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What does Asukayama mean?

In Japanese History on March 21, 2017 at 4:28 pm

Asukayama (Mt. Asuka)

asukayama sakura

The 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing season is right around the corner, so I thought it was the perfect time to look into one Edo’s most important hanami spots. It’s not as famous these days, but 飛鳥山 Asukayama Mt. Asuka is still a major hanami spot – it just tends to be more for locals these days. However, in the Edo Period, well to do Edoites and inhabitants of 大江戸 Ōedo the Greater Edo Area came from far and wide to enjoy the 桜 sakura cherry blossoms on this hilltop.

Commoners also came, providing they had the time and wherewithal to make a day trip. You see, walking to Asukayama wasn’t easy – even for the rich. This small “mountain” was located outside of Edo in an area known as 武蔵国豊嶋郡王子村 Musashi no Kuni Toshima-gun Ōji Mura Ōji Village, Toshima District, Musashi Province. Today this area isn’t part of 豊島区 Toshima-ku Toshima Ward, but rather a part of Tōkyō’s 北区 Kita-ku Kita Ward on the northernmost border of 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis and 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Saitama Prefecture[i].

asukayama hanami

Just to give you an idea of the distance, it would take someone in modern clothes using modern roads about two hours to walk from 日本橋 Nihonbashi to Ōji. Walking in a kimono on dirt roads could have easily taken three hours or more. The route hanami-goers would have taken in the Edo Period, was the 日光街道 Nikkō Kaidō Nikkō Highway which connected Edo Castle with the elaborate funerary temples dedicated to the first and third shōguns, 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu and 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu, in Nikkō[ii].

The village of Ōji wasn’t a 宿場町 shukuba machi post town, but by the middle of the Edo Period, it was fully prepared to accommodate as many hanami-goers as possible. Elegant teahouses in this rustic area catered to samurai and merchants, but there were also more modest accommodations available for wealthy farmers who might also have made the long journey out here. Presumably, drinking & whoring were rampant[iii].

ojiya meiji

Teahouse Oji-ya in the Meiji Period, located on the Otonashi River beneath Asukayama.

Let’s Compare Some Kanji



(no meaning, this is ateji; the kanji are just sounds)


flying bird (this also has no meaning and is ateji)

I provided two spelling variants because the first version is used in religious contexts, but the second is used in maps and local histories. Just as spoken language has dialectal differences, kanji use seems to have been localized as well – especially in the untamed eastern provinces. That said, we know there was a 山城 yamajiro hilltop fortress controlled by the 豊嶋氏 Toshima-shi Toshima clan[iv]. The fortification at the top of this ovoid plateau was called 飛鳥山城 Asukayama-jō Asukayama Castle. This is reflected the area’s larger administrative name until recently, which was the Toshima District.


You can clearly see the shape of the “mountain” and given the general flatness of the area, it’s easy to see why this would have made a good a to built a fortified structure.

The branch of the Toshima clan that moved to this eastern area, originated in modern 和歌山県 Wakayama-ken Wakayama Prefecture. The area we’re going to be referring to is located in the 紀伊半島 Kii Hantō Kii Peninsula[v]. This is the same area where you can find the 熊野古道 Kumano Kodō Kumano Pilgrimages, a series of ancient roads connecting various religious sites in the Kii Peninsula that date back to at least the 900’s. A specific shrine, associated with the Toshima clan was the 33rd station along the course called the 熊野曼荼羅 Kumano Mandara – this shrine was 阿須賀神社 Asuka Jinja Asuka Shrine.

asuka shrine

Asuka Shrine in Wakayama

Open their arrival in the 関東地方 Kantō Chiho Kantō Area, the Toshima used a process called 分霊 bunrei to split the 神 kami deity of Asuka Shrine in Wakayama and transport it to 王子神社 Ōji Jinja Ōji Shrine as the tutelary kami of their fort on the hill. Ōji Shrine was to serve as their tutelary kami[vi]. The difference between the kanji for “Asuka” are quite different, but there doesn’t seem to be any difference etymologically. Maybe the new variant was easier for locals to read – although to me, the original spelling is much clearer[vii].

Further Reading:

Oji Shrine

Oji Shrine where the tutelary kami of the Toshima clan was enshrined to protect Asukayama.

A Strong Connection to Kii Domain


Anyhoo, so as I mentioned before, the Toshima clan originated in modern day Wakayama Prefecture. From ancient times until the end of the Edo Period, much of that area was called 紀伊国 Kii no Kuni Kii Province[viii], and in fact one of the most important Tokugawa fiefs was in Kii Province, 紀伊藩 Kii Han Kii Domain[ix]. The 紀伊徳川家 Kii Tokugawa-ke Kii Tokugawa Family were part of the 御三家 go-sanke the Three Great Families – branch families sired by Tokugawa Ieyasu that were expected to produce a shogun, should the main line fail to produce a capable male successor. The other two families were the 尾張徳川家 Owari Tokugawa-ke Owari Tokugawa Family and the 水戸徳川家 Mito Tokugawa-ke Mito Tokugawa Family.


The Kii Peninsula in perspective

Neither family was called upon to produce an heir until a crisis arose in the early 1700’s. The seventh shogun, 徳川家宣 Tokugawa Ienobu, ruled for a mere three years (from 1709 – 1712). All his male offspring died young. The only one who could inherit the position of shōgun was three year old 徳川家継 Tokugawa Ietsugu. He was made shogun, but being a sickly child, he also tragically died at age six in 1716. He, too, had held the title of shōgun for a mere three years. Being a six year old child, it was unlikely that he would produce an heir, and well, as you can imagine, he didn’t[x].

nitenmon ietsugu

Very little remains of Ietsugu’s once guilded and ornate mausoleum after the war. The Nitenmon gate is in horrible condition today, but is currently being restored before the 2020 Olympics.

The crisis resulted in the shōgunate electing a male member of the Three Great Families deemed closest by blood and by loyalty – oh, and also age-appropriate. The man chosen for the job was of the Kii Tokugawa, and his name was 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune. Up to this point, he had been the daimyō of Kii Domain. After his election and adoption into the main 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family, he was to go down in history as one of the most distinct and memorable shōguns of all time[xi].


Tokugawa Yoshimune

Yoshimune inherited a shōgunate in chaos with hemorrhaging coffers. He spent money to build a beautiful mausoleum at 増上寺 Zōjō-ji in Shiba for his predecessor, Ietsugu, but then issued a series of sumptuary laws[xii]. One such law was that no more individual funerary temples would be built for future shōguns, himself included. From this period forward, shōgun’s would be enshrined in existing mausolea in Shiba and Ueno through a process called 合祀 gōshi mutual enshrinement.

Yoshimune Kyoho

Yoshimune going over the shōgunate’s finances.

In addition, Yoshimune passed some dumb laws about what clothes people of certain ranks could wear[xiii], he tried to revitalize the art of sword craftsmanship[xiv], and he encouraged merchants to form monopolies[xv] – all of which prove that samurai didn’t know dick about economic theory[xvi]. That said, he did help make the shōgunate financially solvent, so at least he got that part right.

asukayama ukiyo hanami.jpg

Partying hard at hanami was not a modern invention. Edo Period people were equally boisterous and rowdy.

Wait. Wait. Wait. I Thought This Was About Asukayama?


Yes, yes. It is about Asukayama. And here’s where it all finally comes full circle.

Despite all his austerity measures, Yoshimune also sought to sprinkle a little joy for the average person on the street in the way of what we would call “public works” today. At the time, Edo only had one famous spot for hanami, 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji one of the funerary temples of the shōguns[xvii]. Feeling an ancestral connection with his native Kii Province, he chose Asukayama in Ōji for a new project. He ordered that the long since demolished fortress of the Toshima clan be reclaimed for the people. Cherry blossom trees were planted at the top of the plateau and people could enjoy a spectacular view of both Edo, Edo Bay, and much farther off in the distance, Mt. Fuji[xviii].

