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What does Mukōjima mean?

In Japanese History on August 13, 2015 at 7:21 am

向島
Mukōjima (island/s over there)

Take a good look at this map. You're gonna have to refer to it a lot.

Take a good look at this map. You’re gonna have to refer to it a lot.

Mukōjima is a postal address in 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward. It’s located on the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River, directly across from 浅草 Asakusa. Most tourists who visit Asakusa and check out the river have probably seen Mukōjima and didn’t even bat an eye. Today, it doesn’t look like much from that vantage point. After all, Asakusa is so lively and in every guidebook. On the surface, the area seems to be decidedly 下町 shitamachi low city, but if you dig a little deeper this town will give up some surprising secrets.

First, Let’s Look at the Etymology

The meaning of the name is obscure, but 2 theories exist. They’re both very similar and they’re both more or less plausible.  The word itself is written with two kanji.


mukō,
mukai

over there,
facing


shima

island
The Sumida-gawa Palace

The Sumida-gawa Palace

One theory is based on the fact that the Tokugawa shōguns had a detached palace in the area.  The site was called 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten Sumida River Palace and it was located on the newly developed lands across from Asakusa, the prosperous town surrounding 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple[i]. To the northwest of the property, the 内川 Uchikawa, literally the “Inner River”[ii], (a stretch of the 古隅田川 Furusumida-gawa, literally the “Old Sumida River[iii]) flowed into the Sumida. According to this theory, an island or fairly large sandbar lay at this confluence to northwest and was said to be called 将軍の向島 shōgun no mukōjima the shōgun’s island over there. Naturally, the people using that phrase were the inhabitants of Asakusa on the other side of the river.

A seafood restaurant in Mukōjima famous for serving 鯉 (carp)

A seafood restaurant in Mukōjima famous for serving 鯉 (carp)

A second similar theory states that before the coming of the Tokugawa and the massive waterworks projects undertaken by the shōgunate[iv], the east bank of the Sumida River in this area was littered with sandbars and islands. Over time, these islands were reclaimed and incorporated into the expanding city. Some of these islands were big enough to have names – many of which still persist to a certain extent today: 牛島 Ushima (cow island), 柳島 Yanagijima (willow island), 寺島Terajima (temple island – remember this name). It’s said that the people living on the west bank (ie; Asakusa) collectively referred to these islands with one name: 向島 mukōjima the islands over there.

Both theories were first recorded in the Edo Period, but I find the reference to the Tokugawa a bit suspect. I don’t know why; it’s just a gut feeling. I find the “pre-Edo Period” theory more convincing. Again, I don’t know why; it’s just a gut feeling. But with a few other place names in the area referencing islands (島 shima), it doesn’t seem to be unreasonable that the people who lived along the river might do such a thing.

Shamisen players relaxing at a sushi stand on the bank of the Sumida River in Mukōjima.

Shamisen players relaxing at a sushi stand on the bank of the Sumida River in Mukōjima.

In the Edo Period, the area was famous for its natural beauty. People came here to enjoy the seasonal changes. There are many 浮世絵 ukiyo-e prints of people relaxing in the area. At this time, Mukōjima was just a popular name for the area. However, in 1891, the name Mukōjima was made official. Since that time the area has changed a lot. Today, the area has a lot to offer and if you have enough money, you might be able to spend the whole day there in style.

Now, Let’s Look at the Area Today

mukojima desu

Mukōjima Hyakkka-en

One of the most famous places in the area is 百花園 Hyakkka-en “the 100 flower park.” The park was built by a wealthy antiques dealer from 仙台藩 Sendai Han Sendai Domain named 佐原鞠塢 Sahara Kikū. He ran a store in 日本橋 Nihonbashi and hobnobbed with various 大名 daimyō feudal lords[v]. He represented the new breed of wealthy merchants and commoners that arose in the late Edo Period. He was highly educated, cultured, and had tastes that ran the gamut of both the nouveaux riches and the elite samurai class.

