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What does Egota mean?

In Japanese History on July 30, 2015 at 1:06 am

Egota (literally, “inlet – old – field”)

Shin-Egota Station

Shin-Egota Station

This etymology is really problematic. No one can agree on how to pronounce it. No one can agree where the name come from. No one can even agree if it’s a good area or not. The people who live there like it. The people who don’t couldn’t care less about it


No Agreement – How The Fuck Do You Pronounce It?

Is it Ekoda or Egota? Well, it generally depends on who you ask (or who’s telling you). There are two stations that each bears the two major variations.

Ekoda Eki

Ekoda Station
(Seibu Ikebukuro Line)

Shin-Egota Eki

New Egota Station
(Ōedo Line)

As it stands, “Egota” is an actual postal code in Nakano Ward[i]. In the Tōkyō Metropolis, this is as official as a place name gets.  However, “Ekoda” Station in Nerima Ward uses the alternate pronunciation. It’s not an official place name. That said, Shin-Egota Station is on the boundary of Nakano and Nerima wards and uses the Nakano name. This means that the most “official” pronunciation is “Egota.”

The 2 spellings actually wreak havoc upon non-Japanese search engines. For example, English Google Maps lists both stations as Ekoda Station and Shinekoda Station[ii]. Despite all of this confusion, there does seem to be a general rule of thumb. In short, Nakano Ward tends to use “Egota” and Toshima Ward tends to use “Ekoda.[iii]” This seems to be a modern convention, though. Since the Edo Period, the place written 江古田村 Egota Mura Egota Village was referred to variously as えこだ Ekoda, えごた Egota, えごだ Egoda, and えこた Ekota.


Now Let’s Look at the Kanji


inlet, bay

ko, go


ta, da

field, rice paddy

Just an initial glance at this whole mess makes want to say that this is 当て字 ateji. Long time readers of the blog will know that ateji is when kanji are used for their phonetic qualities, not their ideographic qualities. Basically, it’s a way to make a word that might be difficult to read instantly readable. In pre-modern Japan, ateji relied on kanji that any person with a basic grasp of high frequency kanji could read. Words that didn’t have kanji or that were of otherwise “mysterious” origin were often rendered in ateji. Place names were often mysterious – as they are even today[iv].

One of the big clues that this writing is ateji is the first character. 江 e inlet or bay is the origin of the katakana character エ e. Katakana is strictly phonetic and has no meaning. is one of those “go to” kanji for that sound. This location is nowhere near the bay or any inlet thereof.

One of the problems with place names written with ateji is that they usually blur or cover up the original meaning forever. The original name could have been a dialect word. It could have been a far more ancient name passed down from the 蝦夷 Emishi or アイヌ Ainu – peoples who lived in Japan before the people whom we think of as “culturally Japanese” became dominant[v]. I don’t want to get into a huge discourse on the peoples of Japan, so just understand that other cultures and languages existed in Japan before and some of their place names may have persisted after the introduction of kanji. But we can’t be certain about many of them.

ego no ki

The Most Famous Theory – The Japanese Snowbell Theory

This is by far and wide the most popular theory about this place name. According to this theory, the area was covered with Japanese snowbell trees (Styrax japonica). In Japanese, the tree is called エゴノキ ego no ki. The snowbell blossoms could be pressed to make cooking oil. These trees grow everywhere in Japan – all the way from the north in Hokkaidō down to the south in Kyūshū[vi]. Most people believe this theory and it gets repeated in books, magazines, and TV.

Remember this theory. We’re going to come back to it later.

A flowering shiso plant

A flowering shiso plant

The Egoma Theory

荏胡麻 egoma is a kind of oil made from Perilla frutescens – oil made from a kind of wild sesame plant. The leaves and plant are generally known as 紫蘇 shiso in Japan. Shiso leaves are popular in seasonal tempura dishes and there is a famous brand of 焼酎 shōchū that is infused with shiso leaves. In pre-modern Japan, some clans used to make 油紙 yushi[vii] oil treated paper with this leaf’s oil. This was a traditional paper treated with egoma used for archival purposes or official messages that needed to be waterproof. Like Chōfu[viii], there’s no evidence this industry ever existed in the area.

Two old Ainu dudes. (At least I think they're both dudes)

Two old Ainu dudes.
(At least I think they’re both dudes)

The Ainu Theory

Long time readers – and by long time, I mean you’ve been reading regularly for a few years now – will be familiar with certain tropes that constantly come. I’ve referred to them as “the Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory,” “the Tokugawa Yoshimune Did It theory,” “the Captain Japan[ix] Did It Theory,” and the occasional “the Ainu Did It Theory.”

Of course when we talk about Ainu in this part of Japan, we might actually be talking about the 蝦夷 Emishi, a culture said to be related to the Ainu but that might not be. But then again, we might be talking about actual Ainu people. Nobody really knows for sure. The Emishi and Ainu are a bit of an enigma and to make matters worse the names have sometimes been used interchangeably over history. The Emishi – who appear to be a related but separate people – seem to have been absorbed into the Yamato Culture[x] – or into the Ainu Culture – or both. Again, nobody fucking knows. But the Ainu most definitely still exist in Hokkaidō, one of their ancestral homes.

In short, this theory claims that the name derives from a lost Ainu/Emishi word that means 密集 misshū which means a crowd or a dense thing or place or 集団 shūdan which means a group or a mass (and carries a connotation of “people” or “populace”). This theory was recorded in the Edo Period without citing the original Ainu/Emishi word which means one of two things: the tradition was passed on for centuries by oral tradition and the word was lost along the way or it is complete bullshit made up at some time… probably in the Edo Period.

Yama no kubochi - a basin in the hills.

Yama no kubochi – a basin in the hills.

The River Basin Theory

In some old Kantō dialects, there is a word 江古 ego[xi]. These kanji and the reading are identical to the first 2 characters in 江古田 Egota. Ego doesn’t refer to “the ego” which you may know from psychology[xii]. No, it refers to something far more mundane and boring[xiii].

In standard Japanese this word is rendered as 山の窪地[xiv] yama no kubochi “a depression in the hills” which itself is an obscure term. Kubochi is essentially a synonym for 盆地 bonchi a basin – this is a term all Japanese people are familiar with. According to this theory, 江古田 Egota means 水が流れ込む田んぼ mizu ga nagarekomu tanbo a field that water flows down into.

This looks legit on the surface. There is actually a river called 江古田川 Egota-gawa and an actual bridge called 江古田川大橋 Egota Ōhashi the Great Egota Bridge. There are hills in the area as well. The only problem with this theory is that within the 23 Special Wards of Tōkyō Metropolis, virtually nothing of the old dialects remains. The evidence for this theory is supplied from other places in agricultural areas of Kantō where bits and pieces of the old dialects persist. No documents link this place with this etymology – it’s purely hypothetical[xv].

This tree look familiar? Time to talk about that Japanese Snowbell Theory again.

This tree look familiar?
Time to talk about that Japanese Snowbell Theory again.

Let’s Revisit the Japanese Snowbell Theory

There are more theories than I’ve listed here, but these are the big ones. However, I promised to talk about the most famous theory. That theory states (and I quote from myself) that:

The area was covered with Japanese snowbell trees (Styrax japonica).

In Japanese, the tree is called エゴノキ ego no ki.

I don’t know why this is the “pet etymology” that gets shared the most because it’s probably the most easily disproved etymology. It’s complete shite.

On the surface, it seems legit. 江古田 ego-ta a field of snowbells could be ateji for エゴノキの田んぼ  ego no ki no tanbo a field of snowbell trees. For native speakers and non-native speakers, this theory looks pretty good.

At the heart of this conundrum lays the name of this tree, エゴノキ ego no ki. Japanese spelling[xvi] has changed over the centuries, in particular, after the Meiji Coup and especially after WWII. The etymology of ego no ki has been obscured by the modernization of Japanese orthography[xvii]. It’s also obscured by the standard Romanization, ie; ローマ字 rōma-ji .

Before the spelling reforms, this tree’s name was written as ヱゴの木  ego no ki[xviii]. That first character doesn’t exist in the modern syllabary[xix]. It’s a character that’s been obsolete since the 1940’s and is only used for dramatic effect today[xx]. The easiest equivalent I can think of in English is when “the” is written as “ye”[xxi] today to look medieval or something. In Japanese, this character actually reflects Classical Japanese (probably from the Heian Period until the Kamakura Period). That is to say, it uses characters that represent sounds that died out long ago[xxii].

However, when 江古田 Egota/Ekoda is spelled out in hiragana, the first character has historically been e. The character  we/ye came to be pronounced /e/ (ie; it’s phonetically identical to e), but it indicates a mora[xxiii] that is etymologically distinct. To make this clearer, I’ll summarize using rōma-ji: ego couldn’t have derived from “yego” (or “wego“).

my brain hurts

So WTF Is the Etymology?

