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What does Ushima mean?

In Japanese History on August 31, 2015 at 6:20 am

牛島
Ushima (cow/ox island)

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Today’s article is a bit of whimsy. I want to investigate some really obscure and unknown aspects of Japanese religion that tangentially hit on the history of Edo-Tōkyō. In my article on 向島 Mukōjima, I mentioned that one of the theories is that there were a collection of islands (or more likely sandbars in a flood plain) dotting the east bank of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. According to this story, these were collectively called mukōjima “the islands on the other side of the river” by the people of the west bank who lived in 浅草 Asakusa. Today I want to talk about the name 牛島 Ushima Cow Island[i]. It’s not preserved as an official place name today, but there is shrine in Mukōjima that bears the name. It’s a quite ancient name – possibly as ancient as Asakusa[ii].

Eat more chikin, bitches

Eat mor chikin, bitches

As I’ve said many times before, the west bank of the 大川 Ōkawa the Great River (as this stretch of the river was known as in the Edo Period) had been fairly developed since the Heian Period. It got a major boost with the rise of the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura Shōgunate in the 1200’s and was one of the few shining centers of art and commerce in the Edo area in those early days. The area really rose to prominence with the establishment of the 江戸幕府 Edo Bakufu Edo Shōgunate in the early 1600’s by the 徳川家 Tokugawa-ke Tokugawa family.

As I said earlier, today there isn’t any area officially called Ushima, but prior to the Meiji Period, there was an area of present day 墨田区本所 Sumida-ku Honjo Honjo, Sumida Ward that was referred to by that name. The east bank of the river was essentially grassland, even during most of the Edo Period this side of the river was relatively rustic[iii]. During the Asuka Period and Nara Period[iv], the grounds on the flood plains of the eastern bank of the Sumida River were used for grazing cattle. Thus the area came to be called 牛島 Ushijima Cow Island – a name that was eventually contracted to Ushima[v].

A stone lantern at Ushima Shrine circa 1868.

A stone lantern at Ushima Shrine circa 1868.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Asakusa is the Rockstar of the Area, but…

Meanwhile, on the west bank of the Sumida River, in 628 or 645[vi] (the Asuka Period) Sensō-ji was founded in Asakusa Village. Sensō-ji was a key temple in the area and it was pivotal in the spreading of Buddhism in the Kantō area. In the 850’s (Heian Period), a famous itinerant monk who had recently studied Buddhism in China visited Sensō-ji to view the secret image of Buddha that was alleged fished out of a stretch of the river and is the alleged raison d’être of the great temple. That monk was a certain 慈覚大師 Jikaku Daishi[vii] and he is about to play the biggest part of the Ushima story.

Jikaku Daishi

Jikaku Daishi

The story goes that Jikaku Daishi, who had been studying Buddhism in China, was ejected from the country during the Great Buddhism Purge of 845 and forced to return to Japan. Upon his return he visited various centers of Buddhism in the country to share his knowledge and engage in philosophical discussions with other monks. While visiting a hermitage called 一草庵 Issōan, Jikaku Daishi took a walk and happened upon an old man. The old man told him that he should build a shrine to protect the local people on the east bank of the Sumida River. The old man then revealed that he was an incarnation of the Shintō 神 kami deity named 須佐之男命 Susano’o no Mikoto.

Susano’o no Mikoto

Susano’o no Mikoto

Wait. Whaaaa?!!

You may be scratching your head now. Buddhism builds temples to reflect upon enlightened souls… or something like that. Shintō builds shrines to house 神 kami deities[viii]… or something like that. At the very least, these are just 2 distinct belief systems!

Long time readers should be well aware that Japanese religions – and polytheistic religions in general – tend to be syncretic. This means they are open to blending, mixing and matching, and picking and choosing. Roman religion was like this prior to Christianity and is probably the best example I can think of in terms of western syncretism. In short, while for some people Buddhism and Shintō may have been diametrically opposed to one another in many ways; for the most part both can accommodate each other. Indeed, until a Meiji Era imperial decree separating Buddhism and Shintō[ix], the two faiths were essentially in bed together. Other faiths like 庚申 Kōshin[x] flourished in conjunction with Buddhism and Shintō. It was all one spiritual tapestry. A Buddhist founding a Shintō shrine was nothing out of the ordinary.

2 diagrams of typical Kōshin statues

2 diagrams of typical Kōshin statues. The Kōshin faith is neither Shintō nor Buddhist, but rather Taoist.

But Back To Ushima

Jikaku Daishi set about founding a shrine on the east bank of the Sumida River in the Ushima area. The name of the original shrine was 牛御前社 Ushi Gozen-sha[xi]. It was built sometime between 859 and 879[xii]. Keep in mind, this all went down in the 800’s. If the Tokugawa Shōgunate hadn’t been established in the 1600’s, Sensō-ji may have remained the temple with the largest influence in the area until today.

