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What does Miyakezaka mean?

In Japanese History on April 6, 2020 at 7:22 am

Miyake-zaka (three house hill; more at “Miyake Slope”)


A bar at Narita International Airport, empty due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Welcome to COVID-19, Bitches

Well, well, well. What do we have here? It seems we’re in the middle of a global freaking pandemic and people are locked up at home just drinking themselves to death[i] watching Netflix and bitching about the government on Facefook. Many writers, musicians, and dorky j-vloggers are taking advantage of the self-isolation requirements by churning out as much content as possible because… hey, who knows when you’ll have this much time off work again? Hopefully, most of you are getting in some quality reading time.

I’d like to take advantage of this opportunity, but my computer, my notes, and books are in Japan and, sadly, I am in the US until this whole thing dies down and I can actually get back to Tōkyō. All I have with me is an iPad, which is hardly conducive to my usual workflow. However, rather than doing my typical deep dives into Edo-Tōkyō places, I’ve chosen a few topics that I can write brief articles about over the coming weeks. Once this is all beyond us and we’re laughing with our friends about “Oh, remember that time when Wuhan Love™️ crashed the global economy and put us all out of work and 70,000[ii] people died? Wow, wasn’t that some shit?” Have no fear, if things come up that require deep dives, I think we can probably spin off some peripheral topics when this all dies down, or maybe in smaller, more concise article in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, I apologize for the brevity of these bite sized articles, but I’ll try to keep them educational and entertaining.


Miyakezaka as it looks today. (Spoilers: it’s a hill!)


Miyakezaka is a hill in 東京都千代田区 Tōkyō-to Chiyoda-ku Chiyoda Ward, Tōkyō Metropolis near 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle[iii]. It essentially runs from 永田町 Nagatachō[iv] to 国立劇場 Kokuritsu Gekijō the National Theater, which means this is some pretty prime real estate. It’s a short walk to one of the castle’s more infamous gates, which will get to in a bit.

I should mention here that in the Edo Period, Miyakezaka was lined with two distinct types of trees and so it had two additional nicknames which we won’t get into today[v]. Those were: 皀坂 Saikachizaka Gleditsia Hill[vi] and 柏之木坂 Kashinokizaka Kashi Tree Hill[vii].


Saikachi tree pod 🧐

Let’s Look at the Kanji

san; mi


taku; yake


saka, –zaka; han

hill, slope

This is essentially a compound word made by combining a family name 三宅 Miyake Miyake[viii] and the topography word 坂 saka hill.

As I mentioned before, this slope is located next to the castle. In fact, it’s right next to the 内堀 uchibori inner moat which separated the shōgun’s citadel from the palaces of his most loyal retainers, the 譜代大名 fudai daimyō, the hereditary lords whose ancestors had supported the 徳川家 Tokugawa-ke Tokugawa clan during the 関ヶ原の戦い Sekigahara no Tatakai Battle of Sekigahara in 1600[ix]. At the very top of the hill was a modest palace: 田原三宅家上屋敷 Tawara Miyake-ke kami-yashiki the upper residence of the Tawara Miyake clan.


The Miyake clan upper residence is in the center of the map (you can see Miyakezaka Syo Park written inside the compound).

The Miyake Clan?

Yeah, yeah. I’d never heard of them either. And seems that as far as nobility goes, they’re pretty damn forgettable. They were based in 三河国 Mikawa no Kuni Mikawa Province, modern 愛知県 Aichi-ken Aichi Prefecture. Allegedly, the clan traces their origins to the imperial court of the 1400’s, but they really didn’t come into their own until the 16th century. They had a long running – and often violent – rivalry with their neighbors, 松平家 Matsudaira-ke the Matsudaira clan. And for those of you who have forgotten, in 1568, a certain 松平元康 Matsudaira Motoyasu established his own family line and changed his name to 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Yes. That Ieyasu.

Anyhoo, the rivalry between the Miyake and Matsudaira came to end in 1558 when 三宅政貞 Miyake Masasada and his son 三宅康貞 Miyake Yasumasa became retainers of Tokugawa Ieyasu. In fact, the 康 yasu[x] is Yasumasa’s name was given to him by Ieyasu when the boy came of age. He served his lord well as a general and fought with the Tokugawa in two very important battles. One, 姉川の戦い Anegawa no Tatakai the Battle of Anegawa[xi] in 1570, and two, 長篠の戦い Nagashino no Tatakai the Battle of Nagashino in 1575. While loyal retainers of the Tokugawa, it does not seem like they participated in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. When Ieyasu gave up his former holdings and set up his power base in Edo, his Mikawa retainers and generals came with him, this would include the Miyake. This is just conjecture, bought perhaps Ieyasu wanted loyal men to protect his new capital during the Sekigahara campaign, you know… just in case.


Tawara Castle in Aichi Prefecture, castle of the Miyake clan

At any rate, in 1603, Ieyasu received the title 征夷大将軍 sei’i taishōgun (ie: shōgun) and began dividing up his 天下 tenka realm into 藩 han domains. He allocated 挙母藩 Koromo Han Koromo Domain in modern 愛知県豊田市 Aichi-ken Toyota-shi Toyota City, Aichi Prefecture to the Miyake, which was valued at 一万石 ichiman koku 10,000 koku[xii] and appointed Yasusada as the first hereditary daimyō of that fief under Tokugawa hegemony.

The family must have played its cards right, because in 1615, they were given a promotion – I assume this means they provided some service during 大坂夏の陣 Ōsaka Natsu no Jin the Siege of Ōsaka (summer campaign)[xiii]. I say this because they were promoted and given control over the prosperous fief of 亀山藩 Kameyama Han Kameyama Domain in 伊勢国 Ise no Kuni Ise Province, which is located in modern 三重県亀山市 Mie-ken Kameyama-shi Kameyama City, Mie Prefecture. This domain was valued at 二万石 niman koku 20,000 koku – double their previous worth!

However, fifty years later. Bruh. Somebody dropped the ball big time. The family was demoted in rank and sent to 三河国田原藩 Mikawa no Kuni Tawara Han Tawara Domain, Mikawa Province in present day 愛知県田原市 Aichi-ken Tawara-shi Tawara City, Aichi Prefecture[xiv]. This field was only valued at a measly 一万二千石 ichiman nisen koku 12,000 koku. It’s 2000 koku better than where they started, but, c’mon dawg[xv]. From 1644 until 1873 (Meiji 3), the Miyake would hold on tight to these lands in their ancestral Mikawa for the rest of the Edo Period.


The modest Miyake residence, the sprawling Ii palace, and the Sakurada Gate

The End of an Era

As for their palace on the top of Miyakezaka, it was located next to one of the most prestigious mansions on the grounds of Edo Castle – 彦根井伊家上屋敷 Hikone Ii-ke kami-yashiki the upper residence of the Ii clan of Hikone Domain. This clan had served Tokugawa Ieyasu well in the Battle of Sekigahara and ever since had been among the most elite and loyal fudai daimyō families. In the final days of the shōgunate, the shōgunal regent, 井伊直弼 Ii Naosuke, wisely ordered the country to slowly open and trade with the technologically advanced western powers in order to procure weapons and military strategies to protect the country from being overrun and bled dry by imperialism like all the rest of Asia. Some samurai disagreed with this policy and turned to terrorism in order to get their way. On March 24, 1860, they assassinated Ii Naosuke as he proceeded from his palace to the castle. Because he was killed in front of the 桜田御門 Sakurada Go-mon Sakurada Gate of Edo Castle, this event was called 桜田門外の変 Sakuradamon-gai no Hen the Sakuradamon Incident. The gate still stands today, not too far from Miyakezaka.


How the Miyake estate looks today. Compare it to the Edo Period map under “Let’s Look at the Kanji.” You can see the Miyakezaka Syo Park label.

When the domain system was abolished, all the lords were sent back to their lands and the majority of palaces were demolished. The palaces of the Miyake and Ii clans were torn down and the Meiji government used these spaces as the new home of 大日本帝国陸軍 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Rikugun the Imperial Japanese Army until 1941. At this time, they were considered too close to the castle, so operations were moved out to 市ヶ谷 Ichigaya.

Today there is a park called 三宅小公園 Miyake Shōkōen Miyake Small Park and 三宅坂交差点 Miyakezaka Kōsaten Miyakezaka Junction[xvi] that some of you fancy car-drivin’ types might like[xvii]. But for the most part, the hill is just a memory in the minds of local history nerds.


