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What does Baji Kōen mean?

In Japanese History on February 17, 2015 at 6:40 am

Baji Kōen (Equestrian Park – but literally, “horse thing park”)

Enough with the horses already!

Enough with the horses already!

Just when you thought I was finished with Setagaya and its inexplicable horse fetish… Just when I promised you, dear reader, that I wouldn’t come back to this part of Tōkyō for a long time… I’m back.

Sorry. Apparently I lied.

Make it stop!

Make it stop!

The other day I was talking to a lifelong resident of 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward and told her about my research into all of those horse-related place names. She only knew 下馬 Shimouma and 上馬 Kamiuma, but then quickly pointed out that I’d missed a place near her home. Half disheartened and half intrigued I decided I needed to add this one last place just for consistency. Luckily, it wasn’t a difficult one.

She was referring to a park called 馬事公苑 Baji Kōen which is easy to understand from the kanji, but a little difficult to translate into English[i]. First let’s look at the kanji and then talk about how weird the name is, shall we?

uma, ma, ba

koto, ji
things, matters, business, affairs, events

, ku

en, sono

As I said, reading the kanji isn’t particularly difficult and guessing the meaning isn’t either. This would seem to be a “public park” where “horse things” went down. The interesting this is that 馬事 baji “horse things” isn’t a Japanese word in so far as I can find. The usual word used to refer to equestrian skills is 馬術 bajutsu, literally “horse techniques.” The second thing is that the usual word for “park” is 公園 kōen, but in this name the second kanji is replaced with the rarer 苑 en. The most famous area in Tōkyō that uses this kanji is the park, 新宿御苑 Shinjuku Gyoen. A gyoen is an imperial park[ii]. The writing used for this park, 公苑 kōen, seems pretty rare. It doesn’t appear in any dictionary I have access to and just to put things into perspective, if you google the usual writing, 公園 kōen, you’ll get 179 million hits. If you google this weird writing, you’ll only get 3 million.

Where's my flogging stick?

Where’s my flogging stick?

So Is This Poetic License or Something?

Not quite. And while I can’t explain the 馬事 baji part, I think I can explain the 公苑 kōen part. In 1934, this rural area was purchased by the 帝国競馬協会 Teikoku Keiba Kyōkai Imperial Horse Racing Society[iii]. The land lay fallow until 1939 when a race track and then an equestrian training and practice ground were built. The park was opened in 1940. The original name of the site was the 修練場 Shūrenba which just means practice grounds. After the war, in 1954, the park received its modern name.

The distinction isn’t really acknowledged in contemporary Japanese, but in the olden days the kanji used for parks, 園 en and 苑 en, referred to slightly different kinds of spaces. 園 en was used for spaces dedicated strictly to vegetation (let’s say flōra), whereas 苑 en was a space that also included animal life (let’s say flōra and fauna)[iv]. The old park had – of course – horses and stables, but also peacocks[v] and guinea fowl. The original space had been associated with the Japanese Empire, and so even though it wasn’t a 御苑 gyoen imperial park, it had some imperial stink in its pink – at least enough that the park administration thought that the using the kanji 苑 en was justified.

2 guys dressed like samurai racing Sarah Jessica Parkers in Baji Kōen.

2 guys dressed like samurai racing Sarah Jessica Parkers in Baji Kōen.

OK, So What Is This Place Today?

As I mentioned before, it was originally for training horses, racing horses, and other equestrian activities. In 1954, it was renamed 馬事公苑 Baji Kōen – the park’s current name, but the site was chosen by the 1964 Tōkyō Metropolitan Olympic Committee to serve as the 馬術競技開催 bajutsu kyōgikaisai equestrian exhibition site. The park was home to all of the equestrian events of the ’64 Olympics including the ridiculous “sport” of dressage, where humans force horses to do stupid things like tap dance in rhythm. Sadly, the seriously difficult martial art of riding on a running horse while shooting targets with a bow and arrow called 流鏑馬 yabusame is not an Olympic sport. Yes, you read that correctly, making a horse “tap dance” and do all the work is an Olympic sport. Horseback archery is not. Go figure[vi].

The 1964 Olympic Equestrian Exhibition

The 1964 Olympic Equestrian Exhibition

Today the park is actually a group of parks. The premises include a 庭園 teien – what you probably imagine when you hear the words “Japanese garden.” So if you want to take in some traditional Japanese beauty, you apparently can do that here. And while the park seems to be most famous for horses, actually the place is mostly frequented by locals who want to relax in nature or have quiet lunch among the flowers and trees. I spoke with a co-worker today who said he lives 10 minutes from the Baji Kōen and he said it’s a great place to take his kid.

Map of the park.

Map of the park.

A large amount of the park grounds are dedicated to horse riding activities. In the warmer months, there are special equestrian performances. Some areas are open to both pedestrians and horses, so there are signs warning that you might “meet a horse,” so be careful not to get run over.

See? I wasn't kidding about the horse meet and greet.

See? I wasn’t kidding about the horse meet and greet.

There are purportedly many 桜 sakura cherry blossom trees in the park, so it’s a favorite spot for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing for residents of Setagaya. I’ve been in Tōkyō for 10 years and I love hanami like a motherfucker but this park has never come under my radar until now. I may have to check it out.

Get drunk and ride horses! Now that's what I call hanami!

Get drunk and ride horses! Now that’s what I call hanami!

Oh, and get this. Next to the park there is a small museum dedicated to 進化生物学 shinka seibutsugaku evolutionary biology[vii]. Longtime readers will know that I looooooooooove watching changes over time. In linguistics, we use the word 通時的 tsūjiteki diachronic. Other disciplines use 進化的 shinkateki evolutionary. Whichever word you use, be it linguistic or biological, the idea of evolution is an idea is at the heart of JapanThis!. Looking at changes over time is fascinating.

Pony lovers!!!!

Pony lovers!!!!

And lastly, for those of you who can’t cram enough hot pony action into your life[viii], the park supposedly offers free pony rides once a month.


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[i] The JRA, who administer the park, render the name into English as Equestrian Park.
[ii] Shinjuku Gyoen was controlled by the imperial from the Meiji Period to the early post war period. It’s not an imperial garden anymore, but it still bears the name.
[iii] Forerunner of the modern 日本競馬会 Nihon Keiba-kai Japan Racing Asssociation (JRA).
[iv] If you don’t know what flōra and fauna are, um… shall I google that for you? (But please tell me you know the phrase or I’ll be really sad).
[v] By the way, what do you call a female peacock? That’s right, a peacunt.
[vi] Then again, the Olympics are fucking retarded. I’ve never been a fan of the over dramatic flair of the whole thing. The opening and closing ceremonies over-pander to the lowest common denominator and there’s not enough outright fucking. Yes, you heard that right. Put more porn into the Olympics and I’m totally onboard.
[vii] I’m a big fan of Richard Dawkins, another person who is so passionate about showing how life and the world changes and adapts.
[viii] There’s always one.

What does Taishido mean?

In Japanese History on February 8, 2015 at 6:07 pm

Taishi-dō (Taishi Hall)

Taishido Shotengai (shopping arcade) is closed off to automobile traffic on the weekends.

Taishido Shotengai (shopping arcade) is closed off to automobile traffic on the weekends.

Just a heads up. All of these places I’ve been writing about over the past few weeks are located in Setagaya and Meguro. Since they seemed to be centrally located, I decided to walk around and take photos of some of the spots – especially the ones related to Minamoto no Yoritomo and his ill-fated horse. If you’re interested, check out my Flickr page to see the pictures. You’ll find the Ashige-zuka (Yoritomo’s horse’s grave), Komatsunagi Shrine (where he gave thanks to the local deity, Ne no Kami), Komadome Hachiman Shrine (related to the Late Hōjō clan), Yūten-ji (grave of the 36th high priest of Zōjō-ji which was well patronized by the Tokugawa shōguns), and Ensen-ji (which is central to today’s article).

If you’re here for the first time, you may want to read the last 5 articles. At the very least, you should probably read this one about the abundance of horse related place names in Setagaya.

Let's go!

Let’s go!


The origin of this place name is well known and it has documents and buildings to back it up[i]. It’s actually a very simple etymology. The story could go very deep, but let’s start out simple. If you wanna go deeper into the area and its culture, just keep reading. If you just want to know the etymology, feel free to quit after a few paragraphs. After that, it’s going to turn into a lot quasi-historical religious bullshit.

However, if you’ve been following the last few articles about 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward and 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward, you might want to stick around a little. I’m hoping that with this article I will have brought everything full circle and woven a colorful historical tapestry of this part of Tōkyō. It might not be a hot spot for tourists, but if you’ve got a passion for Edo-Tōkyō, there is plenty worth seeing in this part of the metropolis. I hope I’ve done justice to the area.


Long Story, Short

On the grounds of 円泉寺 Ensen-ji Ensen Temple there was a special building dedicated to the reverence of 聖徳太子 Shōtoku Taishi Crown Prince Shōtoku. That building was called 太子堂 Taishi-dō Taishi Hall. The Taishi-dō pre-dates the current temple and was this rural area’s original local claim to fame, thus the area was called Taishi-dō.


Long Story, Long

As I said in the short version, Ensen-ji has a special hall housing a statue of Shōtoku Taishi (574-627). Don’t worry about who he is yet, I’ll get to that later. The building was called the Taishi-dō which literally means “place to worship the imperial prince[ii].” The structure is said to have been built during the late 南北朝時代 Nanbokuchō Jidai Period of the Northern & Southern Courts (1336-1392)[iii]. Over the years it was made more beautiful and the temple became quite important in the area. To moderns, the name Taishi-dō sounds like a Buddhist structure, but in reality Shintō and Japanese Buddhism were perfectly compatible until they were made legally incompatible by the Meiji government in the 1870’s. This blending of religions is called syncretism[iv] and is usual in pantheistic religions. Anyways, this Taishi-dō houses the enshrined Shōtoku Taishi as a 神 kami Shintō deity.

But as stated before, the Taishi-dō was the main religious attraction, but later a 別当寺 bettō-ji a temple attached to the shrine was built. Eventually the entire complex was renamed 円泉寺 Ensen-ji as the Buddhist aspect took precedence over the Shintō aspect. Still, the hall dedicated to Shōtoku Taishi was the main draw. Hence the surrounding area came to be called Taishi-dō.

Older 10,000 yen notes used to feature Shotoku Taishi because he was a straight up pimp. Sort of. OK, not really.

Older 10,000 yen notes used to feature Shotoku Taishi because he was a straight up pimp.
Sort of.
OK, not really.


Who the Hell is Shōtoku Taishi?

Shōtoku Taishi is one of those people in Japanese history that it’s OK to dismiss as semi-fictional, but at the same time you have to acknowledge his place in the historical narrative of the country. I’ll say right now that most historians agree that he is a composite character. Whether he actually existed or not is even a debatable topic. But he looms large in the semi-legendary imperial narrative and acknowledging characters like Shōtoku Taishi[v] is pretty much necessary because… well, it’s just part of the narrative.

He supposedly lived during the 飛鳥時代 Asuka Jidai Asuka Period[vi] (roughly 538-710). This era saw the transition from 古墳 kofun burial mound culture to more Buddhist-style burial practices. In short, whether he was a real person or not, he is placed in the historical narrative at a time of great change in Japanese culture.

Shotoku Taishi. Notice the archaic hairstyle and clothing.

Shotoku Taishi. Notice the archaic hairstyle and clothing.

His main claim to fame is that he was the first major patron of Buddhism in Japan. To this day, he’s respected as a purveyor of peace and benevolence. Because he gave up his right to succeed to the emperorship, he’s considered an example of humility. He’s also admired for his deeds and his connection to the imperial family.

In 604, Shōtoku Taishi allegedly wrote the 十七条憲法 Jūshichijō Kenpō 17 Article Constitution based on Buddhist and Confucian moral teachings. While you might expect to the find rules of governance, it’s actually a preachy document telling the bureaucrats and nobles of the imperial court at Asuka how to behave in a way worthy of their high office and rank. It’s really boring, but if you’re into that sort of thing, you can read a translation of the constitution here.

