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Posts Tagged ‘meguro’

Yamanote Line: Meguro & Ebisu

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on April 30, 2016 at 4:36 pm


It’s a weird thing that I’ve encountered over the years but I’ve gotten a few emails asking me to cover Meguro. I usually send them a link to my original article about Meguro and tell them that I have, in fact, already covered Meguro and explain how to search the site and send the link to the article. One person was like, “but can you really cover Meguro in depth?”

Sadly, the answer is, “Probably not in the detail that you’re asking.” You see, I rarely go to Meguro. It’s a residential area with great local shops, but for the most part it’s a local area that other Tōkyōites mostly associate with 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. The problem is compounded by the definition of Meguro you’re using. Today, it’s important to keep in mind that we are discussing the 目黒駅付近 Meguro Eki fukin Meguro Station Area, not the greater 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward. The ward is large and has many stations on many different train lines. Since we’re talking about the Yamanote Line, we’re not venturing far from Meguro Station.


Meguro Station. Pretty much just a typical JR East station in Tōkyō.

To me, Meguro is a lovely ward and the Meguro Station area is quite famous because it gives instant access to the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River which is lined on both banks with tall cherry blossom trees. It’s one of the most famous hanami spots in the city. Local cafes and restaurants line the river and often set up temporary food stands to cater to hanami goers’ appetites. A few food trucks and other 屋台 yattai food stands also set up shop where they can. Recently, Turks and Iranians selling donner kebabs have been gaining popularity, but traditional Japanese street food like 焼鳥 yaki tori, 団子 dango, and other festival foods are available. Needless to say, there is alcohol everywhere (though, you’re best buying that at a convenience store or supermarket away from the river area because  the food stands markup that shit big time).

MEGURO o-fudo-sama


Meguro Station gives access to the 目黒寄生虫館 Meguro Kiseichūkan Meguro Parasite Museum and 龍泉寺 Ryūsen-ji Ryūsen Temple. The Parasite Museum is supposedly a popular date site – though I’ve never met a person who went on a date there – and Ryūsen-ji is a temple dedicated to a wrathful Buddhist “deity named Acala, who is called 御不動様 O-fudō-sama, “the unmovable one” in Japanese. Because the statue of this Buddha has black eyes (目 me eyes, 黒 kuro black), there is a popular etymology that the name of the area is derived from this temple[i]. The problem with Ryūsen-ji is that it’s a good 15 minute walk from Meguro Station. Normally, I wouldn’t include it except for that etymologic connection.

Get the Deeper Stories:

MEGURO parasite

Parasites. Trust me. I could have posted some really traumatic pix, but decided to go with something restrained and clinical.



I’ve covered a lot of place names over the years while writing this blog and Ebisu is actually one of the most boring from an etymological standpoint. Have you ever heard of Ebisu Beer? Oh, let me spell that differently. Have you ever heard of Yebisu Beer? The station and area is named after the Yebisu Beer Company which used to have a factory here. That’s the etymology.

I’m not being flippant, though. Yebisu Beer is effing delicious and is a source of pride in Japan. As far as Japanese macro beers go, it’s up there at the top[iii].

EBISU showa.jpg

What does Ebisu mean?

I’ve already written about this and you can check it out here, but 恵比寿 Ebisu is the name one of the 七福神 shichi fukujin 7 gods of good luck. In the old writing system, those kanji could be rendered as ゑびす/ヱビス both of which are read as Ebisu.

Yebisu is an obsolete transliteration of Ebisu common before the writing reforms in post war Japan. Fans of Japanese horror may know the word 怪談 kaidan ghost stories by its archaic transliteration kwaidan, a term which was popularized by the author Lafcadio Hearn by his book Kwaidan and the 1964 movie by the same title. These words, like many other Japanese words, were updated to reflect the Japanese spelling reforms that came to pass in the post war years. Nobody ever said kwaidan or Yebisu since the 12th century or so, so the new romanization as kaidan and Ebisu were no brainers. The beer continued to use the archaic spelling as an affectation. I guess from a branding standpoint, it makes the beer appear classic. The train station, on the other hand, uses the modern transliteration.

EBISU station.jpg

Ebisu Station, like Meguro Station, looks like any other typical JR East Station in Tōkyō. Imagine that lol.