Miyakezaka Small Park commemorated the birthplace of bakumatsu era painter Watanabe Kazan who liked western art and committed seppuku in Tawara.


Well, I think I succeeded in crafting a bite-sized article for the first time in years. At this pace, I think I can bang out a few more until all this craziness dies down. Definitely could’ve gone way deeper, but here we are, huh? Anyways, I know this pandemic thing is cramping people’s lifestyles, costing people their incomes and jobs, and generally causing a real sense of unease and fear[xviii]. Oh, and it’s killing people. Let’s not forget that. Stay home. Call loved ones. Wash your hands. Stay six feet apart. Don’t smoke all your weed in one week. And most of all, be safe.

I’ll see you soon.

Further Reading:


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Explore Edo-Tōkyō With Me Japan This Guided Tours
(It’s not for tourists, it’s for history nerds!)


[i] Because I know most of you blew through your cocaine stash the first week of lockdown.
[ii] The number as of the time this article was being written. Frighteningly, this will definitely go up by the time the next article is published.
[iii] The current 皇居 Kōkyo Imperial Palace (but we don’t use that word around here).
[iv] Home of 国会議事堂 Kokkai Gijidō the National Diet, ie: Parliament.
[v] In 岡山県 Okyama-ken Okayama Prefecture, this family name is usually spelled with 御 go-/o-/mi– honorable/divine instead of 三 san/mi– three, ie: 御宅 Miyake. This spelling variance occurs with many ancient names (family names, temple/shrine names, place names, etc).
[vi] This is the battle from which the first shōgun, 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu, emerged as the dē factō ruler of Japan.
[vii] Because it’s boooooooooring.
[viii] Gleditsia is also known as Japanese honey locust, if that means anything to you.
[ix] Kashi refers to a family of trees called Fagaceæ which is common in the Kantō area, if that means anything to you.
[x] The kanji means “peaceful.”
[xi] Or, the Battle of the Ane River.
[xii] One koku is considered enough rice to feed an adult male for a year.
[xiii] However, a quick search through the interwebs doesn’t show the name Miyake on any list of generals at the siege. If you know something I don’t, please let me know!
[xiv] Nobody knows where the fuck this place is. JK, actually, nobody wants to know where it is.
[xv] I couldn’t find anything to explain why the clan was demoted and moved, but this happened during the reign of the third shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu, which sets off all sorts of alarms in my head. Iemitsu was notorious for making 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers and low ranking daimyō his lovers and fast tracking them to really prestigious ranks, then when he got bored with his boy toys, he demoted them and humiliated them. What a bitch.
[xvi] This marks the junction of National Route 20 and National Route 246.
[xvii] Why the fuck would you drive in Tōkyō??
[xviii] And let’s be honest, a lot of boredom.

Where is Goten’yama today?

In Japanese History on March 29, 2017 at 5:55 am

(palace hill)


Today, we’re breaking from the usual etymology and location breakdown because I’ve already covered this area. I’m sticking to the recent theme of cherry blossoms, but I’d like to try something a little different. Bear with me. But I think you’re all going to like this. There’s an accompanying video at the bottom in which I’ll walk you around all these places.

御殿山 Goten’yama was one of the most popular 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing spots in 江戸 Edo. It was a bluff in 品川 Shinagawa that sat on the coast of 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay. It was outside of the city limits of the shōgun’s capital, located in 武蔵国荏原郡 Musashi no Kuni, Ebara-gun Ebara District, Musashi Province near the 二里塚 niri-zuka, a milestone indicating this area was roughly 4.88 miles (7.854 km) from 日本橋 Nihonbashi on the 東海道 Tōkaidō, the highway connecting the shōgunal capital of Edo with the imperial capital of 京都 Kyōto. It was one of the most celebrated spots for hanami, and might still be today, had the shōgunate not destroyed the mountain in 1853 to dump the dirt into the bay for the urgent construction of the 品川台場 Shinagawa Daiba Shinagawa Batteries.


I’ve written about Goten’yama, the Shinagawa Daiba, and to a certain degree Shinagawa. But, I decided to expand on the topic a little bit. I thought it might be nice to compare the area then and now because it’s changed so much – and I’m not just talking about them literally tearing down the mountain. If we transported an Edoite to our time, they’d recognize the layout of the streets, but would be shocked by the destruction of the coastline by landfill and development. They might also find it funny what bits and pieces still exist today and how they’ve been incorporated into our modern lives.

Long time readers should be familiar with most of these topics, but for noobs or anyone wanting to brush up, it’s highly recommended you check out these past articles:


Fishing boats in Shinagawa. Actually, you can charter these and they’ll take you fishing in Tōkyō Bay.

Let’s Look at Goten’yama

Hopefully the video walk-through of Goten’yama and its immediate environs will give you an idea of what the place looks like and feels like on the street level. It’s one thing to look at a flat 2D map, it’s another to actually explore the space first hand – everything feels different. Hopefully the video will give you a better sense of this small, but important section of 品川宿 Shinagawa-shuku Shinagawa Post Town, nicknamed 江戸の玄関 Edo no Genkan Edo’s Doorstep[i].

And so, I present you with a map of Shinagawa and Goten’yama in the late Edo Period, but before the government made any major changes to the area in the 幕末 Bakumatsu last days of the Tokugawa Shōgunate (1853-1868).

before 1853

Familiarize yourself with a few of these place names and the geography. We’re about to go deep.

Fishermen, Travelers, Merchants, Sightseers, Oiran, and Samurai

Being a safe location on a bay with calm waters rich with seafood and so busy with land based travelers coming and going every day, Shinagawa turned into a town focused on customer service. Travelers needed lodging and places to eat. They needed places to bathe and purchase goods. Fresh fish and a view of the greatest seaside view an Edo Period person could possibly see were more than enough to make Shinagawa an attractive place to spend not only one, but two days. One of the main attractions was prostitution, big business in any post town[ii]. The difference was, Shinagawa offered access to Goten’yama which gave you access to a commanding, aerial view of the bay. During the day, you could see fishing boats on the water, in the evening, you could see pleasure boats – and just imagine the hijinks that went down on those private voyages[iii].

dozo sagami

Dozō Sagami, a kura-zukuri (fireproof warehouse style) high end brothel in Shinagawa-shuku which featured first class courtesans – including oiran, the highest ranking girls to play with.

Many of the 茶屋 chaya teahouses (read: brothels) here became quite famous. One place in particular, the 土蔵相模 Dozō Sagami, remained in operation up until the ban on prostitution by the American Occupation. After that, it operated as a hotel well into the 1950’s. Dozō Sagami had a reputation as a quite high class brothel and was popular among the samurai class. Many anti-shōgunate terrorists frequented this teahouse during the Bakumatsu. The most infamous of these anti-government agitators was a group 17 samurai from 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain and one from 薩摩藩 Satsuma Han Satsuma Domain who held an all-day party here eating, drinking, and banging “tea girls” as if it was their last day on earth.


A room called the Midōshi no Ma inside Dozō Sagami

And, indeed, it was their last day on earth. The next day, resolved to achieve their goal or die trying, they ambushed the shōgunal regent 井伊直弼 Ii Naosuke as he and his entourage left his 上屋敷 kami-yashiki upper residence to attend a meeting next door in 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle. This brazen assassination of the highest ranking shōgunate official in broad daylight was the first of many instances of terrorism that would plague the shōgunate as well as foreign diplomats and merchants in what would become the end of the Pax Tokugawa.

Shinagawa-shuku wasn’t just blessed by the calm waters of Edo Bay, the old post town was protected by a promontory, originally a sandbar created by the estuary of the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River that flowed into the bay. That finger-shaped jetty protected the mainland from the occasional irregular high tide or, presumably, tsunami[iv]. Whether it actually prevented catastrophes or not, I don’t know. However, this natural land mass was built up by the shōgunate and came to be known as 洲崎 Susaki which literally means “sandbar promontory,” and it was a permanent fixture of Shinagawa-shuku and you can clearly see it in many famous 浮世絵 ukiyo-e wood block prints. Families of certain fishermen here produced 御菜肴 o-saisakana snacks made from seafood and veggies that were presented to Edo Castle in exchange for their piscatory monopoly in the area.