Stupidest system for identifying rank ever

Stupidest system for identifying rank ever

We can also thank Shōtoku Taishi for establishing the first cap and rank system called the 冠位十二階 Kan’i Jūni Ka Twelve Level Cap & Rank System™. This was the first of several rank systems which involved funny-shaped Chinese hats with different colors to show what your rank was. These court rank systems got so convoluted later in Japanese history that I have refused to learn anymore about it until I have to. Also, since this blog rarely concerns itself with matters of the imperial court, it’s not really necessary to know. That said, if you must torture yourself and learn about the cap and rank systems of the court, you can read more about it here. BTW, a somewhat easier system that persisted in the court of the shōgun during the Edo Period is the system of honorary titles – you can read more about that here.

In conclusion, Shōtoku Taishi is an important semi-legendary figure in the history of the imperial court and the rise of Buddhism. Later great figures in Buddhism revered him and so you can find him enshrined in many temples throughout Japan. I’m not going to make this blog post about some guy who lived at the turn of the 7th century and probably never even set foot in the Kantō area, but if you want to read more, this article is pretty good.

Afterhours, Shotuku Taishi knew how to party. This has led to his everlasting fame.

Afterhours, Shotuku Taishi knew how to party. This has led to his everlasting fame.


About the Area and the Temple

Long time readers will know that the presence of a temple or shrine meant business opportunities. Pilgrims needed food to eat, places to rest, souvenirs to bring back, and most importantly, places for drinking and whoring. Whole economies grew up around temples and shrines. The town in this area adopted the name of its rock star bodhisattva/kami and so it was called Taishi-dō. From what I can tell, the name 武蔵国荏原郡太子堂村 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Taishi-dō Mura Taishi-dō Village, Ebara District, Musashi Province first appears in the historical record during the 安土桃山時代 Azuchi-Momoyama Jidai Azuchi Momoyama Period[vii], the climax of the Sengoku Period.

In my recent article on nearby Gohongi, we took a look at the popular belief called 庚申 Kōshin which maintains that there are 3 magic morality spy-worms living inside everyone – watching your every move. This superstition is usually associated with agricultural areas, like the Taishi-dō area used to be, and in fact the highest concentration of 庚申塔 Kōshin-tō Kōshin statues in Tōkyō is in Meguro and Setagaya. Ensen-ji erected the 庚申供養塔 Kōshin Kuyō-tō Blue Warrior Kōshin Statues[viii] inside a hollowed out dead tree in 1672. Something about this Blue Warrior Kōshin was special and that is why the temple claims that it was the center of Kōshin belief in the area and that is why there are so many Kōshin statues in the area. If you’re scratching your head about Kōshin, you really need to read the article on Gohongi.

Two Koshin statues housed inside a hollowed tree.

Two Koshin statues housed inside a hollowed tree.

By the 1680’s, Ensen-ji was popular with Edoites as well as samurai on sankin-kōtai duty who wanted to do a little sightseeing and essentially go partying with their friends or other travelers. The shōgunate had heavy restrictions on travel, but religious pilgrimages to Buddhist temples were an easy way to get permission to travel. If you had enough money and wanted to see some new places, a pilgrimage was pretty much the only way. This brought that sweet, sweet tourist money to the local temples and shrines and the 三軒茶屋 Sangen-jaya area[ix]. As a result the temple grounds were expanded and beautified. At some point, it became a branch temple of 宝仙寺 Hōsen-ji Hōsen Temple in 中野坂上 Nakano Sakaue[x]. This relationship also saw an influx of cash filling Ensen-ji’s coffers.

By the 1800’s, the temple complex was apparently quite splendid. Unfortunately, in 1857 a fire devastated the entire precinct destroying all of the temple records and treasures – including the original statue of Shōtoku Taishi. Reconstruction started immediately and by 1860, the Taishi-dō, the priests’ living quarters and, of course, the 本殿 honden main hall had been rebuilt – however the temple was a shadow of its former glory. The temple itself claims that the ridiculous Meiji Era 神仏判然令 Shinbutsu Hanzenrei Edict Separating Kami and Buddhas[xi] is what prevented the temple from returning to its former glory after the fire. I’m not sure how that would have made much a difference. That said, today the temple architecture is clearly modern but the visual focal point is definitely the Taishi Hall which is perched up on the high ground and is only accessible by stairs.

Today the area called Taishi-dō is a fairly affluent residential neighborhood. From my walking around the area, it seemed pretty inconvenient – no convenience stores or vending machines and recycle bins that one would expect. I found some large houses, including one western style home with a large yard. I also found a traditional wooden house with a yard that looks like a blue collar home from the country side – quite a rare city within the 23 Wards of Tōkyō. But as you head towards the 散華茶屋 Sangen-jaya area[xii] it gets much more convenient and lively. There are probably some great places to hang out and eat in that area, but it seems to me that the bulk of Taishi-dō is a quiet residential escape from the hustle and bustle for well to do families.

A New England style home with a yard in Tokyo? What is this magic?

A New England style home with a yard in Tokyo?
What is this magic?

A country home in the traditional Tama style with a yard... in Tokyo. Once again, I ask. What is this magic?

A country home in the traditional Tama style with a yard… in Tokyo.
Once again, I ask. What is this magic?

88 Holy Places

Today the temple is not famous at all. It’s not even famous in its own neighborhood. But in the Shōwa Period, a new pilgrimage course called the 玉川八十八ヶ所霊場 Tamagawa Hachijū Hakkadokoro Reijō 88 Holy Sights of Tamagawa was created. It covers 4 former 郡 gun districts[xiii] and this temple Ensen-ji is #51 on the course. The pilgrimage is apparently a knock off of the 四国遍路 Shikoku Henro Shikoku Pilgrimage, another 88 temple pilgrimage related to legendary supermonk, 空海 Kūkai. You can read about the Shikoku Henro here. If you’re interested in this local version of the pilgrimage, here is the list (Japanese). It starts in 神奈川県川崎市 Kanagawa-ken Kawasaki-shi Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture and ends in 東京都大田区 Tōkyō-to Ōta-ku Ōta Ward, Tōkyō Metropolis.

That's a pretty hard course. I'm guessing it would take 2-3 days? What do you think?

That’s a pretty hard course. I’m guessing it would take 2-3 days? What do you think?


The Supermonk

The pilgrimage is centered on 88 temples that were supposedly established by (or related to) the supermonk Kūkai – also known as 弘法大師 Kōbō-Daishi which means something like “the great teacher who spread the Buddhism[xiv].” As I’ve mentioned before, the Tokugawa shōgunate imposed strict travel measures on the highways. Also, you couldn’t leave your domain without written authorization of some shōgunate official. However, the shōgunate loved itself some Buddhism and actually required every person to officially register with a temple. So if a group of people requested permission to go on a pilgrimage, the shōgunate was a little more lenient about saying “yes” and voilá! you had yourself a vacation, son.

The problem is that for most people, the cost of traveling a very far distance was too high. If an Edoite wanted to do a pilgrimage, the cost alone would theoretically have been much more prohibitive than the shōgunate. So, large domains came up with imitation pilgrimages to keep things local. For example, tiny Mt. Fuji hills are located all over Tōkyō so people can replicate the action of actually climbing Mt. Fuji. Yearly pilgrimages to 日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshō-gū to worship the enshrined 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu were required of the 大名 daimyō feudal lords, but there were substitute enshrinements at the Tokugawa funerary temples in Edo. A visit to these shrines was considered sufficient if a lord couldn’t afford or didn’t have time to travel all the way to Nikkō. In short, there was a well-established tradition of replicating pilgrimages (and, of course, remotely enshrining kami). This pilgrimage seems to have gotten momentum in the early Meiji Period and was stopped when it reached 88 temples in the Shōwa Period.


Kūkai the Superskunk.

Kūkai the Superskunk.


Spreading Buddhism & Writing Reform

Anyways, back to Kūkai. He was supposedly born in 774 at a time when the imperial capital was still in 奈良 Nara and in his youth would have seen the court moved to 平安京 Heian-Kyō Kyōto. This means he lived in a Japan that was becoming more literate and worldly and emerging from Shōtoku Taishi’s world. He studied Buddhism[xv] and Sanskrit in China and returned to Japan with a mission to Buddhify the fuck out of the country. In this, Kūkai and Shōtoku Taishi has some things in common.

Legend will also credit him with inventing 平仮名 hiragana the native Japanese syllabary. I haven’t looked into this attribution’s veracity, but it’s well known that hiragana was a byproduct of a limited set of cursive kanji for women. The even simpler 片仮名 katakana script developed along similar lines as a shorthand script for Buddhist monks taking notes of sermons. Supermonk Kūkai may have been involved, but there’s no definite proof. After all, we do have records of other writing systems that were created out of whole cloth. Cyrillic is somewhat logically attributed to Byzantine missionaries, Κύριλλος καὶ Μεθόδιος Kýrillos kai Methódios Cyrillus and Methodius, who lived in the early 800’s – but it evolved over the centuries. Korea’s 한글 Hangul seems to have been created by a documented group of scholars in the 1400’s, and while I know very little about it, I do know that it was supplemented by 한자 hanja kanji[xvi]. Kūkai lived at the time when hiragana and katakana appear on the historical radar, but there’s no signed document saying, “Yo, I made this cool syllabary. What do y’all think? Love, Kūkai.”

Katakana didn't happen overnight...

Well, what did you think? Hiragana didn’t happen overnight. Neither did the Roman alphabet.


His one confirmable contribution to Japan is the popularization of 真言宗 Shingon-shū Shingon Buddhism, an esoteric sect. I wouldn’t know one sect of Japanese Buddhism from another and I have no interest in learning[xvii] so I don’t want to go on about Kūkai’s contributions to Buddhism because I’m not qualified to speak about them. But Buddhist temples love him and often claim to be founded or have some connection to him. Hence, he is the Supermonk.

A dragon carved into wood at the shrine to Toshoku Taishi.


Closing the Book on Setagaya

OK, so I’ve written 6 articles on Setagaya this year and it’s only February. And if you’re wondering what the name Setagaya itself means, I have an article for that from 2013. For me it’s been eye opening and I hope you all have enjoyed it too. I think I’ll move on to another area for a little bit – we can come back here at any time, of course. And as always, if you have any place names in Tōkyō that you’re curious about, hit me up in the comments section below, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Patreon, and on Flickr. I’ll add your suggestion to my to-do list. And I usually put requests at the top of the list. Jussayin’.


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[i] Well outside sources, at least. The temple’s own records were destroyed in a fire in the 1800’s.
[ii] I’ll talk more about his name later, but 太子 taishi isn’t actually his given name. It’s actually an imperial title designating the son of an emperor who will inherit the chrysanthemum throne.
[iii] What the fuck are the Northern and Southern Courts? Glad you asked. Actually, no I’m not. While this is a really explosive incident in samurai history, it’s actually one of the most boring events in Japanese history. Anything involving the imperial family is boring as fuck. This term refers to a period of time when there were two separate imperial courts claiming imperial legitimacy. In reality the 足利幕府 Ashikaga Bakufu Ashikaga Shōgunate controlled the Northern Court and protected that line. In the Meiji Period, the Northern Court were branded pretenders. So if the imperial family can brand the Ashikaga Shōgunate and their puppet emperors illegitimate rulers of Japan, I think I can brand the present imperial family a puppet family of usurper clans during the Bakumatsu. Two can play at that game.
[iv] If Westerners are familiar with Roman history, they will recognize syncretism.
[v] Like 大和武尊 Yamato Takeru – Captain Japan.
[vi] Read more about the Asuka Period here.
[vii] Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, Ieyasu, blah blah blah…
[viii] Not sure what the Blue Warrior is? Neither am I. This short article on Wiki might be related. But I’m not running a blog about Japanese Buddhism, so that’s as far as I’m going.
[ix] If you take a walk down the Old Tōkaidō in Shinagawa, you’ll notice that the road is littered with shrines and temples. Why do you think this is? Daimyō, rank and file samurai, merchants, and even rich farmers would walk along this road, stay overnight in the area, and spend all kind of money. Establishing a shrine or temple on this road was one of the best business decisions one could have possibly made in old Japan. It’s religion. You don’t even have to do any real work!
[x] This totally surprised me because I lived in Nakano for 6 years and saw this temple all the time. I never thought it would pop up in my blog years later.
[xi] We’ve talked about the Edict Separating Kami and Buddhas so many times; I’m not going to go into it again. Either search for it on my site using the search function, or here’s the Wiki article. I should probably make a once and for all post on my site…
[xii] Yes, yes, yes. I have an article about Sangen-jaya.
[xiii] The districts are 荏原郡 Ebara-gun, 橘樹郡 Tachibana-gun, 都筑郡 Tsuzuki-gun, 多摩郡 Tama-gun.
[xiv] This was his posthumous name.
[xv] And if I’m not mistaken, some Hinduism.
[xvi] And I think kanji are still used to a certain degree in South Korea, because I saw it in a few places the one time I visited Seoul.
[xvii] Unless there are magical moral spy-bugs involved.