The wishes of the old man that Jikaku Daishi encountered were that the shrine would protect the people on the east bank of the Sumida River. The shrine would become home to the 本所総鎮守 Honjo sō-chinju the tutelary kami of the entire Honjo area. The west bankers had their Sensō-ji but the people on the east bank needed a tutelary kami[xiii], too. The Sumida River even had its own deity[xiv]. So the people who lived in the eastern flood plain needed equal protection from the powerful river god.

Ushi Gozen-sha on the banks of the Sumida River in the Edo Period.

Ushi Gozen-sha on the banks of the Sumida River in the Edo Period.

The Gods of Ushi Gozen-sha

Ushi Gozen-sha didn’t only enshrine one deity. It enshrined 3 specific kami to protect the people of Honjo (present Mukōjima). Let’s take a quick look at these 3 kami.

須佐之男命
Susano’o no Mikoto

a major kami associated with rough seas and summer storms (typhoons)[xv]

天之穂日命
Ame no Hohi no Mikoto[xvi]

a minor kami with close ties to Susano’o no Mikoto[xvii]

貞辰親王命
Sadatoki Shin’ō no Mikoto

my understanding is that this is the kami of an imperial prince whose death coincided with the construction of the shrine[xviii]

At the beginning of the Edo Period, the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu began to patronize the shrine as the Tokugawa family came down to their beautiful palace where the river met the bay. In its time, it must have been a gorgeous villa with a spectacular view of the sea.

Iemitsu called for a secondary shrine to be created. That shrine was called 若宮牛嶋神社 Wakamiya Ushima Jinja Wakamiya Ushima Shrine[xix]. It is a 20 minute walk from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine. During the shrines’ festival on 9/15, the kami is carried in a 神輿 mikoshi portable shrine from Ushima Shrine in Mukōjima to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine in Honjo.

This is roughly the route from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine.

This is roughly the route from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine.

Sadly, both shrines were completely destroyed in the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923. For some reason, the main shrine was relocated and rebuilt a little bit south at its present location[xx]. In the Meiji Period, the rank of the shrine was officially demoted by the government to the status of 郷社 gōsha village shrine[xxi]. Like many shrines and temples that didn’t fully recover after the earfquake and/or WWII, Ushijima Shrine is clearly a shadow of its former glory. But it’s not as dismal as, say, Shiogama Shrine, and its summer festival still draws substantial crowds.

This monument marks the former location of the shrine.

This monument marks the former location of the shrine.

As for the place name, Ushima has all but vanished from Tōkyō’s civil administration and postal code system. Mukōjima and Honjo have superseded officially. But today the shrine sits in the shade enjoying its quiet solitude. It eschews the modern writing, 牛島 Ushima, for the pre-Modern writing, 牛嶋 Ushima. While the city has moved on and Sensō-ji has grown in fame and Tōkyō Skytree has become yet another symbol of a city replete with symbols, Ushima Shrine proudly holds on to its former glory as the protector of the people on the east bank of the Sumida River.If you’re interested further reading, I have related articles:

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[i] Could be “ox” island, too. The Japanese is ambiguous.
[ii] The name 浅草 Asakusa is without a doubt much older than 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple (literally, Asakusa Temple). See my article on Asakusa.
[iii] This is why the 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten Sumida River Palace was built by the shōguns here – they had plenty of space for private villa.
[iv] And presumably later, too.
[v] Because syllables are hard.
[vi] Depending on what you consider the foundational act. See my article on Asakusa.
[vii] He is best known in Japan by his 諡号 shigō (okurigō) posthumous name, Jikaku Daishi. His name as a monk was 円仁 Ennin.  He was born into the 壬生氏 Mibu-shi Mibu clan of 下野国 Shimozuke no Kuni Shimozuke Province which is modern day 栃木県 Tochigi-ken Tochigi Prefecture. Jikaku Daishi means Great Teacher of Merciful Enlightenment (satori).
[viii] Kami isn’t a word that translates easily into English. The English language has spent most of its life with a Judeo-Christian backdrop, ie; Abrahamic monotheism. If you want to understand more about the concept of kami, here is a good place to start.
[ix] Read more about the policy here.
[x] This is a totally unrelated article, but I talk about the Kōshin faith in my article on Gohongi.
[xi] Another reading is Ushi Gozen-ja. The name means something like “revered shrine in front of the cows.” Unfortunately, I can’t find any information on the etymology of the original shrine name, but the area’s name of Ushima seems to have had much more influence than the name of the shrine.
[xii] The few surviving documents only list the 年号 nengō era name 貞観年間 Jōgan nenkan (859-879). I rarely use nengō on this site, but here’s Wiki’s explanation of them.
[xiii] Tutelary deity/tutelary kami means a deity who looks out for your best interests and protects you.
[xiv] See my article on Suijin.
[xv] Here’s the Wiki on him.
[xvi] Sometimes rendered as Ama no Hohi no Mikoto.
[xvii] Check out the story here.
[xviii] In Japanese they say 胡麻刷り goma suri brown nosing. In this case, the shōgunate was placating the increasingly irrelevant 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in Kyōto.
[xix] 若宮 wakamiya mean “young prince” and often indicates an auxiliary shrine.
[xx] If you walk a bit north, there is a commemorative sign that marks the original location of the shrine.
[xxi] That means, it wasn’t the tutelary kami of the Honjo area – presumably because it was absorbed into the Mukōjima area.

