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What does Yotsugi mean?

In Japanese History on November 12, 2015 at 5:08 am

Yotsugi (4 trees)

Yotsugi Station

So sorry for the long break. October, November, and December are my busiest times of the year at work. The good thing about this season is I actually economize my writing time and my articles. For most of the year it’s a free for all and I just go crazy. I thought this article would be really brief, but it turned into a monster. Better yet, I think I’ve found some more specific locations to explore as a result.

So What Slowed Me Down This Time

Honestly, I’m re-watching Twin Peaks since the first time it originally aired when I was in high school lol. Family stuff. Work stuff. Yada yada yada.

Culture Day also Slowed me Down

Hell, on October 4th it was 文化の日 Bunka no Hi Culture Day and I had a half day, so I went crazy. I couldn’t stand another minute in the office and the only way I could take in some Japanese Culture was to go see a movie by myself[i]. So I watched We Are Perfume. As a pretty dedicated fan for about 9-10 years, I think it was time and money well-spent. It wasn’t history, but it was nice to just have fun and got me thinking a lot about how Japanese culture has and hasn’t changed over the centuries. The film is a documentary about their 3rd so-called “world tour” and so it focuses on how Perfume is received abroad[ii] and how the group experienced their appreciation and fame abroad. As the only foreigner in the theater, I could sense how Japanese people were looking out at the world with fascination at fans from Taiwan, Singapore, Los Angeles, New York, and London. All of these fans were looking right back, trying to get a glimpse of some aspect of Japan.

Here on JapanThis!, I think a lot of the same thing happens. If web stats are anything to go by (and they are), there are a lot of people from Japan looking to see how foreigners view their history. There are also a lot of foreigners wanting to learn more about Japan. I find this mutual fascination very comforting – beautiful, really. If there’s ever any hope for world peace and understanding, it’s through mutual respect and understanding. Maybe Perfume is some aspect of disposable pop culture. But, hey, samurai were disposable, too. They gave it a good run, but you don’t see them around anymore, do you?

Anyhoo, I’m not gonna ramble on anymore about how I tried to justify my use of Culture Day by watching a documentary about Perfume that set me back $25[iii]. But I did do some reflection on the context of Japanese history and everything I know about Japanese Culture in its various fluctuations over time. And I’m pretty sure the first shōgun 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu would not only be totally WTFed by this movie – he would have totally been #TeamKashiyuka.

On the left, you can see the Sumida River. In the middle, the Arakawa and Ayase Rivers. On the right, the Nakagawa. Come back to this map later and you'll see more familiar faces.

On the left, you can see the Sumida River. In the middle, the Arakawa and Ayase Rivers. On the right, the Nakagawa. Come back to this map later and you’ll see more familiar faces.

Sorry For All That. Now, Let’s Get Down to Bidness.

Today, we’re talking about an area of Tōkyō that isn’t so famous. Tōkyōites know about it, but probably just as a train station. The area is called 四ツ木 Yotsugi and is located in 葛飾区 Katsushika-ku Katsushika Ward and it lies between 中川 Nakagawa (literally, the “Middle River”) and the parallel stretch of the 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River and 綾瀬川 Ayase-gawa Ayase River. Long time readers may recognize the area due to its proximity to お花茶屋 Ohanajaya, 宝町 Takaramachi, and 曳舟 Hikifune. It’s also not very far from 向島 Mukōjima and 浅草 Asakusa.

Wanna read more?

Afterhours, Shotuku Taishi knew how to party. This has led to his everlasting fame.

Afterhours, Shotuku Taishi knew how to party. This has led to his everlasting fame.

History of Yotsugi

The earliest mention of Yotsugi is an inscription[iv] on a statue of 聖徳太子 Shōtoku Taishi at 西光寺 Saikō-ji. The statue has the presumably authentic date of 1341 written on it[v]. This is roughly 140 years after Minamoto no Yoritomo’s death so let’s put some things into perspective, namely why is Yoritomo even relevant to the story? He may or may not be, but when he became the first shōgun of the 3 great shōgunates[vi], his government put Kantō on the map – politically and economically speaking. Edo was just a fishing village at the time, but the proximity to the shōgunal capital of Kamakura was a massive boon to tiny villages in the area. By 1341, power had transferred back to Kyōto in western Japan with the establishment of the 室町幕府 Muromachi Bakufu Ashikaga Shōgunate. 140 years had passed and the prestige of Kantō was diminished.

