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Posts Tagged ‘roppongi’

Ōedo Line: Roppongi

In Japanese History on July 6, 2015 at 6:03 am

Roppongi (6 Trees)

the pong

In the Edo Period, this plateau was the home of many daimyō residences. Today it’s has a reputation as the place where foreigners who can’t speak Japanese and are in Japan for a minute hang out. That reputation especially applies to the area near 六本木交差点 Roppongi Kōsaten Roppongi Crossing. It’s a kind of shitty area, in my opinion. There are a lot of people on the streets trying to lure people into restaurants of varying repute. Some are fine, but the good ones don’t need to pull in people off the street. Remember that if you visit this area.

Mōri Garden, a step back into the Yamanote of the Edo Period.

Mōri Garden, a step back into the Yamanote of the Edo Period.

That said, Roppongi Hills and Roppongi Mid-Town are actually quite upscale shopping and relaxing areas. They have movie theaters, art museums, restaurants, gardens, and high end shopping. At Roppongi Hills, the Mōri Garden is said to be the vestigial garden of the Mōri clan who had a palace on this land in the Edo Period. If you venture off the main thoroughfare from Roppongi Crossing, you’re bound to discover a plethora of tiny izakayas and restaurants that only the locals know.

But to be honest, if you’re a tourist or short term resident of Tōkyō, I’d rather not send you to Roppongi. It’s our Mos Eisley Space Port. But I can’t deny that it is very foreigner-friendly. There’s a Hard Cock Café and shop staff at stores and restaurants can usually speak English. Just be careful of people trying to lure you into shady establishments. I don’t disapprove of drinking and whoring at all. I just think there’s a risk of getting ripped off or straight shaken down in Roppongi – especially if you’re not fluent in the language and aware of the usual MO’s as compared to this area. Additionally, if you’re a tourist, go do something interesting that you can only do in Japan. Roppongi is the least Japanese place you can visit in Japan.

Roppongi,,,  lol


Oh, I almost forgot the name. There are quite a few theories about the origin of the word Roppongi[i]. As I mentioned, the name means “the 6 trees.” The most accept etymology is that “the 6 trees” is a reference to 6 daimyō (feudal lords) who maintained palaces in the area. These 6 feudal lords had kanji relating to trees in their family names. If you’re interested in the whole story, you should visit my main article about Roppongi below.

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This article is part of an ongoing series that starts here

[i] And in fact, there is actually another place name in Tōkyō, 五本木 Gohongi the 5 trees. You can see my article here.

Ōedo Line: Azabu Jūban

In Japanese History on July 2, 2015 at 6:57 am

Azabu-Jūban (Azabu #10)

Azabu Jūban Shrine has never been a major shrine, but it had much more land prior to WWII. Today, the shrine is an echo of its former self.

Azabu Jūban Shrine has never been a major shrine, but it had much more land prior to WWII. Today, the shrine is an echo of its former self.

In the early days of the Edo Period, the Furukawa river was tamed a bit and a series of bridges were built along it to encourage growth of the local villages that had existed in the area. The construction team that worked in this area was apparently called Azabu #10. The name stuck. There’s even a shrine called Azabu-Jūban Inari Shrine.

Today, very little remains of Azabu Jūban Shrine. (click the photo to see more of my photos of Japan)

Today, very little remains of Azabu Jūban Shrine.
(click the photo to see more of my photos of Japan)

Azabu’s reputation is glamour, fashion, expensive shops, ridiculous rent, international jet setters, and playground of the rich and beautiful. But history nerds can find a lot in this area. If you have a copy of Tōkyō: A Spatial Anthropology by Jin’nai Hidenobu and some good maps, you’ll find yourself weaving in and out of former daimyō residences, commoner towns, samurai homes of every rank, and temples and shrines affiliated with various military houses.

Even the yamanote (high city/samurai areas) of Azabu have shitamachi (low city/commoner areas)

Even the yamanote (high city/samurai areas) of Azabu have shitamachi (low city/commoner areas)

A walk in any direction out of Exit 4 will send you on an adventure illustrating how yamanote and shitamachi were actually intermixed and interdependent. But I recommend following the Furukawa River towards Tōkyō Tower or heading down the shopping street towards Roppongi Hills or Moto-Azabu. Check the maps first and don’t be afraid to hit the side streets.

This oven produces some of the best pizza outside of Italy. No joke.

This oven produces some of the best pizza outside of Italy. No joke.

You can see where Henry Heusken was killed, where Kiyokawa Hachirō was killed, where the first American Embassy was, and much, much more. Oh, and did mention that there are a handful of shops that have been in operation since the Edo Period? I recommend Sarashina Nagazaka and Sarashina Horii (both are soba shops family owned since the Edo Period)[i]. I also recommend Savoy for one of the most authentic napoletano pizzas in Tōkyō[ii].