He purchased the 多賀屋敷 Taga yashiki Taga residence in 寺島村 Terajima Mura Terajima Village (a name we saw earlier) and in 1804 he converted it into a flower garden, originally called 花屋敷 Hana Yashiki the Flower Mansion. The concept of the garden was very different from the daimyō gardens of the Edo Period. It reflected the new sensibilities of the emerging rich commoners who found themselves with more leisure time and were developing a cultural esthetic distinct from the conservative styles preferred by the stagnating samurai class.

hyakka-en

His concept was simple: 春夏秋冬不断 shunkashūtō fudan consistency throughout the seasons. Flowers were chosen from Classical Japanese and Classical Chinese poetry in order to amass a collection of flowers that would constantly bloom in turn throughout the seasons. Unlike the subdued and stoic daimyō gardens, it was vibrant, flashy, and always changing. The garden also wasn’t hidden behind high walls like a daimyō mansion, but could be visited by anyone with the right connections[vi]. The garden’s fame was so great that in March of 1829, the Party Shōgun, 将軍家斉 Tokugawa Ienari, visited – no doubt in the company of a gaggle of beauties from the 大奥 Ōoku the shōgun’s harem. The garden was sold to東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City in 1938 and was officially opened to the public in 1939. By some accounts, it is the only Edo Period flower garden of its kind that still exists.

hyakka-en2

Japanese Sweets

There are 2 types of 和菓子 wagashi Japanese sweets that originated in the area. The first is called 言問団子 Kototoi Dango and the second is called 桜餅 sakura mochi.

Kototoi Dango

Kototoi Dango is both the name of a shop in Mukōjima and the product they specialize in. Their main product is 団子 dango dango that comes in three flavors: white anko, red anko, and miso. The shop was established by a gardening teacher, 外山佐吉 Toyama Sakichi – a commoner – in the late Edo Period. The name Kototoi is a reference to a bridge located downstream from the original shop called 言問橋 Kototoibashi Kototoi Bridge. The shop’s dango became popular with the people who came to the area to watch fireworks along the Sumida River. Since people from all over the shōgun’s capital came to see the annual event, the dango from this shop’s reputation spread quickly. You can see the shop’s website here

Kototoi dango

Kototoi dango

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

Sakura mochi is a kind of Japanese sweet that is flavored with cherry blossom leaves. There are many variations throughout Japan, but it generally boils down to 2 main styles: 関東風 Kantō-fū Kantō Style and 関西風 Kansai-fū Kansai Style. Of course, both regions claim to have invented the snack in an attempt to have bragging rights over a food made with cherry blossoms, a symbol of Japan[vii]. But eff that noise. Let’s just talk about some Mukōjima yumminess,

These little bad boys are called 長命寺桜餅 Chōmeiji sakura mochi cherry blossom mochi named after Chōme-ji, a temple located on the Sumida River[viii]. The temple is near Kototoi Dango. This temple may also be connected to the “temple island” that I mentioned earlier, Terajima.

It seems the shopkeepers living in the 門前町 monzen-chō town built up around a temple[ix] began collecting cherry blossoms that fell from trees along the river in the 1690’s and started using them to flavor various foods to sell to people who to the area for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. In 1717, local shops began selling this special sakura mochi in front of the temple. This year also coincided with a decree to plant more cherry blossoms along this section of the Sumida River by 8th shōgun, 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune[x]. The new style of mochi was an instant hit with the hanami goers and just as Kototoi Dango’s reputation spread far and wide quickly, so did that of Chōmeiji sakura mochi. Various shops in the area sell this specialty today.

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

.

Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s Biggest Geisha District

Unless you already knew this, I’ll bet you didn’t see this one coming.

Ryōtei are exclusive dining establishments that provide geisha entertainment.

Ryōtei are exclusive dining establishments that provide geisha entertainment.

Mukōjima is home to a 花街 kagai[xi] a geisha district (literally “flower town”). The area was famous for its nature and greenery in the Edo Period but the rise of the nouveaux riches began to have an effect on the area. This effect would soon transform the area.

Because of the influx of new money and the rise of industry during the Meiji Period, a unique geisha culture emerged in Mukōjima. The demand for geisha was high among men of means in the newly renamed city (Edo→Tōkyō).  The area was particularly popular with artists, poets, and novelists in the early 1900’s.

mukojima geisha

Unfortunately, most of Tōkyō’s geisha culture fizzled out after the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake and the firebombing of WWII. But for some reason Mukōjima managed to hold on to the tradition[xii]. To this day, there are many 料亭 ryōtei located in the area. Ryōtei are high end dining venues that have the space, the setting, the pedigree, and the connections to provide entertainment by geisha. Many establishments won’t accept new customers without an introduction by a current customer or a trusted acquaintance of the owner. In general, such indulgences are extremely cost prohibitive, but there are occasional cheesy bus tours that will give you a glimpse into the world.