What does Taishido mean?

In Japanese History on February 8, 2015 at 6:07 pm

太子堂
Taishi-dō (Taishi Hall)

Taishido Shotengai (shopping arcade) is closed off to automobile traffic on the weekends.

Taishido Shotengai (shopping arcade) is closed off to automobile traffic on the weekends.

Just a heads up. All of these places I’ve been writing about over the past few weeks are located in Setagaya and Meguro. Since they seemed to be centrally located, I decided to walk around and take photos of some of the spots – especially the ones related to Minamoto no Yoritomo and his ill-fated horse. If you’re interested, check out my Flickr page to see the pictures. You’ll find the Ashige-zuka (Yoritomo’s horse’s grave), Komatsunagi Shrine (where he gave thanks to the local deity, Ne no Kami), Komadome Hachiman Shrine (related to the Late Hōjō clan), Yūten-ji (grave of the 36th high priest of Zōjō-ji which was well patronized by the Tokugawa shōguns), and Ensen-ji (which is central to today’s article).

If you’re here for the first time, you may want to read the last 5 articles. At the very least, you should probably read this one about the abundance of horse related place names in Setagaya.

Let's go!

Let’s go!

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The origin of this place name is well known and it has documents and buildings to back it up[i]. It’s actually a very simple etymology. The story could go very deep, but let’s start out simple. If you wanna go deeper into the area and its culture, just keep reading. If you just want to know the etymology, feel free to quit after a few paragraphs. After that, it’s going to turn into a lot quasi-historical religious bullshit.

However, if you’ve been following the last few articles about 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward and 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward, you might want to stick around a little. I’m hoping that with this article I will have brought everything full circle and woven a colorful historical tapestry of this part of Tōkyō. It might not be a hot spot for tourists, but if you’ve got a passion for Edo-Tōkyō, there is plenty worth seeing in this part of the metropolis. I hope I’ve done justice to the area.

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Long Story, Short

On the grounds of 円泉寺 Ensen-ji Ensen Temple there was a special building dedicated to the reverence of 聖徳太子 Shōtoku Taishi Crown Prince Shōtoku. That building was called 太子堂 Taishi-dō Taishi Hall. The Taishi-dō pre-dates the current temple and was this rural area’s original local claim to fame, thus the area was called Taishi-dō.

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Long Story, Long

As I said in the short version, Ensen-ji has a special hall housing a statue of Shōtoku Taishi (574-627). Don’t worry about who he is yet, I’ll get to that later. The building was called the Taishi-dō which literally means “place to worship the imperial prince[ii].” The structure is said to have been built during the late 南北朝時代 Nanbokuchō Jidai Period of the Northern & Southern Courts (1336-1392)[iii]. Over the years it was made more beautiful and the temple became quite important in the area. To moderns, the name Taishi-dō sounds like a Buddhist structure, but in reality Shintō and Japanese Buddhism were perfectly compatible until they were made legally incompatible by the Meiji government in the 1870’s. This blending of religions is called syncretism[iv] and is usual in pantheistic religions. Anyways, this Taishi-dō houses the enshrined Shōtoku Taishi as a 神 kami Shintō deity.

But as stated before, the Taishi-dō was the main religious attraction, but later a 別当寺 bettō-ji a temple attached to the shrine was built. Eventually the entire complex was renamed 円泉寺 Ensen-ji as the Buddhist aspect took precedence over the Shintō aspect. Still, the hall dedicated to Shōtoku Taishi was the main draw. Hence the surrounding area came to be called Taishi-dō.

Older 10,000 yen notes used to feature Shotoku Taishi because he was a straight up pimp. Sort of. OK, not really.

Older 10,000 yen notes used to feature Shotoku Taishi because he was a straight up pimp.
Sort of.
OK, not really.

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Who the Hell is Shōtoku Taishi?

Shōtoku Taishi is one of those people in Japanese history that it’s OK to dismiss as semi-fictional, but at the same time you have to acknowledge his place in the historical narrative of the country. I’ll say right now that most historians agree that he is a composite character. Whether he actually existed or not is even a debatable topic. But he looms large in the semi-legendary imperial narrative and acknowledging characters like Shōtoku Taishi[v] is pretty much necessary because… well, it’s just part of the narrative.

He supposedly lived during the 飛鳥時代 Asuka Jidai Asuka Period[vi] (roughly 538-710). This era saw the transition from 古墳 kofun burial mound culture to more Buddhist-style burial practices. In short, whether he was a real person or not, he is placed in the historical narrative at a time of great change in Japanese culture.

