy cat statue market in Tokyo.

According to the legend, the daimyō of Hikone Domain, Ii Naotaka[vi], a contemporary of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hidetada, was passing through Setagaya Village with his entourage as a storm was coming up. As Naotaka’s group passed by the temple, the daimyō noticed the white cat beckoning them to enter the temple precinct. As it was totally about to rain, he and his group commandeered the temple for shelter. It started raining and maybe some lightning struck somewhere and, you know, some legend shit happened. I dunno, maybe it was a crazy storm.

Naotaka was thankful for being able to take shelter at the temple. As a result he requested to make the temple the Ii clan’s 菩提寺 bodai-ji funerary temple in Edo and the family made endowments to the temple and basically just made it rain[vii] on them throughout the Edo Period. As a result the family of the priest attributed the family/temple’s good luck to the white cat[viii]. And they found another awesome way to make money. They  started selling little white cats and telling people that if you buy this little white cat, a hereditary daimyō  might pass by your place and start throwing money at you for 2 and a half centuries. Well, anything’s possible, right?

The Grave of Ii Naosuke, one of the best dudes the late shogunate produced who had a really bad day on March 24, 1860.

The Grave of Ii Naosuke, one of the best dudes the late shogunate produced who had a really bad day on March 24, 1860.

Anyhoo, whatever you think of this story, the Ii clan was definitely a major patron of the club, err, I mean temple. The place is definitely in Setagaya Ward. The temple plays up the maneki neko story and the characters is known far and wide. Even in the ancestral Ii lands based around Hikone Castle, they use a cat character called Hikonyan, a reference to the maneki neko legend.

[i] I don’t know why I gave this example. After all, there are perfectly good Japanese examples.

[ii] As in the Battle of Sekigahara which secured Tokugawa Ieyasu’s position of dominance over Japan. This set the stage for him being granted the title 征夷大将軍 sei-i taishōgun, commander-in-chief of the expeditionary forces against the eastern barbarians, as they say.

[iii] See my article on Shimo-Kitazawa for another passing reference.

[iv] Not to be confused with the 廃藩痴漢 haihan chikan the public groping abolition of domains.

[v] It’s also slang for a “submissive” male homosexual.

[vi] I don’t want to get side tracked, but he is the illustrious ancestor of the no-less illustrious Ii Naosuke who was the regent of the clown shōgun, Tokugawa Iesada.

[vii] Make it rain. If you haven’t experienced this, then (a) you’re not a stripper or (b) you’re not rich or (c) you haven’t lived your life vicariously through rich people and strippers like me.

[viii] Because religious people love to thank imaginary shit instead of the people who actually help them.

What does Daita mean?

In Japanese History on July 5, 2013 at 4:42 am

Daita (ateji; no meaning)

Daita Station is a far cry from its humble agrarian roots...

Daita Station is a far cry from its humble agrarian roots…

OK, this place name is of such a ridiculous nature that all I can say is the accepted story is true. If not, then the name may be so old that the original meaning has been obscured forever since the adoption of writing.

This Name is Ateji.

Just a quick review of ateji:
Kanji is an ideographic writing system. That means that each character has a meaning. But as such, it’s poorly suited to transcribing foreign words or transcribing native words without adding nuance.

A good example of this is the word chocolate. This is the Nahatl word[i], xocolātl, which means “bitter water. The Spanish borrowed and transcribed the word in various forms until it became standardized as chocolate and was eventually borrowed by English (same spelling, but with a different pronunciation). The English pronunciation of the word was eventually adopted by the Japanese and while modern Japanese doesn’t use kanji for the word, several kanji variants existed; one of which is 猪口冷糖 choko reitō ”sake cup chilled sugar.”

This is an extreme example. But it clearly illustrates how kanji hides the meanings of words that exist in a world outside of kanji. Keep this in mind as we proceed.


It should go without saying, that before writing, people were speaking Japanese and naming places in their native language. When the ridiculously convoluted writing system of China was adopted, the Japanese superimposed it onto their own dialects. Suddenly Japanese place names that had their own meanings and histories were obscured by the meanings implicit in kanji. This means that really old place names are, by default, suspect.