The earliest surviving textual mention of Yotsugi comes to us from 1398 (Muromachi Period) in a document called 下総国葛西御厨注文  Shimōsa no Kuni Kasai Mikuri Chūmon Shimōsa Province’s Kasai Mikuri Annotation [vii]. It references a place called 四ツ木新田村 Yotsugi-Shinden Mura Yotsugi-Shinden Village.


In the Edo period, this area was primarily agricultural – fields and trees as far as the eye could see. It fell under the administration of 江戸葛飾郡 Edo Katsushika-gun Katsushika District, Edo area. Yotsugi was technically under the direct control of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, but administration was handled by various organs of the shōgunate over the almost 250 years of Tokugawa control. These ranged from 町奉行 machi bugyō[viii] to 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun to 大名 daimyō lords controlling the bordering 藩 han domains – but more often than not, the administrators were high ranking hatamoto.

It lay along the 本所上水 Honjo Jōsui Honjo Clean Water Aqueduct, which was later known as the 葛西用水 Kasai Yōsui Kasai Aqueduct[ix] or more popularly as the 曳舟川 Hikifune-gawa Hikifune River. The site where the Hikifune River and Ayase-gawa intersected offered a scenic riverside view that Edoites cherished. This spot was where the Hikifune Towpath began.



Because of its proximity to the shōgun’s capital and its scenic beauty, it was a popular destination for Edoites who wanted to get out of the city for a day or two. The most popular destinations were the religious institutions of 西光寺 Saikō-ji, 客人大権現Maroudo Daigongen (modern 渋江白髭神社 Shibue Shirahige Jinja Shibue Shriahige Shrine), 木下川薬師 Kinoshita-gawa Yakushi (modern 浄光寺 Senkō-ji), and 柴又帝釈天Shibamata Taishakuten. With the exception of Shibamata Taishakuten, these temples (and one shrine) are pretty minor, but in the Edo Period they were quite important. Each site is pretty interesting in its own right, so I may come back to them in a later article – especially if you guys are interested in that.

Shibamata Taishakuten

Shibamata Taishakuten

During the Meiji Period, the area remained rural and agricultural – it was more or less unchanged from the Edo Period. However, in 1912 (Taishō 1), 四ツ木駅 Yotsugi Eki Yotsugi Station was built. This made the area accessible and factories that wanted to take advantage of the space, cheap land, and access to rivers for distribution and “waste disposal[x]” were set up in the area. It’s around this time that the area became famous for the production of celluloid[xi].

Old Yotsugibashi

Old Yotsugibashi

In 1922, a wooden bridge called 四ツ木橋 Yotsugibashi Yotsugi Bridge was built across the Arakawa River linking 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward and 葛飾区 Katsushika-ku Katsushika Ward. In the chaos following the 1923 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake, the 旧四ツ木橋 Kyū-Yotsugibashi Former Yotsugi Bridge – as it’s known today – was the site of wanton racist attacks against Chinese and Koreans living on the Sumida Ward side of the bridge. Apparently, some Tōkyōites blamed them for the earfquake or just took advantage of the chaos to indulge their own fucked up racism.  At any rate, another wooden bridge was soon built and life went on as usual.

View of Sumida Ward/Tokyo Sky Tree and Yotsugibashi from Katsushika Ward.

View of Sumida Ward/Tokyo Sky Tree and Yotsugibashi from Katsushika Ward.

In the post-WWII years, the area rapidly urbanized. City historians cite the building of a new 四ツ木橋 Yotsugibashi Yotsugi Bridge in 1952 as making urbanization possible. Prior to the post-war era, cars were relatively rare in Tōkyō – trains and trolleys were the norm. The new bridge was a modern truss bridge made of steel that allowed automobile traffic to cross the Arakawa in this area. The area’s agricultural heritage began to fade quickly.

In 1964, the name was changed from 四ツ木 Yotsugi to 四つ木 Yotsugi and astute readers will note that the only change was orthographic:  katakana ツ tsu became hiragana つ tsu.

Hikifune Hydrophilic Park

Hikifune River Hydrophilic Park today

In 1989, during the Bubble Economy, the 曳舟川 Hikifune-gawa Hikifune River was filled in due to pollution and presumably to use it as a sewer. The remaining marshes that surrounded the river also became landfill. By 2000, the only left over bit of this once scenic Edo Period day trip spot was present-day 曳舟川親水公園 Hikifune-gawa Sunsui Kōen the Hikifune River Hydrophilic Park.