Shotoku Taishi. Notice the archaic hairstyle and clothing.

Shotoku Taishi. Notice the archaic hairstyle and clothing.

His main claim to fame is that he was the first major patron of Buddhism in Japan. To this day, he’s respected as a purveyor of peace and benevolence. Because he gave up his right to succeed to the emperorship, he’s considered an example of humility. He’s also admired for his deeds and his connection to the imperial family.

In 604, Shōtoku Taishi allegedly wrote the 十七条憲法 Jūshichijō Kenpō 17 Article Constitution based on Buddhist and Confucian moral teachings. While you might expect to the find rules of governance, it’s actually a preachy document telling the bureaucrats and nobles of the imperial court at Asuka how to behave in a way worthy of their high office and rank. It’s really boring, but if you’re into that sort of thing, you can read a translation of the constitution here.

Stupidest system for identifying rank ever

Stupidest system for identifying rank ever

We can also thank Shōtoku Taishi for establishing the first cap and rank system called the 冠位十二階 Kan’i Jūni Ka Twelve Level Cap & Rank System™. This was the first of several rank systems which involved funny-shaped Chinese hats with different colors to show what your rank was. These court rank systems got so convoluted later in Japanese history that I have refused to learn anymore about it until I have to. Also, since this blog rarely concerns itself with matters of the imperial court, it’s not really necessary to know. That said, if you must torture yourself and learn about the cap and rank systems of the court, you can read more about it here. BTW, a somewhat easier system that persisted in the court of the shōgun during the Edo Period is the system of honorary titles – you can read more about that here.

In conclusion, Shōtoku Taishi is an important semi-legendary figure in the history of the imperial court and the rise of Buddhism. Later great figures in Buddhism revered him and so you can find him enshrined in many temples throughout Japan. I’m not going to make this blog post about some guy who lived at the turn of the 7th century and probably never even set foot in the Kantō area, but if you want to read more, this article is pretty good.

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.

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About the Area and the Temple

Long time readers will know that the presence of a temple or shrine meant business opportunities. Pilgrims needed food to eat, places to rest, souvenirs to bring back, and most importantly, places for drinking and whoring. Whole economies grew up around temples and shrines. The town in this area adopted the name of its rock star bodhisattva/kami and so it was called Taishi-dō. From what I can tell, the name 武蔵国荏原郡太子堂村 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Taishi-dō Mura Taishi-dō Village, Ebara District, Musashi Province first appears in the historical record during the 安土桃山時代 Azuchi-Momoyama Jidai Azuchi Momoyama Period[vii], the climax of the Sengoku Period.

In my recent article on nearby Gohongi, we took a look at the popular belief called 庚申 Kōshin which maintains that there are 3 magic morality spy-worms living inside everyone – watching your every move. This superstition is usually associated with agricultural areas, like the Taishi-dō area used to be, and in fact the highest concentration of 庚申塔 Kōshin-tō Kōshin statues in Tōkyō is in Meguro and Setagaya. Ensen-ji erected the 庚申供養塔 Kōshin Kuyō-tō Blue Warrior Kōshin Statues[viii] inside a hollowed out dead tree in 1672. Something about this Blue Warrior Kōshin was special and that is why the temple claims that it was the center of Kōshin belief in the area and that is why there are so many Kōshin statues in the area. If you’re scratching your head about Kōshin, you really need to read the article on Gohongi.

Two Koshin statues housed inside a hollowed tree.

Two Koshin statues housed inside a hollowed tree.

By the 1680’s, Ensen-ji was popular with Edoites as well as samurai on sankin-kōtai duty who wanted to do a little sightseeing and essentially go partying with their friends or other travelers. The shōgunate had heavy restrictions on travel, but religious pilgrimages to Buddhist temples were an easy way to get permission to travel. If you had enough money and wanted to see some new places, a pilgrimage was pretty much the only way. This brought that sweet, sweet tourist money to the local temples and shrines and the 三軒茶屋 Sangen-jaya area[ix]. As a result the temple grounds were expanded and beautified. At some point, it became a branch temple of 宝仙寺 Hōsen-ji Hōsen Temple in 中野坂上 Nakano Sakaue[x]. This relationship also saw an influx of cash filling Ensen-ji’s coffers.

By the 1800’s, the temple complex was apparently quite splendid. Unfortunately, in 1857 a fire devastated the entire precinct destroying all of the temple records and treasures – including the original statue of Shōtoku Taishi. Reconstruction started immediately and by 1860, the Taishi-dō, the priests’ living quarters and, of course, the 本殿 honden main hall had been rebuilt – however the temple was a shadow of its former glory. The temple itself claims that the ridiculous Meiji Era 神仏判然令 Shinbutsu Hanzenrei Edict Separating Kami and Buddhas[xi] is what prevented the temple from returning to its former glory after the fire. I’m not sure how that would have made much a difference. That said, today the temple architecture is clearly modern but the visual focal point is definitely the Taishi Hall which is perched up on the high ground and is only accessible by stairs.