Further Reading:

asukayama hanami pire

The National Park System


Fast forward to the Meiji Period and the overthrow of Tokugawa Shōgunate.

In 1873 (Meiji 6), Japan created its first public parks, and naturally these were in 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City, literally the new “Eastern Capital”[xix]. The government chose five famous hanami spots to be the first “official” parks; they were 上野公園 Ueno Kōen Ueno Park and 芝公園 Shiba Kōen Shiba Park[xx], both Tokugawa funerary temples, also included were 浅草公園 Asakusa Kōen Asakusa Park[xxi] and 深川公園 Sumida Kōen Sumida Park and, of course, 飛鳥山公園 Asusakayama Kōen Asukayama Park.

1893 Paper Mill

A couple enjoying hanami on Asukayama in 1893. You can see a paper mill down below next to the Otonashi River. The paper thing will come back later.

In 1879 (Meiji 12), an emergent real estate mogul named 渋沢栄一 Shibusawa Ei’ichi bought part of Asukayama and built a house there. Ei’ichi is of particular interest, because unlike other real estate developers of his day, he wasn’t interested in the daimyō holdings of Edo proper. He focused on constructing playgrounds for the rich and fabulous in the suburbs well outside of the dusty and crowded alleys of Edo-Tōkyō). This mode of thought was derived from the British garden city movement.



Shibusawa Ei’ichi

Ei’ichi realized that the value of the 山手 yamanote high city lands that were being sold off piecemeal by the new government. So, while the government sought to regain funds it lost by essentially buying out the samurai class during the abolition process, newly made businessmen like his peer, Mitsubishi’s 岩崎弥太郎 I wasaki Yatarō, had more than enough cash to make huge land purchases of this scale. Ei’ichi focused on cheaper suburban lands to make residential developments. Yatarō focused on properties within the former shōgunal capital turned imperial capital.

From 1901 Ei’ichi began sharing this property with his son as a second home[xxii], and after his death in 1931, the house passed on to his son who continued living there.

Oji teahouse garden

A garden on the Otonashi River beneath Asukayama.

Most of the Shibusawa estate was destroyed during the Firebombing of Tōkyō in 1945 by US forces. Luckily, many of the old cherry blossoms survived and as a result, in the postwar years, the whole hill once again became open to the public.

Eventually, the city built a tiny monorail in 2009 to take people up and down the “mountain.” You can walk up the hill in five minutes, or stand in line for ten minutes to take the monorail. Officially, I think it’s for people with disabilities, but most people take it expecting a nice view[xxiii].

Further Reading:

asukayama train

There are two antique trains preserved on Asukayama.

3 Museums of Asukayama


The park is also home to three museums:

Asukayama Hakubutsu-kan

Asukayama Museum
This museum explores the mountain’s history as far back as the Jōmon Period.

Shibusawa Shiryō-kan

Shibusawa Ei’chi Foundation Museum
A museum about the life and work of Sibusawa Ei’ichi, in particular his recovery efforts after the Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923.

Kami no Hakubutsu-kan

Paper Museum
A four story museum related to this product that we use every day.

I haven’t been to any of these museums, so I can’t say much about them, but I imagine drunken hanami revelers stumbling around the paper museum aimlessly or passed out on the floor of the Shibusawa Museum would be quite a funny sight.


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Explore Edo-Tōkyō

Do You Even History Geek, Bro?


[i] So, it’s way on the outskirts of Tōkyō, so you can imagine just how far away this was from the shōgun’s capital.
[ii] Modern Nikkō City, Tochigi Prefecture.
[iii] “Presumably” – I use the word with a 99% probability.
[iv] Descendants of the 平豊嶋氏 Taira Toshima-shi Taira Toshima clan, one of the strongest warrior families of imperial descent sent from the west to police and monitor the east of Japan.
[v] Remember this name: Kii.
[vi] The name Ōji literally means “child of a kami” and is something I discussed in probably way to much detail in my articles on Hachiōji and Ōji.
[vii] The “flying bird” configuration is identical to the that of the ancient capital of 飛鳥 Asuka which is enshrined in the epoch name 飛鳥時代 Asuka Jidai Asuka Period.
[viii] Often abbreviated as 紀州 Kishū with no change in meaning.
[ix] Also referred to as 和歌山藩 Wakayama-han Wakayama Domain, again with no change in meaning.
[x] And who knows if he was even expected, too. But girls were married off early, so who’s to say young Ietsugu wasn’t expected to get busy in the Ōoku for the sake of the family? (But for the record, I highly doubt it.)
[xi] If I were to compile a list of the great shōguns out of all fifteen, it generally goes like this: Ieyasu, Hidetada, Iemitsu, Tsunayoshi, Yoshimune, Ienari, and Yoshinobu. I include Ienari because ruled the longest and brought #StrongDickGame to the office.
[xii] He relaxed many of the restrictive sankin-kōtai laws to regain the loyalty of the daimyō who surely felt the policy of alternate attendance was oppressive. By his new decree, they wouldn’t be called on to build and support priests for new Tokugawa mausolea, only maintenance of the existing structures.
[xiii] Seems random.
[xiv] There were no wars, so seems pointless.
[xv] Monopolies? Really? Yes. And this sort of thinking is what led to the rise of the 財閥 zaibatsu the industrial and financial business conglomerates who dominated the economy and aspects of the government of 大日本帝国 Dai-Nippon Teikoku the Empire of Japan from 1868-1945.
[xvi] In their defense, even modern economists don’t know dick about economics. Also in their defense, economic theory is an outgrowth of the so-called western “Enlightment,” which spans roughly 1715-1887 – a time Japan was closed to most western nations. Interestingly, upon Yoshimune’s ascendency to the office of shogun in 1716, he relaxed the ban on foreign books. This gave birth to a movement among Japan’s more intellectually minded samurai in the so-called 蘭学 rangaku Dutch Studies – one of the few imported subjects. This led to ambitious samurai scrambling to learn Dutch in order to read and translate military texts from Holland. This also meant that in the final days of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, many of the samurai involved in the Meiji Coup had been exposed to, at the very least, not purely Japanocentric ideologies.
[xvii] Located on 上野台 Uenodai the Ueno Plateau, present Ueno Park – still one of the greatest hanami spots in all of Japan.
[xviii] In an era with no skyscrapers – nay, no buildings over two stories – any view from the top of a tall hill was spectacular. This is something that’s hard to imagine today in modern Tōkyō.
[xix] As opposed to 京 Kyō Kyōto the capital (in the west).
[xx] Shiba Park’s cherry blossoms were largely destroyed in the Firebombing of Tōkyō by the US in World War II. That said, a hearty strain of plum blossoms survived. They are ugly yet robust – typical plum blossoms. But they hearken back to origins of hanami in ancient China. They’re a symbol of the influence of Classical Chinese culture over wide swaths of Asia, and Japan in particular.
[xxi] Destroyed in WWII.
[xxii] The main estate was in 三田 Mita.
[xxiii] There isn’t one lol

What does Hachiōji mean?

In Japanese History on October 8, 2015 at 7:37 pm

Hachiōji (8 Princes, more at “8-in-1 Godhead”)

Hachiōji Station

Hachiōji Station

Hachiōji  is made of 2 Japanese words:




A prince; a child born of a 神 kami divine being; a kami split from another kami and re-enshrined at another location
Hiking up a mountain? Nice! Wait. Why is there a torii there?

Hiking up a mountain?
Wait. Why is there a torii there?

This spring, I was lucky enough to take a hike[i] around the ruins of 八王子城 Hachiōji-jō Hachiōji Castle with my friend Eric from – the premier purveyor of Japanese castle info in English on the internet™. The castle was built on a mountain (more about that later), but as we hiked towards the top of the mountain, near the 本丸 honmaru main encincture[ii], we arrived at a simple, wooden shrine. The building bore a single, modest placard that read 八王子神社 Hachiōji Jinja Hachiōji Shrine.

