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The Meguro River

In Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on September 1, 2014 at 4:56 am

Meguro-gawa (literally, “black eye river,” more at “the Meguro River”)[i]


The Meguro River.

The Meguro River.


Finally… my 7 part series on the rivers of Edo-Tōkyō is finished. The task seemed a little daunting, but worthy of doing.

“A little daunting,” I thought!

It was soul draining to say the very least. I had to take long breaks during the research phases even in the writing phases just to keep my own sanity. Any of you also follow me on Twitter know I’ve been busy with other stuff as well.

But this entire experiment has been eye opening for me. What started this series was a curiosity about the rivers that breathed life into this sprawling metropolis. Anyone who’s ever seen any 浮世絵 ukiyo-e scenes of day to day life in the shōgun’s capital surely have noticed the abundance of river scenes. This is no mere coincidence. Readers of the blog should also know that I’m a big fan of Jin’nai Hidenobu’s phrase “the Venice of Asia” when referring to Edo.

In Japan’s post WWII years, as the economy grew, the rivers got more and more polluted and some of them smelled awful (the Meguro River was no exception). Major building projects began to take place in Tōkyō Bay and rivers that were used as drainage and open air sewers were paved over or diverted and drained completely. I don’t know if this is 100% accurate or not, but the first time I visited Shibuya in 2001 or 2002[ii], I noticed an odd smell and asked my friend about it. He said, “There are dirty rivers under Tōkyō. Sometimes their smell just comes up through the cracks.”

Sometimes their smell comes up through the cracks, indeed.

Cruising on the Meguro RIver.

Cruising on the Meguro River.



Are You Going to Talk About the Meguro River??  

Yes, of course. Sorry about the digression.


The start of the Meguro River is the confluence of the the Kitazawa River and Karasuyama River.

The start of the Meguro River is the confluence of the the Kitazawa River and Karasuyama River.


What is the Meguro River?

In reality, the Meguro River is a nothing more than a glorified storm drain today. Its official length is 7.82 km. It begins at the confluence of the 北沢川 Kitazawa-gawa Kitazawa River and the 烏山川 Karasuyama-gawa Karasuyama River. It passes through 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward[iii], 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward[iv], and 新川区 Shinagawa-ku Shinagawa Ward[v] and empties into Tōkyō Bay at 天王洲 Ten’ōzu in Shinagawa.


The End of the Meguro River in Shinagawa. Hello, Tokyo Bay!

The End of the Meguro River in Shinagawa. Hello, Tokyo Bay! This structure is called the 目黒川水門 Meguro-gawa Suimon “Meguro River Floodgate.”


The Meguro River Midori Michi

The confluence of the Kitazawa and Karasuyama Rivers is located in Karasuyama (in Setagaya). The rivers are actually underground, so you won’t see much there, though there is a monument. The emergent Meguro River is also underground.  A little water is diverted to ground level and manifests as a small, decorative creek. This area is called the 目黒川緑道 Meguro-gawa Midori Michi Meguro River Green Path. The man-made stream and its accompanying vegetation attract a variety of wildlife whose populations and health are closely monitored to maintain a healthy “green space.” A short distance away, at 大橋 Ōhashi, literally “the big bridge,” where 国道 246号 Kokudō 246-gō National Highway #246 passes, the underground river and the creek are re-united at the mouth of the visible portion of the river.


Water breathes life into the city. It's so important to have green spaces like the Midori Michi.

Water breathes life into the city. It’s so important to have green spaces like the Midori Michi.


Much of the modern course of the Meguro River is supposedly the old Shinagawa River. However, there hasn’t been a river called “Shinagawa” for hundreds of years. In casual conversations, I’ve heard a lot of confused explanations for the existence of the place name “Shinagawa” despite the lack of a river bearing the same name[vi]. The most repeated stories usually reference a 川 kawa river used to bring 品 shina/hin products in and out of the bay. Whether that derivation is true or false is a discussion for another article.


Are the Meguro River and Shinagawa River the Same Thing?

Short answer, yes.

View of Ebara Shrine from Shinagawa Bridge.

View of Ebara Shrine from Shinagawa Bridge.


But I Think the Long Answer is More Interesting.

It’s not much of a long answer and more of a series of tangents. Wanna go there?

If you’re a long time reader, you probably already know the story of Meguro and the story of Mejiro, so you know that folk etymology is most likely involved. But I’m gonna take a short detour to talk about Shinagawa a little bit.