Today the area called Taishi-dō is a fairly affluent residential neighborhood. From my walking around the area, it seemed pretty inconvenient – no convenience stores or vending machines and recycle bins that one would expect. I found some large houses, including one western style home with a large yard. I also found a traditional wooden house with a yard that looks like a blue collar home from the country side – quite a rare city within the 23 Wards of Tōkyō. But as you head towards the 散華茶屋 Sangen-jaya area[xii] it gets much more convenient and lively. There are probably some great places to hang out and eat in that area, but it seems to me that the bulk of Taishi-dō is a quiet residential escape from the hustle and bustle for well to do families.

A New England style home with a yard in Tokyo? What is this magic?

A New England style home with a yard in Tokyo?
What is this magic?

A country home in the traditional Tama style with a yard... in Tokyo. Once again, I ask. What is this magic?

A country home in the traditional Tama style with a yard… in Tokyo.
Once again, I ask. What is this magic?

88 Holy Places

Today the temple is not famous at all. It’s not even famous in its own neighborhood. But in the Shōwa Period, a new pilgrimage course called the 玉川八十八ヶ所霊場 Tamagawa Hachijū Hakkadokoro Reijō 88 Holy Sights of Tamagawa was created. It covers 4 former 郡 gun districts[xiii] and this temple Ensen-ji is #51 on the course. The pilgrimage is apparently a knock off of the 四国遍路 Shikoku Henro Shikoku Pilgrimage, another 88 temple pilgrimage related to legendary supermonk, 空海 Kūkai. You can read about the Shikoku Henro here. If you’re interested in this local version of the pilgrimage, here is the list (Japanese). It starts in 神奈川県川崎市 Kanagawa-ken Kawasaki-shi Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture and ends in 東京都大田区 Tōkyō-to Ōta-ku Ōta Ward, Tōkyō Metropolis.

That's a pretty hard course. I'm guessing it would take 2-3 days? What do you think?

That’s a pretty hard course. I’m guessing it would take 2-3 days? What do you think?

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The Supermonk

The pilgrimage is centered on 88 temples that were supposedly established by (or related to) the supermonk Kūkai – also known as 弘法大師 Kōbō-Daishi which means something like “the great teacher who spread the Buddhism[xiv].” As I’ve mentioned before, the Tokugawa shōgunate imposed strict travel measures on the highways. Also, you couldn’t leave your domain without written authorization of some shōgunate official. However, the shōgunate loved itself some Buddhism and actually required every person to officially register with a temple. So if a group of people requested permission to go on a pilgrimage, the shōgunate was a little more lenient about saying “yes” and voilá! you had yourself a vacation, son.

The problem is that for most people, the cost of traveling a very far distance was too high. If an Edoite wanted to do a pilgrimage, the cost alone would theoretically have been much more prohibitive than the shōgunate. So, large domains came up with imitation pilgrimages to keep things local. For example, tiny Mt. Fuji hills are located all over Tōkyō so people can replicate the action of actually climbing Mt. Fuji. Yearly pilgrimages to 日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshō-gū to worship the enshrined 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu were required of the 大名 daimyō feudal lords, but there were substitute enshrinements at the Tokugawa funerary temples in Edo. A visit to these shrines was considered sufficient if a lord couldn’t afford or didn’t have time to travel all the way to Nikkō. In short, there was a well-established tradition of replicating pilgrimages (and, of course, remotely enshrining kami). This pilgrimage seems to have gotten momentum in the early Meiji Period and was stopped when it reached 88 temples in the Shōwa Period.

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Kūkai the Superskunk.

Kūkai the Superskunk.

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Spreading Buddhism & Writing Reform

Anyways, back to Kūkai. He was supposedly born in 774 at a time when the imperial capital was still in 奈良 Nara and in his youth would have seen the court moved to 平安京 Heian-Kyō Kyōto. This means he lived in a Japan that was becoming more literate and worldly and emerging from Shōtoku Taishi’s world. He studied Buddhism[xv] and Sanskrit in China and returned to Japan with a mission to Buddhify the fuck out of the country. In this, Kūkai and Shōtoku Taishi has some things in common.

Legend will also credit him with inventing 平仮名 hiragana the native Japanese syllabary. I haven’t looked into this attribution’s veracity, but it’s well known that hiragana was a byproduct of a limited set of cursive kanji for women. The even simpler 片仮名 katakana script developed along similar lines as a shorthand script for Buddhist monks taking notes of sermons. Supermonk Kūkai may have been involved, but there’s no definite proof. After all, we do have records of other writing systems that were created out of whole cloth. Cyrillic is somewhat logically attributed to Byzantine missionaries, Κύριλλος καὶ Μεθόδιος Kýrillos kai Methódios Cyrillus and Methodius, who lived in the early 800’s – but it evolved over the centuries. Korea’s 한글 Hangul seems to have been created by a documented group of scholars in the 1400’s, and while I know very little about it, I do know that it was supplemented by 한자 hanja kanji[xvi]. Kūkai lived at the time when hiragana and katakana appear on the historical radar, but there’s no signed document saying, “Yo, I made this cool syllabary. What do y’all think? Love, Kūkai.”