As I said, there are additional theories, but most of them are tiring – at least to me. Maybe I’ll look into them a bit more later. Unless you live in Egota, which would have been a rare case until after the Great Kantō Earfquake, your chances of even knowing this area at all are low. In the Edo Period, this was just farm land.

As for my opinion, I think it’s clear that the kanji are ateji. The kanji have no meaning and actually hinder getting us to the bottom of the story. It’s also clear that the popular theory of a field of Japanese Snowbell trees is absolutely untrue.

The “Ainu Did It Theory” is impossible to prove until somebody produces an Ainu word that seems to make a plausible case. I also think the “Ainu Did It Theories” are weak in general given the nearly complete cultural saturation of the Yamato Culture. Granted, there hasn’t been a lot of archaeological data from the area, but it doesn’t seem to have been very populated until the last 50-100 years.

If I had to choose a favorite of theory, I think the “The River Basin Theory” is pretty good. Long time readers who remember my grueling Rivers of Edo-Tōkyō series may seem some logic behind this etymology. Having researched more than 250 place names, rivers and other bodies of water seem to be one of the most common reference points. Many Japanese people have said to me the “Japan is a country of water.” Edo was often called “Venice of the East.” The most common modern epithet (which has both positive and negative connotations) is 島国 shimaguni island country. So it’s clear that from time immemorial to present day water is very important to this land and the country’s relationship with water is deeply ingrained in the culture.

That said, none of these theories can be confirmed. And as I said before, the name just reeks of ateji and ateji actually hinders understanding the origins of a name. The presence of 江 e (a water kanji) is the most confusing part of the mystery. It supports was I think is the strongest theory because it is a reference to water, but it is also the source of the katakana character エ e. That means the kanji was used so much for its phonetic usage other than its ideographic meaning that there’s almost no way to grasp which usage is more important (the phonetic meaning or the ideographic meaning).

So, yeah. This has been a wild ride. But there’s no definitive answer. Egota/Ekoda will forever be a mystery. Sometimes it’s good to have them – they keep us on our toes.

Wanna learn about Egota Station and Shin-Ekoda Station?

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[i] 中野区江古田 Nakano-ku Egota Egota, Nakano Ward.
[ii] The missing hyphen is technically a mistake, too. The official station name is clearly hyphenated in signage.
[iii] There seem to be a few exceptions to the rule, but I couldn’t find specific examples.
[iv] The tradition of ateji was born out of necessity when kanji (a Chinese writing system) was first imported to Japan. The Japanese presumably had no standardized writing system – if any writing system at all – and began transcribing their spoken language into the ideographic writing of the Chinese. You can read more about ateji here.
[v] I don’t want to get into the Emishi and Ainu here. It’s a really big topic and may not have any connection to this. You can read more here.
[vi] They actually grow in some parts of Okinawa, which is farther to south and more or less tropical.
[vii] Also read abura-gami.
[viii] Did I mention I have an article about Chōfu?
[ix] Captain Japan, of course, being my nickname for the semi-legendary 大和武尊 Yamato Takeru character of the old Yamato State.
[x] Basically, the “Japanese people” who followed the Imperial Family and took over the main islands of Japan (with the exception of Hokkaidō and Okinawa – territories annexed by the Meiji government after the 1868 Meiji Coup).
[xi] I use “is” in the loosest of possible senses. Most of the Kantō dialects have died out and been replaced with 標準語 Hyōjungo Standard Japanese. So, “there was a word” might be more appropriate, but I’m not sure what linguistic hijinks is going on the backwater farming communities of Kantō.
[xii] That word, ego, is actually the first person singular pronoun in Latin. It’s the Latin word for “I.”
[xiii] But absolutely intrinsic to place names in a county that is mountainous and covered in rivers.
[xiv] Sometimes written as 山の凹地 yama no ouchi (same meaning).
[xv] This theory was proposed by linguistics using modern dialectal dictionaries.
[xvi] Spelling is what we call this in English normally, but I’m actually talking about orthography.
[xvii] Are shitting me? You didn’t read the last footnote? Orthography is how you write words. To use the loose term, spelling.
[xviii] It can also be written entirely in kanji as 野茉莉 egonoki, but usually isn’t.
[xix] Japanese doesn’t have an alphabet; it has 2 syllabaries reinforced by kanji.
[xx] Occasionally archaic spellings even make it into their Romanized counterparts, sometimes you might see Yedo for Edo, Yebisu for Ebisu, Iyeyasu for Ieyasu, Kwan’non for Kan’non, and kwaidan for kaidan. These aren’t just random affectations. They actually reflect the etymological origins of these names and words. The kana in question is sometimes rendered as we, especially when standing alone because it occurred in the わ行 wa-gyō “wa” row: わ waゐ wi, blank, ゑ we, を wo.
[xxi] “Ye” meaning “the” is one of the greatest examples of how misunderstood orthography can explode in your face.
[xxii] There are probably more examples in English than any other language, but consider the word “comfortable.” This spelling reflects a pronunciation of Shakespeare’s time which was 4 syllables /ˈkom for tə bəl/ but the modern pronunciation is 3 syllables /ˈkʌmf tər bl/.
[xxiii] What the fuck is a mora??!!!

Ōedo Line: Higashi Nakano & Nakai

In Japanese History on July 14, 2015 at 7:06 am

Higashi Nakano (East Nakano)

Higashi Nakano - so boring that you have to blur out people's faces.  No pride here.

Higashi Nakano – so boring that you have to blur out people’s faces.
No pride here.

As much good stuff as I have to say about Nakano, I have nothing to say about this part of town. Not that it’s a bad place; I just don’t know anything about it. I’ve only been there twice. Both times I ate very mediocre rāmen.


If you wanna know more about Nakano:

The only reason to come to this area. Check out this beautiful house!!!

The only reason to come to this area.
Check out Hayashi Fumiko’s beautiful house.

Nakai (middle well)

The place name is thought derive from a spring and headwaters used as an 井戸 ido well at the top of the 落合 Ochiai Plateau. A second theory suggests that the plateau was water rich and so there were many wells (or springs) there. Both are not mutually exclusive, but the first theory is backed up by the fact that modern Nakai Station is located in 上落合 Kami-Ochiai. In old village names 上 kami refers to upstream, 中 naka midstream, and 下 shimo downstream. Obviously, the start of a stream or river would be located upstream.

As for what’s in this area? I don’t know. I’ve never been, but it seems fairly residential. The only famous thing I could find online about it is the 林芙美子記念館 Hayashi Fumiko Kinenkan Hayashi Fumiko Memorial Museum. She was a Japanese writer and poet active in the Shōwa Era. All I know about her is this Wikipedia article . But if you like her writing, maybe this station is for you.

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Ōedo Line: Nakano-Sakaue

In Japanese History on July 13, 2015 at 5:04 am

Nakano-Sakaue (Nakano Hilltop)

nakano sakue

The name of this area, 中野 Nakano, means “middle field.” The name is said to derive from the fact that Nakano sat smack in the middle of former 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Mushashi Province.

Nakano-Sakaue is located near the border of Shinjuku Ward and Nakano Ward which is marked by the 神田川 Kanda-gawa Kanda River. The bridge that links Shinjuku and Nakano is called 淀橋 Yodobashi – literally Yodo Bridge. If you’re familiar with Japanese electronics retailers, you’ve probably heard of Yodobashi Camera. The store’s name derives from this bridge.

Yodobashi Camera in Shinjuku

Yodobashi Camera in Shinjuku

There is a temple near the station called 宝仙寺 Hōsen-ji that boasts an Edo Period 仁王門 Niō Mon and a 3 story pagoda that was one of the 6 Towers of Edo. The list of 6 towers included the pagodas at Sensō-ji in Asakusa and the two Tokugawa funerary temples of Kan’ei-ji in Ueno and Zōjō-ji in Shiba. That is to say, it had some pretty high pedigree in its day. Today the temple is a shadow of its former glory and even the local people don’t know much about it. Every year in February, a bunch of old men dress up like warrior monks and put on a parade that amounts to little more than a clownshow for elementary school students who have no interest in samurai or old men.

The Nio Gate of Hosen-ji

The Nio Gate of Hosen-ji

In the Edo Period, the area was dotted with small villages along the 青梅街道 Ōmekaidō Ōme Highway and the Kanda River. Today, it’s primarily a residential area and while I love Nakano, there isn’t anything touristy to do in Nakano-Sakaue. There’s a good 串揚げ kushiage place there. Kushiage refers to finger foods that are skewered, battered, and deep fried. It goes best with beer, shōchu, or sake. The shop is super cheap and has a good local vibe. It’s called 平田屋 Hirata-ya and can be found here, a 5 min walk from the station[i].



The station was attacked with Sarin gas in the spring of 1995 by a religion called オウム真理教 Aumu Shinrikyō. The attack left 12 dead and irreparably injured many more.