Yes, those are real geisha. And no, geisha babies are not called

Yes, those are real geisha. And no, geisha babies are not called “gaybies” so please don’t e-mail me asking about that.

At its peak, they say more than 1000 geisha operated in the area and there were anywhere from 100-200 shops providing entertainment to high end clientele. Today those numbers are much smaller. It’s said there are a little over 100 geisha who regularly perform in Mukōjima and the number of ryōtei is well under 20[xiii]. All of this notwithstanding, Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s largest extant geisha town today. In the early evening, you will probably see geisha scurrying around and if you have the money – I most definitely don’t[xiv] – you can enjoy their service, entertainment, and a little taste of Edo.

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[i] Asakusa had had a decent population since the Kamakura Period.
[ii] Rivers tended to be called different things in different areas. So the Sumida River, being a very long river, had many names in different locations. Each tributary also had a different name, despite being part of the same river basin. You can read more about this in my article on the Sumida River.
[iii] A former branch of the Sumida River that originated in present day Saitama Prefecture, but is now is separated from the river that is currently called the Sumida River.
[iv] The shōgunate modified the courses of rivers, built moats, diverted channels, and all manner of waterworks… and guess who wrote a series on it.
[v] He was most likely lending daimyō money, too. This meant they would have given him access to all sorts of opportunities that might not have been available to other commoners in order to keep his favor. If you want to know more about merchants lending daimyō money, check out this article.
[vi] The “right connections” seems to have meant influential writers, poets, artists, geisha – any kind of cultured commoners with money and influence, really – and even daimyō who had a taste for the vibrancy of the late Edo Period.
[vii] The deep association of cherry blossoms as a symbol of the samurai is particularly strong in Edo-Tōkyō because of the samurai government. That said, I’m pretty sure everyone likes cherry blossoms, so that particular pro-Edo argument is a little weak to me. However, I’m not interested in that debate at all.
[viii] The temple’s foundation date is unclear. It may date back to the Heian Period but it only date back to the 1590’s, when 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu entered Edo. What is known for sure is that the temple received the patronage of the Tokugawa Shōgunate during the reign of the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu.
[ix] Monzen-chō, literally “towns at the front of the temple gate,” popped up to cash in on the needs of pilgrims, funeral mourners, and the casual visitors who would stop by out of curiosity – in this case, cherry blossom viewers. People needed food, lodging, and other services and thus special economies developed around temples. See my article on Monzen-Nakachō.
[x] Yoshimune was made shōgun the same year. The sudden arrival of this new local product may have its roots in many causes. The new shōgun’s decree offered a kind of novelty – why buy some ordinary, stupid snack, when you can buy the new taste of the year? It also showed respect to the new shōgun – thanks for sending all this business our way – more cherry blossoms means more tourists in the spring. And the list goes on…
[xi] 花街 is read as hanamachi in Kyōto. Kagai is the 音読み on’yomi Chinese reading of the kanji. Hanamachi is the 訓読み kun’yomi Japanese reading of the kanji. Apparently, the plosives  /ka/ and /ga/ of the on’yomi have generally been perceived as harsh and uncouth by speakers of 京都弁 Kyōto-ben the Kyōto Dialect. To this day, the guardians of the highest register of that dialect are the geisha of the former imperial capital. For their sensibilities, apparently the on’yomi, hanamachi rolls off the tongue much more smoothly. Interestingly, hanamachi uses an affricative // and nasal sounds /ma/ and /ɴ/. Removing the plosive sounds means the risk of spitting on a person is lower and the use of nasals makes the vowels clearer. Some westerners complain about girls making announcements outside of shops as being annoying and nasal (for the record, I like this). They’re unwittingly favoring the clearer nasal sounds that highlight vowels and make their voices travel farther. It’s just my speculation, but this may have roots in the female speech of Kyōto.
[xii] Akasaka, due to its proximity to the National Diet Building, had a geisha district in the Edo Period. There is still a geisha culture there. The modern geisha are said to be extremely skilled and talented, but in the Edo Period and early Meiji Period the term “Akasaka Geisha” referred to the geisha of the lowest quality in the city. It was essentially a euphemism for a prostitute or a geisha so unskilled she might as well just be a whore. Today, Akasaka is home to many hostess bars of various qualities. Many of the proprietresses of certain long running establishments arrange “night time liaisons” between the working girls and the male clients. It’s said that this is a legacy of the image of the “Akasaka Geisha.” First, if this is a real legacy, it might be hard to prove. I suspect it’s just romanticizing history to justify the modern business model. And second, a hostess isn’t a geisha – or a prostitute, for that matter. Any blurred lines are things that individuals agree to do outside of the actual job descriptions.
[xiii] Some venues that are not ryōtei provide plebian-focused geisha performances for tourist groups. It’s my understanding that they are not included in the “official count.”
[xiv] It’s sad really. Being entertained by geisha is on my bucket list, but it’s about as realistic a dream as a threesome with Perfume. Yes, I said threesome. A-chan isn’t invited.

