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Posts Tagged ‘edo period’

What does Yoga mean?

In Japanese History on October 23, 2013 at 8:55 am

Yōga (Yoga)

cool subway entrance

Pretty cool amphitheater-esque subway entrance!

In Tōkyō’s Setagaya Ward there is an area and a train station called 用賀 Yōga. I don’t know what native Japanese speakers think of this name, but it doesn’t really look like a place to me. The first kanji means “task” or “use.” The second kanji means “congratulations.”

If the popular etymology is true, then this place has its origins in Sanskrit and not Japanesei.

However, I’m just gonna say this right now – I have some major gripes with the popular story. This name is obviously ateji, ie; kanji used for phonetic reasons. Because it is ateji, it marks this as a very ancient place name. That said, let’s keep an open mind and listen to the story in its entirety before we jump to any conclusions.

Does sitting like this count as yoga?

Does sitting like this count as yoga?

The common narrative goes a little something like this. From the Heian Period to the beginning of the Kamakura Period, a ヨガ道場 yoga dōjō yoga school operated here. The name 用賀村 Yōga Village ultimately derived from this yoga schoolii.

During the Sengoku Period, Yōga Village was a 門前町 monzenchō centered around 眞福寺 Shinpuku-ji, a temple for which I can find no further informationiii. In case you forgot, a monzenchō was a small town that developed around the mon front gate of a temple or shrineiv.

By the Edo Period, the village was an established 宿場 shukuba post town on the 大山街道 Ōyama Kaidōv. It was a small town, but it managed to flourish during the stability brought by the Tokugawa in the 1600’s.

But wait, there's more!

But wait, there’s more!

A Bizarre Plot Twist

Translating from the original Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese monks used the kanji 瑜伽 for yoga. The kanji can be read in Japanese as either yuga or yogavi.

In 1578, a temple was founded in the area. This temple was associated with the 真言宗 Shingon-shū True Word Buddhismvii. The temple, which still exists today, is called 真福寺 Shinpuku-ji. The temple’s honorary mountain name (sangō) is 瑜伽山 Yuga-zan which uses the classical characters for “yoga.viii

Japanese Yoga

This is the kinda yoga I could get into.
Titty yoga.

Some More Weirdness

That’s the official narrative. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll realize that there are more discrepancies; there was another temple in the area before the 1578 temple.

I don’t know if the original temple, 実相眞福Jissō-san Shinpuku-ji, was re-established as 瑜伽山真福寺 Yuga-zan Shinpuku-ji or if the new temple borrowed and modified the name of the old temple but… the mountain names definitely changed. And while the pronunciation of the temple name was the same, the first kanji changed.

実相瑜伽山 Jissō-sanYuga-zan True Image Mountain → Yoga Mountain
眞福真福寺 Shinpuku-jiShinpuku-ji True Fortune Temple → True Fortune Temple


The main hall (honden) of the modern Shinpukuji.

We have a very messy story hereix. Let’s re-cap:

・In the old days there was a yoga school in Yōga and the town got a name.
・The yoga school was apparently dead and gone by the Kamakura Period.
・There’s always been a connection with Shingon Buddhism.
・The town grew up around a non-extant temple.
・That temple either declined and/or a new temple showed up and assumed the same name – and yet, a different name and included the Chinese characters for “yoga” in their name.


It’s possible, man.
All of this is totally possible.
Maybe some of the inconsistencies are just byproducts of how the story has been preserved – one record remembers it this way, one temple tradition remembers it that way. But also remember how off the beaten path this place was until the Kamakura Period.

Statue of an Edo Period traveler commemorating the the Oyama Kaido.

Statue of an Edo Period traveler commemorating the the Oyama Kaido.

My opinion is that most of this is not trustworthy information. There are probably kernels of truth in there, but most of this too inconsistent to be taken seriously. By the time we have temple records (1578), the Edo Period is right around the corner. Record keeping in the area got better after 1600, but come on, hundreds of years of passing down stories had been going on. Successive religious institutions are great at keeping records, but religious institutions are also notorious for passing down myths and stories that sometimes seem plausible but never completely match up to the facts.

Finally, I’d like to say that there is also a real possibility that this name, clearly written in ateji, has nothing to do with Buddhism or yoga, but actually has a more ancient originx.

Let’s say the jury is out on this one.

