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Posts Tagged ‘shibuya’

What does Yoyogi mean?

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

Yoyogi (Generations Old Tree or Trees)

Yoyogi Station.

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


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

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

Hatsune Miku.

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


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

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


Let’s Look at the Kanji:


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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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




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

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

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


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

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




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

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

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

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

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

What does Toshima mean?

In Japanese History on May 20, 2013 at 1:24 am

Toshima (Islands Abound)

Toshima Ward's logo

Toshima Ward’s logo

“However, the name survived. Even on Edo Era maps you can see references to the Toshima District. And these days, it’s one of the 23 Special Ward of Tōkyō. Good for it.”

marky star
(from an earlier, shittier draft of this article)


I totally just quoted myself.

For no good reason.

Right then, let’s get started.

Recently I’ve shifted direction towards the northern part of Tōkyō. We’ve touched on the holdings of the Toshima clan quite a bit recently, haven’t we? Shakujii, Nerima, and Itabashi – I covered Ikebukuro a while ago. Up until this point, I’ve been referring to a certain administrative area called 豊島郡 or 豊嶋郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District.

As a real political entity, it seems that the Toshima district is quite ancient. From times immemorial (take that with a grain of salt) the etymology has been consistent. The bay* had a number of undeveloped, natural inlets that meandered well into the interior of what became Edo. Left unchecked, natural channels of water may merge with other natural channels of water and result in island-like formations. This is exactly what happened in this area. In fact, numerous “islands” were formed; one might say there was a proverbial “abundance of islands.”

豊 to richness, abundance
, shima islands

The kanji 豊 to/toyo is a really auspicious character. It’s “nobility ranking” is off the meters**. Given our previouos encounters with ateji in old place names, take that with a grain of salt.

Anyways… the Toshima area is first attested in the 700’s. At the turn of the century (1000’s), the 秩父氏 Chichibu clan (a branch of the Taira) was granted influence over the area by the Imperial court. The branch of Chichibu in Toshima took the name of their fief and became an independent clan***. They maintained dominion over the area until the 1400’s when Ōta Dōkan stepped up and slapped their dicks out of their hands and face-fucked them full-force with the giant phallus that was the Sengoku Era.

Ota Dokan. Don't let the silly hat fool you. He was a beast in the Sengoku Period.

Ota Dokan. Don’t let the silly hat fool you. He was a beast in the boring part of the Sengoku Period.

There were four major clans operating in the area:
豊島氏  the Toshima
渋谷氏  the Shibuya (vassal)
葛西氏  the Kasai (vassal)
江戸氏  the Edo (vassal)
There are place names derived from all of these clans still extant in Tōkyō today

Ōta Dōkan’s actions disrupted the old status quō and throughout the Muromachi Period the area was unstable. However, the district did not collapse or disappear.

The 23 Special Wards of Tokyo. Toshima Ward is circled. Originally Toshima District included the whole of modern day Chiyoda, Chuo, Minato, Taito, Bunkyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Toshima, Arakawa, Kita, Itabashi and a few other areas outside of the borders of those wards.

The 23 Special Wards of Tokyo. Toshima Ward is circled. Originally Toshima District included the whole of modern day Chiyoda, Chuo, Minato, Taito, Bunkyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Toshima, Arakawa, Kita, Itabashi and a few other areas outside of the borders of those wards.

The city of Edo was just one of many small cities in the district. Before the arrival of the Tokugawa, the district had been divided into two distinct areas, 北豊島郡 Kita Toshima-gun North Toshima and 南豊島郡 Minami Toshima-gun South Toshima. More about Kita Toshima later this week.

After the arrival of the Tokugawa, much of South Toshima fell under direct rule of the shougun as part of the city of Edo. The remaining areas of district continued to exist as an administrative unit separate from the city of Edo – part of 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni Musashi Province. In 1868, the Emperor entered Edo Castle and Edo’s name was changed to Tōkyō. The boundary of the new city was different from the shōgun’s capital. The Edo Era Toshima District was incorporated into the new city limits. In 1878, the district was abolished when the new system of 区 ku wards was implemented in Tōkyō. But a district called 北豊島郡 Kita Toshima-gun North Toshima District continued to exist until 1932. An official ward called 豊島区 Toshima-ku Toshima Ward was created that year when all of the districts of Tōkyō were abolished. The kita (north) part of 北豊島 Kita Toshima wasn’t thrown out altogether… and we’ll talk about that missing tomorrow.



* At this point we can’t even say Edo Bay, let alone Tōkyō Bay. It was just “the bay.”
** The so-called second great unifier of Japan, 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, received his -name from the imperial court in 1586. It brought potential lasting prestige to him and his newly founded clan, BUT…. use of the kanji in names and place names declined after the rise of the Tokugawa. And take THAT with a grain of salt, too!
*** I mentioned the Toshima clan in the recent articles about Shakujii and Nerima.