Being in the literal middle of nowhere, we don’t see the place name 代田 Daita on maps until the closing years of the Sengoku Period. However, in 1569, when Hōjō Ujiyasu’s retainer 垪和又太郎 Haga Yasutarō[ii] was granted a fief here, the place name seems already to have existed.

Located on his fief was place (or facility) called 代田屯 Daita Tamura Daita Barracks or Daita Encampment[iii].

People are always interested in place names and the Japanese of the Sengoku Period and Edo Period were no different. They recorded an etymology that the locals told.

The giant doing his business....

The giant performing cunnilingus on a mountain…

Daidara Bocchi

There was a local legend that a giant named  だいだらぼっち Daidara Bocchi[iv] had lived in the area. There was a sink hole in the area (in the vicinity of present-day 守山小学校 Mamoriyama Shōgaku Mamoriyama Elementary School). The early villagers told a story that it was a footprint of the giant Daidara Bocchi. Over time, the footprint filled with rain water or became a natural spring and the area became a marshland. Over time, the name was shortened and the local dialect’s pronunciation changed and the name became  だいた Daita. The locals used the kanji 代田 to write the word[v].

At first I thought this was one of the stupidest etymologies ever and my gut instinct said to blow it off, except that supposedly there are places all over Japan with similar etymologies. And here’s where it gets interesting.




There are supposedly many references to Daidara Bocchi surviving in place names, especially in the mountains and wetlands. The sheer volume of these places names has led many scholars to speculate that Daidara Bocchi was an indigenous god associated with creation myths of Japan. He may have been an early Shintō god or he may be from an earlier culture. We only have conjecture at this point because by the time we get written records in Japan he was just a giant. But the story apparently spread all over 本州 Honshū the main island of Japan. As the name had dialectal variants, all of which pre-date the arrival of writing (ie; kanji), our knowledge of this mythological character is really obscure and most likely will remain so.

If you ever go to Shimo-Kitazawa, you can walk around the area and you’ll notice the hilly terrain. But because of the buildings, you can’t notice if there is a footprint shaped valley or not. But you can get a sense that the “elite” villagers on the high ground may have had a good story to explain a unique basin wetland area.

So, for the time being, let’s file this name under “obscure and intriguing.”

I had a good time, how about you?




[i] Aztec, for those of us who are not specialists in the languages of Mesoamerica.

[ii] Just a heads up, the name, 又太郎, can be read at Yasutarō or Matatarō. I have no idea which is correct in this guy’s case.

[iii] The tamura part is a mystery to me. It suggests an actual military base associated with the Hōjō clan, or ateji to avoid repeating the kanji – that is to say, tamura was not a military reference, but a farming one, ie; 田村 tamura rice paddy village. In the case of the latter, the word would have been rendered as 代田田村 – which just looks ridiculous.

[iv] Because there are so many dialectal variants of this name, there are a lot of options when rendering into English. Japanese folklorists tend to use this version of the name as a conventional standard. There is no standard in English. So writing the name as 2 words is an editorial call on my part. Some Japanese sources treat it as two words etymologically and that helps me render it into English in a reader-friendly way.

[v] If literally read, Daita means “generations/endless fields.” This etymology alone might seem sufficient, cf; Yoyogi and Chiyoda. Occam’s Razor would prefer this etymology.

What does Shimo-Kitazawa mean?

In Japanese History on July 4, 2013 at 1:43 am

Shimo-Kitazawa (Lower Northern Stream)

shimokitazawa history

I’m about to tell you how popular this place is by starting off with a picture where there isn’t a human in sight.

Shimo-Kitazawa is located in Setagaya Ward. Because of its bohemian appeal, it’s popular with artists, musicians, college students and young professionals. It’s not as commercial as the more urbanized centers like Shibuya and Shinjuku, and it has a nice balance of residential and boutique business culture. It’s not the most accessible area, but that’s part of its charm. But don’t let that fool you; the small Shimo-Kitazawa Station is busy as hell. It’s definitely a hot spot.

But actually, there is no official place called Shimo-Kitazawa.
By this I mean, there is no official postal address called Shimo-Kitazawa. There is a train station with this name.
And that’s it.

The area colloquially referred to as Shimo-Kitazawa is composed of two official areas Kitazawa and Daizawa.