Not in Shinagawa, but this scene of a beached whale in a harbor gives you a good idea of how impressive the scene we’re about to talk about must have been to the average person on the street. The view from up on a hill is strikingly similar to how the view would have been from Goten’yama.

In 1798, during the reign of 徳川家斉 Tokugawa Ienari[v], a whale washed ashore onto this promontory. This seems to have been a pretty unusual occurrence[vi], and it attracted a lot of local attention. In an age without TV, the word on the street finally made it to Edo Castle itself. Everyone one wanted to come see this huge sea creature that died on the banks of Susaki. It was such a big deal that the shōgun himself even came down to see what was up with this big ass dead fish on his doorstep[vii]. To this day, Shinagawa uses whales in various places as a decorative theme.


Kagata Shrine (former Susaki Benten/Benzaiten) on the old Susaki promontory – the cherry blossoms buds are ready to bloom.

A notable feature of the promontory was 洲崎弁天 Susaki Benten a temple dedicated to 弁才天 Benzaiten, the only female deity in the 七福神 Shichi Fukujin 7 Gods of Good Luck. After the 神仏判然令 Shinbutsu Hanzen-rei Edict Separating Shintō and Buddhism in 1868, the temple chose to retain its Shintō attributes and came to be known as 利田神社 Kagata Jinja Kagata Shrine, the name it retains to this day[viii].

kujira zuka.jpg

Kujira-zuka, the memorial stone of the beached whale.

On the grounds of the shrine, you can find a monument called the 鯨塚 Kujira-zuka Whale Mound. This was a grave built in memory of the beached whale that died on Susaki. It’s an interesting hold over of premodern syncretic religion in Japan. While Shintō tends to distance itself from the spiritual defilement of death, Buddhism embraces it as part of the cycle of life[ix]. However, Shintō is strongly tied to locations with unique spiritual attributes. Susaki Benzaiten was not constrained by any distinction between the religions (they were blended) and so it could justifiably perform funerary rites for the whale and honor it as a 神 kami Shintō deity local to the area all in one fell swoop[x].

Further Reading:


gotenyama hanami

This ukiyo-e is amazing because it is composed at the top of Goten’yama, but you can clearly see the commoner post town of Shinagawa-shuku below. The people on the mountain top are clearly elites. Oh, and look to the right side, you can see the Susaki promontory. You can also see that hanami habits haven’t changed much. People threw down towels so they didn’t have to sit on the ground, something very true in Japan today.


Oiran such as this provided upscale sexxxy time at the Dozō Sagami.

Let’s Walk up the Hill to Goten’yama

Sure, people were coming and going through Shinagawa all the time. Some were leaving the capital, some were coming to the capital. They came by land and they came by road. As I mentioned earlier, some were already in town and just came for drinking and whoring because… who doesn’t enjoy banging courtesans on the balcony of a traditional Japanese room with a decanter of sake in one hand while the sun sets over the bay with all those fishing boats out there on the water and no one’s the wiser[xi]?


But it wasn’t all dead whales and prostitutes. The real highlight of the year, was the cherry blossom season. Goten’yama was THE hanami spot par excellence for the discerning Edoite[xii]. This small mountain was located a hop, skip, and a jump away from the shoreline and was covered in cherry blossoms. The commoners who lived in the shitty towns below could make a quick trek up to the top of the mountain in minutes. The rich samurai and daimyō who lived at the top could do the same. And if their timing was right, travelers coming and going could spend an hour or so enjoying the view under the cherry trees[xiii]. The ease of coming here on foot in a kimono from the heart of the city[xiv] can’t be understated[xv].

hiroshige gotenyama hanami-2.jpg

The top of the hill on the bayside was open to the public like a modern park. Going slightly further inland, it was home to massive estates owned by the daimyō and smaller estates owned by samurai closely affiliated with the Tokugawa Shōgunate. To this day, you can still see a huge difference between Shinagawa the post town and Shinagawa in modern Goten’yama.

hiroshige shinagawa susaki

Shinagawa-shuku, Toriumi Bridge, and Susaki Benzaiten.

Anyhoo, hanami-goers often broke up their celebrations under the floating pink petals to venture down the hill to visit the plethora of shops in Shinagawa to eat or buy goods to bring back up to the top of the mountain[xvi]. Couples often descended the mountain to cross 鳥海橋 Toriumibashi Toriumi Bridge to visit Susaki Benten (Kagata Shrine), in flagrant disregard of the unwritten taboo against couples visiting shrines dedicated to Benzaiten[xvii].


Defending the Bay from the Foreign Threat

So, as we all know, in 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Edo Bay with his so-called Black Ships. He told the shōgunate to open the country or be opened by force. He then left, promising to come back in one year to seal the deal. The second he had left the bay, the government freaked out. One faction, led by the regent Ii Naosuke recognized the Americans’ superior military technology and wisely opted to open the country to foreigners in order to purchase modern weaponry and bring the country to equal footing with the westerners[xviii]. In the meantime, they decided, it was in the shōgunate’s best interest to build a string of 11 batteries across the bay to take out any warship that might attempt to invade Edo by sea.


Only 7 batteries were built in the end, the so-called 品川台場 Shinagawa Daiba Shinagawa Batteries. Most of the landfill used to create these manmade islands had to come from somewhere. The shōgunate identified two large, uninhabited sources of dirt on the coast: Goten’yama and Yatsuyama[xix]. Goten’yama famously suffered the worst of the devastation. The government began quarrying the famous hanami spot tirelessly over the ensuing months[xx] .


Typical Edo Period stone walls along the coast.

The Tokugawa Shōgunate planned to build 11 cannon batteries across the bay, but given they had only 12 months and limited resources to scramble and execute this plan – and let’s not forget, Perry actually returned a bit earlier than promised – they were only able to constructed seven manmade islands in the bay. The term Shinagawa Batteries usually refers to this entire project, but the common understanding is that it means the seven forts that were actually constructed and fortified. An eighth coastal battery which was an extension of the Susaki Promontory is generally not included in the mix. We’ll look at this unsung daiba in a minute.

cut away

This ukiyo-e by Hiroshige clearly shows the devastation of the quarrying. The ground below is flat, and now there are cliffs of bare rock. There are still a few cherry blossoms up top, though.

The areas most heavily quarried were 北品川3丁目 Kita Shinagawa Sanchōme 3rd Block of North Shinagawa and 北品川4丁目 Kita Shinagawa Yonchōme 4th Block of North Shinagawa[xxi]. The 3rd block was completely gutted – so much so that a flat-as-flat-can-be parking lot shows up in Google Maps as the remains of the mining operation. The 4th block was well-gutted, but stood at the top of the road from which they brought dirt down to the bay – a road that is today called 御殿山通 Goten’yama Dōri Goten’yama Street.

At the bottom of Goten’yama, a place called quite literally 御殿山下 Goten’yama-shita the bottom of Goten’yama, the shōgunate built an 8th coastal battery. The name, unexpectedly, was 御殿山下台場 Goten’yama-shita Daiba Battery at the Bottom of Goten’yama. Presumably, this took minimal work to construct, since they were just dragging down wheelbarrows of dirt from Goten’yama to the Susaki Promontory and dumping it into the bay. They built a pretty bad ass fort for themselves there, and to this day you can still actually walk the shape of the original landfill. Spoilers – it’s an elementary school today.


After the construction of the Goten’yama-shita Daiba on the coast of the Susaki promontory. The red line is the Tōkaidō.


Today, you can still kinda see the shape of the Daiba, but the bay has been completely filled in except for a few channels and inlets. The red line, again, is the Old Tōkaidō.

The Death of Goten’yama

Despite its easternmost section completely demolished, and a huge section of the neighboring western section quarried beyond repair, Goten’yama could have recovered as a prime hanami spot in Edo-Tōkyō. It really could have. After all, except for the harbor and post town, the area was still quite rustic in those days.

gotenyama train

However, in 1872, the government decided to replace the old Tōkaidō with a new train line[xxii]. The new train line roughly followed the path of the old highway, and required gutting huge areas of land for train tracks. The dividing line for the 3rd and 4th blocks of Kita Shinagawa was created by the train tracks that pass through the area. Since the shōgunate had done all the heavy lifting by quarrying Goten’yama in the 1850’s, this seemed like the easiest place to lay tracks connecting 品川駅 Shinagawa Eki Shinagawa Station with 川崎駅 Kawasaki Eki Kawasaki Station. To this day, the difference in elevation between the bottom of Goten’yama on one side of the tracks and the top on the other is striking. Also, you can get a feel for the differences between the 山手 yamanote high city and 下町 shitamachi low city. Down below, all the lots are tiny, cramped, and located directly on the noisy, old Tōkaidō – and they’re mostly shops. Up top, the lots are spacious, walled off, and quiet – and mostly residential.