Let’s Take a Look at the Kanji




Not kanji, but a syllabary character used to indicate pronunciation.

ki, gi


In Pre-Modern Japan, there weren’t writing standards as we would recognize them today[xii], so the place name was written as 四木, 四つ木, or 四ツ木 – all read “Yotsugi” or “Yottsugi.” The final variant was the most common in the Edo Period because the first variant was ambiguous as to pronunciation[xiii].

Unfortunately, due to the seemingly mundane nature of the kanji, the origin of this place name is either a just mystery or could be one of the most boring place names ever. That said, we do know that the area appeared on Pre-Meiji maps as Yotsugi Shinden Mura, which literally means Yotsugi New Field Village.

lets etymology

Theory 1: The Trees Did It

There used to be 4 tall pine trees in the center of the village.

This is the simplest and most literal attempt at an etymology. It’s hard to disprove without corroborating evidence and it’s impossible to prove without corroborating evidence. That said, roads, trains, or routes in general can be counted with ~本hon/-bon/-pon. So, while the kanji looks like 4 trees, it could be 4 routes – which we’ll get to a little later.

We have no paintings or literary references to 4 huge trees in the area from any point in history, so I’m gonna have to say this is iffy. It’s not impossible, but there’s just no way to prove it one way or the other.

Founder of the Kamakura Shōgunate and Unlucky Guy With Horses, Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Founder of the Kamakura Shōgunate and Unlucky Guy With Horses, Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Theory 2: Minamoto no Yoritomo Did It

This theory is actually 3 interpretations of the same story.

First, there’s a legend from the Edo Period that 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo passed through the area 4 times coming and going on various expeditions to put down resistance of the 藤原氏 Fujiwara-shi Fujiwara clan. According to this theory the name is derived from 四ツ過ぎ yottsu sugi the 4 passes through the village.

Second, in coincidence with the previous etymology, this theory often claims that as Yoritomo’s army was composed of various samurai warlords who supported him with their armies, this was the most convenient spot to meet. They came from various regions and converged upon this area, camped out, resupplied, and then moved on to battle. Therefore 四ツ過ぎ yottsu sugi actually means “4 armies passed through” or “4 armies passed through on 4 roads.” The idea of four roads leading to this area stands up to a point – after all, the 古東海道 Ko-Tōkaidō Ancient Tōkaidō Highway passed through here[xiv]. However, no one seems to agree on which roads are referenced in the name.

Lastly, another interpretation of this theory is that Yoritomo and his army passed through the small village at 四ツ過ぎ yottsu sugi just past the 4th hour. Prior to the adoption of the western hour, the Japanese used temporal hours. That is to say, the “hours” were of unequal lengths that varied throughout the seasons[xv]. The 4th hour was more commonly called 巳 hebi the hour of the snake[xvi]. If my sources are to be trusted, the meaning of “just past the 4th hour” means “roughly after 10 AM.”

Passing through the village 4 times might be possible, but I don’t have access to records that record Yoritomo coming to Edo 4 times. I’ll have to defer to Yoritomo nerd out there. But even if he did, I just don’t think people would name a village after that unless he established a shrine or something one of those times – and I can’t find any evidence of that, either. Also the reference to 4 armies is ambiguous so again, I’ll defer to the Yoritomo nerds on this one.

And while the 4 routes theory seems reasonable, the lack of agreement on which roads these would have actually been makes that theory questionable at best. Naming a village after the approximate time a bad ass samurai warlord strolled through town in an era when the chances of a bad ass samurai warlord marching through any given place were reasonably high, seems tenuous at best.

Wanna read more about Yoritomo in Edo?

shotoku taishi

It may be made of 4 kinds of wood – hard to tell from the picture – but it’s also made of metal.

Theory 3: Shōtoku Taishi Did It

Long time readers will know about 聖徳太子 Shōtoku Taishi Imperial Crown Prince Shōtoku or Shōtoku the Great Teacher. He was an imperial prince and one of first great propagators of Buddhism in Japan. He lived during the Asuka Period[xvii].

In 四つ木一丁目 Yotsugi Icchō-me 1st Block of Yotsugi, there is a temple called 西光寺 Saikō-ji Saikō Temple. The temple was established in 1225 at the beginning of the Kamakura Period and as far as written records go, it pre-dates the first record of the place name Yotsugi by about 100 years. Saikō-ji claims to have statue of Shōtoku Taishi that is made of a unique combination of four kinds of wood. In Japanese 木 ki means both “tree” and “wood,” thus they say the name is a reference to this revered Buddhist statue.