What does Aoyama mean?

In Japanese History on April 26, 2013 at 1:19 am


Aoyama (Blue Mountain, Green Mountain)

Aerial view of Aoyama Cemetery

Aerial view of Aoyama Cemetery

Today, Aoyama is one of Tōkyō’s most fashionable and expensive neighborhoods. It borders Harajuku and Shibuya and is famous for shopping, high end dining and has a remarkable amount of green space – sorely lacking in other areas of the city.

The word is made of two characters:
ao blue or green (depending on who you ask)
yama mountain
Aoyama is a family name.

Aoyama Coat of Arms

The Gujo Aoyama mondokoro (coat of arms)

In the Edo Period, 郡上藩 Gujō-han Gujō Domain (located in 美濃国 Mino no kuni Mino Province; modern day 岐阜県 Gifu-ken Gifu Prefecture) was administered by the Gujō branch of the Aoyama clan. The castle and seat of the domainal government was at 八幡城 Hachiman-jō Hachiman Castle, so sometimes the domain is referred to as Hachiman-han. Since the clan originated in Mikawa, the family had a special relationship with the Tokugawa. At one point, during the Sengoku Era, they were responsible for the education of Tokugawa Hidetada who would later become the second shōgun.

Gujo-Hachiman Castle Today (it's a reconstruction from 1933), but the town and castle look well worth a visit.

Gujo-Hachiman Castle Today (it’s a reconstruction from 1933), but the town and castle look well worth a visit.

They had a sprawling palatial residence (下屋敷 shimoyashiki) in the outskirts of Edo. When daimyō residences were confiscated by the Meiji government for re-purposing, the land of the Aoyama residence was converted into present day Aoyama cemetery. It’s a massive urban cemetery. If you walk around it, you can get a feel for how large the estate once was. Even though the family was only worth 48,000 koku, this sub-residence was one of the biggest in all of Edo. None of the domain’s buildings exist today, but the Aoyama family temple, 梅窓院 Baisōin Baisō Temple, can still be found in Minami Aoyama.

Supposedly, the building on the right is one of the Aoyama residences.

Supposedly, the building on the right is one of the Aoyama residences.




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Why is Takeshita Street called Takeshita Street?

In Japanese History on April 14, 2013 at 9:54 pm

Takeshita Dōri (Takeshita Street)

I Love Japanese History!

Trust me. She loooooooves learning about the etymology of place names!

Today’s place name is one of the most famous places in Tōkyō, probably one of the most famous places in all Japan, and definitely one of the most famous places in the fashion world. In the early 2000’s Takeshita Street attracted fashion-hungry high school kids from all over Japan.

This area of Tōkyō, called Harajuku has been – and still is very much – a fashion center. Takeshita Dōri was ground zero for young people’s fashion for about a decade. It is still very popular, especially with kids from rural Japan and foreign tourists.

Old School Harajuku!

Takeshita Dori in 1997 when it was still cool.

The name 竹下通り Takeshita Dōri is quite literally “Takeshita” and “street.” 竹下 Takeshita is a family name. In this case, it refers to a turn of the century admiral of the Japanese Navy named 竹下勇 Takeshita Isamu. It seems old man Takeshita had a house on the street, and being the son of a samurai and a high ranking officer in the Navy and diplomat his name brought prestige to the area. In fact, until 1965 the area at the bottom of the hill and both areas to the left & right of Takeshita Street were known as 竹下町 Takeshita-chō Takeshita Neighborhood. Now that area is 神宮前1丁目 Jingūmae 1-chōme.

The family name itself means “below the bamboo.”

Your mom was awesome last night!

the admiral himself

I tried to find a picture of the dude’s house but couldn’t. I tried to find a plaque commemorating the dude’s house, but I couldn’t. I tried to find an old map of the area, but I couldn’t. I tried to find pictures of Takeshita Street from any period before now and I couldn’t. Edo Period maps just show unused grasslands. There must be some pictures out there, so if you have any – or come across any – please share with me.

Admiral Takeshita might not want to see those photos, though. Apparently the area was famous for love hotels, brothels, and counterfeit goods until the 1990’s. Around that time, the zoning laws changed and they started cleaning up the area. I haven’t been there in a long time, but I don’t remember ever seeing any places like that so I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it’s been completely “gentrified” for at least a decade – especially with its proximity to Omotesandō Hills.

What does Yebisu mean?

In Japanese History on March 24, 2013 at 11:19 pm

In yesterday’s post, you may have noticed some strange spellings.

I don’t want to get too deep into changes in Japanese orthography, but in Old Japanese 恵比寿 was pronounced ヱビス Webisu. In the 11th Century, the we phoneme disappeared and was the same sound as e.