Faced with this shrine, I had to wonder which had come first. Was the shrine named after the place name or was the place name named after the shrine? These are legit questions to ask and both of them were questions I had never looked into before. After all, Hachiōji  – while part of the Tōkyō Metropolis – is well outside of the 23 wards and kinda off my radar. “So, does Hachiōji mean there were 8 princes here?” Eric asked.

Hachiōji Shrine

Hachiōji Shrine

Yeah, on the surface, the name reads as “8 princes.” But I said I doubted the name should be taken that literally[iii]. Earlier in the year, I had begun to research a place called 王子 Ōji[iv] in Tōkyō’s 北区 Kita-ku Kita Ward and found myself bogged down in more religious mumbo jumbo and mythology than actual history. To make matters worse, I had “lost” my article on Ōji. I couldn’t find it anywhere[v].  So I just speculated that the name had more to do with Shintō kami that had been divided from another location and installed in this shrine at the top of the mountain. Anyways, that’s what I had taken away from my preliminary research on Ōji. I probably gave a half-ass explanation followed by “to be honest, I don’t fucking know.”

one does not simply etymology

I hate this meme, by the way.

But It Is! This Shit is Really Frickin’ Complicated

First of all, when you introduce religion into the discussion, things naturally get complicated. When you start talking about syncretic religions, things get waaaaay more complicated. When you talk about religions that were once syncretic, then separated by rule of law – often arbitrarily – and then later allowed to merge again under the banner of the constitutional freedom of religion and a newly found fear of religion as a mechanism of control by a former regime, things get even more complicated.

Oh, I forgot to mention. Since Buddhism traveled from Northern India to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, to Thailand, as well as northwards through Afghanistan, the Himalayan Kingdoms, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea, and finally to Japan – well, let’s just say that a lot got lost in an insane game of telephone.

Whoa. WTF Are You Talking About??

Long time readers should probably know what I’m talking about. However, if you’re new to JapanThis!, then I highly recommend my last article about Ōji.

It’s long. It’s rambling. But it does a lot of the heavy lifting you need to understand this place name.

Syncretic is an adjective derived from the noun syncretism. Syncretism is the reconciliation or union of opposing religious concepts. Japan has been historically and still is a polytheistic culture. Before the introduction of Buddhism, it was polytheistic in the classical sense. As a result, introducing 菩薩 bosatsu bodhisattvas (enlightened teachers) of the Buddhist tradition was not such a big problem. The buddhas, while not gods in the Western sense, were accepted as kami (divine spirits) in Japan. Today, even Christianity, a monotheistic religion, can find a reconciled position in polytheistic Japan[vi].

In 1868, the Meiji Government passed an edict called 神仏判然令 Shinbutsu Hanzen-rei Order to Separate Shintō and Buddhism. I’ve gone into this a lot and don’t want to get into again, so you can read more here. But in short, Shintō and Buddhism were seen to be a little too syncretic. Shintō had strong historical ties to the imperial family. Buddhism had a strong association with the samurai class and the shōgunate in particular. In efforts to rebrand itself, the new imperial government wanted to throw off those ancient Buddhist trappings and play up the divine right of the emperor as the legitimate ruler of Japan.

The thing that is really important to know is that before 1868 (ie; before all of our story today), Buddhism and Shintō syncretism was the norm. And in the early days of Japanese Buddhism, the foreign religion was actively incorporated into the native Shintō to give it legitimacy. But just for the record, there’s a lot of archaeological evidence dating back to the Jōmon Period that shows that Shintō has always been syncretic and probably integrated various foreign influences even before the earliest written record.

In this case, we're going to A LOT of context. I apologize in advance for how long and confusing this is. But trust me, at the end, it's gonna get good.

In this case, we’re going to need A LOT of context.
I apologize in advance for how long and confusing this is.
But trust me, at the end, it’s gonna get good.

OK, So What Does Hachiōji  Mean?

You’re asking the wrong question. The correct question is, “what does Hachiōji mean and why are there places called Hachiōji  all over Japan?”

八王子権現 Hachiōji  Gongen is the name of a kami that is the syncretic incarnation of 日吉山王権現 Hiyoshi Sannō Gongen (the Shintō aspect[vii]) and 牛頭天王 Gozu Tennō (the Buddhist aspect). Incarnation is a good word in English if you don’t take it literally[viii]. Gozu Tennō is usually attributed to the Indian god, Gavagrīva[ix]. The connection is obscure, but tradition says[x] worship of Gavagrīva is a possible origin of the 祇園祭 Gion Matsuri in Kyōto[xi] because Gozu Tennō was the deity invoked to prevent plagues and ward off crop failures due to insects, same as Gavagrīva. Gozu Tennō is often considered the Buddhist avatar of 須佐之男命 Susano’o no Mikoto[xii], god of storms at sea and summer.

I don't know why but gongen are usually depicted as angry pieces of shit who like stomping on stuff. Good for them.

I don’t know why but gongen are usually depicted as angry pieces of shit who like stomping on stuff.
Good for them.
This isn’t Hachiōji Gongen, btw.

8 Princes?

There are always 8 王子 ōji associated with Hachiōji Gongen, hence the name. At the beginning of the article, I listed 3 possible meanings of the word 王子 ōji. In Modern Japanese, the most common meaning is “royal prince.” But in this case, we have to turn to the more obscure meanings. Unfortunately, there are a few religious traditions that are at odds with each other. So, Hachiōji Shrine can refer to any shrine housing the first 8 child gods of Gozu Tennō and 頗梨采女 Hari Saijo[xiii].  It can also refer to any shrine housing the first 8 child gods of Susano’o no Mikoto and Hari Saijo. In most traditions, Gozu Tennō – a male – seems to have been merged with the female Hari Saijo. But depending on whom you ask, Hari Saijo is either the feminine aspect of Gozu Tennō or his wife[xiv].

A modern rendering of Hari Saijo

A modern rendering of Hari Saijo


You’re not the only one. I’m literally pulling out my hair, shouting at the screen of the computer. But hang on. Things are about to get a whole lot weirder.


The Gion Connection

Anyone who has ever visited Kyōto knows 祇園 Gion. This area of the city is located at the entrance of 八坂神社 Yasaka Jinja Yasaka Shrine. It’s a lively area that preserves a lot of traditional aspects of the city’s culture. Yasaka Shrine is a huge religious complex and it hosts one Kyōto’s most famous 夏祭 natsu matsuri summer festivals. Since the Edo Period, the area has been famous for both the festival and as a 花街 kagai red light district[xv]. The most prized aspect of this area is without a doubt 芸子 geiko – the Kyōto word for what most of us know as 芸者 geisha.


These are maiko (geisko in training).
Please click photo to see more photos by Rekishi no Tabi. Trust me, subscribe.

In Japanese Buddhism, Gozu Tennō is revered as the protector of 祇園精舎 Gion Shōja. This is the Japanese rendering of “Jetavana Monastery,” the place where 釈迦 Shaka Gautama Buddha[xvi] is said to have given his most influential lectures. By association with that spot, this kami is considered the patron saint of Buddhism – or at least the patron saint of Japanese Buddhism.

Hari Saijo’s association with Jetavana and Gozu Tennō makes this story even more complicated because it’s not clear if she is a Buddhist, Shintō, or purely syncretic construct. It’s not even clear if she was a female aspect of Gozu Tennō or his wife.

han solo

Yasaka Shrine’s Ancient Connection with Hachiōji

But as I said before, Jetavana is written as 祇園 Gion in Japanese. In 656, 祇園社 Gion-sha Gion Shrine (Jetavana Shrine) was established in Kyōto. The shrine was also known as 祇園神社 Gion Jinja Gion Shrine. Among the kami enshrined there was Susano’o no Mikoto, the brother of Amaterasu Ōmikami[xvii]. Until the Meiji Coup in 1868, the shrine served the syncretic deities of Gozu Tennō/Susano’o no Mikoto /Hari Saijo. This kami kluster™ was believed to protect not only Kyōto but all of Japan from plagues and pestilence. But after the Meiji Government issued the decree to separate kami and buddhas, Gion Shrine found itself in a difficult position.