When I lived in Nakano, I met a person whose husband was among the dead. She still suffers various after-effects to this day including severe memory loss. 20 years later, most people don’t make any connection between this station and terrorism. It seems like any other normal station.


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[i] Nakano-Sakaue Station is home to the 丸ノ内線 Marunouchi-sen Marunouchi Line, too. So it has great access from Shinjuku Station. I would walk from Shinjuku to there, but I’m a walking maniac. If you don’t know the area, it’s better to take the train.

What does Asagaya mean?

In Japanese History on January 13, 2015 at 7:35 am

Asagaya (“valley of the obscure assistant,” but more at “the shallow valley”)

Asagaya's famous shopping street.

Asagaya’s famous shopping street.

OK, so I’m back from my New Year’s vacation and I hope everyone is doing just fine. If you read JapanThis! over the holiday, you probably know I took a survey to get some opinions about the blog. One of my major issues of concern was the length of the articles. The results of the survey were totally ambiguous. It was an exact 3 way split between “too long” and “just fine” and “no response.” I’m taking that as permission to carry on as is, but I’ll just be a little more mindful of the length of articles. But not much. Some useful feedback was a few article suggestions. And I think I’d like start with a few reader suggestions[i].

A quick note about reader suggestions.  Quite a few suggestions were about topics that I’ve already covered. JapanThis! is actually a very searchable site, but you have to scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the search field[ii]. I’m going to look into making the search field more visible, but in the meantime, you can find it on the bottom right hand side of the page, right above the list of most recent articles. And in a worst case scenario, Google’s got your back, often times “Japan This (insert place name)” will bring up my blog.

The search feature is pretty good in Word Press. You should use it!

The search feature is pretty good in Word Press. You should use it!

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the first place name of the year.


Spoiler Alert!

This place name is 当て字 ateji, ie; kanji used for their phonetic value and not meaning[iii]. The first and second kanji are dead giveaways. and its friendly counterpart   are often just generic kanji for the /a/ sound. Sadly, is the equally generic and meaningless way to write the /sa/ sound. So the only kanji with any literal meaning is the last one, 谷 ya/tani which means “valley.” That said, the use of ateji betrays the antiquity of this place name. In the countryside, far from the ancient capitals of Kyōto or Kamakura, literacy was low and the easiest way to write place names with ateji. Be it a native Japanese place name or a pre-existing place name from a previous people, ateji was just the easiest way to write things.

Let’s Break Down the Kanji


nook, cranny


help, assistant


genitive particle in Old Japanese
(equivalent to modern の no)



This place name is officially written 阿佐谷 Asagaya but the train station name is written as 阿佐ヶ谷 Asagaya. The train station name is actually easier to read than the official name, so in many kanji conversion systems[iv] the latter comes up first and as such it seems to be the more prevalent way of writing this place name in casual situations. The latter was also the most traditional way of writing this place name until 1965 when 杉並区 Suginami-ku Suginami Ward standardized it as 阿佐谷 Asagaya. I’m assuming they just thought it looked more formal and literary[v].

Remains of the Momozono River.

Remains of the Momozono River.


If The Other Kanji Mean Nothing, Why “Valley?”

A river called the 桃園川 Momozono-gawa used to flow between present day 中野区 Nakano-ku Nakano Ward and 杉並区 Suginami-ku Suginami Ward. Today this river is underground[vi]. However, as is the nature of rivers, they usually exist in the lowlands and valleys. The Momozono River was no different. The area where the river used to be was a shallow valley and that’s exactly what this ateji name is believed to derive from.  In modern Japanese 浅  asa means “slight” or “shallow.”[vii] The idea being that the area along this river was an 浅の谷 asa no ya a shallow valley [viii]. Long time readers will recognize the / no/ga substitution from such familiar places names as 関ヶ原 Seki-ga-hara.  The ateji were added after the fact, and whoomp there it is.

But just to shed a little light on the antiquity of the name. The place name must already have been established by the 14th century because that’s when the name first shows up in the records. In the 1300’s, a noble family was granted control of the area and assumed the name of their fief, thus becoming the 阿佐ヶ谷氏 Asagaya-shi Asagaya Clan. Whether the ateji were decided at this time or earlier is anyone’s guess.

The Momozono River circa 1950.

The Momozono River circa 1950. Today it’s a sewer.

Asagaya – Literary Center

After the 関東大震災 the Great Kantō Earfquake of 1923, many artists fled[ix] from the crowded 下町 shitamachi low city to Asagaya because rent and land was cheap and there area was still connected to the center of town. The 山手 yamanote high city also lost its fair share of artists to the Asagaya area. Many were unrecognized writers in their own day – though most of them are widely respected today – they congregated in the area. From the post 1923 Earfquake Era to the Post WWII Era, Asagaya became a haven for broke ass artists[x].

A bunch of famous Japanese writers having a party in Asagaya... not writing.

A bunch of famous Japanese writers having a party in Asagaya… not writing.

Some big names from the day are such unmemorables as[xi]: 井伏鱒二 Ibuse Masuji, 与謝野鉄寛 Yosano Tekkan, 太宰治 Dazai Osamu, 青柳瑞穂 Aoyagi Mizuho, 三好達治 Miyoshi Tatsuji, 火野葦平 Hino Ashihei, and 徳川夢声 Tokugawa Musei. Asagaya was the scene in which these artists incubated.

Asagaya Tanabata Festival

Asagaya Tanabata Festival

Today, Asagaya is pretty much a down to earth part of Tōkyō Metropolis that makes its closest access to the city center via Shinjuku Station. Its most charming points are the amount of greenery it still affords residents and its annual 七夕祭り Tanabata Matsuri Tanabata Festival held in July. I’ve been to the Tanabata Festival twice and while it’s crowded as hell, it’s pretty damn fun if you go with your friends.

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[i] Feel free to participate in my survey here, can’t promise I’ll read it soon, but I’m keeping it open… forever. So, I can promise that I’ll check it sometime.
[ii] And while the web view site has a great search feature, the mobile version of the site has a horrible search feature.
[iii] Here’s wiki’s article about ateji.
[iv] This meaning when you use a computer, cellphone, or smartphone.
[v] And we’ll talk about “literary” in a little bit.
[vi] Some of the path of the river remains as a walkway and fans of the Nakano-based porn giant, Soft on Demand, may recognize the Momozono-gawa walkway from many a Japanese porn movie. #TeamIenari
[vii] It has many more meanings, see my article on Asakusa.
[viii] Don’t click that link. I’m serious. Don’t do it.
[ix] Or in most cases, were forced to re-located because their homes were destroyed and rebuilding costs were too high in the center of the city.
[x] Something I can relate to all too closely.
[xi] Just a quick warning, I don’t read fiction anymore. So maybe these writers are actually good. I honestly have no idea. I just hate reading fiction these days – I’d rather watch it.

The Kanda River

In Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers, Travel in Japan on July 15, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Kanda-gawa (literally, “divine fields river,” but actually “river in Kanda”)[i]

Hajiribashi, a concrete arched bridge crossing the Kanda River near Ochanomizu Station.  If you eliminate the train station and modern buildings, this a typical Edo Period river setting.  The bridge itself is not much to look at now, but it was built after the Great Kanto Earthquake which river travel was still common. Such bridges were designed to be viewed from below by boats passing underneath them.

Hajiribashi, a concrete arched bridge crossing the Kanda River near Ochanomizu Station.
If you eliminate the train station and modern buildings, this a typical Edo Period river setting.


The name 神田 Kanda is one of the oldest place names in Edo-Tōkyō and believe it or not, 神田川 Kanda-gawa the Kanda River is not that old at all. Well, most of the river isn’t. Well, part of it might be.

Well, it’s complicated.

In short, after doing this research, I’ve realized I have to make a separate article about the area called 神田 Kanda – and by that, I mean just etymology. So I will write about that in the future – and I promise not to put it off too long. But let’s just deal with the river for the time being, mkay?


Let’s Look at the Kanji



ta, -da

rice paddies

kawa, -gawa



This river is manmade. So the etymology seems to be clear. At the beginning of the Edo Period, in the 神保町 Jinbō-chō area there was a small waterway that cut through a hilly are called 神田山 Kandayama Mt. Kanda. It’s said that since this area in general was called 神田 Kanda[ii] the original waterway was then called 神田川 Kanda-gawa the Kanda River.

If you only wanted to know the etymology of the river, you can stop reading here. From this point on it’s going to turn into a crazy – possibly boring – river mess. If you’re a JapanThis! masochist, then by all means, read on. You may actually enjoy this.




A view of Hajiribashi when it was new. The bridge itself is not much to look at now, but in the 1920’s it was new and river travel was still common. Such bridges were designed to be viewed from below by boats passing underneath them (or without tall buildings in the background).


Where to Start??