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i Let me clarify; Sanskrit – as filtered through Classical Chinese and later, Middle Japanese.

ii Yet no evidence of the school exists. Furthermore, the kanji is (not yo) in Modern Japanese. (But historical linguistics think there may have been up to 4 distinct sounds in Old Japanese that merged into the present /yo dichotomy. This may suggest an older origin, or it may evidence of a dialect, or both.)

iii The only other info I have is that its honorary mountain name was 実相Jissō-san. More about “mountain names” in a minute.

iv You can read more about this in my article on Monzen-nakachō.

v From my understanding, the Ōyama Kaidō was originally a pilgrimage route that ran from Mt. Ōyama (in Kanagawa Prefecture) and terminated near Akasaka in Edo.

vi In the Heian Period, the use of highfalutin kanji would have been the domain of highly educated monks and court elite. Ateji would have been par for the course in this rural coastal area of the Kantō. By the 1500’s, highfalutin kanji would par for the course.

vii Also called 真言秘密 Shingon Himitsu the True Word Secret. This is a type of esoteric Buddhism that I don’t know much about other than it sounds like utter horse shit. They have secret rites that teach the initiated how to summon demons, change the weather, and heal the sick by chanting or meditating or touching things. In other words, it makes claims about the nature of the universe and reality that are just as spurious as those of every other religion out there.

viii All Japanese temples have 3 names, 山号 sangō mountain name (a metaphorical mountain name), and 院号 ingō (cloister name – like a branch name), 寺号 jigō temple name (official temple name). The first two are honorary names that are generally not used in common parlance. The last name, the jigō, is the usual way to refer to a temple.

ix One which yoga schools and amateur place name websites cherry pick the fuck out of to no good end…

x I could be wrong. Or could I…?

What does Kagurazaka mean?

In Japanese History on February 18, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Kagurazaka (Entertainment of the Gods Hill)

Don’t you just love these names?

Why is Kagurazaka called Kagurazaka?

Kagurazaka at night.

This one doesn’t have much of a story, but it’s definitely a cool spot in Tokyo. Kagura is a kind of Shinto ritual dance. It’s ancient and stylized and… I’ll be honest, I don’t know very much about it besides the name. If you want to learn more about it, read here: Kagura.

Anyways, the name was most likely given around the 1820’s (Edo Period) because music coming from the shrines echoed through the streets.

Why is Kagurazaka called Kagurazaka?

Kagurazaka by day.

In the Edo Period this area fell outside the very outermost boundary of Edo Castle (the present day, much diminished Imperial Palace).  As you can imagine, rich samurai and the feudal lords are the only types who could live or enjoy recreation in the areas surrounding the castle. “Kagura Hills” was just such an area. It wasn’t a “pleasure quarters” in the sense that Yoshiwara was, but it was the site of several high end shops for enjoying entertainment by Edo’s top geishas. If I’m not mistaken, the only 2 places in Tokyo where you can still see geisha are Kagurazaka and Ginza – the shops are extremely expensive. There might be some other places, but Kagurazaka is the most famous.

Why is Kagurazaka called Kagurazaka?

Feels like Edo!

The area retains some of the Edo flavor, so it’s a nice area to visit if you want to get a feel for the traditional look of Edo/Tokyo. There is a huge French ex-pat community in Kagurazaka, so if you want to get a feel for Paris, you can do that here, too…. lol

Tour of an Edo Period House in Kyoto

In Travel in Japan on January 18, 2010 at 11:41 am

This came to my attention via Japan Probe, and as a lover of Japanese history, it immediately caught my attention. The Japan of the past that we might see in movies and read about in books is quickly disappearing. Here in Tokyo it sometimes seems like only the shrines and temples have survived the earthquakes, fires, carpet bombings and construction booms over the centuries. The Tokyo of today would be utterly unrecognizable to an inhabitant of the Edo Period (we’re talking as late as 1868, folks). Kyoto was luckily spared most of destruction of the American bombings during WWII and emerged from the war comparatively unscathed. While the other urban centers had no choice but to rebuild quickly (and seemed to continue that growth to this day), Kyoto has been been allowed to keep its classical beauty intact.

In this YouTube clip, Professor Jeff Berglund of Kyoto University gives a tour of his house. Maybe in Kyoto this kind of house is common. I don’t know. All I do know is that it’s absolutely beautiful and he’s taken great efforts to maintain it.