What does Kitami mean?

In Japanese History on February 2, 2015 at 9:49 am

Kitami (seeing abundant joy)

In 2012, Kitami Station was voted Best Place to Park a Bicycle.

In 2012, Kitami Station was voted Best Place to Park a Bicycle.

We’ve been exploring the Setagaya and Meguro wards recently. This area includes a place called 喜多見 Kitami. Long time readers of the blog may recall this name from when I wrote about the origin of the name of Japan’s greatest city, 江戸 Edo. Spoiler alert: there isn’t much known about the place name itself, but the backstory speaks volumes about what sort of city Edo was before the Edo Period. It also speaks volumes about a culture that was transitioning from the Sengoku Period to something completely new. Also, for my readers who are interested in samurai and samurai battles, we’ve got plenty of ‘em this time.

As always, I’ve included extra information in the footnotes and links to older articles on JapanThis! as well as other outside sources – there are actually 27 fucking footnotes to this article. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, but if you’re not sure who some of the people or events are that I refer to, I suggest you look them up on Samurai Archives – the rock stars of Japanese history on the internet™.


Wait. What?  No! Wrong Kitami.....

Wait. What?
Oh, wrong Kitami…..


OK, Let’s Get the Kanji Out of the Way


happiness, pleasure, rejoicing


many, much, often


seeing, hopes, chances


At first glance, this place name seems to mean “seeing much happiness.” It’s clear that the meaning is auspicious and – in my opinion – it’s obvious that the kanji are intentional[i]. To be sure, this place existed well before it was written down[ii], however, from the very beginning it seems to have been 当て字 ateji – kanji used for phonetic reasons[iii]. As such, this place name is a construct of the Kamakura Period and the Azuchi-Momoyama Period.

Anyways, I have no etymology to give you so I’m sorry for that. But I’ll give you a quick overview: During the Kamakura Period, we see the place name for the first time – in 1247, to be precise. The writing was finally standardized in the 1500’s, but from the 13th century to the 16th century the name seems to have been written several different ways.



tree, field, see


north, see


tree, abundance, see


rejoice, abundance, see


Get ready to talk about samurai.  Shit is 'bout to get real, son.

Get ready to talk about samurai.
Shit’s about to get real, son.


OK, So Let’s Talk About The Area!

As I said before, people have been living in the area since time immemorial and the origin of the place name is a mystery. However, at the end of the 12th century, samurai of the 秩父氏 Chichibu-shi Chichibu clan began to move into this area[v]. They had been granted 7 fiefs in the area including 江戸郷 Edo-gō Edo Hamlet and 木田見郷 Kitami-gō Kitami Hamlet by the first Kamakura shōgun, 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo, in return for helping him fight the 平氏 Hei-shi Taira clan[vi].

Longtime readers will know some of this story from my article on Edo. 秩父重継 Chichibu Shigetsugu took up residence in Edo and changed his name to 江戸重継 Edo Shigetsugu, thus establishing the 江戸氏 Edo-shi Edo clan. He gave the Kitami fief to his son 江戸重長 Edo Shigenaga who fancied calling himself 木田見重長 Kitami Shigenaga. Shigenaga established a 菩提寺 bodai-ji family funerary temple called 慶元寺 Keigen-ji Keigen Temple which still maintains the graves of the Edo clan[vii].

Graves of the Edo Clan. This temple is HIGH on my places to visit list this year.

Graves of the Edo Clan.
This temple is HIGH on my places to visit list this year.


The Chichibu clan had been longtime rivals of the 熊谷氏 Kumagaya-shi clan[viii] and it seems they continued fighting over control of the area well into the 1400’s when the Kitami-Edo finally established lasting control over the area. I’m not completely clear on the timeline or circumstances but sometime in the 1400’s the Kitami became retainers of the 吉良氏 Kira-shi Kira clan[ix]. I’m guessing it had something to do with bad ass samurai warlord 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan descending upon the area and then thoroughly skullfucking it into submission.

Monsieur Dōkan, as he is known in French, attacked the Edo clan’s fortress in 千代田 Chiyoda in 1457. 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle, as it’s known in Japanese, fell and the head of the family, 江戸重康 Edo Shigeyasu surrendered to Monsieur Dōkan. Shigeyasu’s life was spared and he moved his family in with his relatives in Kitami.


The more I do this blog,, the more I love Ōta Dōkan. He's like a Sengoku version of Captain Japan (Yamato Takeru).

The more I do this blog,, the more I love Ōta Dōkan.
He’s like a Sengoku version of Captain Japan (Yamato Takeru).


Kitami Katsushige – The Bad Ass Samurai You’ve Never Heard Of

We don’t really hear much about the clan or the area until 1590, when a certain 江戸勝忠 Edo Katsutada, a retainer of the Kira, who were in turn retainers of the 後北条 Go-Hōjō Late Hōjō[x] is mentioned fighting on the Hōjō side against 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Fans of the Sengoku Period know that the Hōjō obstinately refused to submit to Hideyoshi’s efforts to unify the country under his control to a stupidly tragic end. Not complying with Hideyoshi resulted in the complete eradication of the Hōjō.

So… yeah, that didn’t work out so well for Katsutada.

Edo Katsutada's funerary picture. But don't worry. He's not dead yet.

Edo Katsutada’s funerary picture.
But don’t worry. He’s not dead yet.

But luckily for him, this was the Sengoku Period and samurai always had a fancy trick up their sleeves called “changing sides to save your ass.” Edo Katsutada played his hands right, submitted to Hideyoshi, and in 1591 found himself in the Tōhoku region of Japan. He went there to help Hideyoshi put down the so-called 九戸政実の乱 Kunohe Masazane no Ran Kunohe Masazane’s Insurrection. Masazane was a retainer of the 南部氏 Nanbu-shi Nanbu clan in 盛岡 Morioka (modern day 青森県 Aomori-ken Aomori Prefecture)[xi] and like the defeated Hōjō he just wasn’t ready to submit to a dirty, monkey-faced, millet grubbing farmer like Hideyoshi[xii]. And also just like the Hōjō, Masazane and his cute little rebellion were beaten into cruel submission like little baby dolphins at Taiji.

This defeat paved the way for Hideyoshi’s ultimate hegemony over the country.

That, that dude looks like a monkey!  That, that dude looks like a monkey!

That, that dude looks like a monkey!
That, that dude looks like a monkey!

With the Hōjō gone, Hideyoshi granted 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu control of the 関八州 Kanhasshū 8 Kantō Provinces. Ieyasu became the supreme power in Kantō and took control of Edo Castle in 1593. At this time he did a survey of his new territory and required oaths of fealty from all the local warlords. Edo Katsutada was one of the local lords forced to submit. Ieyasu was now the lord of Edo Castle and he couldn’t allow some local yokel to bare the name of his castle, so he abolished the Edo clan and required them to only use the Kitami name. Accordingly, 江戸勝忠 Edo Katsutada became 喜多見勝忠 Kitami Katsutada. He later changed his name to 喜多見勝重 Kitami Katsushige, adopting the family kanji 重 shige.

In 1600, Edo Katsutada (Kitami Katsushige) supported Ieyasu at the 関ヶ原の戦い Sekigahara no Tatakai Battle of Sekigahara. In 1603, Ieyasu was made shōgun and Edo Katsutada (Kitami Katsushige) was now officially a 旗本 hatamoto direct retainer of the 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Tokugawa Shōgun Family – not a bad rank to hold in those days. Katsutada (Katsushige) accompanied shōgunate forces in either (or both) the 1614 (winter) Siege of Ōsaka and/or the 1615 (summer) Siege of Ōsaka. Both campaigns secured Ieyasu’s legendary status in the eyes of his new subjects in Kantō and throughout the country. For someone you’ve probably never heard of, Edo Katsutada had a pretty epic military career at the end of the Sengoku Period.

Ōsaka Castle. No easy task to take it down.  Today the castle is a shadow of its Sengoku Glory - a shadow with an elevator.

Ōsaka Castle.
No easy task to take it down.
Today the castle is a shadow of its Sengoku Glory – a shadow with an elevator.


The Rise & Fall of Kitami Shigemasa

The family carried on as powerful hatamoto until 1680, when they had an amazing stroke of good luck. In that year, 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi assumed headship of the Tokugawa family and became the 5th shōgun. Tsunayoshi “took a liking”[xiii] to 喜多見重政 Kitami Shigemasa, the head of the Kitami family. Almost immediately we see him bestowed with gifts and honors by the shōgun. By the next year, 1681, Shigemasa’s court rank and stipend were raised substantially. In 1683, his rank and stipend were raised again, putting him at the same court level as 譜代大名 fudai daimyō[xiv]. His position was raised yet again in 1685.

Tokugawa Tsunayoshi preferred the company of men.  Not an inherently bad thing. Just a little tricky for keeping up that dynasty thing

Tokugawa Tsunayoshi preferred the company of men.
Not an inherently bad thing. Just a little tricky for keeping up that dynasty thing

Kitami Shigemasa must have sucked a mean dick because in 1686, Tsunayoshi elevated him to daimyō status and elevated his fief to 藩 han domain status. The Kitami residence was officially elevated to 陣屋 jin’ya status – which means from the government’s perspective it was a castle[xv]. It served as the center of government for the new domain and would have been an appropriate venue for entertaining the shōgun or other daimyō[xvi]. In return for this honor, Shigemasa supported Tsunayoshi’s first wacky 生類憐みの令 Shōrui Awaremi no Rei Compassion for Living Things Decree[xvii] in 1687. The law protected stray dogs. In order to support the edict, Shigemasa built a huge kennel to protect stray dogs in his newly created domain[xviii].

Shigemasa’s meteoric rise didn’t sit well with all. He was considered 寵臣 chōshin a favored retainer – a term that could be interpreted sexually. Jealous shōgunate officials, one 柳沢吉保 Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu in particular, argued that he disrespected the shōgun’s intentions or just wasn’t up to the task of being a daimyō[xix].

So when some monkey business went down in 1689, shōgunate officials used the opportunity to take Shigemasa out. At the residence of his cousin (or grandson, it isn’t clear), 喜多見重治 Kitami Shigeharu and his sister’s husband 朝岡直国 Asaoka Naokuni got into an argument that led to a sword fight. In the end, Shigeharu killed Naokuni. The details of the fight aren’t preserved, but Shigeharu was evidently deemed to be in the wrong and was beheaded[xx]. Shigemasa, already on the rocks with the shōgunate, got kaiekied (改易された kaieki sareta[xxi]), ie; he was stripped of his rank and titles and placed under house arrest as a hostage of 松平定重 Matsudaira Sadashige, lord of 伊勢国桑名藩 Ise no Kuni Kuwana Han Kuwana Domain, Ise Province (modern Mie Prefecture). Shigemasa, apparently went crazy and then died in 1693.

The family temple at Keigen-ji.

The family temple at Keigen-ji.