What does Asakusa mean?

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on November 13, 2013 at 3:06 am

浅草
Asakusa (Low Grass)

Senso-ji at night

Senso-ji at night

I was going to keep this one short, but since Asakusa is one of those spots that comes up not just as one of the top tourist attractions of Tōkyō but all of Japan[i], I figured I’d spend a little extra time on this one and do it right the first time. So today we’ll look at an overall history of Asakusa and then take a quick look at the etymology of the name.

As far as I know, this place name only occurs in Edo-Tōkyō. The areas that preserve this place name today are:

浅草 Asakusa Asakusa
浅草橋 Asakusabashi Asakusa Bridge
西浅草 Nishi-Asakusa West Asakusa
元浅草 Moto-Asakusa Old Asakusa

However, it should be noted that an 浅草区 Asakusa-ku Asakusa Ward existed from 1878-1947. At that time, the places called Asakusa increased. After 1947, the number of Asakusa place names decreased dramatically until what is today considered is Asakusa is defined by little more than a train station here or there and a few vestigial postal addresses. But some 江戸っ子 Edokko 3rd generation Tōkyōites might consider some nearby neighborhoods as Asakusa, when technically they are not.

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

The Asakusa Station area is teeming with tourists from all over the world. I first visited Asakusa in 2002 and I loved the shitamachi flavor, but I really didn’t have any sort of appreciation for what I was seeing. But the more I learn about the Edo and the Meiji Periods, the more I feel I can really sink my teeth into the area. But to be honest, except for the temple precinct, most of the charm of the area is its lingering Shōwa Era past.  And that’s all fine and good. Just know what you’re looking at.

Most Tōkyōites would put Asakusa in their top 3 places to visit in Tōkyō[ii].

The nakamise - a row of roughly 89 small shops selling everything from chopsticks, to dolls, to

The nakamise – a row of roughly 89 small shops selling everything from chopsticks, to dolls, to “ichiban” t-shirts, to yukata and kimono, to beer.
This shot is great because you can see the Kaminari Mon, the first gate, and the nakamise. Then at the end of the nakamise you can see the massive Hozomon Gate (also called Niomon) which was built in 942 by Taira no Kinmasa. Beyond that is the main hall (honden or Kan’non-do) which was built under the auspices of Tokugawa Iemitsu. The honden was destroyed in the firebombing of Tokyo. The current structure was rebuilt in the 1950’s.

The Story So Far…

The beginnings are purely mythical. In 628, some brothers were fishing in the 宮戸側川 Miyato-gawa Miyato River[iii] and – surprise, surprise – they caught a statue of 観音 Kan’non the goddess of mercy in their fishing nets[iv]. The brothers enshrined the statue in their home and kept it for private worship. It’s interesting to note, that this year, 628, just happened to be the same year as the death of 推古天皇 Suiko Tennō Empress Suiko, whose reign had seen great encouragement of Buddhism. This time in general is seen as a tipping point for the broader acceptance of Buddhism in Japan.

In 645, having been shared with the local villagers from time to time, the statue was made into a  hibutsu, image of Buddha hidden from the public. Then a proper temple was established.

Both dates, 628 and 645, are considered the founding of Asakusa-dera or Sensō-ji (we don’t know which pronunciation was prevalent at the time[v]). Also both dates would still earn it the title of the oldest temple in Edo-Tōkyō. It seems that by 942, the first 雷門 kaminari mon thunder gate[vi] had been established, although in a different location.