To make itself right with the law and strip away its obvious Buddhist trappings, the shrine was renamed, 八坂神社 Yasaka Jinja Yasaka Shrine, which literally means Shrine of the 8 Hills. This was a shrewd move by the priests who recognized that Kyōto is a hilly city and number 8 is an important reference to 8 child gods of Gozu Tennō or Susano’o no Mikoto. Surely to the believers, there was no difference. This was just an act of compliance to an imperial decree.

Adopting the kanji 八 ha/ya 8 strikes me a classic Kyōto “eff you.” Kyōto revels in its ancient traditions and prides itself in its esoteric culture. The priests of Gion Shrine (now Yasaka Shrine) probably knew nothing of Hachiōji Shrine in Kantō, but the renaming of the shrine reflected their astute understanding of what kami they were worshiping.

Kyōto's Yasaka Shrine in the early Meiji Period.

Kyōto’s Yasaka Shrine in the early Meiji Period.

You Gave about 1500 Years of Backstory. Can You Talk About Hachiōji in Tōkyō?
That’s Why I’m Reading Your Blog, Asshole.

Yes, of course.


yo dawg


In 913, a Buddhist priest from Kyōto named 妙行 Myōkō came to this area and climbed to the peak of 深沢山 Fukazawa-yama Mt. Fukazawa. He sat for a few days at the peak of the mountain meditating and reflecting… or whatever it is that Buddhist priests do at the tops of mountains. On his last day, at night time, strong winds began to blow. There was loud thunder and ominous lightning. During the course of the night, he was visited by many different kinds of 妖怪 yōkai strange apparitions. He wasn’t afraid of them and persisted in his meditation… or whatever it is the Buddhists priests do alone late at night on the tops of mountains. The yōkai disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Later, a giant snake approached him, but he tapped the snake on the head with his walking stick and the serpent also disappeared. When dawn arrived, a 神 kami god flanked by 8 boys. He announced that he was Myōkō’s guardian deity. Naturally, Myōkō  was curious about who this deity was. When Myōkō asked his name, the kami said, “I am 八王子 Hachi Ōji the 8 Princes who accompany 牛頭天王 Gozu Tennō. We are eight in one.”

hachioji gongen

of course you are

Myōkō was moved by this vision and founded 8 shrines dedicated to this kami on 8 different mountain peaks[xviii]. He also founded a temple called 牛頭山神護寺 Gozu-san Shingo-ji at the base of Mt. Fukazawa. As far as I could find, there are not 8 shrines preserved today[xix]. Legend says that the Hachiōji Shrine that I visited with Eric from Jcastle marks the location where Myōkō had his visions. So that site is most definitely preserved. The temple, Shingo-ji, still exists, but under a different name and in a slightly different location. More about that later.

Because of the mountain’s association with Hachiōji Shrine, locals began to affectionately refer to the mountain as 八王子山 Hachiōji-yama Mt. Hachiōji rather than Mt. Fukazawa. The area has always been quite rural and was even more so until recent years, so having such an ancient syncretic shrine was quite prestigious. Remember, it was established in the 900’s and was indirectly related to one of Kyōto’s most famous religious complexes, Gion Shrine (Yasaka Shrine).

The place name, 八王子村Hachiōji Mura Hachiōji Village, is first recorded in 1569 in a letter written by北条氏康 Hōjō Ujiyasu[xx]. Ujiyasu was a fierce samurai warlord who was at constant warfare expanding his family’s holdings in the 関東 Kantō area. Despite being at constant warfare, he was apparently also conducting constant cadastral surveys. As a result, a lot of Kantō place names were either first recorded or formalized in his time.


Hachiōji Castle – A Dark Claim to Fame

In the 1580’s, 北条氏照 Hōjō Ujiteru, second son of Hōjō Ujiyasu, chose Mt. Fukazawa to build a mountain top castle. The castle was named after the village and was thus known as 八王子城 Hachiōji-jō Hachiōji Castle. Ujiteru and his family became patrons of Shingo-ji and used it as a 菩提寺 bodai-ji funerary temple. The castle and temple could have both had illustrious histories. However, the Hōjō clan collectively refused to bow down to 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Since 1585, Hideyoshi had been the imperial regent in Kyōto – essentially the most powerful man in Japan. The Hōjō clan stubbornly stood their ground and they would pay a terrible price.

Hachiōji Castle was really defendable.

Hachiōji Castle was really defendable.

On June 23rd, 1590, 前田利家 Maeda Toshiie and 上杉景勝 Uesugi Kagekatsu under orders from Toyotomi Hideyoshi attacked the castle. The lord of the castle, Ujiteru, was in 小田原 Odawara helping his older brother, 北条氏政 Hōjō Ujimasa, fight off Hideyoshi’s siege of  小田原城 Odawara-jō Odawara Castle. Most of his fighting men were with him in Odawara and so Hachiōji Castle was manned by a skeleton crew – mostly women, children, servants, but also some samurai retainers[xxi] entrusted with protecting the castle. The castle fell in a matter of hours and the battle is generally described as an all-out slaughter.

A quiet waterfall and creek a short distance from the residence of Ujiteru and his family was chosen by his wife for the defenders’ final act. The women killed the children by throwing them over the waterfall, and then committed suicide themselves. Samurai also assisted in the “mercy killings” and then committed 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment. The creek was said to have run red with blood for 3 days and 3 nights. The bloody water flowed into the rice paddies located downstream. The farmers were appalled to find that their rice has been stained red when they harvested the next crop.

The spot where the family and retainers are to have killed themselves.

The spot where the family and retainers are to have killed themselves.

A few weeks later, on July 7, 1590, Odawara Castle fell to Hideyoshi. Kantō was no longer independent and Hideyoshi’s control over the realm was more or less complete. After the fall of Odawara, both Hōjō Ujiteru and his older brother Hōjō Ujimasa were ordered to commit seppuku. Hōjō control ended in the Kantō region[xxii].

After The Fall of Hachiōji Castle

The main structures of Hachiōji castles were burned in the attack and after 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu was given control of the 8 Kantō Provinces, he didn’t regard the site strategically important. As such, the castle was never rebuilt and just fell into ruin. It was soon reclaimed by the forests of the mountain.


The Hōjō funerary temple, Shingo-ji, was now tainted by the bloodbath that saw the destruction of its largest benefactor. It chose to re-invent itself as 宗関寺 Sōkan-ji a year after the fall of the castle[xxiii]. Sōkan-ji is still home to the graves of Hōjō Ujiteru’s family, though they are in abject dereliction today. Over the years, the locals began to call Mt. Fukazawa 城山 Shiroyama “Old Castle Mountain.[xxiv]

Ujiteru's grave

Ujiteru’s grave

The Haunted Mountain

Old people who live in the immediate vicinity of Shiroyama claim it’s haunted by the ghosts of the Hōjō and their retainers. As far back as the Edo Period, people said that when mist covered the mountain, you could hear the din of a samurai battle, the sound of the burning 御主殿 go-shuden lord’s residence, the neighing of warhorses, and – most disturbingly – the wailing of noblewomen as they slit their children’s throats and threw their lifeless bodies into the river.

A few families with a long history in the immediate area (元八王子 Moto Hachiōji Old Hachiōji) have a tradition of serving 赤飯 akameshi[xxv] rice with red beans on the anniversary of the attack. The color of the red beans bleeds out and stains the white rice – a reminder of the slaughter that took place on “Old Castle Mountain” staining the rice of their ancestors.