I’ll preface this digression with 2 facts: modern day Shinagawa is spread across both 港区 Minato-ku Minato Ward and 品川区 Shinagawa-ku Shinagawa Ward, modern Meguro lies in 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward. However in the Pre-Modern Era, both villages lay in 武蔵国江原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara District, Musashi Province.

Family crest of the Minamoto, the shogunal family.

Family crest of the Minamoto, the shogunal family.


In 1184, Minamoto no Yoritomo sent an edict exempting his distant clansmen in the Ebara District from imposing superfluous taxes – other than annual land/rice taxes – on the peasants of the area[vii]. These relatives were the 品川氏 Shinagawa-shi Shinagawa clan. Apparently, this is the oldest document referencing Shinagawa. But as we’ve seen time and time again here at JapanThis!, when a new branch family was established, they would take a new family name based on the fief that they controlled. In the case of Shinagawa, this shows the place name Shinagawa clearly predates this remote noble family.


The Ōi Clan – River Makers

Anyone familiar with the Shinagawa area will know 大井町 Ōimachi. If your place name radar just went off, you’re probably right. I haven’t covered Ōimachi yet, but believe me, it will happen.

The Shinagawa clan was branch of the main 大井氏 Ōi-shi Ōi clan[viii]. In order to irrigate their fief, the Ōi clan dabbled in a little river manipulation. Somewhere near the place called 立会川 Tachiaigawa (the modern kanji mean something like “the place where rivers stand together/come together”), the Ōi separated a section of the river 断ち合い川 tachiai kawa rivers that cut off from each other[ix].  This happened in the Kamakura Period. One of the branches passed by 瀧泉寺 Ryūsen-ji Ryūsen Temple in Shimo-Meguro (see my article on Meguro).


Once the Shinagawa and Meguro River, today it's the Tachiaigawa River. This bridge is Namidabashi in Shinagawa. It was the final "bye bye" place for families and the soon to be executed.

Once the Shinagawa and Meguro River, today it’s the Tachiaigawa River. This bridge is Namidabashi in Shinagawa. It was the final “bye bye” place for families and the soon to be executed.


Interestingly, the Ōi were a branch of the 源氏 Genji Minamoto clan (and as such, so were the Shinagawa). The Shinagawa and Ōi retainers made up an auxiliary force of samurai called 随兵 zuihyō or zuibyō[x]. In the Kamakura and to a certain degree in the Muromachi Periods, these were low ranking, sometimes mounted, warriors who were called in for important jobs such as making the shōgun’s procession longer when he didn’t have enough people; making high ranking shōgunate officials’ processions look longer, you know, when they didn’t have enough people; and protecting 神輿 mikoshi portable Shintō shrines when they were transported from a main shrine to a newly established branch shrine… in a procession, of course.


The Meguro Clan – They Didn’t Do Shit

In neighboring 江原郡目黒郷 Ebara-gun Meguro-gō Meguro Hamlet, Ebara District, another noble family supplying 随兵 zuihyō to the Kamakura shōgunate had also taken the name of the local area and were known as the 目黒氏 Meguro-shi Meguro clan. Supposedly their residence was the site of the present day Meguro Junior High School. No extant remains are visible today.


meguro clan residence


But back to the river. As we’ve seen throughout this series, before the so-called Modern Era, there was no standardized, official naming system as we have today. River names were generalizations and local areas had local names for their little slice of the river. Hence the river was called the Shinagawa River in Shinagawa and the Meguro River in Meguro.

It’s interesting to note that Edo Period maps and illustrations don’t use the word 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River to describe the river that passes by Ryūsen-ji. The river in Shimo-Meguro is called the こりとり川 Koritori-gawa. The word こりとり koritori comes from syncretic Buddhism and Shintō. In kanji, it’s written 垢離取り kori tori. This refers to the act of ritually purifying oneself in water before visiting a temple or shrine[xi]. The kanji for kori literally mean 垢を離す aka wo hanasu getting rid of filth[xii].

Before there was the Ice Bucket Challenge there was "kori."

Before there was the Ice Bucket Challenge there was “kori.”


Which Brings me to my Final Point

Why where people jumping in the river to get rid of spiritual impurities? If you noticed, earlier I dropped a reference to Ryūsen-ji. This is a temple in 下目黒 Shimo-Meguro Lower Meguro. There are many claims that the name of this area comes from this temple. In the Edo Period this temple was one of a cluster of temples called 江戸五色不動 Edo Goshiki Fudō the 5-Colored Immovable Buddhas of Edo. However, most linguistic evidence indicates that the name is quite ancient and has nothing to do with the temple. That said, if you’re interested, I think I wrote an article about this somewhere…


Pilgrimage map.