Up until now, every river we have looked at was at some point a naturally occurring river. The Kanda River is quite different from those rivers. There was a time within recorded history that the Kanda River never existed. Though, a portion of it was once a natural tributary of a long vanished inlet of Edo Bay, it is, in fact, a man-made river. All though it may not be on the lips of every Tōkyōite, today the river is a well-recognized part of the well-manicured urban landscape of the modern city.

I actually first mentioned the Kanda River back in June, 2011 in an article about Yodobashi[iii], a small bridge that crosses the Kanda River at the border of 中野区 Nakano-ku Nakano Ward and 新宿区 Shinjuku-ku Shinjuku Ward. So this is something of a little homecoming for me. I started this blog when I still lived in Nakano (lived there for about 6 years).



Yodobashi in the Taisho Era, before the Great Kanto Earfquake. The area is rustic and a in sharp contrast to the present area. Today it marks the border of Nakano and crazy-ass Shinjuku.


What is the Kanda River Today?

The modern river’s official designation is the channel of water that flows from 井之頭池 Inokashira Ike Inokashira Pond to 飯田橋 Iidabashi (literally, Iida Bridge) where it empties into the 外堀 sotobori outer moat of Edo Castle. But it’s at this junction where the river flows into a disparate network of waterways. So you could say, unofficially, that the Kanda River flows into the 日本橋川 Nihonbashi-gawa Nihonbashi River and the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River at 両国橋 Ryōgokubashi Ryōgoku Bridge, essentially taking the water to the Tōkyō Bay.


Wellspring of the present-day Kanda River at Inokashira Park.

Wellspring of the present-day Kanda River at Inokashira Park.


Now Let’s Talk History

As mentioned in my article on the etymology of Edo, the original 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle or 千代田城 Chiyoda-jō Chiyoda Castle was not built by 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan as is often cited[iv]. In reality, a minor branch of 平家 Hei-ke the Taira clan[v] moved to the area at the end of the 11th century and built a fortified residence[vi] on a hill overlooking the sea. As was common practice for new branch families with new fiefs, they took the name of the village 江戸郷 Edo-gō as their own and they became the 平江戸氏 Taira Edo-shi Edo branch of the Taira clan[vii]. In the 12th century, the area prospered due to its proximity to the capital of the Minamoto shōguns in Kamakura. However, it seems the Edo clan didn’t do much to develop the area’s rivers[viii].

In those days, the now long gone 日比谷入江 Hibiya Irie Hibiya Inlet was a saltwater inlet used for 海苔 nori seaweed farming[ix]. There was a certain freshwater river known as 平川 Hirakawa “the wide river” which emptied into the inlet. This fresh water river originally made up part of the natural boundary between 武蔵国豊島郡 Musashi no Kuni Toshima-gun Toshima District, Musashi Province and 武蔵国江原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara Province, Musashi Province. This fresh water tributary seems to be where the story of the Kanda River begins.


Edo Hamlet


Fast Forward a Few Centuries

By the 15th century, Japan was balls deep in the bloody, sweaty mess that was the Sengoku Period[x] and Ōta Dōkan found himself re-fortifying the Edo family’s fort in Chiyoda using water from the coastline and other small rivers with the latest moat-building technology of his day. The new and improved “Edo Fort” he built for the 上杉氏 Uesugi-shi Uesugi clan brought new channels and waterways into the village. This manipulation of water provided tactical advantages to the new fort in that food and goods could come in and there were more escape routes. There were now logical, defensible waterways. Lucky side effect, certain areas of the village were less exposed than before and local merchants and fishermen had new distribution routes and… BOOM!  Ladies and gentleman, we have a budding 城下町 jōka machi castle town[xi].

Although all of Dōkan’s efforts were pioneering and crucial in the taming of the rivers and sea and urban planning of Edo-Tōkyō, one of the most important changes to Edo’s waterways was diverting the 平川 Hirakawa the ancient “wide river” eastward into what is today called the 日本橋川 Nihonbashi-gawa Nihonbashi River. This is critical to our story today. And the place where this new confluence occurred is actually marked by a bridge called the 神田橋 Kandabashi Kanda Bridge. The Hirakawa River doesn’t exist anymore, but a quick look at a map of Edo Castle will show you a 平川門 Hirakawa Mon Hirakawa Gate and 平川濠 Hirakawa-bori Harakawa Moat[xii]; the former, the gate that stood guard on the moat[xiii]; the latter, a vestige of the old river itself. Today, 平川見附 Hirakawa Mitsuke the bridge and fortified gate installation on the moat is a popular sightseeing spot.


Part of Edo Castle today. At the top, notice Hirakawa Gate and at the bottom right, notice the Ote Mon (main gate). They are on the same moat. That is the former Hirakawa.

Part of Edo Castle today. At the top, notice Hirakawa Gate and at the bottom right, notice the Ote Mon (main gate).
They are on the same moat. That is the former Hirakawa.
I used to generate this map. Click on the picture to find THE premiere website on Japanese Castles in English.


So, as I’ve said before – and will say again – Tokugawa Ieyasu moved into an Edo that was well fortified, strategically sound, and extremely defensible by sea and by land. Oh, and did I mention, there was a burgeoning village life, supported by fishermen, farmers, and artisans[xiv]. Between Ōta Dōkan’s time and the time Ieyasu entered Edo, a technological revolution had occurred in Japan. From Nobunaga’s rise to power on, Japanese castles began to take on the look of what we think of today when someone says “Japanese Castle.[xv]” The castles of the Tokugawa Period are based on these new advances in castle building technology and reflected the amount of luxury the ruling class could not just afford, but were expected to maintain to project their image of superiority.





OK, OK! Castles, Can We Please Get Back to the River?

Yes, of course. Sorry for getting distracted.

(But we’re probably coming back to castles)

The Tokugawa Shōgunate kept meticulous records of the changes they made to the area. The great waterworks projects were no exception. But I’m not going to get into every change they made. It’s so boring it’s unreal. So let’s just look at some of the major changes and what I think are the takeaways of what created the Kanda River.

Since I got distracted, let’s go back to the beginning.The beginning of the story is 1456-1457, when Ōta Dōkan began manipulating waterways to build moats for his pre-cursor to Edo Castle – though work on the moats most likely preceded construction of the fortress, so we might say 1455-1457. In 1486, Dōkan was assassinated and in 1524 the 江戸合戦 Edo Gassen Battle of Edo saw the rise of influence of the 後北条氏 Go-Hōjō-shi and the decline of the Ōta and Uesugi. This meant that the fortifications in 千代田 Chiyoda[xvi] (the area where the Sengoku forts where built and the fields around them) were abandoned and lay fallow for almost 70 years[xvii].

In 1590, Tokugawa Ieyasu transferred his clan and top retainers to Edo and began modernizing the old Sengoku Period fortifications of the Edo and Ōta. He cautiously applied some of the latest castle building technology following the examples of Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It’s said that the 大手御門 Ōte Go-mon Main Gate was one of the first construction project undertaken and this required crossing an existing moat – one affiliated with the later Kanda Aqueduct/Hirakawa.

The Ote-mon (main gate) at the time of the collapse of the shogunate.

The Ote-mon (main gate) after the Meiji Coup.


1603 is the watershed moment. Ieyasu is named 征夷大将軍 seii tai-shōgun shōgun and is the effective military ruler of Japan. From this point, the real history of the Kanda River begins. In 1604, Nihonbashi is built and the 5 Great Highways of Edo are defined. Strict entry & exit points by land and by river are laid out in order to preserve the new Tokugawa hegemony. Edo’s waterways are no longer “just Edo waterways;” they are tactical routes, trade routes, and a means of regulating nature for the protection of the commoners who lived along the rivers and were, essentially, part of the city’s infrastructure. In short, the rivers of Edo became a stabilizing mechanism for the shōgun’s capital.


Hirakawa Gate when Edo Castle still had a tenshukaku (that tower thingy).

The Ote-mon (main gate) when Edo Castle still had a tenshukaku (that tower thingy). Tokugawa Power! Activate! This is where the name Otemachi comes from.


From 1616 to 1620, during the reign of 2nd shōgun Tokugawa Hidetada, something really resembling a “Kanda River” in a modern sense came in to existence. This is when the 神田山 Kandayama “Kanda Mountain”[xviii] was cut through and the Kanda River and Nihonbashi River became 2 discrete waterways. Kanda and Ryōgoku began to take on unique personalities at this time.

Colorized photo of the Hirakawa Gate. Check out how bad ass the castle was. Truly something to behold.

Colorized photo of the Hirakawa Gate.
Check out how bad ass the castle was. Truly something to behold.


In 1657, disaster struck on a colossal scale. The 明暦大家 Meireki Fire[xix] ripped through the city destroying well over half of the metropolis[xx]. Although city planning was essential from the beginning, the shōgunate hadn’t anticipated the rapid growth that accompanied their sankin-kōtai policy and just the economic stability brought on by… um, stability in general.