Katakana didn't happen overnight...

Well, what did you think? Hiragana didn’t happen overnight. Neither did the Roman alphabet.

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His one confirmable contribution to Japan is the popularization of 真言宗 Shingon-shū Shingon Buddhism, an esoteric sect. I wouldn’t know one sect of Japanese Buddhism from another and I have no interest in learning[xvii] so I don’t want to go on about Kūkai’s contributions to Buddhism because I’m not qualified to speak about them. But Buddhist temples love him and often claim to be founded or have some connection to him. Hence, he is the Supermonk.

A dragon carved into wood at the shrine to Toshoku Taishi.

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Closing the Book on Setagaya

OK, so I’ve written 6 articles on Setagaya this year and it’s only February. And if you’re wondering what the name Setagaya itself means, I have an article for that from 2013. For me it’s been eye opening and I hope you all have enjoyed it too. I think I’ll move on to another area for a little bit – we can come back here at any time, of course. And as always, if you have any place names in Tōkyō that you’re curious about, hit me up in the comments section below, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Patreon, and on Flickr. I’ll add your suggestion to my to-do list. And I usually put requests at the top of the list. Jussayin’.

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[i] Well outside sources, at least. The temple’s own records were destroyed in a fire in the 1800’s.
[ii] I’ll talk more about his name later, but 太子 taishi isn’t actually his given name. It’s actually an imperial title designating the son of an emperor who will inherit the chrysanthemum throne.
[iii] What the fuck are the Northern and Southern Courts? Glad you asked. Actually, no I’m not. While this is a really explosive incident in samurai history, it’s actually one of the most boring events in Japanese history. Anything involving the imperial family is boring as fuck. This term refers to a period of time when there were two separate imperial courts claiming imperial legitimacy. In reality the 足利幕府 Ashikaga Bakufu Ashikaga Shōgunate controlled the Northern Court and protected that line. In the Meiji Period, the Northern Court were branded pretenders. So if the imperial family can brand the Ashikaga Shōgunate and their puppet emperors illegitimate rulers of Japan, I think I can brand the present imperial family a puppet family of usurper clans during the Bakumatsu. Two can play at that game.
[iv] If Westerners are familiar with Roman history, they will recognize syncretism.
[v] Like 大和武尊 Yamato Takeru – Captain Japan.
[vi] Read more about the Asuka Period here.
[vii] Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, Ieyasu, blah blah blah…
[viii] Not sure what the Blue Warrior is? Neither am I. This short article on Wiki might be related. But I’m not running a blog about Japanese Buddhism, so that’s as far as I’m going.
[ix] If you take a walk down the Old Tōkaidō in Shinagawa, you’ll notice that the road is littered with shrines and temples. Why do you think this is? Daimyō, rank and file samurai, merchants, and even rich farmers would walk along this road, stay overnight in the area, and spend all kind of money. Establishing a shrine or temple on this road was one of the best business decisions one could have possibly made in old Japan. It’s religion. You don’t even have to do any real work!
[x] This totally surprised me because I lived in Nakano for 6 years and saw this temple all the time. I never thought it would pop up in my blog years later.
[xi] We’ve talked about the Edict Separating Kami and Buddhas so many times; I’m not going to go into it again. Either search for it on my site using the search function, or here’s the Wiki article. I should probably make a once and for all post on my site…
[xii] Yes, yes, yes. I have an article about Sangen-jaya.
[xiii] The districts are 荏原郡 Ebara-gun, 橘樹郡 Tachibana-gun, 都筑郡 Tsuzuki-gun, 多摩郡 Tama-gun.
[xiv] This was his posthumous name.
[xv] And if I’m not mistaken, some Hinduism.
[xvi] And I think kanji are still used to a certain degree in South Korea, because I saw it in a few places the one time I visited Seoul.
[xvii] Unless there are magical moral spy-bugs involved.

What does Gohongi mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on January 22, 2015 at 5:56 am

五本木
Gohongi (5 trees)

Yūtenji Station provides access to Gohongi.

Yūtenji Station provides access to Gohongi.

So we’ve been in 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward for a while now, let’s move over to nearby 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward – walking distance from some places in the last article. Long time readers, will remember the etymology of 六本木 Roppongi; the kanji literally mean 6 trees and speculation about the origin of the name is rich and varied[i]. Today we will look at a place called 五本木 Gohongi which literally means 5 trees. Unfortunately, this place isn’t rich and varied. For most of its existence, this area has been agricultural. Even at Edo’s peak, it was well outside the city limits of the shōgun’s capital. Even once it was brought into the fold of 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture it was at far, far from the city center until quite recently.