What to do in Ebisu

Well, I don’t spend much time there personally, but I definitely say “there’s a lot to do in Ebisu!” For locals, just chilling out in the area is enough. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes in the area, and Ebisu Garden Place, a massive shopping area built on the former site of the Ebisu Beer Factory and HQ, offers enough for anyone to hang out in. For tourists, this area may be a little boring. It’s pretty westernized and actually caters to the international crowd – be they Japanese who are internationalized or wealthy expats who live within the Yamanote Loop. That said, there are two places that may be worth your time.

EBISU beer

A little Meiji magic is preserved

Beer Museum

The first place you should know is the ヱビスビール記念館 Ebisu Bīru Kinenkan Museum of Yebisu Beer which tells the history of beer in Japan but also the history of the Sapporo Brewing Company. One might think that this is something unrelated to Japanese history, but believe me when I tell you this now: beer and modern Japanese history go hand in hand. Beer and the history of Tōkyō in particular go hand in hand. I don’t have a course planned out yet, but I’m working on Japanese History + Beer guided tour that is essentially an all-day booze-a-thon focused on historical spots. Think of it as an intellectual pub crawl that starts at the Beer Museum. Hit me up, if you’re interested.


Photography Museum

As a center of art and culture, Tōkyō never disappoints on the museum side of things. However, recently there are more tourists than ever coming to Japan. Most of the tourist attractions and museums are being overrun by unruly tourist groups[iv]. The museums in Ueno are particularly insane these days. But if you wanna check out some well curated photography exhibitions that most tourists never go to, I suggest the 東京都写真美術館 Tōkyō-to Shashin Bijutsukan Tōkyō Photographic Art Museum (also called the TOP Museum for short) in Ebisu Garden Place. The exhibitions constantly change, so I can’t vouch for every showcase, but in my experience the museum is pretty consistent in quality. I’ve seen exhibits that focus on art history to exhibits that focus on the theater of the absurd – they pretty much run the gamut. It’s mostly locals who frequent the museum, especially couples, so it might be better to skip the bigger, more famous museums to check out this little gem on a weekday.

There’s One Snag, tho…

The Tōkyō Photographic Art Museum, as awesome as it is, has been undergoing a 2 year renovation project. So at the time of this writing, you can’t visit the museum. It’s slated to re-open in September of 2016 and my guess is it will be even more amazing than before. Unfortunately, it may become a much more high profile museum than before. I say “unfortunately” because in the past it’s been kind of a secret spot. After the renovation, I fear it will become overcrowded like other famous Tōkyō museums. Fingers crossed!

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[i] This is probably not the case, though, I discuss an alternate theory in my original article.
[ii] Long time readers will remember the horrific train wreck that was my Rivers of Edo-Tōkyō series. I almost quit my blog because of that damn series.
[iii] That said, Japan has an extensive micro/craft brew culture taking root that is putting out some fantastic specialty beers. I don’t want to slam the Japanese macros, though. They put the American macros to shame and I would never put them in the same category, but expats and some Japanese with experience abroad have started to call into question the traditional macros over the last 5-10 years. But this is a conversation for another time. Perhaps another post altogether.
[iv] I’m not going to single out a particular nationality, but you can probably guess who the usual suspects are.

What does Gohongi mean?

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

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.


Let’s Look at the Kanji!


five thin, cylindrical thingies



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:

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.


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.

The Rivers of Edo-Tokyo

In Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on May 25, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Edo-Tōkyō no Taikasen (Rivers of Edo-Tōkyō)

Paleolithic inlets and outlets during the Jomon Period. This is essentially Edo and its suburbs.  Understanding the topography of Tokyo is critical to understanding the history of Edo and her earlier, less famous history.

Paleolithic inlets and outlets during the Jomon Period.
This is essentially Edo and its suburbs.
Understanding the topography of Tokyo is critical to understanding the history of Edo and her earlier, less famous history.
By the way, click to enlarge.

We’ve Reached a Milestone!

This is the 200th article of JapanThis! I never thought I’d make it this far. I feel like the blog is actually “a thing” now – like it’s finally official or something. Stylistically and content-wise it’s evolved and between Twitter, Facebook, and the blog itself there are about 1,260 subscribers. Not bad considering the topics are super nerdy and I’m really just sort of fumbling my way through this.

So I’m celebrating!


With a short series on the etymology of 7 famous rivers in Edo-Tōkyō. This is the inaugural post. The first river will be covered in the next article. I don’t know if rivers are as interesting as the Tokugawa Funerary Temples or 3 Execution Grounds of Edo, which I did series on before, so bear with me. Hopefully this will be a fun ride through the city. I’ll definitely try my best.