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

[i] Both soba shops are excellent. Sarashina Horii seems to be more popular and has a wider variety, but Sarashina Nagazaka is just as good and less cramped and crowded. Sarashina Horii’s big plus for me is that they have history books about soba shops in Edo-Tōkyō sitting around that you can read while you wait for your food. Sarashina Nagazaka has a stone monument commemorating the location and a photo from the 1860-70’s of the original shop and the shopping street. In short, you can’t go wrong with either shop.
[ii] The chefs can speak fluent Italian so if you can speak the language they seem pretty eager to interact. As a result, from time to time you’ll find Italians here (including diplomats who work at the embassy, which is about a 20 minute walk from here – on, you guessed it, a former daimyō residence).
[iii] The 上屋敷 kamiyashiki upper residence of the Mōri clan was located here. There’s a plaque commemorating the 毛利甲斐守邸跡 Mōri Kai no Kami Teiato Remains of the Mansion of Mōri of Chōfu Domain (a branch family of main Mōri clan in Chōshū). A handful of the 47 Rōnin were held in custody here (and if I’m not mistaken, committed seppuku on the site). The nearby National Art Center Tokyo sits on the former site of the Uwajima Domain (in modern Ehime Prefecture). Tōkyō Midtown sits on the former site of the middle residence of the main branch of the Mōri clan, lords of Chōshū.

What does Gohongi mean?

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

Gohongi (5 trees)

Yūtenji Station provides access to Gohongi.

Yūtenji Station provides access to Gohongi.

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


Let’s Look at the Kanji!


five thin, cylindrical thingies



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

Sign in front of the Moriya Kaikan.

Sign in front of the Moriya Kaikan.

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

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

hiruma de sae, mi no ke ga yodatsu hodo usuguraku, 

genki no yoi wakamono demo tōru koto wo osoreta

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

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

The area may have looked something like this.

The area may have looked something like this.

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

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

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

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

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

So What Can I See or Do in Gohongi?

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

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

The Kōshin-tō of Gohongi

The Gohongi Koshinto-gun.

The Gohongi Koshinto-gun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Yūten-ji boasts its fair share of trees.

Yūten-ji boasts its fair share of trees.


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

Why is Roppongi called Roppongi

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on February 12, 2014 at 1:42 am

Roppongi (the 6 trees)

Mori Tower and the spider sculpture at Roppongi Hills

Mori Tower and the spider sculpture at Roppongi Hills

Just a quick heads up, this was written in Open Office, which is one of the shittiest pieces of software ever. It’s free, so I don’t expect much, but every time I use this program, the text formatting is all funky. So please forgive all the weird font changes and font size changes. It wasn’t written that way.
Word Press and Open Office don’t play well together.

ropponig croossing

I actually wrote about this topic once beforei.

On February 10th of last year, I was still trying to figure out how to breathe life back into a stagnant blog. I was determined to commit to it and was keeping up with my idea of “if I don’t have a big topic to write about, I’ll cover one Tōkyō place name a week.” In the beginning there was minimal research put in because I just covered a few topics that I was familiar with. Now one year later, JapanThis has transformed into something beautiful – something I’m fiercely proud of.

So Roppongi wasn’t the first place name I covered, but it was one of the really early ones. The reason I chose it was because it was relatively easy. Looking back at this 2 paragraph monstrosity, I feel a deep and dark shame. It’s nowhere near the level of quality I demand of myself now. It’s embarrassing and makes me want to vomit out of my ass and/or commit seppuku.

But today I’m going to set the record straight.

Today, Roppongi is a party town. For years it’s been popular with foreigners due to its proximity to so many foreign embassies. Because of this proximity, the area is relatively English-friendly which makes it a destination for foreigners visiting Japan and the seedy businesses that often cater to (or try to take advantage of) foreigners.

Roppongi has a bad reputation among Tōkyōites and among foreigners who try learn the so-called “Japanese Way.” I’m not really into Roppongi. But I’ve learned to not hate on it so much over the years and as it turns out, the area has a very interesting history if you leave the so-called Roppongi Crossing area, which is pretty much one of the most irritating places in the world.

Alright, so let’s get into this…


So, Roppongi. What does it mean?

If we look at the kanji:


6 tall, cylindrical things


(generally, tall and cylindrical)

There are a few opinions about this etymology. As any seasoned reader of JapanThis knows, the kanji can’t always be trusted to accurately reflect ancient place names. I mentioned as an aside in my article on Why was Edo called Edo? That this area, now called Minato-ku had been inhabited by humans for a very long time. From the get go, I want to say that there is a chance that this is name that may or may not be Japanese. It may or may not have anything to do with the kanji we have have today. To be blunt, there is no way of knowing.

The one thing we do know for sure is that the first recorded reference to “Roppongi” came in 1828 (late Edo Period) in a correspondence with the shōgunate. However, we don’t know exactly what area was being referred to. In fact, Roppongi didn’t appear on a map until 1878 with the creation of 麻布区 Azabu-ku Azabu Wardii.

the top 2 photos are of Edo Period Azabu Juban (the area that is now considered the "shoten-gai." The botom two pitctures are of Roppongi Crossing.

the top 2 photos are of Edo Period Azabu Juban (the area that is now considered the “shoten-gai.” The bottom two pictures are of Roppongi Crossing.