That’s all well and good, but time and time again we see temples claiming to be the namesake of an area when in fact, the place names pre-date the temples. Some objects in those temples match the place name by coincidence or have been deliberately manufactured to match the place name. In any case, I find this etymology highly dubious.

This is the Japanese word for "heir, successor" - yotsugi. It's one of the most generic words you can imagine.

This is the Japanese word for “heir, successor” – yotsugi. It’s one of the most generic words you can imagine.

Theory 4: A Truly Half-Assed Folk Etymology

A noble family’s 世継 yotsugi heir lived here. See what they did there? Yotsugi and yotsugi are homonyms.

I’ve come across a lot of stupid folk etymologies[xviii] over the years of doing this blog and this one falls into the top 5. This is like getting a place name like “Trust Fund Hill.” Sure, it’s possible, but it’s just too vague for me. Without a family name a reason for them to be here, this reeks of people just making up shit.

A 4-way intersection in West Tōkyō.

A 4-way intersection in West Tōkyō.

Theory 5: The 4 Roads Did It

This theory posits that the original reading was a 四辻 yotsu tsuji 4-way intersection – or possibly 4 intersections. This ties back into part of the theory about Minamoto no Yoritomo.

In ancient times, there was an intersection of 官道 kandō provincial highways in the area – or so the story goes. Kandō were established under the 律令制 ritsuryō-sei ritsuryō system in the 600’s based on the Chinese model and the word literally means “government road.” The kandō would later evolve into the 街道 kaidō highways that most people associate with Pre-Modern Japan – the Edo Period in particular. The term kaidō is even still used today when referring to old highways that survived into the Modern Period.

In the Yoritomo Did It Theory, the number 4 and the idea of 4 roads was a persistent theme. This theory asserts that certain aspects of those theories are true but suggests that the name may actually date back to at least the Heian Period or earlier. Having 4 kandō in the area (or a whopping 4 major intersections of 8 roads, depending on which interpretation you choose), would definitely be something special. Trade would be massive and travelers and armies passing through the area would be a constant source of income. You can see how a place might come to be called Yotsu Tsuji since that the area’s defining characteristic.

In Yoritomo’s time, there may not have been 4 great highways in the area anymore. It’s actually unclear if there ever were, but the one fact we do know is that in 1341 we find the first record the place name. It is written as 四木 with the character for “4” and “tree.”

There's a Yotsutsugi Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

There’s a Yotsutsugi Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

This is actually the best theory that I’ve come across. It’s pretty believable and there are place names all over Japan based on the kanji 辻 tsuji crossing. It’s not unreasonable to imagine Yotsutsuji getting contracted to Yotsuji in the local dialect since the /tsutsu/ in the middle is awkward. A phonetic change from YotsutsujiYottsujiYotsuji[xix] seems fairly consistent with Modern Japanese slang, dialects, and even the slurred speech drunk old men. I don’t see why a similar transformation couldn’t happen in older versions of the language.

The only problem? There’s no agreement on the exact routes that existed here from 600-1200 in the area. Furthermore, the just because the theory suggests kandō, any street or path can intersect with another one. This could be a reference to really minor routes. The area was always rural until quite recently[xx] and that’s probably the reason we never hear about the great trading village of Yotsugi. But again, if it’s a particularly ancient name, it might have just had its boom when no one was taking things seriously Kantō, the roads fell into disuse, and only the name remained with new kanji because there were no long 4 intersections to speak of.

Wanna check out another intersection place name?

Wanna read about the 5 Great Roads of Edo?