Of course this isn't Edo or Tokyo, but this does give you a close version of what many of the small rivers or channels of Edo may have looked liked.

Of course this isn’t Edo or Tokyo, but this does give you a close version of what many of the small rivers or channels of Edo may have looked liked.

Have you Ever Said “Thank You” to a River?

It sounds like something someone on acid might do. It also sounds like something someone who is really thankful that the river is there might do. Well, I did exactly that a month or two ago.

When I started writing about Tōkyō place names, I bought a few books to brush up on the general history of the city and the layout of the Edo as compared to modern Tōkyō. One book that drastically changed the way I view the city – and we’re talking red pill/blue pill shit here, people – was 東京の空間人類学 Tōkyō no Kūkan Jinruigaku Tōkyō: A Spatial Anthropology by 陣内秀信 Jin’nai Hidenobu. He often talks about how the rivers of Edo-Tōkyō united the city, fed the city, clothed the city, moved the city, and grew the city. Soon I realized some of these rivers actually breathed life into the city. Tōkyō wouldn’t be what it is today if it hadn’t been for the rivers and the bay. So after a day of intentionally getting lost in Tōkyō with a friend on eチャリ īchari electric powered bicycles, I found myself on the middle of 吾妻橋 Azumabashi Azuma Bridge looking out as the 隅田川 Sumidagawa flowed out towards the bay. I imagined wooden barges transporting goods up and down the river. I saw small ferries carrying men to Yoshiwara for a night or two of indulgence. There were pleasure boats with rich merchants and samurai just enjoying the river on cruises with their friends and in the company of beautiful, young women. I was overwhelmed with a sense of awe and respect for the river and what it represented and what its presence contributed to the life of the city. Instinctively I just blurted out, “thank you.”[i]

Azumabashi If you've been to Asakusa, you've probably crossed or at least seen this bridge.

Azumabashi If you’ve been to Asakusa, you’ve probably crossed or at least seen this bridge.

So, anyways, I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis is a river town, nestled between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. I’ve played in rivers[ii], camped in rivers, and fished on rivers. I’ve also seen the rivers flood and cause serious destruction. Since I was an elementary school kid, I’ve had a respect for the river and its strength and ferocity. I’ve also been familiar with how rivers connected people. I saw commercial barges on the Mississippi, steamboat cruises, casino boats, and hotel boats. Warehouses and factories were on the rivers. The centerpiece of downtown St. Louis is a riverside park with a monument commemorating the fact the city was once the only point at which you could cross the deep and dangerous Mississippi with her impassable currents. But once bridges were built over this bridge, St. Louis became the gateway to the west and a whole new epoch of American history began.

We call it the

We call it the “Muddy Mississippi” for a reason. It’s not polluted, that’s the natural state of the river.
This is when the river flooded (which happens a lot).

But to be honest, even having grown up around rivers and known about rivers and how important they are, it really didn’t dawn on me how important they in understanding the development of other cities. But the more I research Tōkyō place names, the more I keep seeing how rivers impacted local areas in Edo-Tōkyō. I’ve said this many times, and admittedly this is borrowed from Jin’nai Hidenobu, but you can think of Edo as the Venice of the East. Sure, it was a wooden city and sometimes a dusty city, but the “highways” within the shōgun’s capital were mainly waterways.

The natural rivers were one side of this story. But there were many manmade canals and moats and even aqueducts that weaved throughout the city affecting all aspects of life in Edo – including the shape of the city. If you love 浮世絵 ukiyo-e[iii], you may have noticed that I sometimes have ukiyo-e pictures on the blog showing how an area looked in the Edo Period. You may have also noticed that rivers and bridges are a major theme in much those works. That’s not an accident or coincidence. It was the financial/commercial lifeline to the area – its raison d’être – and often times a place where the locals could go to relax, have a stroll, and enjoy the beauty and majesty of the river.

So, I’ve chosen seven rivers to look at over the next seven posts. If your favorite river isn’t here, sorry. I don’t deal with low-grade, crap rivers[iv]. Learn to like a better river. And if you one of your favorite rivers is listed here, be sure to make a donation via the links below. We river-folk hafta stick together.

On a final note, I may get some flack for my final river as it wasn’t nearly as important as the other rivers I chose. But it’s an important river today, so give me a little slack, mkay?