Literal: There were 6 tall trees used as landmarks

Roppongi is one of the highest plateaux in Tōkyō. This theory says that waaaaaaaay back – most likely some time between the Kamakura Period and Sengoku Period – there was a place here called 六方庵 Roppō-an Hermitage of the 6 Directions. In the garden of this residence, there were 6 tall trees.

The kanji iori/an is puzzling. It usually refers to a rustic home or tea house. However, in the Heian Period it could refer to a military encampment, headquarters, barracks, or even a fortress. More about this later.

Anyhoo, because of it’s elevation and high visibility, the 6 tall trees were landmarks. People disagree about whether these were matsu pine trees or keyaki zelkova trees. This theory refers to a time so long ago that we can’t know whether it’s true or not. The presence of keyaki trees is intriguing, though, because today there is a street called 欅坂 Keyakizaka between Azabu and Roppongi.

If you dropped the word iori/an hermitage, and added the kanji ki trees, in the local dialect it became Roppon-gi. A variation of this etymology is that it comes from 六方の木 Roppō no ki which got reduced to Roppo’ n’ gi. More about this later.

Obviously, we don’t know if this place actually existed, but linguistically speaking, it’s plausible. These kind of sound changes are observable in Modern Japanese. Anyone with exposure to day-to-day Japanese of our era will certainly have seen and heard this kind of vernaculariii.

6 trees

Literal: It’s derived from a family name

This is actually two theories, but they’re based on the premise that that there was a noble family called 六方 Roppō that lived here before the Edo Periodiv.
1) In the local dialect,
六方家 Roppō-ke the Roppō Family was pronounced Roppo-ngi.
2) The area was considered
六方気 Roppō-ki Roppō-ish or Roppō style, which in the local dialect was pronounced Roppo-ngi.

The interesting thing about this theory is that it also refers to Roppō and reinforces the Roppō-an theoryv. Whether it was a rustic hermitage or noble’s fortress, the high ground would be very suitable.

Linguistically, the sound changes are absolutely plausible.

There just isn’t any other evidence besides these etymology stories. No deeds of the Edo Roppō family. No tales of legendary tea ceremonies at Roppō Hermitage. No references to this place at all. And to top it all off, Roppō isn’t a family name today (as far as I can tell)vi.

when i hear the word "庵,”  I imagine this kind of building.

when i hear the word “庵,” I imagine this kind of building.

Figurative: A legendary 6 man sep
puku party went down here

During the 源平合戦 Genpei Gassen Genpei Warvii, the Genji forces pursued 6 Taira samurai and fought until 5 died here. A single Taira samurai managed to escape and rather than being cut down, slit his own belly to resist capture or execution. He died under a solitary pine tree. They group was remembered by the local people as “the 6 pines trees.” A variation of this story says that they all committed seppuku.

This isn’t a very likely etymology because, of course, there are no suriving shrines, graves, or much of anything to back up this theory. What’s more, there is another twist on this story that says these samurai were actually deserters, and traditionally Japanese people don’t take kindly to stories of deserters.

Either way you look at it, deserters or heros, this is a cool story because any story that ends in seppuku is – by definition – cool. But there’s not a single piece of evidence to back up.

There is such a thing as "seppuku fetish." And yes, is sexualized.

There is such a thing as “seppuku fetish.”And yes, it goes something like this… 

Theory 4
Creative: It’s a reference to 6 daimyō who lived here during the Edo Period

In English, this theory is usually stated as: “In the Edo Period, there were 6 major daimyō residences located here and so the area was named Roppongi.” But this is a great over-simplification, as you will soon see. There were MANY daimyō living in this area. Many city blocks of present Minato Ward still conform to the shape of the vast estates that once stood here. The crux of this theory is not that there were just 6 daimyō here, but that there were 6 daimyō who had family names that referenced trees in their family namesviii.

Let’s take a look at the daimyō who are generally cited:


Yonezawa Han

above the cedar trees The Minsitry of Foreign Affairs and Azabu Post Office sit on the former upper and middle residences of Yonezawa Domain.

Kustuki Han

decaying trees I can’t find the location of their Edo residences (one source says the upper residence was in Akasaka), but the family used Sengaku-ji as their funerary temple.

Niimi Han

green trees I can’t find their Edo residences, but the funerary temple of the Aoki clan of Niimi Domain is located at Zuishō-ji in Shirokane-dai.

Tatsuta Han

off-kilter pauwlonia tree Allegedly, this family’s lower residence was located on Toriizaka. This is hard for me to confirm because, well, I’ll get into it later.


Tan’nan Han

tall tree(s) The middle residence for a Tan’nan Domain was located in Azabu Kōgaibashi.

Ono Han

Komatsu Han

a single weeping willow The family funerary temple was Zōjō-ji! If I’m not mistaken, their cemetary is now located across from Tōkyō tower where Kondō Isami’s father is buried. The upper residence was once located in west Shinbashi. (There were two daimyō families located in this area with same name; I don’t know anything else about them).

This is the most popular theory by a long shot. Even Wikipedia likes it.