Further Reading:


Houses on what was a later extension of the Susaki Promontory.

Obscure Today, but Shinagawa is a Key Understanding Edo-Tōkyō

Shinagawa is waaaaay more than just the Goten’yama area. We could talk about this whole stretch of the old Tōkaidō for hours. In the video, I said I could spend all day here just exploring – and that’s really true. I could spend a lifetime exploring the area. And I do. I spend an inordinate amount of time in Shinagawa and the surrounding areas because… the stories to be discovered and retold never end. Ueno is the same way. All of Edo Period history converges on these areas.

So, there’s the video. I explored the whole area and I hope you this article gave you a better context for what I was talking about when I’ve written about Shinagawa, Goten’yama, and the old Tōkaidō highway.


As usual, I have no way to conclude this article. We’ve looked at a huge swath of history and geography. So, go back and look at the pictures and maps. There’s no narrative this time. Look at what Edo was and what Edo became and then what Tōkyō did with that.

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō Do You Even History Geek, Bro?

[i] Translating Edo no Genkan is tough. In English, maybe “the Entrance to Edo” is the most natural and easily understood. But that would 江戸の入口 Edo no Iriguchi. Everything has an iriguchi (entrance) – buses, highways, bathrooms, etc. A genkan is literally “the entrance to a Japanese home where you take off your shoes, put away your umbrellas, and then literally step up into the owner’s private living area which is raised up above the filthy ground level.” When you arrived in Shinagawa, you weren’t in the shōgun’s capital yet. You were on the periphery, but you were about to enter the greatest city in the realm – which was, quite literally, the property of the shogun. Travelers into Edo, would have thrown out old shoes and bought new ones in Shinagawa, hoping to make a good impression in the cultural epicenter of Japan (outgoing travelers also would have bought shoes here for their long treks as well). Getting a hot bath in Shinagawa was another way of preparing yourself before “stepping up into the shōgun’s home.” Even though, you may still have a few miles to go, the more presentable you were, the better.
[ii] In fact, Shinagawa was so synonymous with prostitution, that Edoites had a nickname for it. Shinagawa was the みなみ minami south, while they reserved the きた kita north for the upscale licensed pleasure quarters, 吉原 Yoshiwara. Keep in mind, in this era, it was not just normal for a man of rank or means to have concubines, it was expected. Furthermore, frequenting teahouses and being a patron of 舞子 maiko geisha apprentices and 芸者 geisha social performance artists was just a normal “guys’ night out.”
[iii] Hint: drinking & whoring
[iv] To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been a tsunami in Edo/Tōkyō Bay – I’ve heard this is attributed to the shape and size of the bay.
[v] Here’s my article on Ienari’s grave.
[vi] To my understanding, whales are pretty intelligent and tend to avoid bays where they are easy targets because of their size. They do much better in the oceans which, before modern naval technology, were off limits to humans. Beached whales are generally wounded, sick, or already dead, which means the current brought them to the coast. Nevertheless, this seems to have been a unique case in Edo.
[vii] Yes, I know whales aren’t fish (Edo Period didn’t know that), so for them, this was like seeing a sea monster prostate itself before the shōgunate. Quite politely, I might add. The whale didn’t die in Edo, it beached itself well outside of the city, with no spiritual defilement of the Tokugawa government.
[viii] Interestingly, the name has nothing to do with Shintō. This area of Susaki was known as 猟師町 Ryōshi Machi Ryōshi Town, a fishing village at the time. The village headmen of Ryōshi Machi used an ancestral name 利田吉左衛門 Kagata Kichizaemon which was passed down through the generations. While Susaki Benzaiten was the official name of the shrine (and the name that appears in texts and maps), it seems like the locals referred to it as Kagata Shrine – a hint that the village headmen doubled as priests of the shrine.
[ix] As such, Buddhism in Japan essentially runs a funerary racket.
[x] Someday I’m gonna have to tackle syncretic religion in Japan, but that’s a huge undertaking… and kinda boring to me.
[xi] Sorry, if that was oddly specific, but c’mon. You know everybody was doing it, right?
[xii] Or any samurai serving time in the city on sankin-kōtai duty – who generally seem to have been in awe of the metropolis and all it had to offer compared to their shitty backwater domains.
[xiii] I say an hour or so because travelers were generally expected to keep a certain pace as they traversed certain highways. Who knows? Maybe some people spent all day and did the Edo Period equivalent of “calling in sick.”
[xiv] Nihonbashi.
[xv] OK, somebody could understate it… but that would be a mistake lol. The walk from Nihonbashi, the center of Edo, to Shinagawa was probably the most well maintained section of road in the entire country.
[xvi] I’m sure a few went down to get their dicks sucked under the pretense of getting food for everyone, as one does.
[xvii] As mentioned earlier, Benzaiten is the only female deity among the 7 Gods of Good Luck. It’s said that she gets jealous when male-female couples approach her enshrinement and will curse the couple to break up. I think same sex couples are fine because apparently Benzaiten is straight according to this logic lol. Actually, today, this aspect of Benzaiten is relatively unknown by most people. However, the tradition persists in 井の頭公園 Inokashira Kōen Inokashira Park in 吉祥寺 Kichijōji. They say that couples who visit shrine there will break up. The story of the curse has actually become separated from the shrine in most accounts which say any couple who rents a boat to go out on the water will break up.
[xviii] Another faction, such as those samurai from Mito and Satsuma who assassinated Ii Naosuke, stupidly doubled down on the status quō, insisting that Japan stay closed and reject anything and everything foreign to the point of standing on the beach shaking their samurai swords at steamships hurling cannon balls at them, if need be.
[xix] The kanji for Yatsuyama is 八ッ山 and can be found in the modern place names of 八ッ山橋 Yatsuyamabashi Yatsuyama Bridge and 八ッ山通り Yatsuyama Dōri Yatsuyama Street, the road that now covers the inlet that once lay between Shinagawa and the Susaki Promontory.
[xx] Job creation!
[xxi] I have misidentified both areas as Goten’yama 3-chōme and Goten’yama 4-chōme in my video. I apologize for that and totally own up to it.
[xxii] This would become the 東海道本線 Tōkaidō Honsen Tōkaidō Main Line and eventually even the 東海道新幹線 Tōkaidō Shinkansen, the high speed train connecting Tōkyō with Kyōto.

What does Nagata-chō mean?

In Japanese History on March 9, 2016 at 2:11 pm

Nagata-chō (town of the eternal fields, but more at “Nagata Town”)


The other day, I was riding the 南北線 Nanboku-sen Nanboku Line and looked at the list of stations. I realized that I’d written articles about almost every station on the line. In fact, I even covered the name of the train line itself! But there was one glaring exception. Today, I plan to remedy that situation.

nanboku line

Nanboku Line Stations – except for 4, I’ve more or less covered everything. Today the undone shall become 3.

Today, we’re talking about Nagata-chō. This place name is synonymous with the Japanese government. As an American, I want to say it’s the Japanese equivalent of Washington DC, but maybe Downing Street in London is a closer analogy[i]. In this area, near 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle (present day 皇居 Kōkyo the Imperial Palace), you can find the 国会議事堂 Kokkai Gijidō National Diet, which is the Japanese Parliament. You can also find the 首相官邸 Shushō Kantei[ii] Prime Minister’s Official Residence. This concentration means the area is inextricably linked with the Japanese government – specifically the post-Edo Period government.

Related Articles:


nagata-cho kurosawa soba

Nagata-chō Kurosawa. The building is about 60 years old and was originally a ryōtei with geisha. Today the restaurant is a famous soba shop with a very traditional vibe.