The 7 Rivers I Will be Covering
(drumroll, please)

Sumida River
Tone River
Arakawa River
Kanda River
Tama River
Edo River
Meguro River

By the way, I’m not an expert on rivers so I don’t know how this is going to play out. I’ve been consistent on the etymology theme on this blog, so expect etymology to be the focus. I hope to expand on that a little bit, but since I’ve decided to choose a subject that I don’t know much about but I want to learn about, there may be some mayhem. If you see mistakes, let me know in the comments section and I will revise the main text. And of course, questions are always appreciated. Also, if you know any river stories about these rivers and want to share, I think that would be really cool! The first article will be out in about a week. See you then!

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[i] And immediately afterwards felt like an idiot….
[ii] Not the Mississippi or Missouri, they’re way to fast and dangerous to swim in. But there are rivers all over the state that people use for pleasure.
[iii] A genre of Edo period art sometimes translated as “scenes from the floating world” or “pictures of the fleeting world.” The term “floating” had a nuance of “fleeting,” “coming and going,” or “momentary.” Don’t confuse it with rivers and floating, because there’s no connection.
[iv] Just kidding. But actually, there were a lot of other rivers I wanted to cover – including rivers that are no more – but I thought it best to limit the scope. If people think this is a cool topic, I’ll come back to it.

What does Mejiro mean?

In Japanese History on August 17, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Mejiro (White Eyes)

Little known fact. Mejiro Station is haunted by the ghosts of two high school girls.

Little known fact. Mejiro Station is haunted by the ghosts of two high school girls.

Last time, I wrote about 目黒 Meguro. The kanji mean “black eyes.” Far across town there is an area called 目白 Mejiro. The kanji mean “white eyes.” A couple of readers brought up the name Mejiro and asked if it was related. Some actually knew the story of the 五色不動 Goshiki Fudō the 5 Colored Fudō.  If you don’t know about these 5 temples, you can read about them here. If you didn’t catch my article about Meguro, you can see it here. As seems too often to be the case, there is a little fiction and a little reality served with a healthy dash of mystery – and in this case, an incredibly frustrating mystery.

First, Let’s Start with the Most Commonly Kicked Around Etymologies

Hi yo, Silver! Away!

Did someone say famous white horse?

The Famous White Horse Theory

This theory says, without stating much else, that a famous white horse was born here, a 白い名馬 shiroi meiba, if you will. This theory is plausible because, well… ok, anything’s possible. But naming a place after a single white horse seems a little silly. Anyways, the etymological basis for this derivation is that the original place name was 馬白 Mejiro “white horse” – representing a dialectal variant of ma (horse), me.  If you’re familiar with my article on Meguro, then you’ll likely find the similarity of 馬白目白 to the proposed change of 馬黒目黒 intriguing.


Tokugawa Iemitsu

When in doubt, Iemitsu did it!

★ The “Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It” Theory

Having researched a ton of Tōkyō place names this year, I’m starting to see patterns emerge that set off my BS detectors. Theories that say the third shōgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, came into some place and renamed it are a dime a dozen. I’m willing to entertain some of them, but some are just retarded. This is one of them.

The story states that one day Tokugawa Iemitsu came to Meguro for falconry and thought the name 目黒 Black Eyes was inauspicious and ordered the area to be called 目白 White Eyes. The stupidest thing about this theory is that anyone who looks at a map will see that the modern Meguro and Mejiro are nowhere near each other. And while – yes, anything is possible – there could have been another village called Meguro here at one point, it’s pretty fucking unlikely. Even if it was true, why didn’t Iemitsu care about the other Meguro? And he was the shōgun for fuck’s sake – the samurai dictator of the realm. I doubt he was such a pussy as to change the names of villages simply because the name scared him.


There it is! The statue that named a village.  Or is it?

There it is! The statue that named a village.
Or is it?

★ The “Buddha Did It” Theory

This is by far the most elaborate – and widely told – theory.

At the beginning of the Edo Period, the super monk[i], 天海 Tenkai, was placed in charge of developing Buddhist temples in the area. His pet project was to build a cluster of 5 temples dedicated to Acala, called 不動 Fudō The Unmovable One in Japanese.  Each temple’s statue of Fudō had a different colored pair of eyes. The one in 目黒 Meguro Black Eyes had black eyes[ii]. The statue in 目白 Mejiro White Eyes had, you guessed it, white eyes.  The presence of a temple established by Tenkai, which was part of a grouping of 4 other temples was prestigious for the area and probably brought many pilgrims to the town’s 門前町 monzen-chō (town built at the front of a temple)[iii]. The area then derived its name from this temple’s claim to fame, the white eyed statue.