A second theory states that the sword fight incident – regardless of whether it really happened or not – had nothing to do with Shigemasa’s dismissal and house arrest. According to this story, once the first Compassion for Living Things Edict had been put into effect, Shigemasa realized it was actually a pretty stupid law. Basically, it was now against the law to kill dogs. Because of this stray dogs were out roaming the streets everywhere. More edicts were promulgated protecting other animals and things were bound to get out of hand[xxii]. To make matters worse, Tsunayoshi had found a new plaything, the aforementioned Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu[xxiii], daimyō of 川越藩 Kawagoe Han Kawagoe Domain. Apparently, he was a spiteful little bitch and turned the shōgun and the senior councilors against the johnny-come-lately, Shigemasa. So if you ever thought the women in the movie 大奥 Ōoku! were back-stabby, well, welcome to men’s version of that[xxiv].

Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu - brilliant daimyō or petty little bitch. You be the judge.

Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu – brilliant daimyō or petty little bitch?
You be the judge.

In short, the jealous Yoshiyasu stole the shōgun’s heart, stole Shigemasa’s position[xxv], turned the shōgun against him, turned the entire shōgunate against him, stripped him of all rank, confiscated his property, and essentially ran him out of town to die disgraced in a faraway land. If this account is true, it’s no wonder Shigemasa went insane while in exile. It also makes Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu look like a total cunt.


The grave of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu (Matsudaira Tokinosuke).  Located in Kōfu.

The grave of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu (Matsudaira Tokinosuke).
Located in Kōfu.


After The Edo Period

Kitami, like other parts of Setagaya, remained rural until quite recently. After the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923, the area experienced a population explosion as people relocated away from the devastated urban center. In 1926, 成城学園 Seijō Gakuen was split from 成城学校 Seijō Gakkō in 牛込 Ushigome[xxvi] and moved to Kitami. Part of the former Kitami area now bears the name Seijō. Interestingly, in 1927, the 小田原急行鉄道株式会社 Odawara Kyūkō Tetsudō Kabushiki-gaisha[xxvii] opened train service to the area which reminds me of the connection between the Kitami-Edo clan and the Late Hōjō of Odawara. The presence of the station guaranteed growth in the area as it was now connected with central Tōkyō… and everyone lived happily ever after.

Except for that one guy.

There’s always one.



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[i] This reeks of 当て字 ateji, ie; the kanji were added or modified later for phonetic reasons and don’t reflect any etymological history. They were easy to read and looked pleasant. That’s it.
[ii] Archaeologists know the area has been inhabited since the Final Jōmon Period (about 1000 BCE). This means the place name could be fairly ancient – perhaps dating from as far back as the first century CE.
[iii] There’s a possibility that the name goes way farther back in time, but no one seems to have taken a stab at it.
[iv] The temple called 北院 Kita-in, literally the North Temple, in Kawagoe was renamed 喜多院 Kita-in Temple of Abundant Joy by the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu. These are the same kanji. Remember that city name, Kawagoe. We might come back to that.
[v] The clan originally held lands in modern 駄埼玉県 Dasaitama-ken Saitama Prefecture.
[vi] Ironically, the Chichibu clan was actually descended from the Taira.
[vii] The temple seems to have originally been located on 紅葉山 Momiji-yama Momiji Hill on the grounds of Edo Castle, but was relocated here in 1451. The temple was originally established in 1186.
[viii] This is hilarious to Tōkyōites who hate Saitama, because today Chichibu and Kumagaya are about the lamest places in the country.
[ix] Yes, the same Kira clan whose descendant would play a role in the story of the 47 Rōnin. See my article on Setagaya.
[x] The Late Hōjō had become the primary power in Kantō and ruled from 小田原城 Odawara-jō Odawara Castle.
[xi] His family name 九戸 Kunohe literally means the “9th Door.” This unique name and its unique reading are… um… unique to Aomori. If you meet an 一戸さん Ichinohe-san or 七戸さん Shichinohe-san, you can rest assured, they have roots in Aomori. You can read about the castle that Katsutada attacked here at Jcastle.
[xii] All rights reserved, Samurai Archives.
[xiii] In a very #TeamIenari sort of way, Tsunayoshi seems to have “taken a liking” to a great number of samurai, elevating the status of all sorts of, ehem, “qualified men.”
[xiv] Fudai daimyō were the daimyō families that had sided with Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara. These daimyō families were among the most prestigious in terms of rank.
[xv] Supposedly, this was the only jin’ya located within the present 23 Wards.
[xvi] A hatamoto’s residence, no matter how grand it may have been, would not have been appropriate. I guess this means Shigemasa and the Tsunayoshi could have sleepovers now.
[xvii] This is the decree that earned the shōgun the laughable nickname, 犬公方 Inu Kubō “Dog Shōgun” because he especially wanted to protect dogs.
[xviii] The other kennels were in 大久保 Ōkubō and 四ツ谷 Yotsuya, and the main kennel was in 中野 Nakano. I have an article about Nakano here.
[xix] A job that, let’s be honest, wasn’t too difficult anyways.
[xx] Remember, beheading was reserved for criminals or samurai who had committed an act so egregious that 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment was disallowed.
[xxi] 改易 kaieki is the Japanese word for “sudden dismissal and deprivation of position, privileges, and properties.”
[xxii] And indeed, things did get out of hand.
[xxiii] Yoshiyasu’s 吉 yoshi was given to him by Tsunayoshi. The shōgun later promoted him to daimyō of 甲府藩 Kōfu Han Kōfu Domain in the former lands of 武田信玄 Takeda Shingen. He also granted him a courtly name that essentially made him an honorary Tokugawa, 松平時之助 Matsudaira Tokinosuke. Yoshiyasu was given land in 駒込 Komagome to build a new 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence. He built an elaborate garden there called 六義園 Rikugien. The garden still exists today in Tōkyō.
[xxiv] This doesn’t show the back-stabby stuff, but this is the movie I’m referring to.
[xxv] His position in the shōgunate was 御側御用人 o-soba go-yōnin, which is usually translated as “lord chamberlain” and called 御側 o-soba for short. The o-soba was the shōgun’s closest advisor and it was his job to report the shōgun’s commands to the 老中 rōjū senior councilors. In the case of Shigemasa and Yoshiyasu, the o-soba also served as the royal penis cleaner.
[xxvi] I have some articles about Ushigome.
[xxvii] This train line was the forerunner of the present 小田急電鉄株式会社 Odakyū Dentetsu Kabushiki-gaisha Odakyu Electric Railway Co., Ltd.

What does Mishuku mean?

In Japanese Castles, Japanese History on January 31, 2015 at 5:40 am

Mishuku (three post towns)

Mishuku Shrine

Mishuku Shrine

The other day we looked at 五本木 Gohongi and 2 years ago we looked at 池尻 Ikejiri. Next to Ikejiri, there lays a relatively obscure neighborhood called 三宿 Mishuku.  One would think there isn’t much to say about this place and to be honest, there isn’t a lot to say[i]. But I’m gonna try my best to show you that this area actually has some historical value. On the surface, the name seems to mean “3 post towns” because the first kanji means “3” and the second kanji means “lodging.”

A typical Edo Period post town.

A typical Edo Period post town.

Own the Moan!

In the past we’ve seen Shinjuku, Shinagawa, Narai-juku and Senju – all of which were post towns – and longtime readers will know that a whole lotta drinking and whoring went down in these kinds of places. All over Japan you’ll see place names with 宿 shuku/juku in the name and 9 times out of 10, these were post towns. But this time, it seems that this isn’t quite the case[ii].

Ready to get it on with some post town prostitutes...

Ready to get it on with some post town prostitutes…


Let’s Look at the Kanji!

lodgings, dwellings

OK, so admittedly, there could have been 3 inns in the area at some point in history. That said, no Edo Period maps indicate anything of the sort[iii] and prior to the Edo Period, this area rarely appeared in maps because it was so country. And while the village did sit on an important road during the final years of the Kamakura Period, by the late 1300’s[iv] the area was more or less irrelevant. The road system soon became cut off from the “national[v]” road system and was just used by local peasants doing whatever boring shit it is that peasants do[vi].

mishuku map


So What Do We Know About the Area?

If you recall from my article on Ikejiri, most of modern 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward originally consisted of marshes and swamps until the Edo Period. Fans of the blog will surely remember that the Meguro River flows through this area. Really hard core fans will remember that one of the rivers that feed into the Meguro River is the Kitazawa (where the name Shimo-Kitazawa comes from). Swamps, rivers, ravines, wetlands… I think you can see where this is going[vii].



A Land Rich with Water

This brings us to our etymology. The general consensus is that the original writing was 水宿 Mishuku – a uniquely classical rendering of these kanji. Usually when we see 宿 shuku inn used as a suffix we can use its 音読み on’yomi Chinese reading and we can also assume it means “post town.” But the first kanji is 水 mizu which means “water.” Its standard 訓読み kun’yomi Japanese reading is usually “mizu.” In place names, however, can sometimes be read as ミ mi instead of ミズ mizu. So does this mean “water post town” or does this mean “three post towns?”

waterworld samurai style


Let’s Look at the Kanji Again

mi, mizu
pregnant, replete with

This old way of writing gives us a completely new way of looking at this place name. This different way of writing suggests a terrain wherein 水が宿る mizu ga yodoru the water is teeming[viii]. This older writing seems legit according to what we know about the area prior to the Kamakura Period. The old kanji were difficult to read and were replaced with the current ones[ix].

The "castle" may have looked something like this...

The “castle” may have looked something like this…


So Why Does This Place Name Survive At All?

There was a castle here. In its day it was called 三宿城 Mishuku-jō Mishuku Castle. There used to be a temple here called 多聞寺 Tamon-ji Tamon Temple and so sometimes the castle is called 多聞城 Tamon-jō Tamon Castle. It was a 支城 shi-jō satellite fort of 世田ヶ谷城 Setagaya-jō Setagaya Castle[x]. When and who built the first fortified residence here is unclear, but the fort sat on a plateau that is now home to 多聞小学校 Tamon Shōgakkō Tamon Elementary School.

Top of the plateau. The school is on the right.

Top of the plateau. The school is on the right.

In its day, the fort gave the lord of the manor a fantastic view of the area. To the west, you could observe the primary fortification of the fief, Setagaya Castle, but to the north you would see the 北沢川 Kitazawa-gawa Kitazawa River and to the south you would see the 烏山川 Karasuyama-gawa Karasuyama River. To the east, you would see the confluence of the two rivers merging into what we today call the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River[xi]. That is to say, you were looking at a flood plain dominated by 3 rivers – a land that was “teeming with water.” The fact that there were 3 waterways may also explain the change of change from 水 mizu water to 三 mi three.

The lord of the manor would have had a view similar to this.

The lord of the manor would have had a view similar to this… or not.

The existence of Mishuku Castle was well-known for centuries, but the place name 三宿村 Mishuku Mura Mishuku Village wasn’t recorded until 1625, during the reign of the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu. In 1889 (Meiji 22), 7 villages were combined to make up a larger administrative unit called 世田ヶ谷村 Setagaya Mura Setagaya Village which included an area called Mishuku. The current postal code designating Mishuku 1丁目 icchōme block 1 and 2丁目 nichōme block 2 dates from 1965 when the current postal code system was established.


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[i] I’ve never even been there myself.
[ii] Guess dis ‘hood ain’t ownin’ the moanin’ til 6 in the mornin’. Too bad. Woulda made a much more interesting story.
[iii] Even in the Edo Period, the area doesn’t appear on some maps because it was so minor.
[iv] The Muromachi Period saw the power base move away from the east (Kamakura) and back to the west (Kyōto).
[v] And, yeah, I use the word “national” loosely.
[vi] Because fuck the peasants. Am I right?
[vii] And I promise you that it’s not going to another river series.
[viii] Literally, an area that is “pregnant with water.” Also, just as 荒川 Arakawa’s 川 kawa is not a suffix, 水宿三宿 Mishuku’s 宿 shuku is not a suffix either.
[ix] The current kanji are 読みやすい, right??? (If you can’t read that, then study a little more Japanese, OK?)
[x] As you should know from my article about Setagaya’s Freaky Horse Fetish, you’ll know that the 吉良氏 Kira-shi Kira clan controlled this area in the 1300’s and we can be sure that the Kira clan controlled this fort at some point.
[xi] See my article on the Meguro River.