First Let’s Look at the Kanji


a samurai family name that literally means “eternal fields”

machi, –chō

town, but in Edo has a nuance of “commoner neighborhood” (ie; non-samurai)

Before the Edo Period, not much is known about the area. However, it’s safe to assume that because of the area’s high elevation, this plateau was inhabited by local strongmen for centuries. Once 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu made Edo his capital, we really get a clear picture of the area from local maps commissioned by the shōgunate. The name is most definitely a product of the early Edo Period.

nagata no baba san'nō o-tabisho

Nagata no Baba San’nō O-tabisho – this shrine, usually called by its old Buddhist name. San’nō-gū. in the Edo Period, was the final destination of the o-mikoshi (portable shrine) of San’nō Hiei Shrine in Akasaka (or a nearby satellite shrine). This area has always been shitamachi and is located present day Kayaba-chō.

nagata no baba san'nō-gū.jpg

Nagata no Baba San’nō-gū by Andō Hiroshige, aka Hiroshige 2: Electric Boogaloo. Anyways, we’ll talk about what a “baba” is in a minute.

An Elite Area from the Edo Period to Present Day

Due to its proximity to not-yet-shōgun Ieyasu’s castle, the area was soon populated by 旗本 hatamoto his direct retainers. At the same time, daimyō who curried the would-be shōgun’s favor were granted sprawling plots of land in the area for residences that would later come to be called 上屋敷 kami-yashiki upper residences[iii]. I say they “would come to be called” because the system of 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai alternative attendance[iv] hadn’t been formally implemented yet. But it’s important to keep this in mind because we will see this in the later narrative. Just don’t forget: in the Edo Period, the top of this hill was all elite samurai residences with very close connections to the shōgun and his court at Edo Castle.

takada no baba.jpg

This is Takada no Baba (not Nagata no Baba), but you’ll get the point in a second. Note the samurai riding horses in the upper left and the archery targets on the track below that.

On this hill, there was a field reserved for high ranking samurai to practice horse riding[v]. This kind of field was called a 馬場 baba which literally means “horse place.” One of the first families in the area was a hatamoto family who lived in a large residence across the street from the baba. Their name was the 永田家 Nagata-ke Nagata family. As a result, the riding grounds were commonly known as the 永田馬場 Nagata no Baba Nagata Horse Riding Grounds. In a very broad sense, the name Nagata no Baba/Nagata Baba came to be associated with the area in general.

At the bottom of the hill, there was a commoner district that came to be called 永田町 Nagata-chō Nagata Town taking its name from the prestigious samurai neighborhood at the top of the hill[vi].

kato kiyomasa.jpg

Fashion victim Katō Kiyomasa and his ridiculous hat.

Shitty Samurai

One of the first daimyō to move into the area was 加藤清正 Katō Kiyomasa who is most famous for supporting Tokugawa Ieyasu by also hating Ieyasu’s rival, 石田三成 Ishida Mitsunari, and just sitting around in Kyūshū with his dick in his hand when the 関ヶ原の戦い Sekigahara no Tatakai Battle of Sekigahara went down in 1600. As we all know, the Battle of Sekigahara was a decisive Tokugawa victory that pretty much landed Ieyasu the title of shōgun.

For his bravery in avoiding the battle and his loyal support in name only, Ieyasu ensured Kiyomasa’s control of 熊本城 Kumamoto-jō Kumamoto Castle and granted him a large swath of land (the present day National Diet Park) to build the upper residence of 熊本藩 Kumamoto Han Kumamoto Domain.

update: My friend Rekishi no Tabi correctly pointed out that I oversimplified Kiyomasa’s role in Sekigahara. I did this for the sake of the narrative (ie; I decided it wasn’t relevant to the story). If you want to see an excerpt of our conversation, check the very end of the footnotes.

tokugawa iemitsu.jpg

Tokugawa Iemitsu, the 3rd shōgun

Ieyasu died in 1616. The second shōgun, 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada, began cutting off ties with other nations and made it clear that the new Edo based shōgunate increasingly expected daimyō to come to Edo. He died in 1632.

徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shōgun, was elevated to the position in 1623 (while Hidetada held the role of 大御所 ōgosho retired shōgun). He was half-enlightened ruler/half-Prince Joffrey and 2 of his policies would define the Edo Period, sending ripples through the fabric of Japanese culture that are still felt today. The first policy was effectively closing off Japan from the rest of the world[vii]. The second was formally enacting sankin-kōtai in 1635.

In this transition from Hidetada to Iemitsu, the shōgunate started to do a lot of house cleaning to ensure Tokugawa hegemony. Old daimyō, former generals, and their kids who were old enough to remember the option of violent land grabs, overthrowing their superiors, or freely trading with foreigners and cozying up with Christians were fair game for an elite purge that usually doesn’t get discussed a lot.


Shittier Samurai

So anyways, as I said, Katō Kiyomasa set up an embassy in Edo to have close access to Ieyasu. His son, 加藤忠広 Katō Tadahiro, succeeded him and continued to serve the shōgun as his father had.

Then something went terribly wrong. Accusations flew around that Tadahiro was “mismanaging” both his retainers and Kumamoto Domain. Supposedly he didn’t like the increased pressure to attend the shōgun in Edo (which, by the way, is a fucking long way away from Kumamoto). It also didn’t help that he had supposedly become really chummy with 徳川 忠長 Tokugawa Tadanaga, younger brother of shōgun Iemitsu[viii]. “Supposedly” their mother, 江 Gō[ix], favored Tadanaga for the position of shōgun despite the precedent of the first born son becoming the family head; as a result Iemitsu despised him and eventually ordered him to commit 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide in 1634.

go hime

This is a rare actual photograph of Iemitsu’s mother, Gō. She ran everywhere and if she wasn’t running, she required a group of no less than 10 maidservants to sit in front of her waving folding fans to ensure her hair was constantly blowing in the breeze.

At any rate, before Tadanaga met his untimely demise, a document that is considered a forgery today was provided to the shōgunate as evidence of Katō Tadahiro’s complicity in a rebellion of some sort against Tokugawa Iemitsu. In light of his alleged opposition to recent policies, he was purged from the most elite level of the Tokugawa government in 1632. His family’s rank was reduced from daimyō to hatamoto, his stipend was drastically reduced, the Katō upper residence was confiscated, and to this day you’re actually legally allowed to kick anyone named Katō in the shin whenever you meet them because of his grave dishonor[x]. True story.

Control of Kumamoto Castle and Kumamoto Domain was then handed over to the 細川家 Hosokawa-ke Hosokawa clan who held the territory until the end of Edo Period.

kumamoto castle

Kumamoto Kastle™

So What Happened to the Katō Mansion in Edo?

The Katō mansion on the top of the hill near Nagata no Baba was assigned to the 井伊家 Ii-ke Ii clan who were long time Tokugawa supporters and controlled 彦根藩 Hikone Han Hikone Domain in modern day 滋賀県 Shiga-ken Shiga Prefecture. Just for a little added comparison to the Katō, please know that the Ii provided major support for Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara and this made them a very important family to the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family and their hegemony. In terms of the historical narrative that the Tokugawa shōgunate was writing, the Katō were nothing – the Ii were legends.

Ii Residence recreation.jpg

Recreation of the main gate of the Ii upper residence for the 2012 Sakurada Gate Incident which spectacularly recreated the assassination of Ii Naosuke and yamanote urban planning and architecture and went on to spectacularly fail at story telling. But, yeah, the first 40 minutes of the movie are amazing.

1853, the Americans Try to Force the Country Open

So, more than 200 years of ice cream and puppy dogs (better known as the Edo Period) had gone by[xi]. Everything was awesome until a fat American named Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Edo Bay in 1853 with some of the most advanced warships of the day demanding that Japan open up to foreign trade. The shōgunate and the domains collectively freaked out. Xenophobic samurai opposed opening up the country and threw a culture rocking temper tantrum known as the Bakumatsu.


The Black Ships

Fast forward to 1858. The Ii family had always maintained very close relations with the Tokugawa Shōgun Family, but their shining moment was when 井伊直弼 Ii Naosuke, the 15th lord of Hikone Domain, was elevated to a the rare rank of 大老 tairō shōgunal regent. He essentially ruled in the name of the 14th shōgun, 徳川家茂 Tokugawa Iemochi, who was too young to rule at a time of crisis.

Today, Naosuke is best known because of the 桜田門外の変 Sakuradamon-gai no Hen Sakuradamon Incident in 1860. That’s when he was assassinated by a goon squad of 芋侍 imo-zamurai country samurai from 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain[xii]. At the time, Naosuke and his entourage were en route from Hikone Domain’s upper residence near Nagata no Baba to Edo Castle’s 桜田御門 Sakurada Go-mon Sakurada Gate (called Sakuradamon today).