Pilgrimage map.


Coincidentally, people jumped into the river during the firebombing during WWII. The river was said to be littered with corpses for weeks. There’s an ancient superstition that says cherry blossom trees require human blood to grow and that underneath every cherry blossom is a grave. The events of WWII and this superstition are sometimes invoked by old people who have lived in Meguro since the war days. They say the cherry blossoms are so beautiful because they’re fed by all of those who died in the river during the firebombing. It’s a kind of ghoulish thought, but I can guarantee you, plants and trees can grow just fine without human blood.


Two cherry blossoms means two dead bodies. Awwwwww yeah.

Two cherry blossoms means two dead bodies. Awwwwww yeah.


But as I said earlier, the Meguro River is basically a drainage ditch. But there are many 桜 sakura cherry blossoms planted along its route in Naka-Meguro. As a result the area has become popular for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. Food stands are set up and cafes and restaurants that line the river do a lot of business catering to the crowds admiring the pink and white leaves. Normally, living next to a drainage ditch doesn’t give you bragging rights but Naka-Meguro has become one of the most desirable areas in Tōkyō. But this wasn’t all the case. The area was one of the least desirable areas until the late 1980’s. The river was seriously polluted until a major clean up and attempt to revitalize the area was begun. The cherry blossoms were planted at that time.


Today the Meguro River is one of the most popular spots for hanami.

Today the Meguro River is one of the most popular spots for hanami.


Alright. So that’s it. No more river articles. Woo-hoo!




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[i] See my article What does Meguro mean?
[ii] I don’t remember and don’t have my old passport to confirm.
[iii] Here’s my article on Setagaya.
[iv] Here’s my article on Meguro.
[v] Here’s my article on Shinagawa.
[vi] I wrote article about Shinagawa and Takanawa, but it’s so old that I don’t want to include a link. Embarrassing. I promise to revisited the topic again some time.
[vii] The surviving document is the 品河三郎清実に品川郷の公事免除 Shinagawa Saburō to Kiyzane/Kiyomi ni Shinagawa-gō Kōji Menjo Exemption from Official Service for Shinagawa Saburō and Shinagawa Kiyomi of Shinagawa Hamlet. (The name 清実 has many possible readings, so I’m not sure which is correct. I provided 2 possibilities and have chosen Kiyomi from here on out).
[viii] Anyone familiar with the Shinagawa area will know 大井町 Ōimachi. If your place name radar just went off, you’re probably right. I haven’t covered Ōimachi yet, but believe me, it’s in the works.
[ix] I’m not sure if this was one branch irrigation ditch or a many….
[x] A kind of rear guard.
[xi] The act of visiting a temple or shrine is called 詣で mōde or 参り mairi.
[xii] Buddhist monks would read this as ku wo hanasu getting rid of ku. Ku is filth that causes suffering. Here’s what wiki says about it.

What does Meguro mean?

In Japanese History on August 12, 2013 at 2:58 am

(Black Eyes)

Meguro Hanami Etymology

The Meguro River, as it passes through Naka-Meguro.
A famous spot for hanami in Tokyo.

Sorry for my lateness in updating. The O-bon holiday is about to kick off now in Tōkyō and I’m juggling three projects in addition to my regular responsibilities. A doctor actually told me to give the blog a rest for a while. It’s not so much his advice as much as it’s my own lack of time that has created an unusual silence over here at Japan This. But don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. The blog will continue. And I apologize for the slow pace as of late.

But I feel like that last series on Edo’s Three Execution Grounds was a great place to take a break. And I uploaded a few filler pieces since then which actually got a lot of hits and brought a lot of new readers to Japan This. That’s always fantastic, in my opinion! The more the merrier.

I shouldn’t be wasting my time (or yours, dear reader) with mindless pleasantries, so without further ado, let’s take a look at why Meguro is called Meguro.



While Naka-Meguro is great, there probably isn’t much of a reason to get off at Meguro Station on the Yamanote Line.
and OMG, this is the most annoying graphic ever….


First thing you should know.