Setagaya and its Freaky Horse Fetish

In Japanese Castles, Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on January 19, 2015 at 2:34 am

What’s Up with Setagaya and Horses?
No, seriously? What’s up wit dat?


Horse girl

So while I was researching my last article on 三軒茶屋 Sangen-jaya, I came across a few interesting place names that I’d never heard of – granted I rarely go to 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward[i] — but nonetheless I was obviously intrigued.

I saw a lot of references to horses on the map. “I’ll do all the horse names!” I thought. “Surely they’re all related,” I thought. “I can hit all these place names in one article,” I thought. Then the stories started getting longer and longer. “Did I get myself into another River Article Debacle?” I wondered. I really may have, so I’ve decided to go with the local legends over the hardcore etymology this time just to spare everyone the headache and hopefully to get some good folklore out this.

As I said, the one unifying factor is that all of these place names are horse-related. So let’s take a look at what names we will cover today.



Current Status


horse pulling ravine

This place name survives in abbreviated forms

horse hitching

This place name survives as Komatsunagi Shrine and as an elementary school name


horse stopping

The name survives as Komadome Hachiman Shrine


horse ravine

Survives as a postal code and a university name, etc…


gray haired horse burial mound

The name survives as a landmark

So just let that sink in a little bit before we continue. Take a few seconds to imagine what you think the etymologies might be. Do you think there is any connection? Do you think it’s all a coincidence? If you’re a long time reader and you remember other horse and animal related etymologies, do you think there will be any similarities to those?

These horses are decked out in the latest spring line up from Prada.

These horses are decked out in the latest spring line up from Prada.


OK, Let’s Get Started

I mentioned in the last article, that present day Sangen-jaya is comprised of several former villages. Two of those villages were parts of the 3 areas of a Kamakura Period region called 馬引沢 Umahikizawa.

Kami-Umahikizawa Mura

Upper Umahikizawa Village

Naka-Umahikizawa Mura

Middle Umahikizawa Village

Shimo- Umahikizawa Mura

Lower Umahikizawa Village

This is a similar pattern that we see with the classification of daimyō residences in Edo.


upper residence


middle residence


lower residence

With daimyō residences the designation of upper, middle, and lower seems to refer to their importance in relation to the Tokugawa Shōgunate. The upper residence would be nearer to Edo Castle and is where most of the administrative affairs would be carried out. The lower residence was more like a villa. I give a little more detail in my article on sankin-kōtai.

With place names, things are a little different – these are references to the areas of a village’s location on a river. 上 kami (up) refers an upstream location, 中 naka (middle) refers to a midstream location, 下 shimo (down) refers to a downstream location. In this case, what river might we be speaking of? It’s a river that was called the 蛇崩川 Jakuzure-gawa Jakuzure River. This is a wild name, in my opinion. The kanji mean something like “snake death river.” I dunno. But my guess is the kanji aren’t important to this story, and maybe I’ll tackle them later – but if you’ve got an image of a dangerous river, then great. Let’s take it from there.

Great strategist and general -- but worst horse rider EVER.

Minamoto no Yoritomo. Great strategist and general — but worst horse rider EVER.


What does Umahikizawa mean?

Legend states that in 1189, 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo[ii] traveled back and forth on his favorite horse through this area on his military expedition from his capital in 鎌倉 Kamakura to 大州平泉 Ōshū Hiraizumi[iii]. The purpose of the expedition was to destroy 藤原泰衡 Fujiwara no Yasuhira and put an end to the Northern Fujiwara Clan once and for all[iv]. As he approached a deep stream with an extremely fast current[v], his horse became unsure of its footing and hesitated. Yoritomo, who was plagued by a lifelong battle with bad luck in horses[vi], pressed the horse to cross the ravine. The horse tried to proceed but the ground gave out from underneath it and the horse fell into the stream, either breaking its legs or suffering some other fatal injury, despite Yoritomo’s efforts to save his beloved horse. Heartbroken and teary-eyed, the general ordered his men to pull (引く hiku) the horse (馬 uma) out of the ravine (沢 sawa) and bury it on the other side. A variation of this legend states that after the tragic death of his favorite horse, Yoritomo ordered his men to lead (引いて渡る hiite wataru) their horses (馬 uma) across the ravine (沢 sawa) lest they lose their war horses as well. And so the place came to be known as 馬引沢 Umahikizawa horse pulling river.

This is a "sawa" and I bet you wouldn't want to ride a horse across it...

This is a “sawa” and I bet you wouldn’t want to ride a horse across it…

How Does This Place Name Survive?

As the village grew, it came to have 3 distinct quarters. One was upstream, one was midstream, and one was downstream. I showed you these place name earlier. 上馬引沢 Kami-Umahikizawa survives today in abbreviated form as 上馬 Kamiuma “up horse.” 下馬引沢 Shimo-Umahikizawa survives as 下馬 Shimouma “down horse.” These are both official postal addresses, but to the best of my knowledge, 中馬引沢 Naka-Umahikizawa hasn’t survived. But an interesting tidbit, in nearby 多摩市 Tama-shi Tama City, there is an area called 馬引沢 Umahikizawa, but it’s completely unrelated.

This also counts as umahiki (leading a horse).

This also counts as umahiki (leading a horse).


What Does Ashige-zuka Mean?

A mere 4 minute walk from Shimouma, there is an oval shaped, earthen mound in the middle of the street called 葦毛塚 Ashige-zuka. This is a compound word composed of two elements: 葦毛 ashige a gray haired horse and 塚 tsuka a mound. Legend claims that this is the spot where Minamoto no Yoritomo’s horse was buried. We’ve talked about burial mounds quite a few times at JapanThis!, but I think this is the first time we’ve had one allegedly built for a horse.

I wasn't kidding. It's literally in the middle of the road!

I wasn’t kidding. It’s literally in the middle of the road!


What does Komatsunagi mean?

If you take an 8 minute walk back to Shimouma and you’ll find a place called 駒繋神社 Komatsunagi Jinja Komatsunagi Shrine. Let’s continue our story there.

As I mentioned before, Minamoto no Yoritomo was cursed with all manner of bad horse luck. Being a typical superstitious 12th century samurai, he took the death of his favorite horse before an important battle[vii] as a terrible omen. After the burial mound was finished, a mysterious woman appeared. She told the general about the local 氏神 ujigami tutelary deity named 子之神 Nenokami[viii]. According to the woman, Nenokami wielded great power in the area and had the ability to exorcise any evil influence from the accident. She led him to a nearby humble, unnamed shrine[ix] dedicated to Nenokami and then disappeared. Yoritomo prayed to the kami and then continued his march north to Ōshū Hiraizumi.

Yoritomo and his stupid hat.

Yoritomo and his stupid hat.

At Ōshū, Yoritomo’s army crushed the Fujiwara army, thus annihilating his last major obstacle to power. This particular battle paved the way for him to become shōgun[x]. Marching back to Kamakura victorious, he stopped by the Nenokami shrine to give thanks. After all, being a superstitious 12th century samurai, that’s just what you do. Before approaching the shrine, he tied (繋ぐ tsunagu) his horse (駒 koma) to a pine tree (松 matsu)[xi]. He then threw some cash at the local people to build a proper shrine to Nenokami. After that, he proceeded to his capital in Kamakura.

Komatsunagi Shrine as it looks today.

Komatsunagi Shrine as it looks today.

The tree where he tied his horse came to be known as the 駒繋之松 Komatsunagi no Matsu Horse Hitching Pine and the new improved shrine came to be called Komatsunagi Shrine. If you visit the shrine today, they have a tree that they claim is the 3rd generation of the tree Yoritomo tied his horse to[xii]. Sadly, they never say what happened to the mysterious, disappearing woman.

I want some plot resolution, dammit.

The shrine claims that this is the original pine tree that Yoritomo used.

The shrine claims that this is the original pine tree that Yoritomo used.


What does Komadome mean?

Let’s take a 25 minute walk back to Sangen-jaya[xiii]the article that started all of this – and a 250 year or so jump into the future. Now we’re in the throes of the Sengoku Period – way before the rise of 3 Great Unifiers[xiv]. Edo has been in what you could call a “dark age” ever since the transfer of power from Kamakura back to Kyōto[xv]. Local militarized noble families rise and fall here and there. And among these local nobles, warlords have begun making land grabs and power grabs. Many of these clans come and go, too. One of the ascending powers in Kantō at this time were the 後北条 Go-Hōjō the Late Hōjō[xvi].

So our story is of a somewhat obscure noble who was in the service of the Hōjō, a certain 吉良頼康 Kira Yoriyasu. Much about him is unknown[xvii], but we do know that he served both the 2nd and 3rd successive Hōjō lords, 北条氏綱 Hōjō Ujitsuna and 北条氏康 Hōjō Ujiyasu[xviii]. So while he wasn’t a major player, he was playing with some big time ballers. You can think of him as Jay-Z’s longtime friend who gets invited to parties, but isn’t allowed on the red carpet.

This picture was long said to be Kira Yoriyasu, but recent research suggests that it's actually Takeda Shingen.

This picture was long said to be Kira Yoriyasu, but recent research suggests that it’s actually Takeda Shingen.

If you recall from my article on the etymology of Edo, from the Heian Period to the Kamakura Period this area was controlled by the 江戸氏 Edo-shi Edo clan太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan took over the Edo clan’s fort in 1457[xix]. Dōkan was a retainer of the 上杉氏 Uesugi-shi Uesugi clan[xx] and so after his assassination in 1486, the Uesugi assumed direct control of the castle[xxi]. However the castle was of little importance to their clan and so it seems to have been lightly defended – if defended at all. And so, when the Hōjō came into the region, Edo Castle[xxii] fell easily in 1524[xxiii] and one of the generals who followed the Hōjō into Edo was our new friend, Kira Yoriyasu.

The Kira clan had controlled various fiefs in the area since 1366, and Yoriyasu was given control of Setagaya Village sometime around the attack on Edo Castle. He ruled from 世田ヶ谷城 Setagaya-jō Setagaya Castle[xxiv]. Yoriyasu’s appointment didn’t last long because the Uesugi eventually struck back and burned the castle to the ground in 1530 and Yoriyasu was transferred elsewhere[xxv]. However, in his time as the lord of Setagaya, he managed to leave behind a bit of a local legend.

The fringed orchid is often associated with Setagaya Ward because of a version of Yoriyasu's legend. Unfortunately, we're not going to go into that part of the story today.

The fringed orchid is often associated with Setagaya Ward because of a version of Yoriyasu’s legend. Unfortunately, we’re not going to go into that part of the story today.

The legend states that in the women’s quarters of Setagaya Castle, there was a lot of jealous infighting between his 正室 seishitsu legal wife and his 12 側室 sokushitsu concubines[xxvi]. On the day of birth of Yoriyasu’s first son something went terribly wrong.

As was normal for the day, the lord of the estate was out doing his do (hunting, by some accounts) when suddenly his wife went into labor alone[xxvii] – also normal for the day. Tragically, however, the boy was stillborn – meaning the Kira family line could have ended there. To avoid bad luck, the boy was enshrined at nearby 駒留八幡神社 Komadome Hachiman Jinja Komadome Hachiman Shrine. Because of this, the enshrined kami is sometimes referred to as 若宮八幡 Waka-no-miya Hachiman Young Prince Hachiman which could be interpreted as “little warrior.” At any rate, the rumor mill went into full swing that the boy had actually been smothered to death by a jealous concubine[xxviii].