Capture

Let’s Look at the Kanji!

五本
gohon

five thin, cylindrical thingies


ki

tree

So the kanji is literally “5 Trees” and first pops up in records of the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura Shōgunate dating it back to at least the 1200’s. A road passed through this area called the 鎌倉街道 Kamakura Kaidō Kamakura Highway[ii], which connected the center of government in Kamakura with the so-called 関八州 Kanhasshū the 8 Kantō Provinces[iii]. The road on the north side of the 守屋会館 Momiya Kaikan Momiya Meeting Hall in Gohongi used to be part of this route. It’s said that at this spot, there once stood a conspicuous cluster of 5 enormous trees that were used as a landmark. Being so far in the country, it was important to have landmarks; when you saw these 5 trees, you knew you were headed in the right direction[iv].

Sign in front of the Moriya Kaikan.

Sign in front of the Moriya Kaikan.

After the fall of Kamakura in the early 1300’s, certain stretches of the Kamakura Highway naturally fell into repair[v]. The tiny village was never very important to begin with and over the years the surrounding area became a dense forest. The stretch of the road behind the Moriya Meeting Hall, however, continued to be used by local farmers and so the road was somewhat maintained through the Edo Period.

By the Meiji Period, the area had become so overgrown that the trees on both sides formed a canopy over the road and so it was said to be dark even in the daytime. Meiji Era locals avoided the area because it was dangerous at both night time and day time[vi]. The locals were so firm in their belief that the Gohongi road was dangerous that they had a saying:

昼間でさえ、身の毛がよだつほど薄暗く、
元気の良い若者でも通ることを恐れた
hiruma de sae, mi no ke ga yodatsu hodo usuguraku, 

genki no yoi wakamono demo tōru koto wo osoreta

“Even in the day time, it was so dark your hair would stand on end
that even strong young men were afraid to pass through there.”

Normally, I’d say “ya’ll are a buncha pussayz!” But remember, there was no gas or electric lighting here for a long time. If you’ve ever been camping and decided to explore the forest without a flashlight at dusk or midnight, you might be able to relate to this. It can be scary.

The area may have looked something like this.

The area may have looked something like this.

Gohongi was strictly agricultural from the Edo Period until the Meiji Period and carried on a very traditional way of life. When trolley service came to a few surrounding areas in Meguro and Setagaya, the village saw a little slow change. But it seems like the area stayed frozen in time until 1927 (Shōwa 2) when the 東横線 Tōyoko-sen Tōyoko Line connecting Tōkyō to Yokohama began servicing the area. The train stopped at 祐天寺駅 Yūtenji Eki Yūtenji Station[vii].

This is a picture of the estate of the first deputy mayor of Meguro-chō in 1924 (Taishō 13) which was located on Gohongi Dōri. This is 3 years before rail service came to Gohongi. Look at how tall and dense those trees are. The area that wasn’t being farmed must have looked much like this.

This is a picture of the estate of the first deputy mayor of Meguro-chō in 1924 (Taishō 13) which was located on Gohongi Dōri. This is 3 years before rail service came to Gohongi. Look at how tall and dense those trees are. The area that wasn’t being farmed must have looked much like this.

This is a picture of the same spot today. As you can see, nothing has changed.

This is a picture of the same spot today. As you can see, nothing has changed.

So What Can I See or Do in Gohongi?

Not much, to be honest. Today it’s primarily a residential area. It’s conservative – and by that I mean no tall buildings, no vibrant shopping areas, lots of families with old connections to the area, and it’s not considered fashionable or popular. It doesn’t even have its own train station[viii]. That said, I’m sure there’s a lot for local people to do there – restaurants, temples, convenience stores, and what not.

There are 2 things that come to mind when looking at this area of Tōkyō if you’re interested in Japanese culture. And if you’re not interested in Japanese culture, I’m not sure why you’re reading my blog.

The Kōshin-tō of Gohongi

The Gohongi Koshinto-gun.

The Gohongi Koshinto-gun.

There is a cluster of 5 庚申塔 Kōshin-tō Kōshin Statues located in Gohongi. I guess that’s one Kōshin statue per tree[ix]. Kōshin statues are usually one offs – one statue per village or area. But I suppose the people of Gohongi (5 Trees) fancied themselves a little special.

So, what the hell is a Kōshin statue?
Well, I’m glad you asked.

In the Heian Period, a Taoist belief called 庚申 Kōshin in Japanese was imported from China. This belief held that there are 3 insects (usually considered worms) that live inside the human body called 三尸虫 sanshi mushi. These worms were like little morality spies who watched your every move but they could only leave your body every 60 days while you slept. They would sneak out of your body and report all of your bad deeds to the 天帝 tentei creator of the universe. The tentei would then curse you will illness, death, financial ruin, no heir, bad breath, an ugly spouse, and all manner of repugnance.