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[i] It was my first time to see a movie by myself. But Japanese people travel abroad and watch movies and karaoke by themselves a lot recently, so I was OK with it. But still, that first time is a little scary or embarrassing.
[ii] Japanese people tend to be shocked that anyone understands them. That said, god damn, foreign Perfume fans are a bunch of fucking weeaboos. Ewwww.
[iii] Yes, it fucking costs 2000円 ($20 USD) to see a freakin’ movie in Tōkyō.
[iv] This is called epigraphic evidence in diachronic linguistics as compared to textual or manuscript evidence.
[v] The actual date in Japanese is 暦応4念7月5日 Ryakuō yon nen shigatsu no itsuka 5th day of the 7th month of the 7th year of Ryakuō.
[vi] The Kamakura Shōgunate (headed by the Minamoto and Hōjō clans), the Muromachi Shōgunate/Ashikaga Shōgunate (headed by the Ashikaga clan), and the Tokugawa Shōgunate/Edo Shōgunate (headed by the Tokugawa clan).
[vii] The name 下総国葛西御厨 Shimōsa no Kuni Kasai Mikuri Kasai Mikuri, Shimōsa Province refers to an area of Kasai. The last word 注文 chūmon usually means “order” as in “order at a restaurant,” but it has a secondary meaning of “explanatory text.” Not sure what chūmon means in this context. This document came up in 2014, in my article on Kameari.
[viii] Here’s a quick explanation about machi bugyō.
[ix] 上水 jōsui, literally “high grade water,” refers to aqueducts that supplied drinking water. 用水 yōsui, literally “usable water,” refers to aqueducts that supplied water for irrigation, washing, firefighting, and general use.
[x] Read: “pollution.”
[xi] Celluloid is a tough, highly flammable substance consisting essentially of cellulose nitrate and camphor. It’s used in the manufacture of motion-picture film, x-ray film, and other products.
[xii] And to be honest, even in modern Japanese, there is so much flexibility that people exploit the looseness of spelling for humor or slang all the time.
[xiii] Without the kana ツ tsu, the name could be read: Shiki, Shigi, Shimoku, Yonhon, Yotsuki, Yotsugi, or possibly by some other regional variants. And why the katakana character was more prevalent than the hiragana character is a mystery. I can only speculate that the katakana was easier to write because the brush strokes were more similar to the cursive style of kanji and therefore more quickly written.
[xiv] On JapanThis!, I often reference the 東海道 Tōkaidō the Eastern Sea Route of the Edo Period. In Modern Japanese, this Edo Period highway is referred to as the 旧東海道 Kyū-Tōkaidō the Old Tōkaidō or Former Tōkaidō. The 古東海道 Ko-Tōkaidō Ancient Tōkaidō is a slightly different route. Vast stretches were abandoned over the years as the Tōkaidō was made more efficient by centuries of successive logistical demands.
[xv] ie; western hours were equally 60 minutes each and did not change with the seasons.
[xvi] This kanji is from the Chinese zodiac. The usual kanji for snake in Japanese is 蛇 hebi. People often translate this as “the hour of the serpent” because it sounds more classical, I guess. But same difference.
[xvii] I’m not going to get into his story because I have many times before. Here’s my break down of Japanese Eras. And here’s Shōtoku Taishi’s story. If you want to know more, I suggest you check those out.
[xviii] Folk etymology is when people just take a guess at the history of the word without paleographic or scientific inquiry.
[xix] Bear in mind, this is completely hypothetical on my part.
[xx] And by recently, I mean the last 100 years.

What does Hikifune mean?

In Japanese History on March 1, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Hikifune (pulling boats)

The Hikifune River

The Hikifune River

Researching the place names of Edo-Tōkyō has taken me on some incredible journeys. Asking the simple question of “Why is x called x?” rarely gets a simple answer[i]. And while all of the peripheral knowledge that I am accumulating along the way may only have value when playing Trivial Pursuit with other Japanese history nerds[ii], I’m finding my knowledge of the Edo Period challenged and enhanced every day – and sometimes, like this time, my knowledge of world history is also enhanced.

Having written about little known Takaramachi, Ohanajaya, and somewhat famous Kappabashi, I thought I’d round out this series with 曳舟Hikifune, the glue that holds these stories together. Since I’d laid out all of the groundwork, I thought this would be a 4 paragraph article just wrapping everything up in a nice bundle, but I was wrong. It took me on a quest for a missing river and an obsolete mode of transportation. It hasn’t been bad at all though; it’s given me a great insight into life in 大江戸 Ōedo the Greater Edo Area and the diachronic development of Edo-Tōkyō.

Anyhoo, the etymology of this place name is simple: in the Edo Period a river called the 曳舟川 Hikifunegawa Hikifune River flowed through here. But as usual, there’s a little more to the story than just the river.