From here on out we will see a dichotomy between Asakusa (the area) and Sensō-ji (the temple).

Remember, all of this is preserved in the legends and records of the temple itself. There doesn’t seem to be any corroborating evidence elsewhere. In fact, the area isn’t recorded by non-temple sources until around 1266. At that time it is mentioned in a Kamakura Period text called the 吾妻鏡 Azuma Kagami Mirror of the West.

The Kaminari mon is where most people enter the temple precinct. It's located next to Asakusa Station and is one of the most famous landmark's in all of Japan.

The Kaminari mon is where most people enter the temple precinct. It’s located next to Asakusa Station and is one of the most famous landmark’s in all of Japan.

The common understanding is that the temple was founded on a small plateau on the west bank of the Sumida River. A 門前町 monzenchō[vii]  formed around the temple precinct and continued growing from that time. Because of the town’s location on the Sumida River, which was good for trading, the town not only prospered, but attracted the best craftsmen of the region. Temple records indicate thriving trade between the Kamakura area and this region.

Legend has it that when 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo Minamoto Yoritomo chose Kamakura as his capital (thus establishing the first of the 3 great shōgunates), he couldn’t find sufficiently skilled craftsmen in the area. On one occasion, he camped along the Sumida River near Asakusa. He visited the temple, as one does, and was so impressed with the builders that he hired them to come to Kamakura to build 鶴岡八幡宮 Tsuru-ga-oka Hachiman-gū which is still one of Kamakura’s grandest shrines[viii]. It’s said that trade between Asakusa and Kamakura was so intense that by the time the shōgunate collapsed, many of Kamakura’s merchants and artisans had relocated to Asakusa[ix].

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

Temple and shrine building wasn’t a big deal in the Sengoku Period, but carpentry and building skills were definitely in demand. It’s not hard to imagine some of the craftsmen of Asakusa being hired to help the Toshima, the Hōjō, the Edo Clan, or even crazy ol’ Ōta Dōkan in their building efforts[x].

Prior to the Edo Period, Asakusa was just a prosperous temple town on the river. But with the coming of the Tokugawa, everything changed. Urban sprawl from nearby by Chiyoda/Edo soon brought the area under the influence of the shōgun’s capital at such an early stage that Edo Period people and modern Tōkyōites generally just considered the area to have been part of Edo since time immemorial – even though for most of its existence, Asakusa was a separate town from the hamlet of Edo.

This

This “shinkyo” or sacred bridge is all that remains of Asakusa Tosho-gu.

The temple came under a particularly special patronage by the shōgun family because the head priest of Zōjō-ji had claimed that Asakusa Kan’non was the strongest deity in the Kantō area and that she had served Minamoto Yoritomo well[xi]. Tokugawa Ieyasu believed this deity helped him achieve total victory at the Battle of Sekigahara and as such it received great honors from the shōgunal family. While the temple was endowed by Edo’s most elite, its main mission was catering to the common people – a brilliant PR move on both Ieyasu and the temple’s parts[xii]. The temple has always been important to the commoners of Edo-Tōkyō.

In 1657, after the Meireki Fire[xiii] burned Edo down to the fucking ground, the licensed pleasure quarters called Yoshiwara was relocated from Nihonbashi to the area north of Asakusa because this was just a northern suburb at the time. Remember, we’re only 57 years into the Edo Period, son. Anyways, this transformed the area from just a pilgrimage spot to a proper tourist destination. And not just any old tourist destination; a tourist destination with a happy ending – if you know what I mean.

As lively as the area had become, its fame was only getting greater. In the 1840’s, after some crack downs on unlicensed kabuki theaters[xiv], the three prominent licensed kabuki theaters were forced to relocated to the Asakusa area. The area’s reputation as a center of nightlife was already secured, but adding popular theater to the area guaranteed this legacy for several more generations[xv].

By the way, if you’re curious about kabuki, Samurai Archives has a 2 part podcast crash course that you can listen to here.