Hachiōji Unearthed

During WWII, the mountain was heavily deforested. However, in the post-war years, the mountain was reforested with ヒノキ hi no ki Japanese Cypress trees, a particularly tall tree[xxvi]. The main reason that I mention this is because when I visited the castle ruins with Eric of Jcastle, I commented on how rich the vegetation was and how tall the trees were. Of course, felled trees could be used to build wooden fortifications, but it really looked like a lot of work for people with 1590’s technology to hack through a forest to construct a castle. Considering how far apart some of the military installations and residential installations were spaced, it just seemed overwhelming.

Well, I’m not a castle expert by any stretch of the imagination, but it got me thinking. I wonder if the mountain’s vegetation was different prior to 1945? Would that have even made any difference?

This image offers a deforested vision of the castle.

This image offers a deforested vision of the castle.

From 1951, excavation and restoration of the castle began in earnest. While most of the wooden structures were lost to the sands of time, many 石垣 ishigaki stone walls were located. In the 80’s and 90’s, a few interesting attributes of the castle emerged. The first was that most of the stone walls were simple reinforcements of the hillside paths to prevent erosion. However, the go-shuden (residence of Hōjō Ujiteru himself) featured impressive walls with a more esthetic purpose, very in line with Azuchi-Momoyama castle construction of the time. These walls seemed to project the lord’s authority and his sophistication. In the early 90’s shards of pottery from Venice and China were found on the site of the lord’s residence. All of this physical evidence led some scholars to believe that Ujiteru’s 1580 audition with Oda Nobunaga may have influenced the design of the residential area of the castle and… maybe, just maybe… he acquired these exotic goods from Nobunaga himself[xxvii]. Furthermore, some scholars have pointed at the discrepancy in stone wall construction as evidence that the castle may not have been finished at the time of the attack.

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Hachiōji Castle Reborn

In 1973, a tradition was started by some local history nerds who took particular pride in the castle. With the cooperation of Sōkan-ji, they decided to perform a Buddhist memorial service on June 23rd at the 御主殿之滝 go-shuden no taki palace waterfall to appease the spirits of those who died in the battle. The service took place at the 六字の名号塔 Mutsu-ji no Myōgō-tō 6 Kanji Tower[xxviii] erected in 1817. One commentator I read said that he thinks this memorial tradition should be considered the rebirth in the interest in Hachiōji  Castle as the site has only grown in popularity, culminating with its inclusion in the 日本百名城 Nihon Hyaku Meijō 100 Famous Castles of Japan in 2006. I don’t know if they still do it now. But when I visited the castle, there were offerings at the Mutsu-ji no Myōgō-tō left by castle fans or maybe Sōkan-ji.

Today, the castle is mostly a hiking spot. But it has a small museum that takes the site quite seriously. They have a volunteer staff that is enthusiastic and outgoing. The reconstructed stone walls and roads around Ujiteru’s residence is pretty amazing, I have to say. But as far as archaeological sites from this period in Japanese History go, I’m 100% impressed. I actually want to go back when the leaves start changing colors.

Wanna read more about Hachiōji Castle?

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[i] If you want to go hiking in Japan, this is really a fantastic spot – even if you don’t care about Japanese History.
[ii] As a person used to castles built after the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (ie; state of the art at the beginning of the Edo Period), I was surprised to see how small the honmaru was. It was essentially the last refuge for the lord should the very worst befall the castle. And while Hachiōji Castle was, in fact, built during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, its design was much more like the fortress type “castles” of the Sengoku Period than the impressive and luxurious castles ushered in by the stability afforded by the “relative peace” of 織田信長 Oda Nobunaga and 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Those later castles – while clearly military installments – were much more palace-like than fort-like. The scale and design is more beautiful and expresses the wealth, might, and military authority of the residing lord. At Hachiōji Castle, the honmaru seems like the place to make your last stand or commit suicide.
[iii] 王子 ōji, while it does mean “imperial prince,” has another meaning of a kami that has been split for enshrinement in another shrine. The process of 分霊 bunrei dividing spirits is the way clan members could bring their ancestral tutelary kami with them as they expanded their territories. The policy of 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai alternate attendance brought tutelary kami of all the daimyō families to Edo. Because of this, it’s not unusual to find satellite shrines of major from all over Japan in Tōkyō.
[iv] Please, please, read my article on Ōji first.
[v] This is why you shouldn’t write your blog under the influence of alcohol. Ugh!
[vi] That said, it’s famously unpopular in Japan because of its own lack of toleration for the traditional kami (deities) of Japan. Religion – what a goof.
[vii] This kami is closely connected to the Shintō aspect of 日枝山 Hiezan Mt. Hie in Kyōto. This mountain’s kami and Buddhist temple, 延暦寺 Enryaku-ji, are famous for the 僧兵 sōhei warrior monks that pissed off Oda Nobunaga to such a point that he allegedly surrounded the mountain and ordered his armies to march up the mountain and kill everything that moved until they reached the top. Then they burned the temple to the ground. My article on Tameike-Sannō touches on this.
[viii] The meaning of the Latin word incarnārī to be made into flesh was a Christian neologism used to explain away Jesus’ physical, human aspect – despite being a god. I’m pretty sure buddhas and kami don’t physically become flesh and blood. But I think “incarnation” is more readily understood that “avatar” which sounds like a picture on your Twitter account or that stupid movie about the blue space cats.
[ix] I say “usually” because as Buddhism spread from India to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Afghanistan, the Himalayan kingdoms, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea, and eventually Japan, it had evolved. Some teachings were lost and some new teachings were acquired. With each new kingdom came new languages and new translations and new iterations of the tradition. Japan, the latest to get on board with Buddhism, had inherited most of its tradition from Korean and China. Gozu Tennō is associated with Gavagrīva by tradition, but the connection is tenuous at best.
[x] This article looks at the relationship of this syncretic kami with Gion.
[xi] More about this in a bit.
[xii] Long time readers hopefully remember Susano’o no Mikoto as the brother of the sun goddess 天照皇大神 Amaterasu Ōmikami, the mythical mother of the imperial family. I directly mentioned this kami in my article on Ushima. I didn’t mention specifically, but he’s associated with this shrine and also this shrine and bridge.
[xiii] A kami that may or may not also be derived from a Hindu god.
[xiv] And this is exactly why I hate religion. The shit is just retarded.
[xv] This word can also be read as hanamachi. I’m not going to get into which is correct because it’s a bit of a mess too…
[xvi] Also known as Shakyamuni or Siddhārtha Gautama. He was the founder of the Buddhist religion.
[xvii] The sun goddess. The imperial family claimed descent from her line.
[xviii] See what he did there?
[xix] Also, a shrine doesn’t necessarily have to mean a formal wooden structure. In theory, it could simply be a simple monument. My sources don’t go into details.
[xx] Not familiar with the name? Samurai Archives has an excellent article on Hōjō Ujiyasu. And just for the record this is the so-called 後北条氏 Go-Hōjō-shi Late Hōjō Clan.
[xxi] None of whose names are relevant to our story.
[xxii] Interestingly, the family line was not abolished. Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu recognized the intelligence of Ujiyasu’s 4th son, 北条氏規 Hōjō Ujinori and his branch of the family were the lords of 河内国狭山藩 Kawachi no Kuni Sayama Han Sayama Domain, Kawachi Province, a minor domain near Ōsaka.
[xxiii] The Sōkan-ji was rebuilt in its present location in 1892 (Meiji 25), not so far away from the location of the original Shingo-ji.
[xxiv] Literally, it’s just “Castle Mountain,” but I added the “Old” to convey the folksy feeling of the Japanese.
[xxv] In the local dialect, 赤飯 is read aka manma.
[xxvi] And one this is allergenic to many people.
[xxvii] As far as influencing castle design, I don’t know how much influence visiting Nobunaga would have actually had. Rich and powerful people always flaunt their wealth and authority and with the “relative stability” of the Azuchi Momoyama Period, there was a definite trend toward flashier residences. As for where Ujiteru acquired the foreign items, without a document saying he got them from Nobunaga, I think this is just a flight of fancy.
[xxviii] The 6 kanji are: 南無阿弥陀仏 Namu Amida Butsu “I believe in Amida.” The Buddhist equivalent of “lord have mercy on me.”