Edo Castle was a city within a city, When the main keep burned down, budgets and policies were reconsidered.


In part of the rebuilding efforts after the Meireki Fire, from 1659-1661 various waterways in Edo were widened and more open space along the rivers was added. Edo grew so rapidly after the arrival of the Tokugawa, that the city had become a firetrap[xxi].



Ryogoku Bridge today


By some accounts, 60%-70% may have be burnt to the ground. Given the relative clean slate available to the shōgunate after this particular conflagration, certain rivers were designated as firebreaks and widened to keep fires localized[xxii]. It’s at this time that the Kanda River was dramatically widened – most notably, at the confluence of the Kanda River and Ryōgoku River, the 両国橋 Ryōgokubashi Ryōgoku Bridge was built. Even today, the expanse of the river here is something to see, but in the Edo Period, with no buildings over 2 stories, it was clearly a sight to behold. Soon the area became famous for a dazzling annual fireworks display in the summer[xxiii]. Some of the most iconic 浮世絵 ukiyo-e “scenes of the transient world” come from this area. The 江戸東京博物館 Edo-Tōkyō Hakubutsukan Edo-Tōkyō Museum is located in this area… for obvious reasons.


From its spring in Inokashira Park, the Kanda river begins its exit from the well.  Ganbare, Kanda-chan!

From its spring in Inokashira Park, the Kanda river begins its exit from the well.
Ganbare, Kanda-chan!


As I mentioned before, the official headwaters are 井之頭池 Inokashira Ike Inokashira Lake, but the river has no officially designated end point but it’s fairly certain that it ultimately empties into Tōkyō Bay. Traditionally it ends at 飯田橋 Iidabashi. The reason there’s no official ending point is because the Kanda River empties into a few rivers and drainage channels along the way before it ultimately fizzles out into the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River at 両国橋 Ryōgokubashi Ryōgoku Bridge. If you’ve been following this series, you’ll probably be aware that the names and courses of these rivers have been changing over time and that some stretches of one river may have had multiple names depending on the area. So yeah… welcome back to the Confus-o-dome.

Thanks to the Showa Era, this is the Iidamachi Bridge (Iidabashi).  Gross.

Thanks to the Showa Era, this is the Iidamachi Bridge (Iidabashi).

The Kanda River’s Legacy

The man-made Edo Era waterway that flowed from Inokashira Pond was called the 神田上水 Kanda Jōsui. Longtime readers should know what a 上水 jōsui is. But just a refresher, a jōsui is a conduit of “imported” water. This water flowed from 三鷹 Mitaka[xxiv] to Edo Castle; it also supplied drinking water to the daimyō mansions that lined its course.


The creation of the Kanda River. (by the way, this is the worst info-graphic ever)

The creation of the Kanda River in Chiyoda from the Hibiya Inlet.

The Kanda Jōsui is considered the first real aqueduct system in Japan. Before I mentioned the technological revolution in castle construction, right? Well, the Sengoku Period began stabilizing and yes, castle building was a status thing. But the distribution of water and water management showed one of the greatest advances in urban planning and administration that Japan had seen in centuries. This is why shōgunate’s founder, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was such a bad ass. The dude could lead an army here or there, but he had ideas about civil administration and surrounded himself with people who could advise him on these things. Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi were essentially one-trick-ponies who couldn’t really get out of the 戦国病気 Sengoku Byōki “Sengoku Rut.”[xxv] Ieyasu, also a product of that generation, realized that infrastructure reinforced military supremacy and brought economic stability[xxvi].


The Kanda Aqueduct

The Kanda Aqueduct

Admittedly, it’s not that exciting or cool, but the availability of clean drinking water and disposal of dirty water should never be underestimated in the study of any ancient or pre-modern city[xxvii].

The capital of the Tokugawa shōguns quickly became the biggest city in Japan and eventually the most populous city in the world. Clean water and sewerage undeniably played a part in this. But soon the Kanda Jōsui wasn’t enough. That said, it was the main source of drinking water for Edo Castle during the Edo Period.

Even if it was inadequate to supply the entire sprawling capital, Kanda Jōsui was such a successful project that it begot 6 more major waterworks in Edo, all of which benefited daimyō, samurai, and the commoner population. Of course, this technology spread throughout the realm, but for short while Edo boasted one of the most unique water infrastructures in Japan.




A Final Note

If you’re up for an interesting bike ride, a 2010 blog post at Metropolis suggests starting at the mouth of the river and riding upstream to Inokashira Pond. When the temperature starts to come down, I may give this a go myself. There are loads of spots, many covered in JapanThis!, along the course of the river, so it should be fascinating.




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[i] I know that’s not the kind of helpful explanation that will bring closure to any of the etymology fans out there.
[ii] As I said, I’m gonna revisit this topic again.
[iii] Any relation to ヨドバシカメラ Yodobashi Camera? Why, yes there is. Thank you for asking.
[iv] And calling Dōkan’s fortifications a “castle” is also a debatable point. I’ve come to prefer the term “well-moated fort.” I came up with that term all on my own… right now. Thank you very much.
[v] If you don’t know who the Taira clan is… wow. OK, here you go.
[vi] Also, as mentioned in my article on What does Edo mean?, the coastal area is littered with 古墳 kofun burial mounds and it’s clear from the archaeology that the area has been inhabited since Paleolithic times. It’s highly doubtful the Edo clan was the first strongmen to seize upon this highly defensible, coastal plateau – they are the noblest recorded family, though.
[vii] Even though other temples and villages in the area are mentioned as far back as the Heian Period, it’s seems like the name Edo itself doesn’t actually appear in any records until the Kamakura Period.
[viii] In fact the original Edo “Castle” was probably just a 出城 dejiro satellite fort, since the Edo clan seemed to have their main residence in 喜多見 Kitami in present 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward.
[ix] I have an article about Hibiya.
[x] And while this may sound like a gratuitous reference to sex on the rag, this is actually a legitimate, historical term. Ask any historian of Pre-Modern Japan. They’ll tell you. Just ask. Seriously.
[xi] Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I said “budding.” When we say “castle” and “castle town” today we are usually referring to a construct of the far more stable Azuchi-Momoyama Period (ie; essentially the end of the Sengoku Period).
[xii] On Edo Era maps these may be listed with honorifics as 平川御門 Hirakawa Go-Mon Hirakawa Gate and 平川御堀 Hirakawa O-Hori Hirakawa Moat, respectively.
[xiii] Interestingly, some people think the radius and extent of Ōta Dōkan’s moats was the result of him not having a fucking clue what he was doing. His initial “improvements” lead to more flooding and so he continually modified his plans, diverting rivers away from the castle and the villages by extending them further and further out. Thus part of the sprawling nature of Edo Castle may have been due to stop-gap measures employed by Dōkan.
[xiv] Yes, I did.
[xv] This is as different as when we use the Latin words castrum to describe a Roman military camp/walled town and a castellum a walled fortification of Late Antiquity. The transformation is truly dramatic.
[xvi] You can see my article on Chiyoda here.
[xvii] The castle itself was pretty minor and was most likely not affected by the Late Hōjō efforts to refortify the Edo area from 1583 on.
[xviii] Kandayama was located in present day 駿河台 Surugadai.
[xix] “What’s the Meireki Fire?” you ask. There’s an article for that.
[xx] By some accounts, 70% of the city may have been destroyed.
[xxi] This didn’t change until the reconstruction of the city after WWII (or, some may argue that it didn’t change until the 1960’s and that the city just got lucky with no major conflagrations in the interim).
[xxii] In theory…
[xxiii] People today love fireworks. Just imagine what people with no video, no cameras, and no Perfume must have thought of these theatrical celebrations of summer.
[xxiv] Essentially, present-day Kichijōji.
[xxv] Again, my word. I just made it up now. And yes, I’m just baiting Sengoku lovers. Actually, I like Nobunaga, too.
[xxvi] And far more importantly, put his family in a seemingly endless position as hereditary top of the food chain. Hmmmmmmmmmm…
[xxvii] And you probably never think about where your water comes from or how it gets to your house and where it all goes afterwards, but it works, right? That’s why you can live there.

10 Random Quickies – Japan This Lite

In Japan This Lite, Japanese History on August 20, 2013 at 12:57 am

大門  Daimon
国立競技場 Kokuritsu-Kyōgijō
新銀座 Shin-Ginza
東中野 Higashi-Nakano
江戸川 Edogawa
流山 Nagareyama
品川宿 Shinagawa-shuku
港区 Minato-ku
If there’s a 上野 is there a 下野? (Ueno, Shitano)
おめぇの母ちゃん Your mom

The Edo Castle room in which the 3rd Shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu was born.  (supposedly)

The Edo Castle room in which the 3rd Shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu was born.

Alright, my super short O-bon vacation is over and it’s back to the grind (actually working a little more to make up for time lost). I’m gonna try to do my best to squeeze out another article in a timely manner.