But it has a few problems. No Edo Period maps listed anything as Roppongi. This isn’t unusual, as time and time again we say common nicknames get applied to areas in the administrative re-shuffling that happened in the Meiji Era. But it also means, we don’t really know where the area originally referred to was nor do we know its size. Besides, if I had a penny for every Japanese family name with a reference to a tree in it, I’d be able to buy your mom – several times over.

But looking at the table above, you can see these daimyō mansions were in Shinbashi, Akasaka, Azabu, and Shirokane. This is all in present day Minato Ward – which doesn’t mean anything when trying to pinpoint a specific place. But it does mean something when you are walking somewhere, as people did before cars and trains. There is a certain centrality about the location of these daimyō.

But today Roppongi is a specific area and postal address. None of these daimyō had mansions in the area we would consider Roppongi today. In all fairness, the Takagi and Katagiri were literally right on the border, though. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the exact locations of some residences isn’t completely known – and in some cases, the daimyō family moved (or were re-shuffled).

That said, the location of funerary temples of some of the lesser daimyō in the vicinity does lend a bit of credence to the story. The other interesting thing is that some of the “mystery residences” are those of the Aoki, the Kutsuki, the Takagi, and the Katagiri. The first three just barely met the minimum kokudaka for daimyō status. If their domains’ value slipped below 10,000 koku, they could have had their domains confiscated. In 1650, Katagiri Tametsugu was demoted to hatamoto status for 無嗣断絶 mushi danzetsu the crime of dying without an appointed heirix. Tatsuta Domain was confiscated, subsequently abolished, and the family was reshuffled. Dying without an heir was considered an act of such abject stupidity by the shōgunate, that it always required immediate action. I would tend to agree. In a “feudal” society, if you don’t have a designated successor, you probably shouldn’t be governing anything. But then again, the boy was only 15.

Anyhoo, this seems to be the strongest theory simply because it’s the only with any evidence. It’s not air tight by any stretch of the imagination; much of its appeal coming from the fact that most people don’t know (or care) exactly where daimyō Edo residences were. True or not, in my opinion, this is the most interesting theory.

The residence at the top is the Uesugi mansion. This picture is great because it gives you an idea of how massive these estates were. They really were the Edo Period equivalents of embassies.

The residence at the top is the Uesugi mansion.
This picture is great because it gives you an idea of how massive these estates were.
They really were the Edo Period equivalents of embassies.
And yes, this is their upper residence. and as such it’s located at Edo Castle.

Figurative: 6 hitching poles…

There’s another theory about 6 poles (by extension, places) where you could tie up your horse. This is mostly a reference to (by Edo Period standards) nearby
Nihonbashi and not this area. Perhaps the idea being, samurai traveling long distances, could swap out a horse there, and then proceed to their 藩邸 hantei domain residence (essentially an embassay) on a horse that didn’t look worn out.

So, yup! Someone thought hitching poles near Nihonbashi would make a great place name over in Roppongi. The one thing I can say in defense of this theory is that, as I said before, until the name Roppongi was made official in the early Meiji Era under a western administrative system we have no idea where the name Roppongi referred to.

In conclusion, we have no idea where the name comes from. If you love historical linguistics or dialects, you might favor theories 1 & 2. If you’re a big fan of the Edo-Tōkyō, you probably like theory 4. Admittedly, they are appealing. The others have some charm, but ostensibly lack credibility.

But if you know them all, you can really see the hidden beauty of Edo-Tōkyō. Hopefully you can see why I’m so passionate about this city’s history. This is something I would never have said about Roppongi a few years ago. Foreigners who become “lifers” in Tōkyō generally shun Roppongi because Roppongi is for the newbies. Roppongi is for the idiots, Roppongi is for rich foreigners who can’t speak Japanese, Roppongi is where every sort of shadiness goes down. But for those of us who love Japanese History, especially Edo-Tōkyō, there is sooooooooooo much good shit in the surrounding area. Unfortunately for us, most of the best parts of Tōkyō are hidden. You really have to know where to look.

Check out Tokyo Bay in the distance!

Check out Tokyo Bay in the distance!

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i OMG, OMG, OMG, don’t get me started on how bad this blog started out.
ii Pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but Azabu Ward no longer exists.
iii Some well known examples are 本当 hontō true reduced to honto and no is regularly reduced to /n/. And /g/ is often pronounced with a /n/ sound before it; すごい sugoiすんごい sungoi.
iv Allegedly.
v I haven’t come across this etymology, but one wonders if a mix of the Roppōan and Roppō family is possible. If there were 6 trees located on the property of the Roppō family, you could get a pun based on 六方の木 Roppō no ki (Roppo’ n’ gi) the Roppō’s trees and 六本木 Roppongi 6 trees. Call me crazy, but that makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
vi A Google search just pulls up restaurants and geometry references (roppō literally means hexagon).
vii What exactly was the Genpei War? In short, it was a war between the Minamoto and Taira. More details here!
viii If you’re wondering what the hell a daimyō is and why there residences are CRUCIAL to understanding the history of Tōkyō, please read my short summary of sankin-kōtai here.
ix The family continued and committed mushi danzetsu a couple more times. After been so heavily punished by the shōgunate, you’d think the family would have set up some policy. I guess they weren’t the brightest bunch.