For some reason, in the old days, when transliterating Japanese words, foreigners and Japanese alike continued to mimic the obsolete orthography by using ye to represent even though it was the same sounds as (and even though it was a W sound not a Y).

Some other words you might see transliterated in older texts with a Y are:
江戸 Edo ⇒ Yedo
家康 Ieyasu ⇒ Iyeyasu

Anyhoo… ヱビス Yebisu and and エビス Ebisu are pronounced the same: /E BI SU/.

An old Yebisu Beer Poster.

An old Yebisu Beer Poster.

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What does Ebisu mean?

In Japanese History on March 24, 2013 at 11:17 pm

Ebisu (Ebisu)

Ebisu is a trendy area in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.

If you love beer like I do, then even if you’ve never been to Japan, you’ve probably heard of this excellent brew.

Japan's most famous deity, Ebisu!

Japan’s most famous deity, Ebisu!

Ebisu is the name of an indigenous Japanese deity. He’s easy to recognize because he’s usually depicted as a fat dude sitting down with a fish on his fishing pole and a big dopey smile across his face. He’s a symbol of prosperity and good luck. He’s also one of the 七福神 shichi fukujin (7 gods of good luck), so if you feel like taking a walk around the new year’s holiday, you can visit one of many local pilgrimages dedicated to these 7 popular gods.

The old Yebisu Train Station with the Brewery in the background.

The old Yebisu Train Station with the Brewery in the background.

Anyhoo… why is this area called Ebisu?

Well, the Japan Beer Company introduced its Yebisu beer brand in 1887. In 1889, they built an Yebisu factory in the area. In 1901, a train line and bus line developed to help with distribution and in bringing workers to and from the factory. The name of the station was 恵比寿停車場 Ebisu Teishajō (Yebisu Depot). Because of the public transportation (and one would assume the availability of massive amounts of beer), the area quickly urbanized. The station and area around the beer factory was called Ebisu by the local people and in 1928 the area was officially named Ebisu.

If you’re interested in visiting the beer factory, I’m sad to say you can’t!!!

Ebisu Garden Place today

Ebisu Garden Place today

The reason you can’t visit is that the Yebisu Brewery was moved to Chiba in 1988 and the property was reclaimed by developers who built the current shopping area, Ebisu Garden Place. Japan Beer Company is now Sapporo Brewery, which still has their headquarters in Ebisu Garden Place. There is also a Museum of Yebisu Beer, which I’ve never been too. But one of these days, I need to get my ass in there.

Let's drink Yebisu in Ebisu!

A buttload of Yebisu!

You might be asking yourself, “what’s up with the spelling?” Is it Ebisu or Yebisu?

If you’re interested, you should read part 2!

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What does Shibuya mean?

In Japanese History on March 19, 2013 at 2:34 am

Shibuya (Bitter Valley)

On the surface, this one is a total freaking mystery.

The 2 characters used today are 渋 shibu (this character has many nuances that range from “astringent” to “refined” to “distasteful” to “diarrhea”) and 谷 ya/tani (valley). Unlike Hibiya, which also uses the kanji 谷 ya (valley), Shibuya is an actual valley. It borders Daikanyama (Daikan Mountain). The name Shibuya is also a family name.

Shibuya Today

Shibuya Crossing at night. Shopping, eating, drinking and whoring. In that order.

The website for the Shibuya Ward Office lists 4 possible theories… of varying quality. I have to admit that when I read them I thought they were all hokey as hell. The first three seemed plausible, but the fourth sounded cheesy.

So, here are the prevailing theories (according to the Shibuya Ward Office):

In the past, there was a small hamlet here called 塩谷ノ里 Shioya no Sato (Salt Valley Hamlet) or 潮谷ノ里 Shioya no Sato (Salt Water Valley Hamlet). Over time, the pronunciation of 塩谷 Shioya became corrupted to Shibuya and the characters were changed to 渋谷 to reflect the change in pronunciation. The corroborating evidence for this theory is archaeological  It appears that at one time, there was an inlet from Tōkyō Bay that reached here. Evidence of salt water and a one-time presence of shellfish have been discovered.

In the past, there used to be a river that passed through the valley here. When the river dried up a rusty color(シブ色)remained and the river was called シブヤ川. (This sounded really far-fetched to me until I found the word 鉄渋 nakashibu “aquaeous rust.” In this context, a “Rusty Valley River” might sound plausible.)

In the past, there was a river called 渋谷川 Shibuya-gawa Shibuya River that passed through here. Now the river is dried up, but the name remains. (It sounds plausible, but hard to prove. What’s more, today there is a modern river here called the Shibuya River… so… what gives?).