Anyways, I spent one day in a 38°C (100.4°F) solar beat down in Kawagoe, the former administrative center of 川越藩 Kawagoe Han Kawagoe Domain[i]. Kawagoe was an important logistical hub for 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni and Edo. Since it was part of Musashi no Kuni, I thought I’d mention it. You can also find the only extant buildings of the former Edo Castle that can still be entered by common folk like you and I. Kawagoe is now part of Saitama Prefecture. These days, Saitama is to Tōkyō what New Jersey is to New York[ii].  Let’s just say, the prefecture will never live down Tamori’s nickname for the area, ダ埼玉 dasaitama (a mix of ダサい dasai “lame” + 埼玉 Saitama)[iii].  So let’s move on to more pleasant conversation[iv].

So I’ve got a few e-mail messages that ask about Tōkyō place names which are pretty easy to explain – and don’t really warrant their own posts.  Some referred to previous articles but weren’t directly addressed. So today’s Japan This Lite is brought to you by the support of generous question-asking readers like yourself!

Oh, and speaking of generous readers, if anyone is interested in donating, I’ve set up a donation page on Patreon. Feel free to throw a brother a couple of bucks[v].

OK, so without any further ado, here are 10 Quick Questions from readers about Tōkyō place names that I explain away in a few minutes[vi].

What Does Daimon Mean?

Oh, look! It's a big gate! I wonder what that thing is doing here?

Oh, look! It’s a big gate! I wonder what that thing is doing here?

大門 Daimon means “Big Gate.” The gate is specifically the gate that crosses the street at an intersection between the Daimon Station, the Minato Ward Office and Zōjō-ji[vii]. There is a bigger gate in front of Zōjō-ji, but that’s not the “big gate” referred to in the name. Before Zōjō-ji was built until today, the area has been known as 芝 Shiba (see my article here). The area in front of the gate was a 門前町 monzen-chō a town built in front of a temple gate (see my article here). Because there is an intersection right in front of the gate, the area became an obvious destination for trolleys, buses, and eventually subways.  The subway name here is 大門 Daimon, but the actually postal address is 芝大門 Shiba Daimon. The name reflects the area’s heritage as part of Shiba, as monzen-chō, and of course, as the place where the big gate still stands today.

What Does Kokuritsu-Kyōgijō Mean?

The National Olympic Stadium

The National Olympic Stadium

国立競技場 is made of two words. After you hear the translation, you will understand. Kokuritsu means “National.” Kyōgijō means stadium or athletic grounds. When the word 駅 eki station is dropped this compound word is usually translated as National Olympic Stadium. When you hear this word in Japan, most people will undoubtedly think of the 1964 Tōkyō Olympic Games.  The facility pre-dates the ’64 Summer Olympics and if Tōkyō manages to land the 2020 Summer Olympics, the site will supposedly be re-developed for the that purpose in the form of a ghastly silver drop of water… or something.

What Does Shin-Ginza Mean?


Where is Shin-Ginza?

I guess it means “New Ginza” but I’ve never heard of this place. I googled it and found a reference to a law office with the words 新銀座 Shin-Ginza in the name, but it’s not a place name. At least not in Tōkyō.

What Does Higashi-Nakano Mean?

Higashi-Nakano Station

Higashi-Nakano Station

東中野 Higashi-Nakano means East Nakano. I covered Nakano a long time ago but since my blog currently only shows the last 50 articles, there are about 100 other articles obscured from view. If anyone wants to help out with this (I can’t do design-y HTML to save my life), I’d appreciate it! Anyways, since I made the gross mistake of not including Higashi-Nakano you should probably check out the Nakano article. You might want to follow that up with the article on Musashi no Kuni. Basically, Nakano means “Field in the Middle of the Musashi Plain.” The name itself is quite ancient, but the name Higashi-Nakano was a train station/bus station name that became a postal address. And by the way, I love Nakano!

What Does Edogawa Mean?

The Edo River was never renamed "Tokyo River."

The Edo River was never renamed “Tokyo River.”
Suck on that, Meiji Restoration.

This question came right after I posted pix of the Edogawa Fireworks Display. 江戸 Edo refers to the original name of the city. While Tōkyō is the modern name, the name Edo persists in certain place names or nomenclature, for example, a 2nd or 3rd generation Tōkyōite is called an 江戸っ子 Edokko child of Edo[viii]. Anyways, 江戸川 means, of course, Edo River. What exactly is the Edo River? Well, the answer depends on what period of history you’re talking about. The river has been manipulated many times since the Edo Period.  Wikipedia has a decent technical definition.

I should probably write a longer article on this subject because it is a little complicated – and honestly I don’t know much about it at all at the moment. But the basic meaning is Edo River. And that should do for now. If you look a few blog posts before this, you’ll see my video footage of the Edogawa Fireworks.

What Does Nagareyama Mean?


That’s not Tōkyō so… sorry, not gonna cover it, as tempting as it is.
But I will say that the kanji are poetic and I like this town’s name.

What Does Shinagawa-shuku Mean?


Shinagawa Shuku

This is the old name of Shinjuku as a post town on the old Tōkaidō highway connecting Edo to Kyōto. The name isn’t used today except when referring to art or the old status of the town. Well, actually, I shouldn’t say that… because the area is in the midst of an urban renewal effort that I’m proud to say I contributed a minute effort back in 2009 to my friend Taka’s guest house. The area has been trying to boost local tourism in the area and uses the name Shinagawa-shuku. They even set up a Shinagawa-shuku information center with maps and pictures and English speaking docents. This was in ’09, but I’m sure they’re still doing it. They even set up scannable QR codes on light posts so you can learn about the history of the area as you walk around. Good question!
Oh, and here’s my old article on Shinagawa from waaaaaaaaaay back in the day.

Why Does Minato Mean?

North side of Tokyo Bay taken from Odaiba facing the Tokyo Bayfront.

North side of Tokyo Bay taken from Odaiba facing the Tokyo Bayfront.

This is probably the easiest, 港 minato means “habor.” You will see the same kanji in 空港 kūkō airport (literally “sky harbor”). Although Minato Ward’s eastern edge ends at Tōkyō Bay, Edo’s bay was a very different shape; today’s bay has been built up with landfill.

I’ll probably write about this in more detail later. But with even a quick glance at a modern map of Tōkyō Bay and a little guesswork, most people can probably figure out a rough approximation of the original shape of the bay.

If There’s a Ueno in Tōkyō, is There a Shitano?

Random perverted kanji image.

Random perverted kanji image.

This question refers to the kanji 上野 Ueno (upper field) and 下野 Shitano (lower field). I don’t know if there is a Shitano in Tōkyō, but in 西東京 West Tōkyō, outside of the 23 Special Wards, there is a place called 下野 Shimotuske (lower field – an unrelated place name) which could be read as Shitano (but isn’t)[ix]. Interestingly enough, near this place is a large park that is an annex of the 江戸東京博物館 Edo-Tōkyō Hakubutsukan Edo-Tōkyō Museum. The annex is called the 江戸東京たてもの園 Edo-Tōkyō Tatemono-en Edo-Tōkyō Open Air Architectural Museum. I haven’t been here yet, but it sounds pretty freaking cool. They moved a bunch of old buildings here to preserve them from the wake of urban sprawl in Tōkyō and so you can enjoy a walk in the park and walk through these historic buildings as well. Great question!


I have to be perfectly honest with you. I didn’t have 10 e-mails. I had a few more, but they’re on a different to-do list.  So this post is actually just 9 short entries. But I’m always glad to hear your questions even if I can’t always get to them right away. The difficult ones get saved in a document that I check for ideas. So it really helps keep the blog exciting for me. So thanks!  And talk to you all next week!

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[ii] I alluded to some of this anti-Saitama bias in the closing of my article on Adachi.

[iii] And all other incarnations, ウル埼玉 Urusaitama (mixed with the word for “noisy” or “annoying”) and ク埼玉 Kusaitama (mixed with the word for “stinky,” et alia.

[iv] Because no one wants to talk about Saitama or New Jersey, at least not in polite company… lol.
Sorry, Saitama is an easy target. I’ll stop now.

[v] And as I have just set this up, please let me know if there are any problems using the service. It seems straight-forward, they simply provide the connection. And if you’re worried, your donation goes directly to me, they never touch it.

[vi] OK, I lied, there are actually only 9.

[vii] If you don’t know what Zōjō-ji is, you haven’t been reading Japan This long enough. So please read my 16 part expose on the Funerary Temples of the Tokugawa Shōguns.

[viii] The 2-3 generation rule depends on who you ask. And some long standing Tōkyō families may argue that certain areas of the Tōkyō Metropolis never qualify as Edokko. It’s a complex, but fascinating issue that I should probably write about more in my Yamanote VS Shitamachi page. But I’m lazy…

[ix] 下野 can also be read as Shimono, a common family name.