This well was located on the Hikone Domain’s upper residence, it was moved 10 meters in 1968 to the present location.

After the Edo Period

After the relatively peaceful surrender of Edo Castle and the shōgun’s capital in 1868, the daimyō were sent back to their respective domains. Although many daimyō residences were initially kept intact and repurposed for new government bureaus, the majority of them were torn down. This meant that much of the great 山手 yamanote high city real estate was ripe for rebuilding.

lost yamanote

Edo’s lost High City

In 1872 (Meiji 5), a place name 永田町 Nagata-chō was officially created. Because of its proximity to the emperor, who was currently squatting at former Edo Castle[xiii], the area became the center of the most powerful echelons of the military and government, mostly led by former samurai of 薩摩藩 Satsuma Han Satsuma Domain and 長州藩 Chōshū Han Chōshū Domain – the domains who led the Meiji Coup.

Prior to 1945, in Nagata-chō you could find the 大日本帝国陸軍省 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Rikugunshō Department of the Army of the Empire of Japan, the 大日本帝国参謀本部 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Sanbō Honbu General Staff Headquarters of the Empire of Japan, the 大日本帝国教育総監部 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kyōiku Sōkanbu Inspectorate General of Military Training of the Empire of Japan, and the 大日本帝国陸軍航空総監部 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Rikugun Kōkū Sōkanbu Inspectorate General of Aviation of the Empire of Japan.

Department of the Army

The military center of the Empire of Japan

department of war

The building is often referred to the Department of War since all the major branches were located here. The photo is taken from Sakuradamon, note the castle walls on the right.

general staff office

Same view from an ukiyo-e style post card that says it’s the General Staff Headquarters.

The Prime Minister’s Residence

Prior to 1929, the Prime Minister[xiv] lived in a modest western style, 2 story wooden house to the north of the current location called the 太政大臣官舎 Daijō Daijin Kansha Official Residence of the Prime Minister of Japan, usually just called the 官邸 Kantei today. This building was destroyed in the 1923 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake. Between 1923 and 1929, I’m not sure where they lived, but I suspect they just lived in their own homes. In 1929, a new 2 story, art deco building with ample office space for staff was built. Japanese prime ministers used this same building until the early 2000’s, when it was torn down to build the present 5 story structure. Interestingly, during the construction of the new residence, the stone foundations and some other remains of the upper residence of 村上藩 Murakami Han Murakami Domain were discovered[xv].

former prime minister's house

Main building of the 1929-2002 Kantei

kantei now.JPG

Main building of the current Kantei

japanese house.jpg

The property is extensive and the PM has a proper residence for his family. In the Meiji Period it was a Japanese style house (originally the residence of the Nabeshima clan of Saga Domain. This house wasn’t built by a daimyō, but by Marquis Nabeshima – as opposed to Marquis Star. See what I did there, eh?


In the 1930’s a mixed Japanese style and western style residence was built. The private family residence has taken on many forms over the years. Interestingly, current PM Abe Shinzō refused to bring his family to the present house. Many speculate it’s because of tales of ghosts of the Imperial Army said to haunt the property.

The Japanese Diet Building

The current 国会議事堂 Kokkai Gijidō National Diet Building was completed in 1936 and this is when Nagata-chō truly came to be thought of the political heart of Japan[xvi]. However, the site of Japan’s main deliberative government body wasn’t always located at this spot and is it’s actually a bit of a complicated story.

1st diet.jpg

The 1st Diet Building

First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Why is Japan’s parliament called a “diet?” In short, when the Meiji Government was deciding on how to translate their new emperor-centric institutions, they found themselves drawn to the examples of Prussia, the Holy Roman Empire, and Napoleonic France because they were also emperor-centric states[xvii]. The word “diet” actually derives from the Medieval Latin word diæta which meant something like a “daily assembly.” Later in French, the word diete took on a meaning of “daily rations” which is where the modern English “to go on a diet” comes from. Anyhoo, the word diet was used to refer to Prussia et alii’s governing bodies and the Japanese thought words like “diet” and “prefecture” were the best ways to translate 2 of their new western-style administrative constructs[xviii].


The 2nd Diet Building (used from 1891-1925)

In 1890, a temporary 2 story, wooden, western style assembly building was built in 日比谷 Hibiya – also near the Imperial Palace. The building burned down and a slightly larger building of roughly the same design was erected in 1891. The building was called the 大日本帝国議会 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Gikai Diet of the Japanese Empire/Imperial Diet and remained in Hibiya until it was severely damaged in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake. However, since the beginning of the Meiji Period until 1945, Imperial Japan was constantly at war with her neighbors to the west, a provisional assembly building was built in Hiroshima. This was the広島臨時仮議事堂 Hiroshima Rinji Kari-Gijidō Hiroshima Provisional (temporary) Diet built to be closer to the action of the 日清戦争 Nisshin Sensō First Sino-Japanese War which took place from 1894 to 1895 (Meiji 27-Meiji 28).


The Hiroshima Provisional Diet Building

After the Great Kantō Earfquake, the current site in Nagata-chō was chō chō chosen[xix]. But the project seems to have been badly managed. Between 1923 and 1936, the whole issue of getting parliament to meet while they built the current building was a total clusterfuck[xx]. Some workers even accidentally burned down the building while it was still under construction and they had to more or less start over again from scratch.


The 1936 current Diet Building

As I said earlier, the current diet building was finished in 1936 and looks like it. And by that, I mean it looks like dignified cement and stone state building of the Soviet Era[xxi], which is really a shame because they had been planning on using this location since the 1880’s. Some parts of the building, particularly certain sections of the interior feature some expertly crafted relief work, but… well, to each their own.

The one positive thing I can say about the Diet Building and its pyramid style middle arch is this: from the 1880’s, the Meiji Government set out to make an impressive urban landscape that displayed Tōkyō’s importance as the leading city in Asia. The notion of a 参道 sandō an approach to a shrine is very much present. Approaching a shrine, a samurai’s house, even a teahouse was seen as setting the stage for what would happen next – it creates a sense of ceremony, protocol, and respect that is inherently Japanese. The Diet Building actually achieved this. It sat at the top of a hill near the Imperial Palace and you had to approach formally using a long, uphill driveway. At the top of the hill was an impressive modern building whose center of focus was a pyramid shaped centerpiece that towered over the city.


The Diet Building about the time of the ’64 Olympics. Without other tall buildings or skyscrapers, it’s easy to recognize the classic yamanote characteristics: hills overlooking the city, spacious estates, and sprawling gardens/greenery. Until recently, the building must have been an impressive sight visible from all over the city on days that weren’t bogged down by Shōwa Smog™.

I’m sure it was really impressive until all the skyscrapers went up. Today, the Diet Building is eclipsed by high rise apartments and office buildings. Its location on a hill that used to be one of the most elite neighborhoods of the Edo Period is a nuance that has been lost to the history books… or in this case, relegated to the history blogs.

That said, everything we’ve learned about today is based on stuff I’ve read. I’ve actually never been to the Diet Building – despite working near it for ages. Because of this, I’ve added something new to my “to do” list: go to the Diet; take loads of pictures for the blog, and do a proper history walk of Nagata-chō. This one needs to be on my bucket list[xxii].