Let’s start with the kanji.


pull, tow, drag, haul



There are variants of both of these kanji.

pull, tow, drag, haul




In various combinations, these kanji actually have a range of nuances – not all of which are currently in use in Modern Japanese. One combination, is an old word using the 音読み on’yomi Chinese reading 曳船 eisen (訓読み kun’yomi Japanese Reading: hikifune/hikibune) which means “tugboat.” However the modern language uses the English loanword タグボート tagu bōto tugboat.

OK, so the kanji is confusing and… in my opinion, distracting.  So let’s get back to the actual derivation.

The area takes its name from the 曳舟川 Hikifunegawa Hikifune River. I wrote about this the other day, so please read here. Originally this channel connected Kasai to Sumida for the purpose of bringing clean drinking water into Edo[v]. This waterway was an extension of another river that came from 越谷 Koshigaya in present day Saitama (near the border of the Tōkyō Metropolitan Area).

The channel was originally man-made as part of the Tokugawa shōgunate’s infrastructure. However, by 1772, the shōgunate must have felt they had enough supplies of fresh drinking water coming in from newer 上水 jōsui waterworks, that they could repurpose the Hikifune River as distribution canal.

The Koume embankment of the Hikifune River. What's up with no guard rail on that bridge? lol

The Koume embankment of the Hikifune River.
What’s up with no guard rail on that bridge? lol

So Now, Let’s Refer Back to the Kanji.

Many people assume the name refers to tugboats; essentially, boats pulling other boats. But this isn’t actually the case. The word 曳舟 hikifune actually means “pulling boats” or “a pulled boat.” The Hikifune River was a towpath that connected the 隅田川 Sumidagawa Sumida River and the 中川 Nakagawa Naka River (Middle River). It was part of a network that also gave access to the 荒川 Arakawa, and the 江戸川 Edogawa Edo River.

Just walking along the river, one would think....

Just walking along the river, one would think….

So What Is A Towpath?

I had never heard of such a thing until I researched this article, but a towpath refers to an area where people or pack animals would pull small boats up and down a calm channel. These people walked on paths that lined the riverbanks. It’s literally a path for towing. I went back and looked at the picture I used in my article on Ohanajaya, and sure enough, you could clearly see people on the side of the river pulling boats. But this got me wondering… why the hell would anyone pull a boat?[vi]

And there you have it, clear as day.  People pulling boats up and down the river.

And there you have it, clear as day.
People pulling boats up and down the river.

Well, the shōgunate might have added a 曳舟道 hikifune michi towpath along a waterway for a number of reasons. One, the waterway was too narrow and required small boats (which were often weighed down with too much cargo). Two, the waterway was too shallow (heavy boats would drag and get stuck).  Three, pulling a boat would be required if you were traveling against the current. Four, the wind or some other conditions made it difficult to navigate the river. In the case of the Hikifune River, it was originally for drinking water, which meant it was shallow and narrow and wasn’t intended for river traffic. Once it became part of the infrastructure of the city, tiny boats needed to pulled through it. (I’ll show you pictures that show why later.)

Towpaths weren't a Japanese thing. Here's a European towpath.

Towpaths weren’t a Japanese thing.
Here’s a European towpath.

In the Edo Period, large boats could easily navigate the large rivers like the Arakawa or Sumidagawa. But this was just a narrow channel originally designed to bring drinking water into the capital, not support boat traffic. When the channel was repurposed, the towpath was added to allow small delivery boats and barges access. These boats were so small, in fact, that they could generally only fit one navigator to accompany the goods. Large boats on the Sumidagawa, Nakagawa, and Arakawa River would stop at the channel intersection and goods and passengers would be transferred to the smaller boats that were pulled through the towpath.

Here's part of the north part of the Hikifune River in Kameari, near the Nakagawa.

Here’s part of the north part of the Hikifune River in Kameari, near the Nakagawa a few years before it was filled in.
You can see how narrow it was.

Finding the River Today

In the years leading up to the 1964 Tōkyō Olympic Games, in an effort to appear “modern,” the government began filling all of the small canals and moats that typified Edo[vii]. The Hikifune River was no exception. The canal is almost completely paved over now, although a portion of road in the Hikifune neighborhood bears the name 曳舟川通り Hikifunekawa Dōri Hikifune River Street. Luckily for us, the old 水戸街道 Mito Kaidō Mito Highway ran alongside a portion of the river. This old footpath that connected Edo with 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain is now part of 国道六号 Kokudō Roku-gō National Route #6, so part of the path of the river is still visible when using a map. A few sections of the Hikifune River still exist and have been converted into public space. Although the width and depth of the river has been modified, you can still get a sense of the size.