Kabuki

Kabuki

In the Meiji Era, kabuki received imperial patronage and the underground kabuki theaters were as legit as the formerly licensed ones. Soon cinemas opened up in the area which showcased a foreign art form that the Japanese immediately became infatuated with. The area was now a bigger destination than ever; home to one of Tōkyō’s grandest temples and a vibrant theater district. Nearby Yoshiwara was still going off like crazy. Until WWII, Asakusa and Yoshiwara defined nightlife Japanese style.

It should be noted that in the Meiji Period, the temple lands were made into a park, naturally called 浅草公園 Asakusa Kōen Asakusa Park. The area was not unlike modern 上野公園 Ueno Kōen Ueno Park. The centerpiece of the park was Sensō-ji, but the real attractions were the theaters, cinemas, izakaya, and pleasure quarter overflow.

Postcard depicting Asakusa Park before the Great Kanto Earthquake. The tower in the back was Japan's first skyscraper, the Ryōunkaku.

Postcard depicting Asakusa Park before the Great Kanto Earthquake. The tower in the back was Japan’s first skyscraper, the Ryōunkaku.

Yoshiwara

Yoshiwara

Then WWII happened.

I’m sad to say that most of Sensō-ji and the Asakusa area were destroyed in the firebombing of March 1945. In a pattern similar to the other major temples of Edo-Tōkyō – Kan’ei-ji, Zōjō-ji – Sensō-ji found itself one of the biggest landholders but without a single yen to rebuild. They basically had no choice but to sell off their lands to get the money to rebuild the temple. The look of Asakusa changed dramatically. Today, the area retains nothing of its Asakusa Park halcyon days and even less of its Edo Period look.

During the Occupation, places like Yoshiwara came under the puritanical eye of the Americans at GHQ. The Yoshiwara was mostly burnt to the ground and so under General MacArthur’s orders it was not to be rebuilt. Plans were made for the moats to be filled in and the area was to be normalized into the reconstructed Tōkyō. While Asakusa and Yoshiwara were not the same place, keep in mind that their histories were intertwined since the Edo Period.

I mentioned this briefly in my series on the graves of the Tokugawa shōguns, so I should mention it here again because very few people know about this. If you turn towards the east of the 本殿 honden the main temple of Sensō-ji (ie; if you’re facing the honden, turn right and walk toward the bay), you’ll walk out of the east entrance which is called 二天文 Niten Mon[xvi].

The Niten mon was recently restored to glorious condition and it's now illuminated at night. The two statues were brought in from Kan'ei-ji.

The Niten mon was recently restored to glorious condition and it’s now illuminated at night. The two statues were brought in from Kan’ei-ji.

This gate didn’t survive the firebombing, but when it was rebuilt, Kan’ei-ji and the Tokugawa family made a special donation. Gen’yūin, Tokugawa Ietsuna’s mausoleum in Ueno[xvii], was also destroyed in the firebombing. Apparently, the gate itself was destroyed beyond repair, but the statues inside survived. The statues were moved here to Sensō-ji to remind the people of Tōkyō that the spirits of the Tokugawa shōguns were still protecting them.

So That’s The Story
What’s the Etymology?

Sorry, that’s the only reason come here anyways, lol.

OK, let’s get down to the biz nasty.

The etymology of Asakusa has been researched by people since the Kamakura Period[xviii] and people have been coming across the same roadblock every time.

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

浅草寺 Sensō-ji
浅草寺 Sensō-ji

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

Same Kanji, Different Readings

Asakusa-dera is the native Japanese reading. This reading is plainer than the Chinese reading, Sensō-ji. As most of the major Buddhist teachings came to Japan via China, the Chinese reading would be more prestigious – more in touch with this new foreign and exotic religion.

There are no written records to support this but common sense would lead one to the conclusion that the name Asakusa is the older name – it most likely predates the temple. Once a proper temple was built and Chinese learning was imported, the temple assumed the local name but used the Chinese reading. So 浅草 asa kusa became 浅草 sen sō in the Chinese reading.  The village continued to use its native Japanese name. Today the area is still called Asakusa, even though the temple is called Sensō-ji.

Aerial shot of Senso-ji before WWII. Note the 5-story pagoda is to the right of the main hall. Today it stands on the left side.

Aerial shot of Senso-ji before WWII. Note the 5-story pagoda is to the right of the main hall. Today it stands on the left side.