What does Keyakizaka mean?

In Japanese History on February 1, 2014 at 4:53 pm

Keyakizaka (Zelkova Hill)


Today’s place name etymology is another easy one. The first kanji is 欅 keyaki and means zelkova tree. The second kanji is 坂 saka hill. The kanji for keyaki is pretty rare in Modern Japanese, so this name is almost always written as ケヤキ坂 keyakizaka so people can actually read it. The Roppongi area has a long standing connection with zelkova trees. In fact, some people cite 6 giant zelkova trees as the etymology of the place name Roppongi[i].

But basically, the Azabu and Roppongi areas were a short walk from 江戸湾 Edo Wan Edo Bay but and the terrain was marked by lush wooded high ground (which became yamanote) and not-too-wet lowlands (which became shitamachi). The lush high ground was perfect for daimyō residences and lowlands were suitable for the merchant towns that catered to the elite domain “embassies.” Interestingly, the area is home to a number of embassies – many occupying former daimyō properties.

Anyhoo, I’m getting side tracked. I can’t say whether this name has survived from the Edo Period or not, but this 400 meter or uphill promenade is definitely befitting of the area’s Edo Period elite history. The street is wide and lined with trees and flower beds. The flowers are changed seasonally. The zelkova trees are richly illuminated – much more so now than the first time I visited in 2003. The street runs through a part of the Roppongi Hills “urban center” connecting the formerly shitamachi Azabu-Jūban shopping street with the 5-star Grand Hyatt Tokyo at the top of the hill. If you view off the road into the Roppongi Hills complex you will come upon the so-called Mohri Garden.

A quick word about this garden’s name. Roppongi Hills was developed by a dude named Mori Minoru. This garden is named after the Mori Clan who ruled 長州藩 Chōshū han Chōshū Domain. The developer’s name is 森 Mori and the daimyō’s name is 毛利 Mōri (spelled Mohri in the official Roppongi Hills jargon). So don’t confuse the two. But all I wanted to point out is that the developers claim that the garden is a partial holdover from the original daimyō garden. Take that with a grain of salt. It’s definitely a nice garden, if not a busy garden, and it’s definitely in the Japanese style. But I’m not willing to vouch to say any of it is actually a remnant of the Edo Period.

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[i] 六本木 Roppongi literally, “6 Trees.” Another version of the story says they were pine trees and not zelkovas. I don’t buy into that theory at all because there is a much more compelling derivation.
BTW – I just looked up my original article on Roppongi and was shocked at how short and uninformative it was. So I’m adding Roppongi to my “do over” list and will give a detailed explanation about the ‘Pong. 

What does Mamiana-cho mean?

In Japanese History on September 3, 2013 at 2:44 am

Raccoon-Hole Town

The place name Mamiana has always been connected to Mamiana Hill.   BTW - Tokyo generally has no street names so hills and landmarks serve as guideposts. In Minato Ward all the famous hills are marked with these wooden posts with an explanation of the importance or etymology of the name of the hill.

The place name Mamiana has always been connected to Mamiana Hill.
BTW – Tokyo generally has no street names so hills and landmarks serve as guideposts. In Minato Ward all the famous hills are marked with these wooden posts with an explanation of the importance or etymology of the name of the hill.


Sorry for my recent silence. I fell down the wormhole that is Game of Thrones and spent all my free time plowing through seasons 1, 2 , and 3[i]. To my delight I learned that season 4 is still in production, so I can finally get back writing Japan This!.


Today’s Tōkyō place name is a doozy.


Straddled between Azabu-Jūban, Higashi-Azabu, and Azabu-dai, is a small park called 狸穴町公園 which is freaking impossible to read unless you already know the place or you’re some kind of next level kanji master. Luckily, if you go to the area, many of the buildings don’t use the kanji (they use katakana or rōmaji) so if you stumble across this tiny area of Azabu, you’ll know how to read it. This residential area is home to about 250-260 people and is near the Russian Embassy and a non-descript S&M themed love hotel (apparently frequented regularly by Russians).

Actually, the park looks like crap. Not sure why no one cleans that pool out...

Actually, the park looks like crap. Not sure why no one cleans that pool out…

Actually the area was virtually transparent except to rich expats and diplomats 10-15 years ago. It became more accessible when Azabu-Jūban Station was built and became the convergence of the 南北線 Nanboku-sen North-South Line and 大江戸線 Ō-Edo-sen Greater Edo Area Line. It’s still a sleepy corner of the greater Azabu area, but it’s undergone massive development in the last ten years.

One of the most boring looking embassies in Tokyo. (The American Embassy isn't much better, to be honest).   If I'm not mistaken, this building is a Soviet era structure.

One of the most boring looking embassies in Tokyo. (The American Embassy isn’t much better, to be honest).
If I’m not mistaken, this building is a Soviet era structure.

The reading of 狸穴町 is Mamiana-chō. The first kanji, , is usually read as tanuki. The second is 穴 ana hole. The final character, 町 chō, has come up often in this blog and it means town.