The Sanshi. From left to right - Geshi (lower worm), Chūshi (middle worm), Jōshi (upper worm).

The Sanshi. From left to right – Geshi (lower bug), Chūshi (middle bug), Jōshi (upper bug).

Every 60 days, believers who felt they had something to hide, would gather for what was more or less and all night party at a Kōshin-tō[x]. These were stone monuments erected to remind people of the 60 day cycle and the need to keep those treacherous worms inside your body. By staying up all night partying, the worms were trapped in the body and could not report your misdeeds to the tentei. Having braved the long night, all your bad deeds of the previous 59 days were inadmissible in a court of law – so to speak – and you were off the hook for another 60 days[xi]. This Taoist ritual was especially popular with farmers and people in rural areas.

While presumably no one still believes in 3 literal worms living in your body who tattle on you to the creator of the universe, there are supposedly still seasonal events tied to this tradition in agricultural areas in the countryside. Kōshin-tō can be found all over the country. In Tōkyō itself, there are quite a few of these stone monuments scattered throughout the metropolis as well as place names referring to them[xii] – Meguro Ward alone claims to have about 70 Kōshin-tō.

The famous "3 monkeys" who "see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil" are related. See the footnotes for details.

The famous “3 monkeys” who “see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil” are related. See the footnotes for details.

Yūten-ji

Far more impressive in size – though totally lacking worms living in your body – is 祐天寺 Yūten-ji Yūten Temple. This temple was established in 1718[xiii] as a grave and shrine to a deceased priest named 祐天 Yūten by his disciple, 祐海 Yūmi. Both were priests of the 菩提寺 bodai-ji funerary temple of the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family at 増上寺 Zōjō-ji Zōjō Temple[xiv]. In 1723, the shrine had been expanded into a fairly large Buddhist temple complex and soon began to receive patronage from the shōgun family itself. The temple proudly sprawls across a beautiful plateau and retains a lot of its Edo Period feel. It’s a little off the beaten path, but well worth the visit if you want to see a good example of 18th century temple construction.

Yūten-ji boasts its fair share of trees.

Yūten-ji boasts its fair share of trees.

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[i] Read my article about what Roppongi means here.
[ii] Also called the 鎌倉道 Kamakura Michi. Actually terms are often translated as the Kamakura Highways because the Japanese term can refer to a single path or the entire network of highways leading into and out of Kamakura.
[iii] 安房国 Awa no Kuni Awa Province, 上野国 Kōzuke no Kuni Kōzuke Province, 下野国 Shimotsuke no Kuni Shimotsuke Province,  相模国 Sagami no Kuni Sagami Province, 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province, 上総国 Kazusa no Kuni Kazusa Province, 下総国 Shimōsa no Kuni Shimōsa Province, and 常陸国 Hitachi no Kuni Hitachi Province. This is the massive fief that 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi granted to 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1589.
[iv] Take this all with a grain of salt because, while records show this name as far back as the Kamakura Period, nobody wrote about the etymology until the early 1800’s in a document called 新編武蔵風土記稿 Shinpen Musashi Fudoki-kō New Description of the People and Lands of Musashi Province. Just because a place name is said to have been used in the Kamakura Period doesn’t exclude it from having existed before the Kamakura Period.
[v] Other stretches of the road were enhanced and expanded by the later 足利幕府 Ashikaga Bakufu Ashikaga Shōgunate and 徳川幕府 Tokugawa Bakufu Tokugawa Shōgunate.
[vi] I’m not sure if this because brigands were living in the forest, or if unsavory types were using the area to trap unsuspecting pedestrians, or if it was just folklore and superstition.
[vii] More about Yūten-ji later.
[viii] ie; there is no Gohongi Station.
[ix] See what I did there?
[x] Also called a 庚申塚 Kōshin-zuka Kōshin Mounds.
[xi] Interestingly, the much more famous 三猿 sanzaru 3 monkeys are thought to have originated from the Kōshin belief. The 3 monkeys, who, in archaic Japanese 見ざる言わざる聞かざる mizaru iwazaru kikazaru see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil, are talismans against the 3 worms. They prevent the 3 worms from seeing, speaking, or hearing any bad deeds of the owner. The most famous 3 monkeys are the wooden reliefs at 日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshō-gū, the main grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Being dead is sometimes euphemistically referred to as 寝ている nete iru sleeping (just as in English “resting”). The 3 monkeys would prevent the 3 worms from reporting back any misdoings of the deceased while he or she “slept.”
[xii] In Tōkyō, there is a station called 庚申塚駅 Kōshin-zuka Eki on the 都電荒川 Toden Arakawa-sen.
[xiii] This was during the reign of the 7th shōgun, 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune.
[xiv] Read more about the graves the Tokugawa Shōgun’s here.

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