It’s interesting to me, because Shimokita (as it’s usually nicknamed) has a momentum that reflects changes we’ve seen in Tōkyō’s history. Readers of JapanThis will remember how we’ve watched Iidamachi fade into oblivion as Iidabashi gained dominance simply because of the presence of a train or bus station. We also saw this with Nijūbashi, Kudanshita, Ebisu, and Omotesandō. There are too many examples of this to list. So if you wondered how these place names transition, there’s a good chance that we’re seeing a transition before our very eyes. A legitimate, modern Shimo-Kitazawa might exist sometime in the very near future.

Crowded Shimo-Kitazawa.

OK, that’s more like it.
Crowded Shimo-Kitazawa.

So What’s the Origin of this Place Name?

We have to look at two important geographical words before we can go any farther.





It’s said that in this area, there were many 沢 sawa streams (or that there was one particular stream here). Since this area was the northernmost section of the 荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District[i], the stream[ii] was called 北沢 Kitazawa, the Northern Stream[iii].

In old Japanese place names, the upstream area would generally be referred to as 上 kami upper and the downstream area as 下 shimo lower[iv].

Even today there are train stations named 上北沢 Kami-Kitazawa Upper Kitazawa and 下北沢 Shimo-Kitazawa Lower Kitazawa. Other related names are 北沢 Kitazawa, 代沢 Daizawa, 代田 Daita and 新代田 Shin-Daita[v]. By the way, I know a bad ass ramen shop in Shin-Daita.

The oldest recognizable photograph I could find of Shimo-Kitazawa.  This one is from the Showa Era. The platform has no roof so it must have been a bitch in the summertime.  But the platform and tracks must be in the same places as they are now. Also, you can tell this is after WWII, as the kanji are written left to right.

The oldest recognizable photograph I could find of Shimo-Kitazawa.
This one is from the Showa Era.
The platform has no roof so it must have been a bitch in the summertime.
But the platform and tracks must be in the same places as they are now.
Also, you can tell this is after WWII, as the kanji are written left to right.

In the Edo Period, this place was just country. In fact, it wasn’t even part of Edo. It was just part of the Ebara District of Musashi Province. Maps of the time confirm the presence of two small villages by the name of 下北沢村 Shimo-Kitazawa Mura Shimo-Kitazawa Village and 上北沢村  Kami-Kitazawa Mura Kami-Kitazawa Village. When 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō City was created, it absorbed the area into the city boundaries. At that time, the villages were officially merged into 北沢村 Kitazawa Mura Kitazawa Village[vi]. This sort of thing happened all over Tōkyō, but the old names often would come back into circulation for bus, trolley, and train station names that needed to be differentiated. This is why the Shimo and Kami names still exist today at all.

A Map of Tokyo City (basically the modern 23 Special Ward of Tokyo) The highlighted area is the Ebara District -- or at least what was incorporated into Tokyo City. #17 is Setagaya Village. You can easily see that it's at the northernmost point of the county.

A Map of Tokyo City (basically the modern 23 Special Ward of Tokyo)
The highlighted area is the Ebara District — or at least what was incorporated into Tokyo City.
#17 is Setagaya Village.
You can easily see that it’s at the northernmost point of the county.

Kami-Kitazawa Station was built in 1913. Shimo-Kitazawa Station was built in 1928. The names seemed destined for mediocrity until 1991 when the area became a hub for performing arts (theater in particular) and slowly the area gained momentum as quirky boutiques and shops and restaurants came to be established there. By the mid-2000’s the area had a reputation for its bohemian/Shōwa chic. I hear there are plans to re-develop the area that would change the area dramatically, but this seems to be on hold as the residents of the area are opposed to making drastic changes to the neighborhood.

I’ll admit it’s not my favorite place in Tōkyō, but every time I’ve gone, I’ve had fun. Part of its cool factor comes from the fact that it’s not so easy to get to. It’s on the Keiō and Odakyū lines, which aren’t the most widespread rail companies in the Tōkyō Metropolis.




[i] Ebara District was one of about 21 districts that made up 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province.

[ii] Or streams…

[iii] Or streams…

[iv] See my article on alternate attendance where you will see daimyō residences in Edo categorized by 上 kami upper, 中 naka middle, and 下 shimo lower.

[v] More about these names in upcoming articles.

[vi] They were administered by the newly created 世田谷村 Setagaya Mura Setagaya Village.

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