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[i] Neither are perfect analogies by a long shot, but c’mon.
[ii] It’s also called the 総理大臣官邸 Sōri Daijin Kantei Prime Minister’s Official Residence. 総理大臣 Sōri Daijin refers specifically to the Japanese Prime Minister. The prime minister of another country is called 首相 shushō. 官邸 kantei just means official residence.
[iii] The upper residence was essentially an “embassy” from the 藩 han domains that dealt directly with the affairs of the shōgunate and also the affairs of their own domain from afar. Read my article on sankin-kōtai here.
[iv] Here’s my article on sankin-kōtai.
[v] Low ranking samurai and non-samurai were forbidden to ride horses.
[vi] In Edo, non-samurai districts were generally suffixed with 町 chō/machi which just means town. The nuance is distinctly non-samurai, though. Perhaps this is why the Meiji Government, which abolished the samurai class, chose to go with this suffix rather than perpetuating baba in the place name. Just a conjecture on my part.
[vii] Except a limited set of trade partners.
[viii] This is a totally different story, but Wiki has an article about him. Keep in mind, there seems to be a bit of a mystery surrounding Tadanaga and his unfortunate demise.
[ix] The wife of the 2nd shōgun, 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada, is known by many names: 江 Gō, 小督 Ogō, 江与 Eyo. She’s usually referred to in English by the latter with an honorific prefix: お江与 O-eyo. In Japanese, she’s usually referred to by the name she took when she retired as a Buddhist priest, 崇源院 Sūgen-in. However, recently, in casual conversation most people called her 江姫 Gō-hime Princess Gō because of the 2011 NHK Taiga Drama, 江〜姫たちの戦国〜 Gō: Himetachi no Sengoku, which popularized her for a minute.
[x] I sincerely hope you know I’m joking. Please don’t kick anyone – Japanese or otherwise – in the shin.
[xi] Alright, it wasn’t all ice cream and puppy dogs, but it was the most stable period Japan had known for years.
[xii] The samurai of Mito were indoctrinated in a particular philosophy called 水戸学 Mito Gaku Mito Learning. The redux of this philosophy in the 1850’s-1860’s was that emperor was a living god and the shōgun’s rank was a gift of the emperor. The last shōgun, 徳川慶喜 Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was actually from Mito and was very familiar with this mode of thought. Here’s a little background on Mito Gaku.
[xiii] When the city was renamed, the castle was also renamed: 東京城 Tōkyō-jō Tōkyō Castle. Later it came to be called the 皇城 Kōjō Emperor’s Castle and after that it became the 宮城 Kyūjō which literally means “emperor’s castle” but was translated as “the Imperial Palace.”
[xiv] The term Prime Minister is a much more recent term. Prior to the End of WWII, this position was often translated as Supreme Chancellor, Grand Minister, or something like this because of the peerage system. The Japanese was 太政大臣 Daijō Daijin Chancellor of the Realm, a term of the imperial court that dates back to the Heian Period.
[xv] Murakami Domain was located in modern day 新潟県 Niigata-ken Niigata Prefecture.
[xvi] Prior to this it was thought of as the military center of the Empire of Japan – at least in the post-Tokugawa eras.
[xvii] I touched on this in my article Why does Japan have Prefectures?
[xviii] Besides Germany, I think Japan is the only country that still uses the word “diet.” The German parliament is called the Bundestag which literally means “federal day” and echoes the Medieval Latin reference to “daily assembly” and is rendered in to English as “Federal Diet.”
[xix] For those of you who don’t know, this is a reference to The Simpsons.
[xx] Think about this timeline a little. When the original wooden structure burned down in 1890, they had a bigger and badder structure rebuilt by 1891 that lasted until the 1920’s. But it took them 16 years to build the modern cement structure.
[xxi] A style of architecture still alive and kicking in North Korea today.
[xxii] Because “having a threesome with Kashiyuka and Nocchi from Perfume” is becoming an increasingly impossible dream.

Note about Katō Kiyomori just standing around with his dick in his hand: Quoting directly from Rekishi no Tabi: “Sekigahara coincided with two other major planned campaigns, one in Tōhoku led by the Date (East side) vs Uesugi (West) and the other campaign was in Kyūshū where the Katō and Kuroda fought on the East side against Mitsunari’s pals. Katō’s most hated rival, Konishi Yukinaga, occupied the southern half of Higo. Kiyomasa, of course, invaded and unified the province. Most importantly, the fact [that] he was ready to pounce on Yukinaga’s fief tied up the bulk of his army, which otherwise would have gone off to Sekigahara. Also, the Shimazu were hesitant to commit forces to Mitsunari with Kiyomasa menacing so close by. Thus, the Shimazu contingent at Sekigahara was relatively small in comparison to their overall force size. Kiyomasa’s troops were without a doubt the most effective fighting force the Japanese landed in Korea. Kiyomasa was the one general who the Ming and Koreans feared the most. So, dick in hand in Kyūshū … Nah. Way off.”

He’s absolutely correct, but none of this relates to the story of Nagata-chō and would have been a huuuuuuuuuge tangent that I didn’t want to go down (the article was already 8 pages in MS Word). But for the history of the Tokugawa Shōgunate and, by extension, the history of Edo-Tōkyō, it’s important to know that Ieyasu didn’t quite trust Kiyomasa because of his connection with Toyotomi Hideyoshi – a point that Rekishi no Tabi also brought up:  “But there are plenty of stories that Ieyasu had him poisoned… It was all supposed to be a part of Ieyasu’s patient plan to destroy the Katō. Iemitsu finished what granddaddy started.”

My response: “Like Kylo Ren and Darth Vader.”

What does Ushigome mean?

In Japan, Japanese Castles, Travel in Japan on September 24, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Ushigome (Crowd of Cows)

View of Ushigome Bridge and Ushigome Mitsuke and Ushigome Go-mon. Judging from the high walls and design of the building on the left, I would say that was a daimyo residence.

View of Ushigome Bridge and Ushigome Mitsuke and Ushigome Go-mon.
Judging from the high walls and design of the building on the left, I would say that was a daimyo residence.
But nary a cow in sight… lol




swarming, huddling, amassed, crowded,
“in bulk”

According to Japanese Wikipedia[ii], in 701, in accordance to the Taihō Code, a livestock ranch was established in this area. In fact, two were established which were sometimes referred to as 牛牧 gyūmaki a cow ranch and 馬牧 umamaki a horse ranch. These two locations came to be referred to as 牛込 Ushigome and 駒込 Komagome.

The fact that there was a cattle/dairy ranch here in the Asuka Period is a known fact (it’s documented). The horse ranch is a different story. In all of my research about Komagome, I didn’t find a single mention of this. When you look up Ushigome, many articles tend to mention Komagome, and I think that because of the strength of the evidence in support of the Ushigome being a literal etymology, the writers try to associate Komagome with it. But this would be a false etymology. Their logic: two places have similar names, they must be related, right?[iii]

Well, anyways, it’s possible that there is a connection between the two (one of the theories about Komagome is that it was a place where horses were herded into a confined space). There just isn’t any record of this being so. When we don’t have the evidence we should always take that theory with a grain of salt.

But with Ushigome, rest assured, this is most likely the case.

Cattle ranches aren't really a common theme in Japanese art, so I can't really imagine what one would have looked like. However, I found this 1950's aerial shot from Oregon in the 1950's and I wonder if an ancient Japanese cattle ranch would have looked a little like this....

Cattle ranches aren’t really a common theme in Japanese art, so I can’t really imagine what one would have looked like.
However, I found this 1950’s aerial shot from Oregon in the 1950’s and I wonder if an ancient Japanese cattle ranch would have looked a little like this….

In an edict during the reign of 文武天皇 Monmu Tennō Emperor Monmu (701-704) a place variously referred to as 神崎牛牧 Kanzaki no Gyūmaki Kanzaki Cattle Ranch and 乳牛院 Gyūnyūin “The Milk Institute” was established in the area in the vicinity of 元赤城神社 Moto-Akasaka Jinja Old Akasaka Shrine[iv].

Asakusa Shrine

Today Old Asakusa Shrine is just an afterthought to this building.

Located in the heart of Shinjuku, one of Tokyo's busiest and craziest areas, Akasaka Hikawa Shrine is a welcome way to jump back to Edo while in the craziness that is Tokyo.

Located in the heart of Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s busiest and craziest areas, present day Akasaka Hikawa Shrine is a welcome way to jump back to Edo while in the craziness that is Tokyo.

A branch of the 大胡氏 Ōgo-shi Ōgo clan from 上野国 Kōzuke no Kuni Kōzuke Province had been living in the Ushigome area since the 1300’s and, if I’m not mistaken, originally held dominion over the area from present day Shinjuku to Ushigome.

In 1553 a member of said clan switched allegiance from the Uesugi to the Hōjō and in return was granted dominion over the area stretching from present day Ushigome to Hibiya (ie; Edo Bay)[v]. The lord built a castle (fortified residence) somewhere in that area and took the place name to establish his own branch of the family and thus the Ushigome clan was born, 牛込氏 Ushigome-shi. The area is elevated so it would have been defensible. It also had a view of Edo Bay and so they could keep an eye on who was coming in and out of 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay[vi].

In 1590, the Hōjō were defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Tokugawa Ieyasu was famously granted the 関八州 Kanhasshū the 8 Kantō Provinces, which included Edo. Ieyasu evicted the residents of the castle and confiscated the property.

