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Ōedo Line: Morishita

In Japanese History on June 16, 2015 at 4:00 pm

Morishita (below the forest)


Morishita’s “shita” means “low” (as in “shitamachi”). It’s located between the Sumida River and the Onagi River. Highlighted in white from top to bottom are Morishita Station, the Edoite Hotel (just thought the name was interesting), and Shirakawa-Kiyosumi Station (which is the next station).

Morishita is a 下町 shitamachi low city area, located at the bottom of a hill. In the Edo Period, the top of the hill was the residence of the daimyō (lords) of 関宿藩 Sekiyado-han Sekiyado Domain (located near the coast of present day Chiba Prefecture). The residence was a 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki which means lower residence and was essentially a suburban palace replete with an expansive garden (hence the forest). Like many commoners of the day, the chumps who lived at the bottom of the hill lived “under the forest” in cramped quarters in a crappy flood plain.

Ryōgoku Bridge was originally called Ōhashi (the great bridge), Shin-Ōhashi means

Ryōgoku Bridge was originally called Ōhashi (the great bridge), Shin-Ōhashi means “New Ōhashi.” The road here is called Shin-Ōhashi-dōri (New Ōhashi Street) and goes all the way to Chiba Prefecture.

I’ve only been to Morishita once. It’s a proper post-WWII shitamachi area. In fact, you can still see some crappy post war buildings in the area, too. They’re not fantastic specimens of Japanese architecture, but for what it’s worth they are definitely a dying breed. There are probably some good restaurants in the area, but I don’t know enough about the neighborhood to recommend anything.

Edo Period firefighters were mostly samurai. Often one of the services required of certain daimyō was to train and provide fire brigades for certain important sections of Edo.

Edo Period firefighters were mostly samurai. Often one of the services required of certain daimyō was to train and provide fire brigades for certain important sections of Edo.

One street corner in Morishita features a 纏 matoi banner carried by Edo Period firemen as they rushed through the streets to fight fires. Obviously, they didn’t have sirens and flashing lights, so large banners that could be seen from afar, drums, bells, and lanterns were the best they could do. The banners featured the name of the local firefighting team, which in Edo could have been a single 平仮名 hiragana or 片仮名 katakana character (something like “team a,” “team b,” “team c,” and so on). It could also have been a number or a kanji character. One of the local daimyō – I’m assuming it was the Shirakawa Domain – funded the 三番組 sanban gumi fire brigade team 3 which was based in Morishita.


The “team 3” banner.

If you go to the top of the hill, you will find 清澄庭園 Kiyosumi Tei’en Kiyosumi Garden. This park incorporates the remains of the original daimyō garden and later Meiji Era additions by the founder of Mitsubishi[i]. If you’re looking for a traditional Japanese garden in Tōkyō, this is a really good option. The 3 most historically intact and well known gardens always draw a crowd, but this park tends to be less well known, so you should be able to enjoy a cup of tea and some respite from the hustle and bustle of Tōkyō.

Nothing say

Nothing say “relax in the city” like a traditional Japanese park. More about this when we talk about the next station.

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This article is part of an ongoing series that starts here.

[i] The founder of Mitsubishi was, among many other things, an avid collector of real estate. Many of these holdings are still controlled by the Mitsubishi Group, one of the most powerful conglomerates in the world. You might want to see my article, What does Marunouchi mean? I also recommend the Mitsubishi Group’s company history page.

What does Morishita mean?

In Japanese Castles, Japanese History on January 11, 2014 at 2:16 am

Morishita (Below the Forest)


This “matoi” (纏) banner commemorates the 3rd fire brigade which located in Morishita in the Edo Period. Fukagawa was home to about 16 fire brigades composed of commoners.
(CLICK the photo to read about fire fighting in the Edo Period.)

Any fool with 2 weeks of Japanese under their belt can understand this place name. It means below () the forest ().

Well, a quick look around the area doesn’t seem very foresty. But let’s assume there was a forest here in the past. What was that forest???

Well, as it turns out, this was just one part of 深川村 Fukagawa Mura Fukagawa Village. In the beginning of the Edo Period, 下総国関宿藩 Shimōsa Sekiydo Han Sekiyado Domain, Shimōsa Province built their 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence here[i]. As the Edo Period progressed, more and more merchants moved into the area. In fact, because of the abundance of trees (a natural resource) and rivers (viable transportation routes), the area flourished and became famous for its lumber[ii]. The center of the merchant district was located directly outside of the walls of the daimyō palace, naturally on the lower ground (ie; shitamachi), and as such it was called 森ノ下 mori no shita below the forest. The forest, of course, referring to luxuriant wooded area held by the successive lords of Sekiyado Domain[iii].

Sekiyado Castle, the river/s that made it famous, and Mt. Fuji.  Awesome!

Sekiyado Castle, the river/s that made it famous, and Mt. Fuji.