The enshrinement of the stillborn son seems to have benefitted the family, as they continued to hold extensive lands until the 1590’s and the clan continued until the 元禄時代 Genroku Jidai Genroku Period, which coincided with the reign of 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi[xxix]. In the beginning of the Edo Period, the Kira clan was given 旗本 hatamoto status, ie; they became direct retainers of the shōgun family – not bad at all, but they weren’t a daimyō family as is sometimes thought. One of Yoriyasu’s descendant’s was 吉良上野介 Kira Kōzuke-no-suke[xxx] – the guy usually portrayed as the bad guy in the story of the 47 Rōnin[xxxi]. The family was disgraced and more or less dropped out of history at that point.

Oh ffs, not these clowns again???!

Oh ffs, not these clowns again???!

That’s A Neat Story, But WTF Does It Have To Do With Komadome?

Oh sorry, right. I sorta went off on a tangent there, didn’t I? Actually, the etymology of this shrine doesn’t really have much of a story behind it. It involves a certain samurai courtier of the Kamakura Shōgunate named 北条左近太郎 Hōjō Sakotarō[xxxii]. In 1308, he became a priest and wanted to establish a temple to 八幡 Hachiman the Japanese god of war[xxxiii]. This particular kami was favored by Minamoto no Yoritomo and his shōgunate and so shrines to Hachiman were very popular at this time. According to legend, Hachiman came to Sakotarō in a dream and said, “Dude, listen to your favorite horse and it will totally tell you where to enshrine me.” So he rode east from Kamakura until his exhausted horse (駒 koma) stopped (留まった tomatta) near Setagaya Village and refused to go any further. He totally realized that this was totally the spot. He immediately dismounted his unsurprisingly fatigued horse and decided to build a shrine at that spot and so the shrine is now called 駒留八幡神社 Komadome Hachiman Jinja Komadome Hachiman Shrine – the Hachiman Shrine where the horse totally stopped.

Komadome Shrine as it looks today.

Komadome Shrine as it looks today.


What does Komazawa mean?

This is the most boring place name ever – not unlike 大田区 Ōta-ku Ōta Ward[xxxiv]. 駒沢 Komazawa is an amalgamation of the surrounding places with 駒 koma horse and 沢 sawa ravine that was created in 1889 (Meiji 22) with the formation of Meguro Ward. There is another nearby but non-equine place name, 野沢 Nozawa, which features the kanji 沢 sawa. Easiest place name ever.

This picture has absolutely nothing to do with this article.

This picture has absolutely nothing to do with this article.c


Are These Etymologies True?

Your guess is as good as mine, but these all date back to the Kamakura Period and Sengoku Period which is when we first start getting reliable information from the Kantō area. This is also a time when previously existing place names get written down for the first time and transcribed into kanji. Maybe these events transpired. Maybe they didn’t. But what we can say for sure is that in this area, local legends popped up and many of them were affiliated with horses and the rising prestige of the samurai class in Kantō. In these place names we can see the areas surrounding Edo begin to blossom.


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[i] Aaaaaaaaaaaaand, once again, longtime readers know that I’ve already written about Setagaya here.
[ii] Please tell me you know who Minamoto no Yoritomo is. I’m assuming you do. But if not, check out this fine article about him at Samurai Archives.
[iii] An area in present day 岩手県 Iwate-ken Iwate Prefecture.
[iv] Fans of 源義経 Minamoto no Yoshitsune, will recognize this name. He’s the son of 藤原秀衡 Fujiwara no Hidehira who helped hide Yoshitsune when Yoritomo was trying to kill him. The Fujiwara betrayed Yoshitsune – as Fujiwara do – and it was Yasuhira who attacked Yoshitsune forcing him to kill his wife and daughter and then commit seppuku. The less dramatic version of his demise is that Yoshitsune may have just straight up been overwhelmed and was just cut down in battle by Fujiwara forces. The details of his death are disputed – and in my opinion, irrelevant.
And for those of you scratching your heads at all these names, check out this article at Samurai Archives.
[v] Presumably the Jakuzure River, or an earlier incarnation thereof.
[vi] Shōgun Yoritomo died in 1199 when he was thrown off his horse lol.
[vii] A “baddle,” if you will. (sorry, bad joke)
[viii] This kanji looks like the kanji for “child” but is actually the Chinese Zodiac sign of the rat (or mouse, whichever you prefer). That’s why the reading is ネ ne and not コ ko. Another reading is Nenogami.
[ix] Since this was a local deity in the countryside, we can assume there were tiny, almost impromptu shrines of this scattered all over the area.
[x] Another detail that seems to be in dispute: some claim Yoritomo was made shōgun by the emperor, others claim he just took the title for himself.
[xi] Obviously, this is a different horse than the one that died before the battle because… well, ghost horses hadn’t been invented yet.
[xii] There is some evidence for local worship of Nenokami. If you walk 40 minutes into nearby 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward, there is minor shrine called 高木神社 Takagi Jinja Takagi Shrine which also houses Nenokami. In fact, the area surround Takagi Shrine was more or less “officially” called 子ノ神 Ne no Kami up until 1889 (Meiji 22). The name was abolished with the creation of Meguro Ward in 1932. I’ve also found a shrine in 川崎市 Kawasaki-shi Kawasaki City that enshrines Nenokami.
[xiii] And Kamiuma.
[xiv] 織田信長 Oda Nobunaga, 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and of course 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu. If you don’t know who these people are, get the fuck off my blog.
[xv] And Kamakura’s power doesn’t seem to have been very long lasting anyways.
[xvi] Why were they called “late?” Let me google that for you, bitch.
[xvii] For example, we don’t know when or where he was born. We know his legal wife was the daughter of Hōjō Ujitsuna but we don’t know his name. We know he had legitimate male heirs, but he adopted a son and made him head of the Kira Family… but we don’t know why. These early years of the Sengoku Period are very messy.
[xviii] Actually Kira Yoriyasu’s original name was 吉良頼貞 Kira Yorisada. He received the kanji 康 yasu from Hōjō Ujiyasu.
[xix] The Tokugawa Shōgunate considered the massive fortification and new moat system the birth of Edo Castle.
[xx] This particular branch of the Uesugi were the 扇谷上杉家 Ōgigayatsu Uesugi, if you’re into that sort of thing.
[xxi] Technically speaking, the castle was Uesugi property and Dōkan was merely supervising it for them.
[xxii] Also called 千代田城 Chiyoda-jō Chiyoda Castle back in those days.
[xxiii] Please read more about the Late Hōjō here at Samurai Archives.
[xxiv] Let’s use the term “castle” loosely here and think of it more as a fortified noble residence on a hill. The estate (or castle) didn’t survive the fall of the Hōjō and the coming of the Tokugawa. And if you’re in Tōkyō now and saying to yourself, “Whaaaaaa?? There’s a Japanese castle in Setagaya?” then by all means, go and  read this page about it at – your one stop shop for all your Japanese castle needs.
[xxv] Even if he held the “castle” for 5 years, I’m guessing that’s a pretty good run at that time.
[xxvi] The name 常盤 Tokiwa is often cited as both wife and concubine but the historical record is ambiguous. Also, there are several variations of this story. If you’d like to read more about it, I actually tracked down a guy who translated 3 variations into English here.
[xxvii] ie; not really alone, but not with Yoriyasu. She would have been in the women’s quarters of the fort – most definitely surrounded by the other women. The “joy of birth” wasn’t something often enjoyed together in feudal Japan.
[xxviii] Or by some accounts, a concubine bore the child and the jealous wife murdered it.
[xxix] The 5th Tokugawa shōgun.
[xxx] Kōsuke-no-suke is actually his court title; his real name was 吉良義央 Kira Yoshihisa.
[xxxi] Longtime readers know my opinion of this story.
[xxxii] I’m not sure about the reading of his given name. Also this dude is a “real Hōjō,” not a “Late Hōjō” of the Sengoku Period who adopted the name.
[xxxiii] Calling him “the Japanese god of war” is a bit of simplification, but you can read more about Hachiman here.
[xxxiv] Which, of course, you know I’ve already written about here.

What does Sangenjaya mean?

In Japanese History on January 14, 2015 at 6:01 am

Sangen-jaya (3 tea houses)

Sangenjaya Crossing

Sangenjaya Crossing

Today’s place name is a bit problematic when it comes to writing. This is true in both English and Japanese. The name is written in the Roman alphabet as either Sangenjaya or Sangen-jaya. I’ll talk about why this dichotomy exists later, but for the time being just know both spellings are common. The hyphen-less version is much more common, but the hyphenated version is legit. I’m going to use both versions in this article when I feel it illustrates my point. Just be aware of that.

The word is problematic in Japanese because when you type the word in to most kanji conversion systems you’ll find the word unconvertible:










If you can read Japanese, you probably can understand the mechanics of what’s going on here. If not, don’t worry. I’m going to explain everything in due time. I promise.

Anyways, Sangenjaya is located in present day 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward[i]. And now that I’m looking at more maps of the area, I’m thinking this area is going to be a real treasure trove of interesting place names for upcoming issues.

Sangenjaya on a map

Sangenjaya on a map

But First, Let’s Look at the Kanji!




counter for buildings




shop, store

The bane of many a student of Japanese is the “counter.” What’s a counter, you ask? A counter is a suffix (and its accompanying kanji) attached to the end of Japanese numbers to show that you are counting something. In English these would be the equivalent of ordinal and cardinal numbers. For example one machine is 一台 ichidai, one small animal is 一匹 ippiki, one glass of beer is 一杯 ippai, one can/bottle of beer is 一本 ippon, one order of beer is 一つ hitotsu, and one facial cumshot is 一発 ippatsu[ii]. One building or store is 一軒 ikken. Two buildings or shops are 二軒 niken. Three buildings or shops are 三軒 sangen.

Long term readers, will recognize the word 茶屋 chaya teahouse[iii]. In the Edo Period, this could refer to a variety of business models ranging from a place to get a light meal, to a shop that provided entertainment with geisha, to an outright brothel that just happened to serve tea. The name Sangen-jaya derives from 三軒の茶屋 sangen no chaya the 3 teahouses. Under a normal linguistic process known as 連濁 rendaku sequential voicing[iv], the mora ちゃ cha /tɕa/ changes to じゃ ja /dʑa/ and voilà! ちゃや chaya becomes じゃや jaya. Remember earlier when I talked about the kanji conversion on a computer, that’s why you still input ちゃ cha instead of じゃ ja, or more correctly, you put in ぢゃ ja, but this is difficult on a computer.

The area is often affectionately called 三茶 Sancha “three tea.”

Sangenjaya Station

Sangenjaya Station

So What’s Up With The 3 Teahouses?

I’m glad you asked. In the Edo Period, the area around 三軒茶屋交差点 Sangen-jaya Kōsaten Sangenjaya Crossing[v] was home to 3 teahouses. The intersection is actually where a road bifurcated and became the 大山道 Ōyama Michi Ōyama Path and 登戸道 Noborito Michi Noborito Path. These roads lead towards a series of established temple and shrine pilgrimage routes. The area wasn’t a post town, but travelers would diverge here and so it seemed as good a place as any to get a quick meal, some refreshing tea, and maybe a prostitute or two[vi].

The 3 teahouses are well attested on maps and so the original locations are known.


Ishibashi Shop


Kado Shop


Tanaka Shop

All of the shops are family names followed by the suffix for “shop” or “store.” The name of Ishibashi-ya is a bit more complicated, though. The shop was originally called 信楽 Shigaraki, but the name was later changed to 石橋楼 Ishibashi-rō. It’s often listed as Ishibashi-ya, probably to make it conform to the other 2 shops.

The location of the 3 teahouse at the end of the Edo Period.

The location of the 3 teahouse at the end of the Edo Period.

In the Edo Period, the area called Sangenjaya today was comprised of the former 中馬引沢村 Naka-Umahikizawa Mura Naka-Umahikizawa Village,  下馬引沢村 Shimo-Umahikizawa Mura Shimo-Umahikizawa Village, and 太子堂村 Taishi-dō Mura Taishi-dō Village in former 武蔵国荏原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara District, Musashi Province[vii]. It seems that by the 1800’s, the popular name Sangen-jaya was already well known in the area. However, the name didn’t officially exist until quite recently. The birth of the official place name Sangen-jaya coincided with the 1932 creation of Setagaya Ward.