What does Ōji mean?

In Japanese History on October 4, 2015 at 4:32 pm

Ōji (imperial prince, but more at “a kami divided from another kami”)


Otonashi Park in Ōji is one of Tōkyō’s secret cherry blossom viewing spots. Nearby Asukayama is even more beautiful and also a little bit off the beaten path.

Hello all! Sorry for the gap since my last article. I got bogged down with work and this article and its follow up.

Here’s the honest truth. I started re-searching and writing this article in January. It turned out to be such a colossal mess that I just made a bunch of notes taken from Japanese texts and left them as they were. I ignored the article after that.
Totally abandoned it.

But during 花見 hanami the cherry blossom season, I revisited it. As the weather got better, I found myself with a confusing list of quotes in Japanese and English and nary a timeline to speak of. So I abandoned the topic again. But then lost my research notes. Couldn’t find them anywhere.

But something amazing happened at the middle of October.

I was able to recover my notes.

The notes rambled and were pretty much all over the place. But most of the research was intact. And so, submitted for your approval, here is an article started some 6-7 months ago and finally finished now.
If it’s unpolished and rambling, I apologize, but I just wanted to get it over with. 

Ōji – A Princely Namesake… or Something Like That…

To modern eyes, this place name means “prince.” In a very general sense, it could be understood as a son of a king or emperor. In this case, it most likely isn’t a reference to a literal prince. The name of the area seems to be derived from 王子神社 Ōji Jinja Ōji Shrine. If you visit today, the shrine doesn’t look so ancient. It was lost during WWII and rebuilt in 1959 and again in 1982 with some of that sweet, sweet Bubble Economy money. But don’t let the modern veneer fool you. There’s good evidence that this shrine dates from at least the Kamakura Period. Some even suggests its history goes farther back than that.

oji shrine

Where is Ōji?

Ōji is in present day 北区 Kita-ku Kita Ward[i]. Today the area has a shitamachi image, though this area was the straight up boonies in the Edo Period. The area surrounding the shrine was actually a favorite 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing spot of the upper echelons of the Tokugawa shōgunate[ii]. These days, the area boasts 紙の博物館 Kami no Hakubutsukan the Paper Museum, 狐の行列 Kitsune no Gyōretsu the Fox Parade every New Year’s Eve, and a station catering to 都電荒川線 Toden Arakawa-sen the Toden Arakawa Line, Tōkyō’s last remaining street car. Interestingly, the area is also home to a certain ラッコズニューヨークスタイルピザ Rakkozu Nyū Yōku Sutairu Piza Rocco’s New York Style Pizza. Having lived in New York for 3 years, I definitely developed a taste for a proper New York slice. In Tōkyō, this is as close as you’re going to get. The shop has a nice New York vibe with red & white checkered tablecloths and the essential shakers: oregano, parmesan cheese, and crushed red pepper. It’s not the most convenient location for me, but I’ll make the trek if I have a hankering[iii]


Click the pic for Rocco’s website


New York style pizza toppings

So, anyways, that’s the short answer to the question “What does Ōji mean?” and I threw in some reasons that I think you might want to visit the area. The short answer ends here. If you wanna get deep into what Ōji means, find yourself a nice chair and let’s get into it proper[iv]


A Long Time Ago in a Province Far, Far Away

One of the most ancient temple and shrine complexes in Japan is a cluster of 3 major mountaintop sites called 熊野三山 Kumano Sanzan in modern Wakayama Prefecture which is in western Japan. You could translate the name as the 3 Muthafuckin’ Mountains of Kumano, but most people don’t – they usually just call them the Kumano Sanzan and are done with it[v]. That means the 3 Mountains of Kumano. Between the 3 religious complexes, something like 12 神 kami Shintō deities called 熊野権現 Kumano Gongen[vi] are enshrined. Since the Heian Period, the 3 mountains have been the focus of a major pilgrimage which is still popular today. It’s my understanding that today the entire pilgrimage course – mountains and manmade structures alike – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The shrines themselves seem to be quite ancient. The history of these shrines clearly predates their appearance in the historical record and as such is probably affiliated with the rise of the imperial cult and the Yamato State. The shrines are mentioned in the 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki, which is Japan’s second oldest written history (finished in 720 or 750). I’m assuming the capital was in Nara at this time, but there was some reshuffling of things from 740-745ish that I can’t say with certainty. But the Nara Period is generally thought of as the time from 710 to 794. I’ll get back to this aspect at the end of the article.


Why Are We Going Back This Far in History? And Will Talk About Ōji, Tōkyō Again?

Great questions and I’m glad you asked! As for your second question, yes, we’ll be getting back to that later. As for your first question, well… while the Tōkyō place name, Ōji, has little to do with the daily concerns of the modern Tōkyōite, all of this backstory is critical to understanding few aspects of religion in Japan.


So, Back to the… Backstory[vii]

You see, in the 500’s, Buddhism first showed up in Japan. The native Shintō priests, of course, weren’t having any of this foreign Buddhist bullcrap. After all, they had a lucrative monopoly on the traditional spirituality of the people. Nonetheless, various factions within the imperial court at Nara either embraced it or rejected it. But ultimately, the imperial court got on board with the whole idea of Buddhism (see my article on Taishi-dō) and in the end everyone seemed to agree that there wasn’t much of a conflict with the native Shintō religion.

One way of reconciling the native Shintō beliefs with Buddhism was the creation of 権現 gongen. When a Buddhist temple was established, it had to appeal to the Shintō believers of the area. They understood their own traditions but the Buddhist stuff was foreign and strange in those early days of Buddhism in Japan. The quick fix was this: if a foreign or native Japanese 菩薩 bodhisattva (a person who has reached Buddhist enlightenment) wants to communicate with Japanese people, he/she would take the shape of a Shintō 神 kami. In short, use the local language to communicate with the local people. Buddhists could endear themselves to the skeptics by saying, yes, this is a Buddhist object of veneration/reflection, but it is appearing as a native Japanese avatar that can operate on a Shintō platform. A 権現 gongen, while Buddhist in nature, was flexible and thus could be experienced through a Shintō filter and was subject to Shintō rituals – in our case, ritual division and re-enshrinement.

Gongen are often depicted as half-nekkid, pissed off, sword wielding demons. In this picture, not Kumano Gongen, he appears to be wielding a karaoke microphone.

Gongen are often depicted as half-nekkid, pissed off, sword wielding demons. In this picture, not Kumano Gongen, he appears to be wielding a karaoke microphone.

Why Didn’t They See a Conflict?

Because syncretism.

Most western countries have a cultural heritage derived from the 3 batshit crazy Abrahamic religions, the so-called Big 3 Monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam[viii]. These religions, by definition, just hate other religions because if you only have 1 god you can’t accept or tolerate another one. That is, when you think there can only be one god, everyone else is just flat out wrong. End of story. If you’re polytheistic (ie; you believe more than one god exists), another god is no big stretch of the imagination and doesn’t threaten your world view. Polytheistic societies like Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt were able to mix and match their native religions with foreign religions easily. This is called syncretism. You could also call it, “just getting along” (as far as religious ideologies are concerned)[ix]. Japan was/is pretty much the same way. Once people got over the initial fear of something strange and foreign, they found ways to incorporate the 2 systems, as they obviously weren’t mutually exclusive. This is syncretism

kumo shrine

And just in case you’re wondering, the Japanese word for syncretism is 習合 shūgō “learning joined.”[x] This word is derived from the 四字熟語 yoji jukugo 4 kanji word 神仏習合 shinbutsu shūgō which means “syncretism of bodhisattvas and Japanese kami.”