Look at the Kanji

This is the least reliable way to look at ancient place names, including Asakusa. However, in this case, I think we can trust these kanji because a temple would require reading and writing of its priests. The temple’s history pre-dates any attempted at standardization of kanji, but what they present is fairly solid.

asa ain’t nuthin’ goin’ on
kusa grass

OK, so what do the kanji tell us?

There are many theories, but the most popular one is this:

浅草 asa kusa shameful/bald grass

The idea being, the Musashi Plain was famous for its untamed and tall grasses[xix]. This area had no grass. Long time readers of Japan This! will know that the grasses of the Musashi Plain were famous and appear time and time again in etymologies. Another interpretation is that the grasses were short, not tall as in other untamed areas.
Some other etymologies have been suggested.

麻草 asa kusa hemp grass[xx]
藜草 akazakusa goosefoot or lamb’s quarter


These are references to other types of vegetation in the area

After the firebombing in March 1945.
This isn’t Senso-ji. It’s Higashi Hongan-ji, located in the former Asakusa Ward.
But you can see how utterly complete the destruction was.
The wooden city was burned to the ground and thousands of lives were lost.

Two other etymologies are circulating.

Ainu

アツアクサ atsu akusa cross over the sea

Asakusa isn’t really next to the sea today. Edo Bay (Tōkyō Bay) is located a bit south of the area). But it’s located on the west bank of the Sumida River, one of the largest inlets that lined the area in ancient times. While it’s hard to consider it “crossing the sea” today, maybe 1500 years ago it was more like crossing the sea. While we can use imagination and give it a little head nod, we can never know if this is true.

Tibetan

アーシャクシャ aashakusha place where a Buddhist holy man lived

Not to be an asshole, but c’mon… this is the most contrived etymology EVER.

But as I said, the first theory, the literal one (low grass) is the predominant theory. The Ainu language theory carries a certain amount of weight, but can’t really be proven. I think we can dismiss the others.

So that’s Asakusa, bitches.

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[i] Asakusa as a tourist destination goes back all the way to the Edo Period when the area truly began to flourish under the patronage of the Tokugawa shōgun family.
[ii] I wouldn’t put it on my Top 5 list, though it would make my Top 10. Asakusa doesn’t really make sense unless you understand Edo-Tōkyō history well. So Tōkyōites hold it up as something awesome, but I feel it’s a massive let down for outsiders. But I suppose it depends what you’re looking for…
[iii] Today this is the  隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River.
[iv] Where have we heard this before? (too many times to count by now…)
[v] But we have a good idea. More about this later!
[vi] Or lightning gate. The kanji are the same.
[vii] Please don’t make me explain what monzenchō were again…
[viii] The name nicely translates to “Great Shrine to Hachiman on the Hill of Cranes.” Hachiman was the war god.
[ix] Presumably the Sumida River made for better trading/business.
[x] Purely conjecture on my part.
[xi] Ieyasu used a contrived genealogy to link his family to the Minamoto clan as a familial claim to the rank of shōgun.
[xii] There used to be a Tōshō-gū on the premises but it was destroyed in WWII.
[xiii] Read more about fires in Edo here.
[xiv] The Tokugawa shōgunate always had a bug up its butt about sexual impropriety. The glorified martial virtues of the Sengoku Period were often in conflict with the arts and the “looser living” of the non-martial classes. In short, they felt that artists and actors and commoners made for a “loose morals ticking time bomb.”
[xv] As I’ve often gone on about 山手 yamanote high city and 下町 shitamachi low city, the lower classes and upper classes of Tokugawa society weren’t often legally allowed to mix – although they did. Asakusa was quite unique in the fact that they received patronage from the shōgunate but were always allowed to keep their humble mission of serving the common people intact. It might be said that Asakusa is where samurai and commoner were equal. Some of this might also be due to the proximity of Yoshiwara in which, in theory at least, all customers were to be treated as equals.
[xvi] Here’s a quick explanation of what Niten means.
[xvii] Tokugawa Ietsuna was the 4th Tokugawa shōgun, my article on his mausoleum is here.
[xviii] Well, at least that’s the first time we see it recorded.
[xix] The word is 草深い kusabukai verdant grass, literally deep grass.
[xx] The Japanese varieties seem to never have been cultivated for their psychoactive qualities, so these were plant cultivated firstly for building and cloth making and occasionally for medicine making in the form of 漢方 kanpō fake herbal medicine from China.

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