Ishibashiya in 1877 (Meiji 10).

Ishibashiya in 1877 (Meiji 10).

In the Meiji Period, the area became famous for シャボン屋 shabon-ya shops selling western soaps[viii], 立飲屋 tachinomi-ya shops where you drink while standing[ix], 駄菓子屋 dagashi-ya cheap candy and snack shops, and 魚屋 sakana-ya fish mongers[x]. Today, it’s a rather affluent area with many bustling restaurants and bars. Parts of the neighborhood are crowded with Shōwa Era buildings and shops and so the area is popular with people who enjoy that type of atmosphere. Less than 10 minutes by train from 渋谷駅 Shibuya Eki Shibuya Station, it attracts a lot of university students looking to get their drink on[xi].

Sangenjaya at night

Sangenjaya at night

Where Are The Teahouses?

In the Meiji Period, Kado-ya went out of business and Tanaka-ya was lost in a fire. In 1936, Ishibashi-ya moved across the street and changed its name to 茶寮イシバシ Saryō Ishibashi which means something like “Tea Room Ishibashi.” The first floor was a 洋食喫茶 yōshoku kissa a café specializing in yōshoku, Japanized western dishes. The second floor was a banquet hall that served yōshoku for large events and parties. In 1945, the family running the shop was evacuated due to the destruction incurred by the American firebombing of Tōkyō.

2 photos of the interior of Saryō Ishibashi.

2 photos of the interior of Saryō Ishibashi.

I don’t know the details, but according to local legend Tanaka-ya re-emerged at some time in the Sangenjaya area. It didn’t come back as a teahouse but as a ceramics shop. The modern shop is called 田中屋陶苑 Tanakaya Tōen Tanaka Ceramics. The shop uses the family name and is the only surviving business with any connection to the Sangen-jaya place name[xii].

Tanakaya Ceramics

Tanakaya Ceramics

Teahouse Postscript?

Lastly, I want to share a link. This guy made a map of where the teahouses were. Then he went to the area and photographed the spots as they look today. It’s pretty cool! You can find his blog here.

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[i] Yes, I have already written about the etymology of Setagaya.
[ii] #TeamIenari
[iii] Long term readers will most likely remember this from my article on O-hana-jaya.
[iv] I’ve covered rendaku so many times, I don’t really feel like getting into it again. If you’re interested, read about it in Wikipedia.
[v] “Crossing” is Japanese English for “intersection.”
[vi] Or three.
[vii] And believe me, we’ll get to those gems in due time.
[viii] Interestingly, this word シャボン shabon derives from the Portuguese word sabaõ which means the word dates back to the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai Warring States Period.
[ix] Today the term means a kind of casual bar or izakaya where you stand and drink. But in this case, these were actual 酒屋 saka-ya sake shops, but they didn’t only sell alcohol, they set up tables or counters for customers to taste sake and casually drink in the store.
[x] Remember, this was quite far from the center of Edo-Tōkyō and the bay.
[xi] If you’re looking for the more carnal pleasures, worthy of the teahouse legacy, you might be able to find some discreet メンズエステ menzu esute men’s spas – essentially a massage with a happy ending.
[xii] I can’t find any information linking the Tanaka family running the ceramics shop to the Edo Period tea house family. So keep in mind, the name Tanaka is like Smith, Johnson, or Williams. A cursory Google search for 田中陶器店 Tanaka Tōki-ya brought up a shop with the same name in 佐賀県 Saga-ken Saga Prefecture as the first hit. Saga is an area famous for ceramics. I’m not saying there’s a connection – I can’t – but the presence of this Tanaka-ya should be viewed with a little skepticism until further evidence comes to light. If any of my readers knows anything about this, I’d love to hear from you.

What does Yoga mean?

In Japanese History on October 23, 2013 at 8:55 am

Yōga (Yoga)

cool subway entrance

Pretty cool amphitheater-esque subway entrance!

In Tōkyō’s Setagaya Ward there is an area and a train station called 用賀 Yōga. I don’t know what native Japanese speakers think of this name, but it doesn’t really look like a place to me. The first kanji means “task” or “use.” The second kanji means “congratulations.”

If the popular etymology is true, then this place has its origins in Sanskrit and not Japanesei.

However, I’m just gonna say this right now – I have some major gripes with the popular story. This name is obviously ateji, ie; kanji used for phonetic reasons. Because it is ateji, it marks this as a very ancient place name. That said, let’s keep an open mind and listen to the story in its entirety before we jump to any conclusions.

Does sitting like this count as yoga?

Does sitting like this count as yoga?

The common narrative goes a little something like this. From the Heian Period to the beginning of the Kamakura Period, a ヨガ道場 yoga dōjō yoga school operated here. The name 用賀村 Yōga Village ultimately derived from this yoga schoolii.

During the Sengoku Period, Yōga Village was a 門前町 monzenchō centered around 眞福寺 Shinpuku-ji, a temple for which I can find no further informationiii. In case you forgot, a monzenchō was a small town that developed around the mon front gate of a temple or shrineiv.

By the Edo Period, the village was an established 宿場 shukuba post town on the 大山街道 Ōyama Kaidōv. It was a small town, but it managed to flourish during the stability brought by the Tokugawa in the 1600’s.

But wait, there's more!

But wait, there’s more!

A Bizarre Plot Twist

Translating from the original Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese monks used the kanji 瑜伽 for yoga. The kanji can be read in Japanese as either yuga or yogavi.

In 1578, a temple was founded in the area. This temple was associated with the 真言宗 Shingon-shū True Word Buddhismvii. The temple, which still exists today, is called 真福寺 Shinpuku-ji. The temple’s honorary mountain name (sangō) is 瑜伽山 Yuga-zan which uses the classical characters for “yoga.viii

Japanese Yoga

This is the kinda yoga I could get into.
Titty yoga.

Some More Weirdness

That’s the official narrative. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll realize that there are more discrepancies; there was another temple in the area before the 1578 temple.

I don’t know if the original temple, 実相眞福Jissō-san Shinpuku-ji, was re-established as 瑜伽山真福寺 Yuga-zan Shinpuku-ji or if the new temple borrowed and modified the name of the old temple but… the mountain names definitely changed. And while the pronunciation of the temple name was the same, the first kanji changed.

実相瑜伽山 Jissō-sanYuga-zan True Image Mountain → Yoga Mountain
眞福真福寺 Shinpuku-jiShinpuku-ji True Fortune Temple → True Fortune Temple


The main hall (honden) of the modern Shinpukuji.

We have a very messy story hereix. Let’s re-cap:

・In the old days there was a yoga school in Yōga and the town got a name.
・The yoga school was apparently dead and gone by the Kamakura Period.
・There’s always been a connection with Shingon Buddhism.
・The town grew up around a non-extant temple.
・That temple either declined and/or a new temple showed up and assumed the same name – and yet, a different name and included the Chinese characters for “yoga” in their name.


It’s possible, man.
All of this is totally possible.
Maybe some of the inconsistencies are just byproducts of how the story has been preserved – one record remembers it this way, one temple tradition remembers it that way. But also remember how off the beaten path this place was until the Kamakura Period.

Statue of an Edo Period traveler commemorating the the Oyama Kaido.

Statue of an Edo Period traveler commemorating the the Oyama Kaido.

My opinion is that most of this is not trustworthy information. There are probably kernels of truth in there, but most of this too inconsistent to be taken seriously. By the time we have temple records (1578), the Edo Period is right around the corner. Record keeping in the area got better after 1600, but come on, hundreds of years of passing down stories had been going on. Successive religious institutions are great at keeping records, but religious institutions are also notorious for passing down myths and stories that sometimes seem plausible but never completely match up to the facts.

Finally, I’d like to say that there is also a real possibility that this name, clearly written in ateji, has nothing to do with Buddhism or yoga, but actually has a more ancient originx.

Let’s say the jury is out on this one.

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i Let me clarify; Sanskrit – as filtered through Classical Chinese and later, Middle Japanese.

ii Yet no evidence of the school exists. Furthermore, the kanji is (not yo) in Modern Japanese. (But historical linguistics think there may have been up to 4 distinct sounds in Old Japanese that merged into the present /yo dichotomy. This may suggest an older origin, or it may evidence of a dialect, or both.)

iii The only other info I have is that its honorary mountain name was 実相Jissō-san. More about “mountain names” in a minute.

iv You can read more about this in my article on Monzen-nakachō.

v From my understanding, the Ōyama Kaidō was originally a pilgrimage route that ran from Mt. Ōyama (in Kanagawa Prefecture) and terminated near Akasaka in Edo.

vi In the Heian Period, the use of highfalutin kanji would have been the domain of highly educated monks and court elite. Ateji would have been par for the course in this rural coastal area of the Kantō. By the 1500’s, highfalutin kanji would par for the course.

vii Also called 真言秘密 Shingon Himitsu the True Word Secret. This is a type of esoteric Buddhism that I don’t know much about other than it sounds like utter horse shit. They have secret rites that teach the initiated how to summon demons, change the weather, and heal the sick by chanting or meditating or touching things. In other words, it makes claims about the nature of the universe and reality that are just as spurious as those of every other religion out there.

viii All Japanese temples have 3 names, 山号 sangō mountain name (a metaphorical mountain name), and 院号 ingō (cloister name – like a branch name), 寺号 jigō temple name (official temple name). The first two are honorary names that are generally not used in common parlance. The last name, the jigō, is the usual way to refer to a temple.

ix One which yoga schools and amateur place name websites cherry pick the fuck out of to no good end…

x I could be wrong. Or could I…?

What does Setagaya mean?

In Japanese History on July 8, 2013 at 6:47 pm

Setagaya (Valley of the Eternal Rice Paddy)

All of Setagaya looks like this.  Every last bit of it. And they have flying monkeys too...

All of Setagaya looks like this.
Every last bit of it.
And they have flying monkeys too…

This place name is ancient. So take all of this with a grain of salt. But the generally accepted theory is as follows.

瀬戸 seto usually means a strait, as in the Strait of Gibraltar[i], but in Old Japanese, it could also be applied to 谷地 yachi a narrow marsh in a valley. In the old dialect of the area, it’s said that word seto was pronounced seta and written 瀬田 seta. Old Japanese had two possessive particles. Modern Japanese uses の no, but Old Japanese also used が ga. It survives in place names all over the country, the most famous being 関ヶ原 Sekigahara[ii], which literally means “the checkpoint gatehouse’s prairie/field.” Thus 瀬田ヶ谷 seta ga ya meant something like 瀬田の谷地 seta no yachi “the narrow marsh in the valley’s narrow marsh in the valley,” which I would have said was a totally ridiculous name, if they had asked me. But they didn’t.

Eventually, the first kanji was swapped out with 世 se “generation, world” because it’s an auspicious character. 世田 sounds like rice paddies that are bountiful forever, hence my translation of “Valley of the Eternal Rice Paddy.” Also, is a standard ateji character. It was so common in phonetic renderings that the shorthand form of became katakana セ se.

The first attestation of the name is in 1376 as 世田谷郷 Setagaya-gō Setagaya Hamlet. By the Edo Period, the town was listed as 世田谷村 Setagaya Mura Setagaya Village and this name lasted until the Meiji Era. In the Edo Period it was not part of the city of Edo, but of 荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District of 武蔵国 Musashi no kuni Musashi Province[iii]. In 1871, when the 廃藩置県 haihan-chiken[iv] the abolition of domain and establishment of prefectures was enacted, the eastern section of what is now Setagaya Ward was absorbed into 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City within 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture. In 1936, the boundaries of present day Setagaya Ward were pretty much fixed. It became a special ward of the newly created Tōkyō Metropolis in 1946 and lived happily ever after.

Maneki Neko

Maneki Neko

Oh wait, I forgot something kinda cool.

So that cat is called 招キ猫 maneki neko, it’s kind of a good look charm for businesses in Japan. 招く maneku means to invite or beckon and 猫 neko means cat[v]. There are a few origin stories for this good luck charm. One involves Setagaya Ward.