They say it’s a 160 years old. If that’s true, that puts the construction date at about 1850. At that time, Japan was still a closed country enjoying 260 some odd years of virtual isolation from the world.

But not for long.

Commodore Perry and his fleet of “Black Ships” arrived in the summer of 1853 and threw Japan into close to 15 years of turmoil culminating in civil war. That period, known as the Bakumatsu (end of the shogunate), brought much of violence and bloodshed to the quiet capitol of the Emperor. Professor Berglund’s house has a view of the Kamogawa River (which was the place where many a decapitated head was placed by radical rōnin seeking to overthrow the shogun’s government in Edo and restore “rule” to the Emperor).  Basically the house saw the end of the feudal era, the modernization of Japan, the rise of nationalism, the defeat and subsequent American Occupation, the path towards superpower and the bubble economy and is still standing there in its Edo Period elegance.  Absolutely amazing!!

Here’s the video:

if that doesn’t work, here’s a direct link:

Some interesting things about the house:

1 – It’s a 160 years old.

2 – He’s added a balcony (not a feature of Edo Period houses, if I’m not mistaken), which he uses during the hot summer months for dining and relaxing.

3 – The balcony affords a view of the Kamogawa River and Higashiyama Mountain (two of the main geographic landmarks in Kyoto).

4 – He states that 水の横の京が一番涼しい. Literally, “The capital on the water is the coolest.”

It’s a play on the kanji for Kyoto/”capital” () and the kanji for a cool breeze which is made of the kanji for “water” and “capital.” I don’t know if that’s supposed to be funny or something, or maybe I just didn’t get the pun – but basically he’s saying that in the hot summer months it’s best to be out on the water in Kyoto to cool down. I’ll buy that for a dollar.

5 – On the second floor, he has a little window area where he drinks coffee and reads the paper in the morning. In the evening’s he likes to kick back and booze it up there.

6 – If I’m not mistaken about the last bit, he has to replace all the tatami mats each year to keep the house in such pristine condition.

7 – Then the video cuts off. Dang.

Anyways, it’s a really nice house and I’d love to live in one just like it. If anyone wants to give me money to buy such a house, I’ll happily take donations (^_−)−☆

awwwwwwww yeah!
mαrky( -_-)凸

One Match Can Start a Fire

In Uncategorized on December 30, 2009 at 8:45 am

I’ve been living in Tokyo 5 years and I never noticed these guys until this year. But apparently they do this every year. And according to my friend, they’ve been doing it since the Edo Period (1603-1868). (Go figure). On cold winter nights, groups of volunteers walk through the streets of Tokyo chanting and hitting wood blocks. Who are these people and what are they doing? Well, tonight when they came through my neighborhood I recorded them JAPAN THIS! and I will explain what they’re doing.

In the Edo Period all the buildings were built out of wood. The city of Edo was particularly crowded and most people lived in very close quarters. As a result, the city was prone to fires. Since people used fires to stay warm inside their homes, winter was an especially dangerous season. A few glasses of sake and the cozy warmth of a fire would cause many people to fall asleep without extinguishing their fires. In such cases, the house could catch afire while the unwitting inhabitants were sound asleep. In order to prevent such disasters, volunteers and/or commissioned agents would patrol the streets of Edo at night beating wood blocks called hyōshigi (also used in kabuki) to wake people up and remind them to put out their fires.

This practice still exists today in Tokyo. In many neighborhoods throughout the city on cold winter nights you’ll see groups of volunteers banging hyōshigi and chanting. The chant they call out goes as follows:


Beware of Fires!
(beat hyōshigi twice)
Just One Match Can Start a Fire!
(beat hyōshigi twice)

Click here to hear the recording
(a note about this recording, the night i decided to record the guy doing rounds in my neighborhood was only using
hyōshigi and no chanting.  on top of that, he used a different rhythm than i was hoping to share with you.  so tomorrow, i’ll try to get another recording – my apologies).

In neighborhoods that still have some really old wooden houses, I can understand why this tradition might still be useful. Many of the old wood house use space heaters, which unattended could spark a fire. I also think you can hear the sounds outside more clearly in a wooden house. But in the modern concrete buildings that make up much of Tokyo these days, you might not ever notice these guys at all. Like I said before, I don’t think I ever noticed them until this winter. Either my ward just started doing it this winter (not likely) or I just never heard them from my apartment (more likely).


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