There is no consensus on the etymology of this place name. It appears to be fairly ancient; possibly dating back to the 800’s when the culture of the Yamato hegemony was more or less finalized in Honshū. In the early Kamakura Period (circa 1190), the name 目黒氏 Meguro-shi Meguro clan first appeared in shōgunate records. We can assume this was a noble family from the Kantō area, either originating in the Meguro area of 武蔵国 Musashi no Kuni’s Musashi Province 荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District or a noble family who controlled the area (or both). Either way, the place name does not derive from the Meguro clan. The Meguro clan’s name derived from the place name. BTW, the family claimed descent from the 藤原氏 Fujiwara-shi Fujiwara clan.

Following the old Japanese tradition of naming of villages based on their locations along rivers and roads, there were (and still are) a 上目黒 Kami-Meguro Upper Meguro (upstream), a 下目黒 Shimo-Meguro Low Meguro (downstream), and a 中目黒 Naka-Meguro (goldilocks, baby, goldilocks)[i].


Hopefully you can see the path of the river and the placement of the upper, middle and lower Meguros. This type of place naming was typical of pre-modern Japan.

Hopefully you can see the path of the river and the placement of the upper, middle and lower Meguros.
This type of place naming was typical of pre-modern Japan.


OK, It’s Etymology Time, Y’all.

One common story is that the name derives from a temple called 瀧泉寺 Ryūsen-ji in Shimo-Meguro. In the Edo Period this temple was part of series of temples dedicated to a Buddha known as Acala, who is called 不動 Fudō, “the unmovable one” in Japanese.  The temples, as a group were known as the 江戸色不動 Edo Goshiki Fudō The 5 Colored Immovable Buddhas[ii]. The problem with this theory is that these temples and this grouping are products of the Edo Period. So it’s unlikely the name has anything to do with this[iii].


If you've seen one Buddha, you've seen them all. Please meet Acala, another demon-looking Buddha.

If you’ve seen one Buddha, you’ve seen them all.
Please meet Acala, another demon-looking Buddha.



The oldest secular etymology has an agricultural origin and strikes me as more believable[iv]. This theory suggests that the area was originally used as a pasture for grazing animals – horses in particular. The word 馬 uma horse had a dialectal variant me that when combined with 畦 kuro embankment between fields became mekuromeguro[v]. These “meguro” referred to dirt embankments and barriers that prevented horses and other grazing animals from running away.


Meguro - A Horse Embankment?

It’s not very exciting, but this is what the theory suggests.


As this was an era when literacy wasn’t high and ateji was the norm, the place name came to written as 目黒 Meguro Black Eyes which could be easily read – rather than 馬畦 Meguro Horse Embankment which is almost unreadable without an explanation.

The problem with this etymology is that it suggests a small area.  However, the areas that contain Meguro names in modern Tōkyō and in the Edo Period hint at a massive area – much larger than a grazing field.

So if we are to go with this theory, I might suggest that the Meguro clan was not actually descended from the Fujiwara clan, but was merely a local strong arm in the area that managed to pull sway over a larger area. They connected with the Imperial court or possibly later with the Kamakura shōgunate and they assumed the name of their place of origin. After establishing control over their little part of the Ebara District, their name was the only legacy to survive the Sengoku Period.

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[i] Although, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen these 3 divisions, please see my article on Shimo-Kitazawa for a related explanation of this type of naming.
[ii] 5 colors is a cute Edo Period way of saying “various.” Religions are gimmicky wherever you go, aren’t they?
[iii] Remember the name was documented in the 1190’s, a good 400 years before the Edo Period.
[iiii] As always, keep a grain of salt handy, please.
[v] The kanji 畦 kuro, with its alternate reading, aze, survives in the modern word 畦道 azemichi a walking path (possibly also functioning as a property line) the divides rice paddies.

What does Daizawa mean?

In Japanese History on July 8, 2013 at 3:17 am

Daizawa (no meaning)

Daizawa - kind of a crappy neighborhood next to a cool one...   whatever, nobody cares about Daizawa.

Daizawa – kind of a crappy neighborhood next to a cool one…
whatever, nobody cares about Daizawa.

This will be the easiest Tōkyō  place name ever. So, I’ve talked about 北沢 Kitazawa and 代田 Daita. When the civic administration was restructured after WWII, they combined the 2 areas as + . That is all.

Compare the formation of this place name to Ota, which I’ve already written about.


Have an awesome Monday!

What does Daita mean?

In Japanese History on July 5, 2013 at 4:42 am

Daita (ateji; no meaning)

Daita Station is a far cry from its humble agrarian roots...

Daita Station is a far cry from its humble agrarian roots…

OK, this place name is of such a ridiculous nature that all I can say is the accepted story is true. If not, then the name may be so old that the original meaning has been obscured forever since the adoption of writing.