This theory sounds plausible on the surface, but the fact is that the name Mejiro pre-dates the Edo Era, so sorry to say, the statue’s eye color might originate from the place name, but the place name does not originate from the statue. The name Mejiro allegedly first appeared in one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s original surveys of Edo when he moved into the area and was sizing up his new holdings.

Now it's time to some useless trivia.

Now it’s time to some useless trivia.


By The Way, Why Did The Statues Each Have Different Colored Eyes?

Well, I’m glad you asked. The cluster of temples is called the 五色不動  Goshiki Fudō The Five Colored Fudō. The 5 colors are a reference to something called  五行思想  Gogyō Shisō the Theory of the Five Elements, which is some ancient Chinese woo that views the cosmos through a delicate balance of, you guessed it, 5 “elements;” wood, fire, earth, metal, and water[iv].

Gogyo - the Theory of the 5 Elements

Gogyo – the Theory of the 5 Elements

As you can see in the image above, there are 5 colors associated with these “elements;” blue, red, yellow, white, black. Which temples actually make up the Goshiki Fudō is a point of contention these days, as the grouping during the Edo Period is different than the grouping now. In fact today’s grouping has 6 statues (a second yellow eyed statue has been added). The truth is the whole story of the naming of these towns and their connections to the temple statues is an invention of the Bakumatsu Era which only gained popularity in the Meiji Era. In other words, there is zero connection between the temples and the place names.


OK, so where does the place name Mejiro really come from?

No one knows.


After reading all that, I hope you feel as let down and disappointed as I was researching this topic. When looking into the origins of Tōkyō place names, there are some that have fascinating stories and some that are just dead ends. At least this story has some interesting tangents that have made it worth your time. I had fun doing the research, but… yeah. I’m disappointed too.

See that large section of green?

See that large section of green labeled “Tokugawa Village?”
Let’s talk about that a little bit…

But the story isn’t finished quite yet. Have you ever been to Mejiro? There’s not much to do there so there may be no reason for you to go. But in 1932[v], the head of the 尾張徳川家 Owari Tokugawa-ke Owari branch of the Tokugawa Family built a residence here[vi]. Since then, his property has been turned into an exclusive planned community called the Tokugawa Village. It’s home to high ranking diplomats and über-rich douche bags of every stripe[vii] and it’s home to the 徳川黎明会 Tokugawa Reimeikai Tokugawa Dawn Society which sounds like an evil cult, and may in fact be one, but on the surface it seems to be a group dedicated to historical research related to the Tokugawa. It’s affiliated with the prestigious 徳川美術館 Tokugawa Bijutsukan Tokugawa Fine Art Museum in Nagoya which preserves the largest collection of art and property of the Tokugawa family and has a hell of a gift shop if you want goods with the Tokugawa family crest printed on them[viii].


OK, so, to re-cap: famous horse, Iemitsu, 5 Buddhas, eyeballs, über-rich douche bags, Tokugawa cult, nobody knows.

The end.


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I say supermonk because it seems like every other temple in Kantō claims to have been established by or have some connection to him. Dude got around. Or who knows? I’m not into monks so don’t hold me to it. (And “supermonk” sounds hilarious.)
[ii] But as mentioned in my article on Meguro, the name of the town predates the Edo Period. So Meguro’s name does not derive from the statue. There is a chance that Tenkai chose the town Meguro for the black eyed statue or it may be a happy little coincidence. But Edo Period people probably dug that kind of shit, so I wouldn’t put it past the supermonk.
[iii] See my article on Monzen-nakachō for more about this kind of town.
[iv] None of which is actually an element.
[v] Shōwa 7
[vi] In the Edo Period he would have been a successive daimyō, but after the reforms of the Meiji Era he was a Marquis – just as I am a Marquis Star (cue cheeseball drumfill).
[vii] That’s totally uncalled for. I don’t know if the people there are douches or not. I’m not rich, so that’s just my jealous oozing out as totally unjustified contempt.
[viii] Yes, I want. Thank you very much.

What does Meguro mean?

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

(Black Eyes)

Meguro Hanami Etymology

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

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

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

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



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


First thing you should know.

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

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


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

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


OK, It’s Etymology Time, Y’all.

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


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

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



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


Meguro - A Horse Embankment?

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


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

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

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

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

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