After the Meiji Coup[iv], the property fell into the hands of one bakumatsu opportunist by the name of 岩崎弥太郎 Iwasaki Yatarō. We’ve met him before when we talked about Marunouchi. If you study post-Meiji Coup Japan, you’ll come across the subject of 財閥 zaibatsu which literally translates as “rich merchants blowing smoke up each other’s asses while knob-hopping the burgeoning military theocracy of an inferiority complex ridden proto-fascist state.” Or maybe not. I mean, it’s only two kanji.

Anyhoo, Iwasaki Yatarō, the founder of Mitsubishi purchased the property and re-purposed it as a beautifully sculptured 庭園 tei’en garden/park befitting a gentleman in the new Meiji mode. The property was used as a retreat for high ranking Mitsubishi employees and as a place to entertain guests and business partners. Although it was a private garden, it was used as an evacuation area and temporary housing in the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake[v]. Having been contaminated by the masses, the garden was donated to 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City[vi] in 1932. The park was renamed 清澄庭園 Kiyosumi Tei’en Kiyosumi Garden and still exists today. Since 1972 it’s been designated as a 名称 meishō a Place of Scenic Beauty[vii].

Former daimyo palace turned Zaibatsu playground turned municipal park: Kiyosumi Tei'en. You gotta love Japanese gardens!

Former daimyo palace turned Zaibatsu playground turned municipal park: Kiyosumi Tei’en.
You gotta love Japanese gardens!

I’ve spent most of my time talking about the area that is now Kiyosumi Garden, which as I said was the mori of 森下 Morishita. Now let’s talk a little bit about the shita.

As I mentioned, the area at the bottom of the hill (“below the forest”), was a merchant town in the Edo Period. Much of the area was destroyed in the Great Kantō Earthquake and again the area was destroyed during WWII. The area has been gentrified, but for much of its history since the earthquake and war, it was considered a ドヤ街 doya-gai. Doya-gai basically translates as “slum.” But remember, this is Japan and so when you think of a slum, it’s gonna be pretty different. Crime was never high and the area wasn’t just a bunch of dilapidated shacks, especially because the area has always been a mix of a residential area and business district (both small and large businesses. Crime was never a problem here either. Actually, the word doya-gai is pretty interesting. The first part ドヤ doya is 宿 yado backwards[viii]. 宿 yado/shuku refers to temporary lodgings. Since a major portion of the population was made of day laborers who didn’t have permanent residences, they could lodge cheaply in the inns and temporary housing of the area.

This picture is taken from the movie

This picture is taken from the movie “Ashita no Joe”
but you can get an idea of what kind of image the word “doya-gai” conjures up.

The area has undergone gentrification since those days and has turned into (what I consider) a very drab modern shitamachi. Almost nothing remains of its Edo Period heyday and there isn’t much left from the Meiji Era either. But it’s interesting to note that the legacy of post-disaster/war its past still persists in a few subtle ways: today there are many cheap “business hotels[ix]” and many offices for finding and dispatching manual laborers are built on the former sites of the former makeshift camps for day laborers (ie; the “slums”).

So there ya go. A simple place name like 森下 that any clown with 2 weeks of Japanese under their obi can figure out actually has a much richer history than you’d think. Shit, I thought this article would take 10 minutes to write. But this story has taken us to 土佐藩 Tosa Han Tosa Domain (home of Sakamoto Ryōma and Iwasaki Yatarō). It’s touched on the establishment of Mitsubishi and the zaibatsu phenomenon. It even took us to Chiba Prefecture where we got a little daimyō and castle and soy sauce action. For what is today a boring area with a seemingly boring name, I’m pretty impressed and excited. This kind of adventure is what keeps me absolutely fascinated by Tōkyō.

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[i] Sekiyado Domain was in what is now northwestern Chiba Prefecture. Noda City is the primary city today, but apparently the place Sekiyado still officially persists in some place names. A 関宿町 Sekiyado Machi Sekiyado City existed until 2003 when it was merged with Noda City and ceased to exist officially. The area is noted for having a peculiar accent. It is also home of the famous soy sauce company, Kikkoman. A version of 関宿城 Sekiyado-jō Sekiyado Castle was reconstructed in the 90’s and although I haven’t been there myself, the museum seems to get high praise from Japanese castle fans. Check out JCastle’s profile of here!
[ii] This is very similar to nearby Kiba; see my article on Shin-Kiba here.
[iii] mori can also refer to a grove, so while the area may or may not have been densely wooded, the name could just as well refer to an area less wooded than what the English word “forest” generally connotes.
[iv] Or as it’s usually referred to, the Meiji Restoration…
[v] See my article on how conflagrations and disasters shaped Edo-Tōkyō.
[vi] Of course, I’m referring to the former 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City which was part of the former 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture because everyone knows that today there is no Tōkyō Prefecture or Tōkyō City, only 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis.
[vii] See this article about special designations in Japan.
[viii] Coincidentally, this is the same kanji for the “yado” of Sekiyado. Emphasis on the word “coincidentally.”
[ix] A “business hotel” is like a Japanese motel – cheap and simple.

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