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What does Shimo-Kitazawa mean?

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

下北沢
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.
hmmmmmm….

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.

jōryū

upstream

karyū

downstream

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.

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[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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