Your average person on the street in the Edo Period wouldn’t have even thought about the blending of Buddhism and Shintō – they were so perfectly intertwined. The native Shintō and foreign Buddhism blended well in Japan for centuries until the Meiji Government tried to separate the two in order to establish a proper Shintō-based cult based on the Imperial Family. Shrines would act as organs of the Imperial State[xi]. They succeeded in promulgating what came to be called “State Shintō”[xii] and suppressed certain Buddhist sects. Much to the chagrin of the so-called “Modern Statesmen” of the Meiji Coup who hailed from Satsuma and Chōshū, they never quite separated the two completely. After WWII, separating Shintō and Buddhism was illegal – in fact any connection between government and religious institutions became unconstitutional – so don’t be surprised to find syncretic shrine complexes still exist throughout the country. Even more so, don’t be surprised to find bizarre, modern cultish hybrids from time to time.

Nikkō Tōshō-gū. Dedicated to the great gongen of the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Nikkō Tōshō-gū. Dedicated to the great gongen of the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Dividing Up Deities

OK, I’ve explained syncretism and finished my anti-monotheistic rant. So, let’s talk a little bit about the mechanics of Shintō and Japanese Buddhism, shall we? In the past at JapanThis!, we’ve talked about shrines called 東照宮 Tōshō-gū dedicated to the deified 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu[xiii]. There are something like 130 shrines dedicated to 東照宮大権現 Tōshō-gū Daigongen throughout the country. The name, by the way means something like “The Great Gongen Prince of the East.” You might think that this is a lot. Were they hacking up Ieyasu’s corpse and sending bits and pieces to various domains all over the country?

Kunōzan, the birthplace of the cult of Tōshō-gū.

Kunōzan, the birthplace of the cult of Tōshō-gū.

Of course not. Ieyasu’s corpse is most likely very much intact and rests at either 日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshō-gū or 久能山東照宮 Kunōzan Tōshō-gū[xiv]. But just as Buddhism venerates objects associated with a particular bodhisattva (person who has achieved pure enlightenment) and allows for those objects and images to be copied or even modified for each culture, Shintō allows for kami to be divided. Again for people in western cultures, it’s hard to imagine this. Without a physical body or some holy event having occurred on a spot, how is there anything to venerate?

Interestingly, Shintō has a mechanism that operates on a level similar to biological cell division. A kami can divide and a new kami is thus born. Just as a Buddhist statue or similar object of veneration can be copied or recreated infinitely, a Shintō kami can be divided infinitely.

Tokugawa Ieyasu - Tōshō-gū Daigongen (the Great Gongen Eastern Prince).

Tokugawa Ieyasu – Tōshō-gū Daigongen (the Great Gongen Eastern Prince).

130 Tōshō Daigongen?

We’re Not Even Getting Started.

I mentioned Tōshō-gū. Ieyasu was deified as 大正大権現 Tōshō Daigongen the Great Deity Who Guards the East. There were about 500 shrines dedicated to Ieyasu in the Edo Period. This means that the kami named Tōshō Daigongen was divided at least 500 times. And for those who have a short memory, a 権現 gongen is a 菩薩 bosatsu bodhisattva (buddha) who manifests him/herself  to the Japanese in the form of a 神 kami[xv]. But other kami were divided far more times than this. I’ll put it this way, Tokugawa Ieyasu died in 1616 and so he was relatively late to the game. But he’s a perfect example of a syncretic deity – a “gongen” for the Edo Period, if you will. He was buried in a perfectly normal syncretic tradition for a person of his stature. He was both a buddha and a kami.


Bunrei – separating a kami

How Widespread Was Dividing Kami and Gongen?

As a Tōkyō resident, one of my favorite kami is 稲荷神 Inari-gami. This is kami visually characterized by foxes. In Edo, this kami was associated with the daimyō class and the samurai class. In the outskirts of the city, he was associated with farmers. But as far out as you go in 本州 Honshū the main island of Japan, Inari was originally a tutelary kami of the 大名家 daimyō-ke daimyō families during the Sengoku Period. Since the daimyō families were expected to take care of their farmers, the farmers also latched on to this kami. Veneration of Inari exploded during the Edo Period.

It exploded to such a point that the number of Inari shrines in Japan is literally impossible to count[xvi]. One great example is 伏見稲荷大社 Fushimi Inari Taisha Fushimi Grand Inari Shrine in Kyōto – truly one of the world’s greatest treasures. But you can find dollhouse sized Inari shrines and shrines on temple precincts that seen like after thoughts. My point? Inari has been popular for ages and divided again and again.

Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine

Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine

The 2nd place holder is 八幡 Hachiman, the god of war who is the tutelary kami of 武家 buke samurai families. Veneration of Hachiman was spread by 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo. The most famous shrine is 鶴岡八幡宮 Tsurugaoka Hachimangū in 鎌倉 Kamakura. But this shrine wasn’t the first shrine dedicated to Hachiman. There are an estimated 44,000 Hachiman shrines in Japan.

OK, so there are an unknowable number of Inari shrines, some 44,000 Hachiman shrines, about 130 remaining Tōshō-gū shrines, and roughly 3000 shrines dedicated Kumano Gongen. and 13 shrines dedicated to various kami in Hawaii, Colorado, and Washington. I’m assuming those were brought from Japan[xvii].

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū at Kamakura. Many say the cult of Hachimangū was the main cult of the post-Minamoto samurai families.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū at Kamakura. Many say the cult of Hachimangū was the main cult of the post-Minamoto samurai families.

OK, Time to Bring the Story Back to Edo-Tōkyō

The Toshima were granted control of 豊島郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District in the 1000’s, which included this area. It’s not clear when the Kumano Gongen was installed in the area because there are two contradictory stories about how the place name Ōji came about.



Theory 1: The Shrine Dates From Well Before the Kamakura Period

Some claim that Ōji Shrine existed in some form or another before the Kamakura Period.

A popular story says that pre-shōgun Yoritomo passed through Toshima District near Edo[xviii] on his way to fight the 奥州藤原 Ōshū Fujiwara in Tōhoku[xix] in 1189. Praying for good luck, Yoritomo presented a full set of armor to 若一王子社 Nyakuichi Ōji-sha Nyakuichi Ōji Shrine – later Ōji Shrine Ōji Jinja Ōji Shrine.

Conspicuously, Ōji Shrine possesses no armor from Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Conspicuously, Ōji Shrine possesses no armor from Minamoto no Yoritomo.

The earliest textual evidence seems to come from an obscure reference in a war chronicle thought to have been written between the 南北朝時 Nanbokuchō Jidai Nanbokuchō Period[xx] (1334-1392) and the very early 室町時代 Muromachi Jidai Muromachi Period (1337-1573)[xxi]. This war chronicle is called the 義経記 Gikeiki[xxii] and it sings the praises of 源義経 Minamoto no Yoshitsune[xxiii], brother of Yoritomo.

A passing reference is made to Yoshitsune crossing the 王子板橋 Ōji Itabashi Ōji Plank Bridge. Was there an epic battle here? Did Yoshitsune give a rousing speech here? Probably not. The reason the “plank bridge” is probably even mentioned at all is that the area was such a backwater at the time that elegant plank bridges were few and far between. You could see them in Kyōto and maybe in Yoritomo’s capital at Kamakura, but never in the nasty, rural marshlands of the Toshima. People would take a boat across a river or just stay on their side of the river.  Interestingly, this plank bridge is most likely the same bridge related to the etymology of nearby 板橋 Itabashi[xxiv], which literally means “plank bridge.