The story goes that once upon a time, there was an impoverished temple called 豪徳寺 Gōtoku-ji. Even though the head priest of the temple had barely enough food for himself, he took in a white stray cat and cared for him. Nice guy.

The temple isn't impoverished anymore.  They have a huge market share of the crappy cat statue market in Tokyo.

The temple isn’t impoverished anymore.
They have captured a huge share of the crappy cat statue market in Tokyo.

According to the legend, the daimyō of Hikone Domain, Ii Naotaka[vi], a contemporary of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hidetada, was passing through Setagaya Village with his entourage as a storm was coming up. As Naotaka’s group passed by the temple, the daimyō noticed the white cat beckoning them to enter the temple precinct. As it was totally about to rain, he and his group commandeered the temple for shelter. It started raining and maybe some lightning struck somewhere and, you know, some legend shit happened. I dunno, maybe it was a crazy storm.

Naotaka was thankful for being able to take shelter at the temple. As a result he requested to make the temple the Ii clan’s 菩提寺 bodai-ji funerary temple in Edo and the family made endowments to the temple and basically just made it rain[vii] on them throughout the Edo Period. As a result the family of the priest attributed the family/temple’s good luck to the white cat[viii]. And they found another awesome way to make money. They  started selling little white cats and telling people that if you buy this little white cat, a hereditary daimyō  might pass by your place and start throwing money at you for 2 and a half centuries. Well, anything’s possible, right?

The Grave of Ii Naosuke, one of the best dudes the late shogunate produced who had a really bad day on March 24, 1860.

The Grave of Ii Naosuke, one of the best dudes the late shogunate produced who had a really bad day on March 24, 1860.

Anyhoo, whatever you think of this story, the Ii clan was definitely a major patron of the club, err, I mean temple. The place is definitely in Setagaya Ward. The temple plays up the maneki neko story and the characters is known far and wide. Even in the ancestral Ii lands based around Hikone Castle, they use a cat character called Hikonyan, a reference to the maneki neko legend.

[i] I don’t know why I gave this example. After all, there are perfectly good Japanese examples.

[ii] As in the Battle of Sekigahara which secured Tokugawa Ieyasu’s position of dominance over Japan. This set the stage for him being granted the title 征夷大将軍 sei-i taishōgun, commander-in-chief of the expeditionary forces against the eastern barbarians, as they say.

[iii] See my article on Shimo-Kitazawa for another passing reference.

[iv] Not to be confused with the 廃藩痴漢 haihan chikan the public groping abolition of domains.

[v] It’s also slang for a “submissive” male homosexual.

[vi] I don’t want to get side tracked, but he is the illustrious ancestor of the no-less illustrious Ii Naosuke who was the regent of the clown shōgun, Tokugawa Iesada.

[vii] Make it rain. If you haven’t experienced this, then (a) you’re not a stripper or (b) you’re not rich or (c) you haven’t lived your life vicariously through rich people and strippers like me.

[viii] Because religious people love to thank imaginary shit instead of the people who actually help them.

What does Shimo-Kitazawa mean?

In Japanese History on July 4, 2013 at 1:43 am

Shimo-Kitazawa (Lower Northern Stream)

shimokitazawa history

I’m about to tell you how popular this place is by starting off with a picture where there isn’t a human in sight.

Shimo-Kitazawa is located in Setagaya Ward. Because of its bohemian appeal, it’s popular with artists, musicians, college students and young professionals. It’s not as commercial as the more urbanized centers like Shibuya and Shinjuku, and it has a nice balance of residential and boutique business culture. It’s not the most accessible area, but that’s part of its charm. But don’t let that fool you; the small Shimo-Kitazawa Station is busy as hell. It’s definitely a hot spot.

But actually, there is no official place called Shimo-Kitazawa.
By this I mean, there is no official postal address called Shimo-Kitazawa. There is a train station with this name.
And that’s it.

The area colloquially referred to as Shimo-Kitazawa is composed of two official areas Kitazawa and Daizawa.

It’s interesting to me, because Shimokita (as it’s usually nicknamed) has a momentum that reflects changes we’ve seen in Tōkyō’s history. Readers of JapanThis will remember how we’ve watched Iidamachi fade into oblivion as Iidabashi gained dominance simply because of the presence of a train or bus station. We also saw this with Nijūbashi, Kudanshita, Ebisu, and Omotesandō. There are too many examples of this to list. So if you wondered how these place names transition, there’s a good chance that we’re seeing a transition before our very eyes. A legitimate, modern Shimo-Kitazawa might exist sometime in the very near future.

Crowded Shimo-Kitazawa.

OK, that’s more like it.
Crowded Shimo-Kitazawa.

So What’s the Origin of this Place Name?

We have to look at two important geographical words before we can go any farther.





It’s said that in this area, there were many 沢 sawa streams (or that there was one particular stream here). Since this area was the northernmost section of the 荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District[i], the stream[ii] was called 北沢 Kitazawa, the Northern Stream[iii].

In old Japanese place names, the upstream area would generally be referred to as 上 kami upper and the downstream area as 下 shimo lower[iv].

Even today there are train stations named 上北沢 Kami-Kitazawa Upper Kitazawa and 下北沢 Shimo-Kitazawa Lower Kitazawa. Other related names are 北沢 Kitazawa, 代沢 Daizawa, 代田 Daita and 新代田 Shin-Daita[v]. By the way, I know a bad ass ramen shop in Shin-Daita.

The oldest recognizable photograph I could find of Shimo-Kitazawa.  This one is from the Showa Era. The platform has no roof so it must have been a bitch in the summertime.  But the platform and tracks must be in the same places as they are now. Also, you can tell this is after WWII, as the kanji are written left to right.

The oldest recognizable photograph I could find of Shimo-Kitazawa.
This one is from the Showa Era.
The platform has no roof so it must have been a bitch in the summertime.
But the platform and tracks must be in the same places as they are now.
Also, you can tell this is after WWII, as the kanji are written left to right.

In the Edo Period, this place was just country. In fact, it wasn’t even part of Edo. It was just part of the Ebara District of Musashi Province. Maps of the time confirm the presence of two small villages by the name of 下北沢村 Shimo-Kitazawa Mura Shimo-Kitazawa Village and 上北沢村  Kami-Kitazawa Mura Kami-Kitazawa Village. When 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō City was created, it absorbed the area into the city boundaries. At that time, the villages were officially merged into 北沢村 Kitazawa Mura Kitazawa Village[vi]. This sort of thing happened all over Tōkyō, but the old names often would come back into circulation for bus, trolley, and train station names that needed to be differentiated. This is why the Shimo and Kami names still exist today at all.

A Map of Tokyo City (basically the modern 23 Special Ward of Tokyo) The highlighted area is the Ebara District -- or at least what was incorporated into Tokyo City. #17 is Setagaya Village. You can easily see that it's at the northernmost point of the county.

A Map of Tokyo City (basically the modern 23 Special Ward of Tokyo)
The highlighted area is the Ebara District — or at least what was incorporated into Tokyo City.
#17 is Setagaya Village.
You can easily see that it’s at the northernmost point of the county.

Kami-Kitazawa Station was built in 1913. Shimo-Kitazawa Station was built in 1928. The names seemed destined for mediocrity until 1991 when the area became a hub for performing arts (theater in particular) and slowly the area gained momentum as quirky boutiques and shops and restaurants came to be established there. By the mid-2000’s the area had a reputation for its bohemian/Shōwa chic. I hear there are plans to re-develop the area that would change the area dramatically, but this seems to be on hold as the residents of the area are opposed to making drastic changes to the neighborhood.

I’ll admit it’s not my favorite place in Tōkyō, but every time I’ve gone, I’ve had fun. Part of its cool factor comes from the fact that it’s not so easy to get to. It’s on the Keiō and Odakyū lines, which aren’t the most widespread rail companies in the Tōkyō Metropolis.




[i] Ebara District was one of about 21 districts that made up 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province.

[ii] Or streams…

[iii] Or streams…

[iv] See my article on alternate attendance where you will see daimyō residences in Edo categorized by 上 kami upper, 中 naka middle, and 下 shimo lower.

[v] More about these names in upcoming articles.

[vi] They were administered by the newly created 世田谷村 Setagaya Mura Setagaya Village.

What does Mitaka mean?

In Japanese History on June 27, 2013 at 2:56 am

Mitaka (3 Falcons)

Three falcons.

Three falcons.
Let’s get it on!


I don’t know why I haven’t written about Mitaka yet. I’ve known the etymology of this for about 7 years. It was told to me by a monk at one of the temples located around 井ノ頭公園 Inokashira Kōen Inokashira Park – which is another interesting place name, actually.



Inogashira Park has a beautiful canopy.

Inogashira Park has a beautiful canopy.


Mitaka is part of the Tōkyō Metropolis, but it is not one of the 23 Special Wards. So it doesn’t use the word 区 ku ward, rather it uses 市 shi city, thus the full name is 三鷹市 Mitaka-shi Mitaka City. Despite not being “special,” Mitaka does have some interesting attractions. The most famous place is the town of  吉祥寺 Kichijōji where the famous Inokashira Park is located. It’s a great park, a little crowded, and popular with young people. It’s famous for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing and hippies. There are some interesting shrines and temples located in and around the park that have their own interesting stories as well. The city is also famous for the Studio Ghibili Museum[i].


Mitaka Station

Mitaka Station


My research confirmed the story I was told by the monk and also produced an alternate theory. First, I’ll give you the story I heard 7 years ago.

In the Edo Period, the Tokugawa shōguns used the area as a 鷹場 takaba falconry hunting ground[ii]. The shōguns could use any damn place they wanted for falconry – it’s good to be the shōgun – but as with all things in the Edo Period, there were restrictions on the other noble families, including the other branches of the Tokugawa clan. The vast Mitaka area was reserved for the 御三家 Go-sanke The 3 Families the 3 branches chosen by Ieyasu to provide a shōgun if his direct family line went extinct[iii]. Because members of the 三 mi 3 most elite branches of the Tokugawa family came here frequently to hunt with 鷹 taka falcons, the area came to be known as 三 鷹 mi taka, the 3 falcons.

The alternate story that I came across states that Mitaka was surrounded by 3 領 ryō territories[iv]. Those territories were 世田谷領 Setagaya-ryō ,  府中領  Fuchū-ryō , and  野方領 Nogata-ryō, therefore the area was called  三 鷹 mi taka, the takaba surrounded by 3 territories.

Falcons.... not so cool in our era....

Falcons…. not so cool in our era….

In the Edo Period, the area was just a collection of villages and the name Mitaka seems to have been a nickname or deliberately chosen later. It wasn’t until 1889 when the 22 year old Meiji government abolished the old Tokugawa civil administrative units and created the 市町村制 Shichōson Sei City-Town-Village System of administration. At that time the area that is now Mitaka was officially created. Apparently, there was a document that included the reason the name Mitaka was chosen but it was lost when the old village office was destroyed in a fire. This is one of those times when we are close enough to the creation of a name that we could have an official etymology but far enough back in time that backups and copies of things weren’t always so common and – the curse of any person interested in Japanese history – the cities were fire traps. So close and yet so far.

To be honest, both stories sound credible to me. And it’s not inconceivable that the reality lies a little in the middle.




[i] I see no reason to talk about Ghibili here…

[ii] See my article on Kōenji for more about falconry and the samurai elite.

[iii] Anyone reading my blog by now probably already knows these, but just in case, those families are the 尾張徳川家 Owari Tokugawa-ke the Owari branch,  紀伊徳川家 Kii Tokugawa-ke the Kii branch and 水戸徳川家 Mito Tokugawa-ke the Mito branch. And a quick aside, the area wasn’t only for the Go-sanke’s use, of course, the shōgun family could use it if they wanted to.

[iv] Mitaka itself didn’t exist. It was just an unincorporated area of 武蔵国多磨郡 Musashi no Kuni Tama-gun Tama District of Musashi Province.

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