The kanji 狸 tanuki is where the fun lies. Anyone who has ever walked down a Japanese street is familiar with tanuki. They often stand outside of 居酒屋 izakaya Japanese style pubs.

The stereotypical composite TANUKI. This creature is more a product of folklore and a mix of Chinese and Japanese mythology and pre-scientific understanding of the animal kingdoms.  A frequent character in Japanese folklore, tanuki are considered absent minded masters of disguise.

The stereotypical composite TANUKI. This creature is more a product of folklore and a mix of Chinese and Japanese mythology and pre-scientific understanding of the animal kingdoms.
A frequent character in Japanese folklore, tanuki are considered absent minded masters of disguise.

The scientific name for tanuki is Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus (although this taxonomy is apparently in dispute by zoologists and evolutionary biologists). The common name is Japanese Raccoon Dog and if you look at a picture of one, you’ll see why it has the combined name raccoon and dog.

You can see why they are called raccoon dogs in English. Although the name is based on their superficial aspect, the jury is out on their evolutionary biological roots.

You can see why they are called raccoon dogs in English. Although the name is based on their superficial aspect, the jury is out on their evolutionary biological roots.

As far as I know, tanuki are neither raccoons nor dogs[ii]. They merely resemble the two. In Japanese dialects, different words are used for this animal. But in 標準語 Hyōjungo Standard Japanese, it’s called tanuki, so we’ll stick to that one. The kanji was used for a range of small furry mammals with a range of readings in various dialects referring to everything from tanuki to badgers to feral cats to large flying squirrels to wild boars, etc. Kanji use aside, the word まみ mami (which was sometimes assigned to the kanji ) appears to have been an Edo Dialect word that applied specifically to female tanuki, Japanese badgers[iii], and wild boar[iv]. An alternate kanji, 猯 mami was generally used for this grouping of animals. This word was eventually replaced by the word of the elite class, tanuki, which became the standard word we use today. So this reading is a vestige of the old Edo Dialect. Also it’s clear that in pre-modern Japan[v], there was a lot of flexibility in the naming and grouping of animals – or at least a different way of thinking that was at odds with the Linnæan system of taxonomy.

A "mami" is most likely a composite creature (and partly mythological).   Before the 1860's there was no scientific method in Japan. Animals weren't classified according to evolutionary biolog. But that doesn't mean the Japanese didn't observe or study animals. They most definitely did. Some of there categories were rather broad by today's standards. Hence the confusion in what mami, tanuki and other animals were called.

A “mami” is most likely a composite creature (and partly mythological). But here you can clearly see a “mami” living in a cave or hole as pre-modern Japanese people thought of it..Before the 1860’s there was no scientific method in Japan. Animals weren’t classified according to evolutionary biology. But that doesn’t mean the Japanese didn’t observe or study animals. They most definitely did. Some of their categories were rather broad by today’s standards. Hence the confusion in what mami, tanuki and other animals were called. 



OK, we’ve heard a little kanji talk, a little linguistics, dialectology, and biology. Now let’s talk etymology!



The Prevailing Theory

The prevailing theory is that at the bottom of the hill presently called 狸穴坂 Mamiana-zaka Mamiana Hill, a group of 猯 mami (could have been anything from wild boar to badgers or tanuki) were thought to have lived and burrowed in holes for shelter. People gave the area the name 狸穴 mami ana mami hole.

The fluidity of animal naming/grouping (or dialect influences[vi]) led to the current spelling with the tanuki kanji instead of the mami kanji.

The Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory

As I cover more and more Tōkyō place names, the Tokugawa Iemitsu Did It Theory plays a huge and ever-growing role in the etymology[vii]. This theory states that a really big cavern or hole was in the area and the 3rd shōgun, Iemitsu, ordered that the hole be explored.  Some brave samurai went in the hole, looked around and determined that まみ mami (local Edo word) female tanuki were living there. They named the place and the rest is history.

The Mine Shaft Theory

It’s important to keep in mind that because of the variation in kanji (ie; and ) and the importance of somewhat non-descript animal characters in Japanese folklore, the holes may have originally been attributed to mythological or composite creatures that may not have ever existed there.

The final theory, which isn’t particularly unbelievable, states that the area at the bottom of the hill was an ancient quarry or mine. Later generations saw the remains of the facility and produced some local folklore stating the tanuki had dug the holes – or that actual tanuki or some other animals[viii] did actually live in those ruins.

As for the historicity of any of the claims, nothing can be said except that at the beginning of the Edo Period the place name was first recorded as 飯倉狸穴町 Īgura Mamiana-chō, named after a prosperous merchant family named Īgura who lived on 狸穴坂 Mamiana-zaka Mamiana Hill. Actually, if you walk up the hill towards Roppongi from Mamiana Park, you’ll come to an area that preserves the Īgura family name. That area is called 飯倉片町 Īgura Katamachi[ix].

Iigura Katamachi

Iigura Katamachi




[i] All I have to say is those characters are straight up gangsta. Can’t wait for season 4!

[ii] Though they are currently grouped in the family Canidæ, they are not in the genus Canis which are actual dogs. Raccoons in the US are currently classified in the family Procyonidæ.