The path of the Mito Highway is still preserved today as National Route 6. It takes about 11 minutes to drive from the Sumida River to the Nakagawa River today.

The path of the Mito Highway is still preserved today as National Route 6.
It takes about 11 minutes to drive from the Sumida River to the Nakagawa River today.

Here's a walking tour path that more or less follows the river's path (with a few detours here and there).

Here’s a walking tour path that more or less follows the river’s path (with a few detours here and there).

Here you can sort of imagine the route of the river.  But it is true, the original path of the river has been obscured over the years.

Here you can sort of imagine the route of the river.
But it is true, the original path of the river has been obscured over the years.

Today there is no official postal address for anywhere called Hikifune. The name is preserved in 曳舟駅 Hikifune Eki Hikifune Station, 曳舟川親水公園 Hikifunekawa Shinsui Kōen Hikifune River Water Park[viii], and a few other local place names like 曳舟小学校 Hikifune Shōgakkō Hikifune Elementary School. Even though it’s not an “official place name,” people who live in the area still use the name Hikifune.

Hikifunekawa Water Park.  Again, note how narrow it is. This section of the canal has been converted into a "hydrophilic park."  Looks like a nice way to beat the awful summer heat in Tokyo.

Hikifunekawa Water Park.
Again, note how narrow it is.
This section of the canal has been converted into a “hydrophilic park.”
Looks like a nice way to beat the awful summer heat in Tokyo.

According to Wikipedia, there are two towpaths preserved in Japan. Neither are in Tōkyō. They are the 琵琶疏水 Biwako Sosui Lake Biwa Canal and the 高瀬川 Takasegawa Takase River[ix].

Oh, and I almost forgot, a good portion of the 葛西用水 Kasai Yōsuirō the Kasai Kanal is still intact in Saitama. This also may give a feel for the width and depth of the Hikifune.




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[i] And more often than not, never gets an answer at all (or at least a satisfying one). And in the case of this blog… man, I thought this would be 3-5 paragraphs and two pictures. Now it’s turned into another fucking discourse on a river that no longer exists. fml.

[ii] By the way, there is no Trivial Pursuit for Japanese history nerds because, you know what? We play that shit for real – high stakes, muthafucka – in shitamachi izakaya, yamanote strip clubs, and at yakuza riverside barbecues all day long, son. Y’all can’t fuck wit us, ya hear?

[iii] There are many more kanji for this word.  ひく hiku “to pull” is a native Japanese word that predates the arrival of kanji from China.  Like かける kakeru and かかる kakaru “to put/to take/require,” it has many uses and since each nuance was different, each nuance required a specific kanji. As you can imagine, this was a real pain in the ass and as such, in Modern Japanese the words are mostly written in hiragana except for the most common uses that require a kanji for that nuance. A comparison to English is a word like “take.” Consider the following sentences:

  • I take a bath.
  • I take a photo.
  • I take a card.
  • I take a shit.
  • I take it that ひく is a complicated word.
  • I take a day off.
  • I take $25 dollars out of my roommate’s wallet.
  • I take an hour to get ready for work.
  • I take this seriously.
    And so on.
    ひく hiku is like that.

[iv] In my dictionary, the last kanji is grouped with the first. The meaning is quite different in modern Japanese, but there is an historical connection. The first two are straight up “boat” kanji and I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t know the difference between them.

[v] Remember Edo-Tōkyō is located in a bay, so there is a lot of undrinkable salt water coming into the area.

[vi] And I’m ashamed to say, I grew up in a river town. You’d think I would know this stuff.

[vii] Edo is often referred to as the “Venice of the East” because of its vast system of waterways which were used for transportation, recreation, and distribution.

[viii] What’s a “water park?” This.

[ix] Read about the Lake Biwa Canal here. Read about the Takase River here. The English Wikipedia pages are shit, though.

What does Ohanajaya mean?

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

Ohanajaya (Tea Shop O-Hana)

map of ohanajaya


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



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


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


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

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

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

Ohanajaya Station

Ohanajaya Station


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

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

The Hikifune River.

The Hikifune River.

So… About the Etymology

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

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


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

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

The “Yoshimune Did It” Theory

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


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




The “Yoshimune Had Nothing to Do with It” Theory

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

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

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


"You go, girl!"

“You go, girl!”

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

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

[v] It looks cooler with the K.

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

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

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

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

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