This Name is Ateji.

Just a quick review of ateji:
Kanji is an ideographic writing system. That means that each character has a meaning. But as such, it’s poorly suited to transcribing foreign words or transcribing native words without adding nuance.

A good example of this is the word chocolate. This is the Nahatl word[i], xocolātl, which means “bitter water. The Spanish borrowed and transcribed the word in various forms until it became standardized as chocolate and was eventually borrowed by English (same spelling, but with a different pronunciation). The English pronunciation of the word was eventually adopted by the Japanese and while modern Japanese doesn’t use kanji for the word, several kanji variants existed; one of which is 猪口冷糖 choko reitō ”sake cup chilled sugar.”

This is an extreme example. But it clearly illustrates how kanji hides the meanings of words that exist in a world outside of kanji. Keep this in mind as we proceed.


It should go without saying, that before writing, people were speaking Japanese and naming places in their native language. When the ridiculously convoluted writing system of China was adopted, the Japanese superimposed it onto their own dialects. Suddenly Japanese place names that had their own meanings and histories were obscured by the meanings implicit in kanji. This means that really old place names are, by default, suspect.

Being in the literal middle of nowhere, we don’t see the place name 代田 Daita on maps until the closing years of the Sengoku Period. However, in 1569, when Hōjō Ujiyasu’s retainer 垪和又太郎 Haga Yasutarō[ii] was granted a fief here, the place name seems already to have existed.

Located on his fief was place (or facility) called 代田屯 Daita Tamura Daita Barracks or Daita Encampment[iii].

People are always interested in place names and the Japanese of the Sengoku Period and Edo Period were no different. They recorded an etymology that the locals told.

The giant doing his business....

The giant performing cunnilingus on a mountain…

Daidara Bocchi

There was a local legend that a giant named  だいだらぼっち Daidara Bocchi[iv] had lived in the area. There was a sink hole in the area (in the vicinity of present-day 守山小学校 Mamoriyama Shōgaku Mamoriyama Elementary School). The early villagers told a story that it was a footprint of the giant Daidara Bocchi. Over time, the footprint filled with rain water or became a natural spring and the area became a marshland. Over time, the name was shortened and the local dialect’s pronunciation changed and the name became  だいた Daita. The locals used the kanji 代田 to write the word[v].

At first I thought this was one of the stupidest etymologies ever and my gut instinct said to blow it off, except that supposedly there are places all over Japan with similar etymologies. And here’s where it gets interesting.




There are supposedly many references to Daidara Bocchi surviving in place names, especially in the mountains and wetlands. The sheer volume of these places names has led many scholars to speculate that Daidara Bocchi was an indigenous god associated with creation myths of Japan. He may have been an early Shintō god or he may be from an earlier culture. We only have conjecture at this point because by the time we get written records in Japan he was just a giant. But the story apparently spread all over 本州 Honshū the main island of Japan. As the name had dialectal variants, all of which pre-date the arrival of writing (ie; kanji), our knowledge of this mythological character is really obscure and most likely will remain so.

If you ever go to Shimo-Kitazawa, you can walk around the area and you’ll notice the hilly terrain. But because of the buildings, you can’t notice if there is a footprint shaped valley or not. But you can get a sense that the “elite” villagers on the high ground may have had a good story to explain a unique basin wetland area.

So, for the time being, let’s file this name under “obscure and intriguing.”

I had a good time, how about you?




[i] Aztec, for those of us who are not specialists in the languages of Mesoamerica.

[ii] Just a heads up, the name, 又太郎, can be read at Yasutarō or Matatarō. I have no idea which is correct in this guy’s case.

[iii] The tamura part is a mystery to me. It suggests an actual military base associated with the Hōjō clan, or ateji to avoid repeating the kanji – that is to say, tamura was not a military reference, but a farming one, ie; 田村 tamura rice paddy village. In the case of the latter, the word would have been rendered as 代田田村 – which just looks ridiculous.

[iv] Because there are so many dialectal variants of this name, there are a lot of options when rendering into English. Japanese folklorists tend to use this version of the name as a conventional standard. There is no standard in English. So writing the name as 2 words is an editorial call on my part. Some Japanese sources treat it as two words etymologically and that helps me render it into English in a reader-friendly way.

[v] If literally read, Daita means “generations/endless fields.” This etymology alone might seem sufficient, cf; Yoyogi and Chiyoda. Occam’s Razor would prefer this etymology.

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.

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