In the Heian Period, a feudal lord stopped an attacker who broke into the Imperial Palace in Kyōto. In appreciation of his bravery, the surname Shibuya was bestowed up him and his family. The family had a residence in this area and the name stuck. (However, this area was literally East Bumfuck in the Heian Period, so why was there a noble family living in this crappy area?).

East Bumfuck

East Bumfuck

The final theory brings up an important point. Often place names in Japan are derived from important families in the area. There is a very common family name Shibuya. If any person with a name Shibuya lived here, the area could have been named after him. If that’s the case, the real question isn’t “Why is Shibuya called Shibuya?” but “Where does the family name Shibuya come from?

The name itself is strange, too. There are two readings, Shibutani and Shibuya. Apparently Shibutani is the older of the two and appears to have originated in the Kansai region (Kyōto, Ōsaka). However, the meaning and origin of the first character is still obscure (because it has a range of meanings).

Anyways, my personal pet theory was that Shibuya was named after a family, but the story about the some dude saving the emperor sounded really cheesy.

Shibuya Family Crest

Family crests for the 2 main branches of the Shibuya Clan.

But then I poked around a little more and discovered that in the 11th century, there was indeed a noble family by the name of Shibuya living here. The most famous dude in the family was a late Heian Period general named Kawasaki Motoie (whose name is actually connected with Kawasaki in Kanagawa Prefecture). Kawasaki Shigeie, son of Motoie, did indeed repel intruders from the Imperial Palace in Kyōto. And the family was indeed granted the name 渋谷 Shibuya.

This is not Shibuya Shigeie

There are no pictures of Shibuya Shigeie, but this is a typical samurai from the late Heian Era. You get the idea.

The Shibuya Clan built a castle in this area called – wait for it – 渋谷城 Shibuya-jō Shibuya Castle. The castle is gone today. But a shrine to the Japanese god of war that existed on the castle grounds is still there. And there is apparently a rock from the original castle that you can see today (wow!).

Here is a website about the castle and shrine (it’s Japanese only, but you can see pictures). Here’s another website about the shrine (English translation).

And here is a Google map of the castle ruins/shrines:

The shrine is called 金王八幡宮 Kon’nō Hachimangū.

Kon'nou Hachiman Shrine

Kon’nou Hachiman Shrine

Under the protection of the Shibuya Clan, the hamlet of Shibuya 渋谷郷 Shibuya-gō grew a little bit, but it’s doubtful the castle survived the Sengoku Period (15th-17th centuries). By the mid-Edo Period, the hamlet had no castle and had been divided 3 areas: 上渋谷村 Kamishibuya Upper Shibuya, 中渋谷村 Nakashibuya Middle Shibuya,下渋谷村 Shimoshibuya Lower Shibuya.

Shibuya River

Here’s a view of the Shibuya River from the platform of Shibuya Station in 1921.

As stated before, In the Edo Period, Shibuya was East Bumfuck. Nothing of note happened until the Yamanote Line was built in the late 1800’s. Around that time it became famous as an entertainment district (eating, drinking, whoring, etc…). Shibuya was apparently so unimportant, in fact, that the Japanese Wikipedia page of Shibuya doesn’t even start until the 1930’s.

There was a parade ground where Yoyogi Park now stands. In 1910, the grounds were used for the test flight of the first Japanese powered aircraft.

Tokugawa Yoshitoshi

Tokugawa Yoshitoshi, first Japanese dude to fly a plane.

Oh, and in the 1920’s there was that whole thing with the dog.


Hachi-kō – woof woof!

In the 1950’s there was a gondola that went over the station front area. A freaking gondola!!!

that street in the background is Center Street

a freaking gondola!!!!

In the 80’s Shibuya started to become a fashion center. By the 90’s, Shibuya boasted a vibrant club scene and nightlife and gave rise to the ギャル gal fashion phenomenon (including its current incarnation).  When I first visited Japan in 2003, there were beer vending machines all over Shibuya. Unfortunately now there aren’t.

mmmmmm... japanese beer!

I miss the beer vending machines in Shibuya and Daikanyama.

Alright… so let’s re-cap. There are 4 major explanations of where the place name Shibuya came from. Only one of them makes sense, even if on the surface it’s an unbelievable story. Shibuya is named after the Shibuya Clan and Shibuya Ward is still home to the Kon’nō Hachimangū Shrine built on the former site of Shibuya Castle to prove it.

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Why is Daikanyama called Daikanyama?

In Japanese History on February 21, 2013 at 7:32 am

Daikanyama (Daikan Mountain)

First a quick definition. A 代官 daikan was a kind of local magistrate or governor in the Edo Period.

There are 2 theories as to why this area is called Daikan Mountain:

1) A daikan‘s residence was located here at some time.

2) The forest mountain here fell under the direct supervision of a daikan.

There is insufficient documentation remaining to support one theory over the other.

a daikan on daikanyama

a stereotypical daikan

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