[iii] Meles anakuma is 穴熊 anaguma “hole bear” – Japanese Badger.

[iv] Sus scrofa leucomystax is 猪 inoshishi wild boar.

[v] ie; pre-scientific Japan.

[vi] Or both!

[vii] Many of which, but not all, should be taken with a grain of salt.

[viii] Badgers, wild boars, tanuki, your mom…

[ix] The Īgura family name is also suspect in that it could just refer to the presence of food warehouses in the area. It is a family name, but it literally means rice/food warehouse. In cases like this, without further evidence it’s a game of which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Why is Toriizaka called Toriizaka?

In Japanese History, Japanese Sex on May 14, 2013 at 11:20 pm

Torīzaka (Torī Hill)

Looking up Toriizaka from Toriizakashita.

Looking up Toriizaka from Toriizakashita.

Between the Azabu-Jūban main street* and Roppongi 5-chōme there is a monster hill. I’ve been told it’s one of the steepest hills in central Tōkyō – I believe it. I’ve walked it many times (it’s not that bad), but you definitely get a work out. FujiTV (?) used to run a short segment at night of hot girls running up famous hills. It’s flat at the top of the hill, but the street continues to Roppongi.

(the following video is not Torīzaka, but you get the idea…)*****



The name has always be curious to me because it’s made of two very common Japanese words:

鳥居 torī the “gate” to a Shintō shrine and 坂 saka hill. It would seem obvious except for the fact that there is neither a torī nor a shrine. The closest shrine I know is 麻布十番稲荷神社 Azabu-Jūban Inari Jinja Azabu-Jūban Inari Shrine, but it’s located a fair enough distance from the hill that I doubt there is a connection.

Just now as I’m thinking about it, I suddenly remembered that when the Torīzaka street** crosses the main street (which is a valley), it goes back uphill on the other side of the street. I seem to remember seeing some floats for a small neighborhood Shintō festival one time last year. Now I’m wondering if there is a connection.

What does Toriizaka Mean?

If you know this family crest, you can probably figure out the etymology of Toriizaka by yourself….

Let the investigating begin!

The old maps say that is that a residence of the Torī clan existed here. Retainers of Tokugawa since the Sengoku Era, the family is famous for a certain 鳥居強右衛門 Torī Sunēmon, a loyal samurai who preferred crucifixion to double crossing his bros like a little bitch***. He took it like a man. It wasn’t a daimyō residence, but a relative named 鳥居彦右衛門 Torīzaka Hikoemon who a large samurai residence on the hill. The family was prestigious for their loyalty to the founder of the shōgunate and so the area took pride and referred to the area as 鳥居坂町 Torīzakachō the Torī Hill Neighborhood.


The crucifixion of Torii Suneemon, the famous ancestor of whomever lived on Toriizaka. He was crucified by Takeda Katsuyori, one of the greatest douchebags of the Sengoku Period.

The area is still upper class and the buildings – be they schools, embassies or cultural institutions are surrounded by trees and greenery that really reflect the high city of the Edo Period elite. It’s a cool area despite being located right next to Roppongi which has a reputation as the dirty-ass gaijin slime pit of Japan.


Roppongi is shithole


There is another theory that 氷川神社 Hikawa Jinja Hikawa Shrine, one of the oldest shrines in the area, was originally the bottom of the hill near Azabu-Jūban**** and the street name is a reference to the shrine’s torī. The shrine is located in 元麻布 Moto-Azabu Old Azabu. But according to the information at the shrine, they were originally established in 942 on the same street and hill in Moto-Azabu, just a little bit lower down the hill. They were relocated further up the hill in 1659. While Torīzakachō is a neighboring area, the street intersections are too far to have made any confusion. Plus, the Torī family mansion would have already been on the other hill (Torīzaka) by this time. So I don’t think this theory is valid.

So, as it turns out, there isn’t a connection to the festival I saw. It’s mostly like a case of the area taking pride in the prestige of having a relative of a Sengoku Era hero, loyal to the founder of the Edo Bakufu, in their hood. Good for them.



* The street, as most streets in former castle towns like Edo, do not have names – and this is by design. The city is not laid out on a grid, streets twist and turn and often dead end suddenly, and they rarely have names. This is to confuse invading armies and hinder an easy advance into the heart of the city, the castle. The Romans built walls around the cities and government, the Japanese built cities around the government lol. Anyways, the street is referred to as the 麻布十番商店街 Azabu-Jūban Shōtengai Azabu-Jūban Shopping Street (in the Edo Period think of it as the merchant district).
** This street also doesn’t have a name, only the hill has a name. Another normal feature of life in a castle town.
*** The Battle of Nagashino is a pretty major event in Japanese History, read more about it here.
**** This area still appears on maps as 鳥居坂下 Torīzakashita (bottom of Torīzaka), but it’s not an official postal code name.
***** I embedded this as hyperlink above, but in case you missed it, here is the direct link to pictures of model, Kawai Asuna, running up Torīzaka (sorry, no video):

What does Nogizaka mean?