Top 10 Japanese Songs of Summer 1

In Japan, Japanese Music on August 1, 2013 at 2:03 am

Japanese Top 10 Songs of Summer (part 1)

Are you ready for summer Japanese-style?

Are you ready for summer Japanese-style?

This list is divided into 2 parts. The first part is a little more traditional, or at least songs that you’ll associate with summer because they only are heard in the summer or because they are about the summer. The second half is made of songs I think sounds awesome when chilling at the beach or a barbecue.


阿波よしこの Awa Yoshikono

This is the song the accompanies the most famous of the 盆踊り Bon Odori dances. The dance and this incarnation of the song originated in 徳島県 Tokushima-ken Tokushima Prefecture, the former 阿波国 Awa no Kuni Awa Province. Without a doubt, this song and its accompanying dance and costumes are the prevailing image of お盆祭り o-Bon Matsuri O-bon Festivals on 本州 Honshū, the main island of Japan. Summer in Japan is wicked hot and if you’re gonna spend all day outside sweating and eating and drinking, you might as well have this hypnotic music and dance and costumes to make the event more festive.

This video is of a stage performance of the dance. I chose this one because it was the clearest audio recording I could find with dancers who were pretty good. This performance is a little more stylized then what you would see at a festival, but you’ll get the idea.



The second video of an actual performance in Tokushima where you can see how the dance is done at a festival. It’s basically a parade. Throughout the main island, at local matsuri that have adopted the dance, it’s not uncommon for the dancers to invite partiers to join in the parade. I don’t think they do that in Tokushima… but I’ve never been so…



エイサー踊り Eisā Odori

First one thing; Eisā is the name of dance and not the song. I don’t know the name of the song.
This is a style of music and dance associated with Bon Odori that is from 沖縄 Okinawa. It’s freaking bad ass. Dudes with big ass banners lead two opposing “armies” of synchronized male drummers followed by cute girls in Okinawan yukata who “battle” each other. I’m not an expert but I think the “battle” is determined by which team can keep their rhythm better than the other team. If I team is getting confused by the other team’s conductor and tempo, they’ll back off to “re-group” and then “attack” again. I may be totally off on this – I’ve never even been to Okinawa – but it seems like that’s what’s going on.

When I first lived in Tōkyō, I lived in a small corner of 中野区 Nakano-ku Nakano Ward called 鍋横町 Nabeyoko-chō. They have an awesome small but local matsuri that I attended every year that I lived there and even now, I head back for this great neighborhood festival. Naturally, they have Awa Odori, but for whatever reason, they always feature Okinawa Eisā Odori too. So this style of Bon Odori has a special place in my heart as a great sound of summer in Japan.

From Nabeyoko-chō Matsuri 1:

If you see me or Mrs. JapanThis in either of this video, I wouldn’t be surprised.



夏祭り  Natsu Matsuri

OK, this is a pop song from 2000 by a girl band called Whiteberry[i]. The band is pure J-Pop, but there are some punk[ii] undertones, and somehow the managed to release a summer anthem that shows no sign of disappearing. The lyrics capture a quintessential summer romance that any person who’s lived in Japan should be able to recognize. It’s a celebration of young love, fireworks and, yes… the yearly summer festivals that everyone looks forward to – and everyone never forgets.



島人ぬ宝 Shimanchu nu Takara

This is a classic pop song by an Okinawan band called BEGIN. They mixed rock[iii] with traditional Okinawan elements… something that if I just read without listening would tell me, never listen to this. But I first heard this song in the winter at karaoke and suddenly found myself enchanted by the love of Okinawa that these guys had. The title is actually in the Okinawan Dialect[iv] and means “The Island People’s Treasure.” If you study Japanese, you may be interested to know that the ぬ nu in the title corresponds to the Standard Japanese の no. There, now you know as much Okinawan as I do.



あいぞめ Aizome

This is a song from a classic Japanese animation called 地獄少女 Jigoku Shōjo Hell Girl sung by the Japanese voice actress Nōtō Mamiko – who also voices the lead character. This is a weird one, but please, hear me out. O-bon is the season when the Japanese believe ancestral spirits return to their homelands to meet their families. Calling it a “Festival of the Dead” is a bit dramatic, but in the Edo Period, when family members could enjoy time off and be reunited in their ancestral homes with loved ones, they undertook the tasks of cleaning up the family graves and performing Buddhist ceremonies for the dead. As such, they were thinking about dead people a lot. The result was on hot nights, some clans would light 100 candles as the sun was setting and would supposedly tell 100 ghost stories. At the end of each story, a candle would be extinguished. By the time it was dark and you were just down to one last candle, you’d been talking about ghosts all night. When the last candle was put out, it was said a ghost would appear[v]. A lot of the imagery in Jigoku Shōjo centers around o-bon and similar creepy traditions, so I think this song fits in well with the O-Bon and Japanese summer tradition.




Part two is coming tomorrow.
Honk if you ready!

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[i] Not to be confused with Whitesnake.

[ii] I use “punk” in the very loosest of meanings… ie; a J-Pop meaning.

[iii] I use “rock” in the very loosest of meanings… ie; a J-Pop meaning.

[iv] I use “dialect” in the very loosest of meanings… ie; Okinawan is a separate language from Japanese, even if most Japanese don’t admit it.

[v] Life before TV… am I right? am I right?
Anyways, this kind of ghost story telling party was called 百物語怪談会 hyaku monogatari kaidankai 100 ghost stories party.


In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples, Tokugawa Shogun Graves, Travel in Japan on June 3, 2013 at 12:13 am

Eikyūin  (Divine Prince of the Eternal Law)
5th Shōgun, Lord Tokugawa Tsunayoshi

The Dog Shogun, himself. Mr. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.

The Dog Shogun himself.
Mr. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.

I don’t know if this name was a sort of joke by the imperial court in Kyōto, an honest compliment, or just an obligatory flattery… or a combination of all three. But the 5th shōgun, Tsunayoshi’s legacy is a mixed bag of leadership and lunacy.

To the average Japanese he’s known as 犬将軍 inu shōgun the dog shōgun.
In his day, he was referred to by the less savory name of 犬公方 inu kubō, which has the same meaning.

His legacy hangs on an edict he promulgated called the 生類憐之令 Shōrui Awaremi no Rei Edict in Regards to the Compassion for All Living Things. Basically, the dude was a total religious freak. Because of the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, he felt compelled to protect all living creatures. Since he was born in the Year of the Dog according to the Chinese Zodiac, he was especially interested in protecting dogs. Tsunayoshi is a pretty interesting character, so if you want to read more about him, you can start HERE. I’m just going to talk about his funerary temple, so let’s get right into it[1].

They say he had a sanctuary for stray dogs in present day Nakano. Nakano Ward says this arial shot is of the place. OK, if you say so....

They say he had a sanctuary for stray dogs in present day Nakano.
Nakano Ward says this arial shot is where the former site was.
OK, if you say so….

If one were to judge the economic conditions of the Edo Shōgunate over time based on the funerary practices at Kan’ei-ji, one might come to the conclusion that the government was still in its heyday under Tsunayoshi’s reign and then we’d see a steep drop in quality by the time the next shōgun[2] was interred at Kan’ei-ji. It’s more nuanced than that, but I can say now that Tsunayoshi’s mausoleum was the last one built at Kan’ei-ji. Not the last used, but the last built. After his temple was built, the successive shōguns interred at Kan’ei-ji were enshrined together in Ietsuna’s and Tsunayoshi’s mausolea.

Structures of Eikyūin

Structure Name Description Condition Status
the main hall destroyed

ai no ma
in gongen-zukuri architecture, the structure that connects the honden and haiden. destroyed

the inner or private worship hall destroyed

a latticework fence that forms the border to a temple destroyed

The “middle gate” which usually opens from a court yard into the worship hall  destroyed

portico on the left and right side of a shrine destroyed

portico destroyed

latticework fence that encloses a temple or shrine destroyed

I’m not sure, but it’s a kind of gate… destroyed

belfry, bell tower destroyed

imperial scroll gate; posthumous name of the deceased hand written by the emperor which marked the official entrance to the funerary temple decent condition usually open to the public
oku no in hōtō
the 2-story pagoda styled funerary urn that houses the remains of the deceased. decent condition off limits
oku no in
so-called Chinese style gate that provided entry and exit to the tomb of the deceased. decent condition off limits
water basins for ritual purification pretty freakin’ good condition, actually. generally off limits
traditional stone lanterns so-so condition scattered here and there

The 5th shōgun Tsunayoshi’s grave suffered the same fate that his brother, Ietsuna’s, grave suffered (they were next door to each other). Also, like Ietsuna’s, a few portions of the temple were torn down in the annexation of much of Kan’ei-ji’s land by the Meiji government for the creation of Ueno Park. Bizarrely, from the Edo Period until the firebombing of Tōkyō, nobody took a single photograph or painted a single picture of the sites[3]. As a result, what you see here is basically what you get; a gate and a water basin.