Yoritomo vs Yoshitsune

Yoritomo vs Yoshitsune

Theory 2: The Shrine Dates From the Kamakura Period

There’s a contradictory claim about the age of the Ōji Shrine in an Edo Period text called the 新編武蔵風土記稿 Shinpen Musashi Fūdokikō Lands and Customs of Musashi Province (New Edition)[xxv].  This text claims, quite clearly, that in 1322, the Toshima Clan had the 熊野若一王子 Kumano Nyakuichi Ōji brought from 熊野新宮 Kumano Shingū New Main Kumano Shrine of Kumanoto Toshima District.

New Grand Shrine

New Grand Shrine

Nyakuichi Ōji is the name given to kami that are separated from 浜王子Hama Ōji. Hama Ōji itself was split from the 熊野権現 Kumano Gongen at the 熊野本宮 Kumano Hongū Kumano Main Shrine. So it’s a split of a split.



The 新宮 shingū “new main temple,” itself a branch temple of the 本宮 hongū “officially designated main temple,” is cited in the 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki Japan Chronicles[xxvi] and so is believed to have existed before 大化の改新 Taika no Kaishin the Taika Reforms of 645. The Nihon Shoki refers to the title 熊野国造 Kumano no Kuni Miyatsuko – a provincial governor of the Yamato court controlling the area[xxvii]. The argument for the shrine’s antiquity is that 熊野国 Kumano no Kuni Kumano Province was a pre-Taika Reforms province, 造 miyatsuko is a pre-Taika Reforms title, and the Nihon Shoki was finished about 75 years later in 720 after Kumano Province had been abolished[xxviii]. Most of the provinces we encounter at JapanThis! are post-Taika Reforms – Kumano was abolished. The provinces remained relatively unchanged until the abolition of domains and provinces in the early Meiji Period. Of course, in the Edo Period, 藩 han domains were more important than provinces (which were archaic territories with no practical civil administration).


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[i] Literally, the North Ward. And yes. I have an article about that.
[ii] 飛鳥山 Asuka-yama Mt. Asuka is still a popular spot for hanami today. It’s located a short distance from Ōji Station. The park is not very well known, so it doesn’t attract huge crowds. I highly recommend it.
[iii] On the topic of pizza, there is another shop also big among the expats in Tōkyō that specializes in Chicago style pizza called DevilCraft. The shop has been successful enough to open 2 shops, one in Kanda and one in Hamamatsu-chō. But I fucking can’t stand Chicago style pizza. It’s not pizza. It’s pizza flavored quiche – and it needs to get over itself. That said, DevilCraft brews their own beer and I respect that. Beer is good.
[-iv] Read that with a British accent – or else it’s just ungrammatical.
[v] Believe it or not, Japanese doesn’t have a word for “muthafuckin’.”
[vi] What’s a “gongen?” Have patience, my flower. All in due time.
[vii] Unfortunately, not a porno – though it may sound like one.
[viii] And just to be fair, yours truly thinks all religions are batshit crazy. I tend to show a little more respect to the peaceful ones and a great amount of disdain to the overbearing or violent ones. #AntiTheism
[ix] Yes, this is a simplification, but I think it’s more or less the case. Before a funerary memorial service, I was talking with the officiating Buddhist priest about the history of the graveyard at the temple. He said that while religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam reject Japanese spirituality altogether, the Japanese tradition can make room for aspects of those religions and even adopt aspects of them while ignoring other aspects. I believe his conclusion was “the Japanese have the potential for a richer spiritual tapestry.” I both agree and disagree with that statement, but it was the first time I heard a Buddhist priest say it in a cemetery. So, there’s that.
[x] Pssst! Hey dude, you still haven’t told us what a fucking “gongen” is yet. FFS, will you settle down, I’m getting to it now! I told you this was going to be a convoluted story.
[xi] Though, to be honest, this was nothing new. The Tokugawa and other shōgunates and the imperial family itself were always harnessing the power of both shrines and temples.
[xii] “State Shintō” is a term invented by the Americans during the post-WWII occupation. There was no “separation of church & state” in the Meiji Constitution, but in many ways Shintō was just seen as Japanese tradition. Some argue the term “State Shintō” isn’t accurate or fair. But c’mon, let’s be real here. What the winners of the Meiji Coup set in motion, got waaaaaaaaaaay out of control. And while I’ll grant they didn’t create “State Shintō,” by the 1930’s and 1940’s they definitely had something that looked like, smelled liked, and quacked like “State Shintō.”
[xiii] You can find my article about Tōshō-gū here.
[xiv] Interestingly, both shrines bicker over who has the body. Simply opening up the 宝塔 hōtō 2 story urns would solve the question once and for all, but neither shrine wants to allow that – probably because neither wants to be the one who was wrong.
[xv] This is one way that Buddhism tried to one up the native Shintō religion. Shintō was originally of shamanic roots, but Buddhism offered a kind of salvation (or second chance) through reincarnation or transcendence. Shintō seems to have been more daily and superstitious. Both were as ridiculous as any modern religion, though.
[xvi] Tiny shrines are littered all over the country, especially in agricultural areas or in the confines of castles and the detached residences of daimyō. In Edo, there was a idiom used by Edoites to describe common place sights and occurrences: 火事喧嘩伊勢屋稲荷に犬の糞 kaji kenka, Iseya Inari ni, inu no kuso which essentially means “fires and fights, shops named Iseya and Inari shrines are scattered like dog shit in the streets.” I can vouch for this one. If I walk 15 minutes in any direction from my home, I’ll stumble across 2 or more Inari Shrines. In some places you’ll find shrines so small they look like Edo Period doll houses.
[xvii] But I don’t know for sure.
[xviii] Long time readers will know that I’ve talked about the Toshima extensively throughout the blog. This isn’t a focused list, but this link will bring up any article in which I referenced the Toshima.
[xix] His victory in this battle paved his way for receiving the title shōgun.
[xx] Read about the Nanbokuchō Period here.
[xxi] The dates I gave for the Muromachi Period are one of many reckonings. Samurai Archives has a brief summary of the Muromachi Period here, they also have a pretty handy timeline of the Muromachi Period here.
[xxii] The name Gikeiki is sometimes misread as Yoshitsune-ki. The title means “Yoshitsune’s Story.”
[xxiii] Yoshitsune is the archetypal tragic samurai character in Japanese culture. He’s not important to our story today, but he is interesting. You can read about him here.
[xxiv] Long time readers will recognize this as the spot where 近藤勇 Kondō Isami of the 新撰組 Shinsengumi was executed in the 1860’s. Read my article here.
[xxv] The translation is mine. Not sure if this book has a standard English title. The book was compiled from 1804 to 1829.
[xxvi] Japan’s second oldest book.
[xxvii] From what I can tell, the hereditary title Kuni no Miyatsuko was not as much a governmental official as a person who oversaw regional Shintō matters. But I don’t know about it in detail.
[xxviii] Interestingly, the title wasn’t abolished and was still passed down among the same families until the mid 1300’s. It had fallen out of use by the end of the Nanboku-chō Period.

Why is Kita called Kita?

In Japanese History on May 21, 2013 at 12:54 am

Kita (The North)

Kita-ku's logo is a Pink K.

I see what you did there…

Until the 1940’s, this ward didn’t exist. In the 1930’s, 郡 gun districts of Tōkyō were abolished and absorbed into wards or other administrative areas. The former 北豊島郡 Kita Toshima-gun North Toshima District was broken up. Toshima Ward was created in 1932 but two remaining areas of the former district, namely 滝野川 Takinogawa, 王子 Ōji, and 岩淵 Iwabuchi were merged into a new ward in  in 1947. Many names were suggested for the ward, but since the area is in the northernmost part of Tōkyō and is comprised of areas of the former North Toshima district, the name Kita was chosen – reflecting the area’s heritage and geographic reality.

And that’s all she wrote, biatch!

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