In Japanese History on March 27, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Nogizaka (Nogi Hill)

Sign inside Nogizaka Station

Sign inside Nogizaka Station

Today’s place name is an easy one.

Nogizaka (Nogi Hill) is… you guessed it! a hill.

It’s located in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, a walkable distance from Roppongi and Azabu-Juban and Aoyama Cemetery. Officially, there isn’t an area called Nogizaka, but because the train station is named Nogizaka, the immediate area is sometimes informally referred to as such.

The hill is named after 乃木希典  Nogi Maresuke (1849-1912) who lived on the hill. Nogi was a bad ass general in the Imperial Army. He was born into a samurai family in the final years of the Edo Period and actually participated in the official smack down of the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. He lost the Imperial Banner in a battle and wanted to commit seppuku to atone for his fuck up, but the Meiji Emperor wasn’t having it. “You’ll have to wait, little Maresuke,” said the emperor, “I need you now.”

General Nogi and his wife, Shizuko.

General Nogi and his wife, Shizuko.

OK, the emperor didn’t actually say that, but he effectively said that. And don’t worry… little Maresuke will get his chance to commit suicide eventually.

Maresuke’s biggest success was forcing Russia to surrender after the Siege of Port Arthur – a battle that I have to confess I know absolutely nothing about.  Well, OK, I know something about it. I know that the Imperial Army faced much harder resistance than expected and took massive casualties. Despite winning the battle, little Maresuke met with the emperor to beg for forgiveness for losing so many men. He told the emperor he wanted to kill himself… again. But this time, the emperor said, “You’ll have to wait, little Maresuke. The battle was an imperial order. You’ll have to live at least as long as I.”

Little Maresuke in fundoshi.

Little Maresuke in happier times…

And so little Maresuke waited and waited and waited.

And waited.

Then on July 30th, 1912, his chance finally came. The Meiji Emperor died and little Maresuke could finally commit seppuku after all. But there was one problem. The funeral wouldn’t be for another 45 days.

So he waited a little bit more.

Then his chance finally came. For real.

After the funeral procession had left the Imperial Palace (formerly Edo Castle), Maresuke and his wife, Shizuko, snuck out the back and headed to their home on the hill (that’s Nogi Hill to you, buddy). They went into a nice room with a view and committed 殉死 junshi (following your lord into death). He “helped” his wife “stab herself” in the neck (seems legit), a ritual called 自害 jigai. Then he performed seppuku by making three slits in his belly.

Shizuko was quite the minger in her day.

Shizuko was quite the minger in her day.

I’m not sure who had to clean up the tatami room after this little escapade, but I’m sure it wasn’t fun. Anyways, the house is still there and you can even visit the seppuku room and see the bloody kimonos they were wearing if you go in September for the special suicide anniversary extravaganza. Nearby in Akasaka is 乃木神社 Nogi Jinja Nogi Shrine where Shizuko and little Maresuke are enshrined along with their 2 kids. If you take a short walk to Aoyama Cemetery, you can visit the couple’s grave. All these sites are accessible from 乃木坂駅 Nogizaka Station.

The Nogi Residence back in the day.

The Nogi Residence back in the day.

Don't worry, they cleaned the tatami mats a long time ago.

The Nogi residence today. Don’t worry, they cleaned the tatami mats a long time ago. There’s no suicide blood anymore.

When we learn about history, we have to take the culture and the ethos of the time into consideration. While General Nogi was unquestionably a great Japanese general in these early days of the Imperial Army and Japan’s modernization and industrialization, he was essentially trapped between two worlds – the world of Tokugawa Japan and the world of Meiji Japan. He wasn’t the only one. Everyone at that time was in the same situation.

The problem I have with little Maresuke is that his junshi (ritual suicide upon a leader’s death) is the first warning symptom we get of the fanatical emperor worship that plagues Imperial Japan and eventually leads to the near annihilation of Japan in WWII. In my mind, there was no reason for him to kill himself and even less reason for his wife to do it (keep in mind he “helped” her). Maybe I’m falling into the trap of looking at this through modern eyes, then again… this wasn’t that long ago. Apparently, opinions on this “double suicide” were divided. Some people who still romanticized the ways of bushido saw it as noble, other saw it as embarrassing – a sign that Japan hadn’t yet joined Western “modernity” or at least wouldn’t be seen as “modern” in the eyes of the foreign powers that forced Japan open in the Bakumatsu.

Whatever our modern opinions of his actions, they are distinctly Japanese. And let’s just leave it at that.


Little Maresuke and Minging Shizuko’s final resting spot.

Nogi Shrine:


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Why is Roppongi called Roppongi?

In Japanese History on February 10, 2013 at 2:58 pm

Roppongi (6 Trees)

Legend has it that the area was the location of the lower residences of 6 daimyō. A daimyō is a feudal lord. They were required to serve the shōgun in Edo and represent their domains in the capital. Most of them about 3 residences in Edo, an upper residence next to Edo Castle (now the Imperial Palace), a middle residence a little farther out, and a lower residence in the suburbs of Edo.

There’s another story that there were 6 pine trees here, but that just sounds stupid…or boring at best.


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