The 奥院 oku no in or 霊屋 tamaya (inner sanctuary/graveyard) still exists but it is generally off limits. The wash basin mentioned above is also usually off limits.


The Imperial Scroll Gate

Tsunayoshi's imperial scroll gate. (Notice there is no scroll....)

Tsunayoshi’s imperial scroll gate.
(Notice there is no scroll….)

A closer shot of the scroll gate... but why is there no scroll..................

A closer shot of the scroll gate.
(I read that the scrolls — actually plaques — of Tsunayoshi and Ietsuna survived the firebombing, but they were taken down so as not to be exposed to the elements. Not sure where they are, tho.)

The Wash Basin

You usually can't enter the cemetery, so this is what that the wash basin seems to most people.

You usually can’t enter the cemetery. Most visitors can just view it from afar.

The wash basin of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi

It appears to be in much better condition that the wash basin in Ietsuna’s mausoleum.

Check out that roof. Pretty freaking siiiiiiick, if you ask me.

Check out that roof. Pretty freaking siiiiiiick, if you ask me.

The Chinese Style Gate

Open chinese gate leading to the cemetery....

Open Chinese style gate leading to the cemetery….

Tsunayoshi's funerary urn

Tsunayoshi’s funerary urn

Tsunayoshi's grave after restoration in the 1950's.

Tsunayoshi’s grave after restoration in the 1950’s.

Stone Lanterns

stacks of stone monuments....

Stacks of stone lantern bases….
These are most likely from lanterns that were toppled by earthquakes, in particularly the Great Kanto Earthquake.

After Tsunayoshi’s enshrinement, burial methods at Kan’ei-ji changed dramatically.

Keep in mind, we’re now 5 shōguns into the Edo Bakufu and from here on out we will not see an individual funerary temple built there again[4]. After this, Kan’ei-ji burials consist of 合祀 gōshi group enshrinements. That means that Ietsuna and Tsunayoshi’s graves became the main Tokugawa cemeteries at Kan’ei-ji for the heads of the Tokugawa family (and occasionally their main wives). Siblings and concubines were buried at Kan’ei-ji, but most of those graves were in what is now called 谷中霊園 Yanaka Reien Yanaka Cemetery.





Spoiler Alert!
I’ve already alluded to this, so I’ve already given way part of this, but other people enshrined in Tsunayoshi’s temple are:
  8th shōgun, Yoshimune
●  13th shōgun, Iesada & his main wife, Princess Atsu
●  Iemoto, the eldest son of the 11th shōgun, Ieharu (called the phantom 11th shōgun because his name had the kanji for “ie” but he was never installed as shōgun ‘cuz he sucked)[5]




[1] As a side note, Ietsuna and Tsunayoshi were brothers. Easy to remember because of that “tsuna” thing.

[2] The 8th shōgun was Tokugawa Yoshimune, who is a beloved character for his austerity and his bad ass white horse on his TV show for old people, Abarenbō Shogun.

[3] I’m being facetious here, but seriously… why is there no photographic or artistic evidence of either site? It is mysterious as hell, if you think about it.

[4] 5 shōguns deep = 10 more shōguns to go. For all intents and purposes, we’re still very much in the early Edo Period.

[5] Just kidding, he died suddenly at the age of 17.

Why is Kōenji called Kōenji?

In Japanese History on April 12, 2013 at 1:45 am

Kōenji  (High Circle Temple)



Kōenji is funky town in Suginami Ward next to Nakano. Like Nakano, it’s got everything. It’s residential and convenient, but you have plenty of places for shopping and eating and drinking and whoring.

The name seems pretty straight forward. Any place name that ends with (ji/tera) is named after a temple. Lots of those, as you can imagine. And yes, Kōenji is named after a temple.

The west part of Tōkyō – Takadanobaba, Nakano, Kōenji, Mitaka, Kichijōji, etc. – was pretty fucking rural in the Edo Period. It was a good place for bored samurai to practice various 武術 bujutsu martial arts. This particular area was well known for falconry which was what Japanese nobility did for fun because they didn’t have video games yet and life was pretty boring. Some of the Tokugawa shōguns and daimyō doing alternative attendance service came out here for falconry.

Tokugawa Ieyasu and a falcon.

Tokugawa Ieyasu and a falcon.

Wait! What the Fuck is Falconry?

In Japanese, it’s called 鷹狩 taka-gari (falcon hunting). It’s a kind of “game” by which you hunt birds or other animals with a trained bird of prey. Since getting trained birds of prey was expensive, it was a “game” that was pretty much restricted to the nobility. It sounds fucking boring as hell to me, but all the rich daimyō loved this shit.

Wait, if they loved it so much, why do you never see it much in samurai movies these days?  Because… well, it was probably boring as hell. What do you expect? These people didn’t have smartphones, purikura, bukkake, and bit torrents yet. Making a bad ass bird go catch another bird for you might be cool if you’ve never seen the internet.


The temple

Anyways, back to Kōenji.

In the mid-1550’s there was a temple established on a hill in the area. The name of the temple was (and still is) 宿鳳山高円寺 Shukuhōzan Kōenji*, but most people just call it Kōenji.  The story goes that Tokugawa Iemitsu (the 3rd Tokugawa shōgun) stopped by this temple often whilst getting his falconry on in the area. In fact, the planting of a few trees on the premises are attributed to him (a topic for another time).

It’s said that originally, the area had the name 小沢 Ozawa “little creek,” but after the shōgun became a patron of the temple, the temple’s prestige rose and the area naturally took on the name of the temple.

Koenji Awa Odori

Koenji Awa Odori

On last note, Kōenji is famous for a summer festival that features a kind of dances called 阿波踊りAwa Odori. This traditional dance comes from Tokushima (formerly 阿波国 Awa no Kuni). I have a certain friend who might slit my throat – with good justification – if I didn’t mention that this dance is not Kōenji’s local dance. It’s just a way for Tōkyō people to enjoy this traditional dance. Anyways, real 阿波踊り Awa Odori comes from Tokushima and if you meet a person from Tokushima and you say that, you may earn a friend for life. Awa Odori is beautiful and the music is cool and the costumes are beautiful. If you can’t see itin Tokushima, try it in Kōenji.

*鳳山 is an interesting word itself. 鳳 ōtori refers to a kind of mythological bird of prey that can turn into a fish. It’s not a phoenix, but if you think of it as a phoenix, it makes sense. This area was famous for bad ass birds.

Why is Nabeyokocho called Nabeyokocho?

In Japanese History on April 11, 2013 at 3:57 am

Nabeyokochō (Nabe Alley)


Banner at the Nabeyokocho Festival

The other day, I wrote about Nakano, where I lived for 6 amazing years. I got to know the area very well over that time. One of the places I knew the best is this small alley. My supermarket was there, my convenience store was there, my train station was there, and my favorite summer festival was there, the 鍋横丁祭り Nabeyokochō Matsuri.

The actual name of this area is 鍋屋横丁 Nabeya-yokochō (Nabe Shop Alley), but most of the time it’s usually referred to by locals as just 鍋横丁 Nabeyokochō (Nabe Alley) without the kanji 屋 ten/ya (shop/restaurant). As a nickname, it’s often just called 鍋横 Nabeyoko.

Same banner again...

Same banner again…

Just a quick note about the word 横丁 (yokochō)

I’ve translated this as “alley,” but the meaning is a little different. 横 yoko, actually means “sideways” and so a 横丁 refers to a small diagonal street that veers off of a main thoroughfare. In this case, Nabeyokochō is a diagonal street that runs between two major streets, 青梅街道 Ōmekaidō and 中野通り Nakano Dōri.

Another quick note, Tōkyō streets generally don’t have names. Of course, the major avenues have names, but small streets are usually referred to by their neighborhood names or, more often than not, nicknames and local landmarks. Nabeyokochō falls into this latter category.

If you stand at Nabeyochō crossing with your back towards Shinjuku and your face towards Higashi-Kōenji, you’ll see a Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Bank. On this side of the street as you turn left on to Nabeyokochō there used to be a famous tea house called the 鍋屋 Nabeya (I can’t confirm whether or not they had “nabe” but all my sources say it was a 茶屋 cha-ya tea shop).

At the top is Omekaido. To the left is Higashi-Koenji, to the right is Shinjuku. That diagonal road going from top right to bottom left is Nabeyokocho.

At the top is Omekaido. To the left is Higashi-Koenji, to the right is Shinjuku. That diagonal road going from top right to bottom left is Nabeyokocho.

Anyways, the street has been referred to as Nabeyokochō since the Edo Period. In the 1970’s an effort was made to revitalize the area. They set up a monument commemorating the Nabeya and explaining the derivation of the name. Since that time there has also been a festival at the end of August called the Nabeyokochō Matsuri.


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