It’s not clear where the castle was located, but there is a tradition at 光照寺 Kōshō-ji Kōshō Temple that says the temple was built on the site of 牛込城 Ushigome Castle. I’ve never looked for myself, but it seems like there are no ruins that confirm this story[vii]. There is a nice sign, though.

Being a large plateau, in the Edo Period, this area was clearly 山手 yamanote the high city and was populated by massive daimyō residences and the homes of high ranking 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun.

Fans of Edo Castle or just any history-minded resident of Tōkyō will recognize the name 牛込橋 Ushigomebashi Ushigome Bridge. This bridge led from Kagurazaka to Edo Castle. If you crossed the bridge you would arrive at  牛込見附 Ushigome-mitsuke Ushigome Approach[viii] and there you would see the 牛込御門 Ushigome go-mon Ushigome Gate. The bridge spanned 牛込濠 Ushigomebori Ushigome Moat. Today the moat is dammed up under the bridge and the Chūō Line runs under it. On one side you can see the moat, on the other side – if I remember correctly – are just trees, a small skyscraper, and a train station; another fine example of Japan bulldozing over and building over its past. That said, there’s plenty to see and do in the area if you feel like having a history walk in the area.

Ushigome Bridge and Ushigome Mitsuke

Ushigome Bridge and Ushigome Mitsuke. The area under the bridge is already partially dammed up.

This is what a Mitsuke is. It's a place to trap intruders as they come in (or perhaps exit). Like a lock and damn system on a river, you're trapped while you approach the castle. The actual Ushigome Gate is the large structure on the right.

This is what a Mitsuke is. It’s a place to trap intruders as they come in (or perhaps exit). Like a lock and damn system on a river, you’re trapped while you approach the castle. The actual Ushigome Gate is the large structure on the right.

That awkward Meiji Period that started the destruction of the area.

That awkward Meiji Period that started the destruction of the area.

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[i] For an explanation of this sound change from /komi/ to /gome/, please see my article on Komagome.
[ii] By the way, I didn’t get all my info from Wikipedia. Duh!
I just quoted it to show you how commonplace this Komagome/Ushigome thing is.
[iii] Wrong.
[iv] I’m pretty sure the name Akasaka Shrine and the name of Akasaka are a coincidence… but I may need to look further into this (because OMG my original article says nothing about this). The Ōgo clan was originally based at a mountain in present day Gunma Prefecture called 赤城山 Akagi-san Red Castle Mountain, when they came to this area, they established a shrine called Akasaka Shrine (Red Hill). The original shrine is in Waseda, Shinjuku. Originally in 牛込台 Ushigomedai Ushigome Plateau, it was moved twice – once in 1460 by Ōta Dōkan and again in 1555 by the Ōgo themselves. The shrine still exists in Shinjuku.
[v] Their holdings included 桜田 Sakurada (yes, the same Sakurada of 桜田門 Sakuradamon fame), 赤坂 Akasaka, and 日比谷 Hibiya. Anyone familiar with Edo Castle will immediately recognize their names and their connection to the castle.
[vi] The presence of another lord so close to where the Edo Clan and Ōta Dōkan had their fortified residences adds more to my assertion that Edo wasn’t just “an obscure fishing village” when the Tokugawa arrived.
[vii] UPDATE: There may be some evidence. If you’re interested, check out this blog! (Japanese only)
[viii] Essentially a look out and security check point leading into the castle grounds. For more on what a mitsuke is, check my article on Akasaka-mitsuke.

What does Yoyogi mean?

In Japanese History on June 26, 2013 at 1:57 am

Yoyogi (Generations Old Tree or Trees)

Yoyogi Station.

Yoyogi Station.
Don’t hold me to this, but I think the present Yoyogi Station wasn’t actually part of Yoyogi Village.


Once again, I want to throw out a million thanks to my readers. If none of you followed, commented, messaged or just generally showed up, I wouldn’t be able to continue. Y’all make this so much fun.

I was asked by a reader the other today to talk about Yoyogi. So I bumped it up in the pecking order. Hope this is a good one.

Hatsune Miku.

And for no particular reason, here’s Hatsune Miku.


The name 代々木村 Yoyogi Mura Yoyogi Village is attested in the writings of the Sengoku Period. But it’s not clear where that name came from. There’s a good chance the name is much older than the Edo Period. But without other records, we can’t say.

In the Edo Period, the area called Yoyogi was what is now more or less the Meiji Jingū and Harajuku Station area.


Let’s Look at the Kanji:


alternate: yoyo
an adverb meaning “for generations, for ages”
alternate: gi 



The simplest explanation seems to be the most believable to me. There were a lot of trees in the area for a long time – generations, if you will.

There are a few slight variations of this theory. The reason I put off doing this place name for so long[i] was because sorting thru all the details of etymologies that varied little except for a slightly different angle or a curious anecdote was too time consuming. Given the amount of time and effort I’ve put into JapanThis since that time, this topic seems much less daunting now[ii]. And in reality, it wasn’t difficult to research this one.

One theory states that 皀莢 saikachi honey locust trees were cultivated here[iii]. I like this theory best because it’s simple and plausible. It doesn’t try to hard.

This is a close up a honey locust tree.  You can see its bean pods. Legumes FTW... or something

This is a close up a honey locust tree.
You can see its bean pods.
Legumes FTW… or something


Another theory states specifically that on the Ii family’s lower residence, which made up part of Meiji Jingū and some of the hill at the high point of Harajuku, was covered in  樅 momi Japanese fir trees. This story has some cool anecdotes attached to it, but reeks of folk etymology.

a Japanese fir tree, It looks very firry. Good for it.

a Japanese fir tree,
It looks very firry.
Good for it.


It should be noted that today both types of trees exist in the area around Meiji Jingū, although after WWII, local trees from all over Japan were donated here during the rebuilding effort.
Also, the area that is now Meiji Jingū Gaien was the original site of the Ii clan’s palatial lower residence’s tea garden. To my knowledge, nothing remains of the site.




If you go to Meiji Jingū, near the garden’s east gate, there is a tree with a sign that says 代々木の大樅 Yoyogi no Ōmomi The Great Japanese Fir of Yoyogi. The tree is no bigger or smaller than any of the other trees near it. But the story goes that once upon a time, there was a super tall Japanese fir tree that had stood here for generations. The current unimpressive tree is a replacement that stands on the site of the original Great Japanese Fir of Yoyogi Village.

This is where the sign says the big fir tree of Yoyogi was.

This is where the sign says the big fir tree of Yoyogi was.
Note: it’s not a fir tree….


It was said that this 大樅 ōmomi great fir tree on the Ii family’s lower residence was so great, that mapmakers from the shōgunate would climb to the top of it to survey the city. Another anecdote states that the Ii family’s watchmen would keep an eye on the family’s upper residence which was located near the 桜田門 Sakuradamon Sakurada Gate[iv]. In fact, it was said that you could see all the way to Shiba and Edo Bay. Utagawa Hiroshige even painted a picture of the tree titled 代々木村ノ世々木 Yoyogi Mura no Yoyogi The Generations Old Tree of Yoyogi[v].

There was an imperial residence built on the site of the Ii family’s lower residence[vi]. The tree was preserved… or at least the location of the alleged tree. Eventually the land was incorporated into Meiji Jingū and, as I said, the old tree doesn’t exist anymore, but the new tree does and it has its own sign. So, good for it.




[i] When I started looking into place names, it was one of the first I wanted to write about.

[iii] 代々木 daidai ki, (alternatively, yoyo ki) “generations of trees” was basically shorthand for 代々皀莢ヲ生産  daidai/yoyo saikachi no ki wo seisa “cultivating honey locust trees for generations.”

[iv] I’m sure I’ve alluded to the Sakuradamon Incident (which sounds like a euphemism, it should be called “the Assassination of Ii Naosuke at Sakuradamon”). Many people consider this the opening of the Bakumatsu.

[v] The Yoyogi of Yoyogi. See what he did there? In the second “yoyogi” he used a variant for 代々 daidai/yoyo generations 世々 yoyo. I can’t find this picture on the internet, so if someone can help me find it, I’d really appreciate that!

[vi] Remember, the lower residences were much more palace like and rustic than their urban upper residences near the castle. When the Meiji Era urban sprawl began in earnest, the Harajuku area became a prime target for rich people and the elite imperial family who wanted to build their own estates in the area.

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