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What does Ichigaya mean?

In Japanese History on November 19, 2013 at 6:17 am

Ichigaya (Market Valley)

Ichigaya Station

Ichigaya Station

This place name has 3 variations.

市谷 ichi ga ya
市ヶ谷 ichi ga ya
市ケ ichi ga ya

Most Tōkyōites probably associated Ichigaya with train stations that bear the name “Ichigaya,” but in reality there are many places named Ichigaya. I think this is a pretty complete list:

市谷加賀町 ichigaya-chō
市谷甲良町 ichigaya kōra-chō
市谷砂土原町 ichigaya sadohara-chō
市谷左内町 ichigaya sanai-chō
市谷鷹匠町 ichigaya takajō-machi
市谷田町 ichigaya tamachi
市谷台町 ichigaya daimachi
市谷長延寺町 ichigaya nagano-chō
市谷八幡町 ichigaya hachimangū-chō
市谷船河原町 ichigaya funagawara-machi
市谷本村町 ichigaya honmura-chō
市谷薬王寺町 ichigaya yakuōj-machi
市谷柳町 ichigaya yanagi-chō
市谷山伏町 ichigaya yamabushi-chō

Don’t be surprised if we come back to those place names
[i]. There’s gold in them hills.

One of the stranger things in Tokyo is this urban fishing spot in Ichigaya.

One of the stranger things in Tokyo is this urban fishing spot in Ichigaya.

OK, so I’ve wanted to write about this place for a long time, but it is connected to a few other place names which have made it difficult to cover until now. In my non-professional opinion, this seems like a very ancient place name. I’m just gonna through this out there now and say my gut instinct tells me none of the etymologies we’ll see today are correct and we’ll never know the true etymology.

First let’s look at the kanji .




genitive particle

ya, tani


In my opinion, all of these kanji are suspect. You’ll see why soon.

So, let’s look at the circulating theories.

 There was a dude named 市谷孫四郎 Ichigaya Magojirō attested in a Kamakura Period document who controlled an area near Edo. Other than this name, nothing else is known about the guy. A cursory glance of his name isn’t very impressive. He doesn’t seem to be descended from any imperial branch families and he doesn’t have a samurai-sounding clan name. If such a guy really existed, he may have been an elite lord who adopted the local place name as a family name, but… that just raises more questions. The jury is out on this one.

 Two theories exist which say the first character is deceptive. I’ve said again and again that kanji are not reliable for ancient Tōkyō place names. Here’s a good demonstration of why. This theory states that the original name was 一ヶ谷 ichi ga ya the first valley. Nearby we can find 四ッ谷 yotsu ya the fourth valley. The problem with this theory is where are the ニヶ谷 2nd valley and 三ヶ谷 3rd valley???

 It’s almost the same theory, but…. because of the prominence of daimyō residences here, the area had a reputation as an elite residential area well into the Meiji Era. According to this theory, 一ヶ谷 “first valley” was the preeminent (ie; first) 山手 yamanote valley[ii].  This one is also weird because why this area is the first, but Marunouchi isn’t? Also valleys tend to be 下町 shitamachi low city. So this one is just weird…

 This place name is another story unto itself, but as for the general story of Ichigaya, Kameoka Hachiman-gū is important. As mentioned many times before, Hachiman is the Shintō god who protects warriors (ie; samurai). This shrine located in Ichigaya claims that after its establishment in the late 1470’s a market (or many markets) sprung up around the shrine. They say that in the old Edo Dialect 市買 ichi kai “market buying” became ichi gai and in turn as a place name 屋 shop or  valley got attached to the area.

The shrine claims to possess Ota Dokan's  gunbai uchiwa.  A gunbai uchiwa is the (non-folding) fan used by Sengoku Period generals to give signals to troops. It's also said the Ota Dokan established this shrine - that's why it's dedicated to Hachiman, the Japanese god of bad asses.

The shrine claims to possess Ota Dokan’s gunbai uchiwa.
A gunbai uchiwa is the (non-folding) fan used by Sengoku Period generals to give signals to troops.
It’s also said the Ota Dokan established this shrine – that’s why it’s dedicated to Hachiman, the Japanese god of bad asses.

On a side note, for the train freaks out there, JR and Tokyo Metro use the writing 市ケ, while Tōei uses 市ヶ (ie; JR and Tokyo Metro use a large and Tōei used a small ). The official place names as used in postal codes and regular correspondence by Tōkyōtes drop the /all together and just write the name as 市谷.

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[i] Long time readers will know that I will come back.
[ii] Of course Yamanote means “the high city” and refers to the Edo Period distribution of land in Edo. The elite lived on the hills and the commoners lived in the lowlands. Here’s my ongoing series about my impressions of Yamanote and Shitamachi (although I haven’t updated it in ages).

What does Toranomon mean?

In Japanese History on November 15, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Toranomon (Tiger Gate)



Toranomon is an area in Tōkyō that is known to have been named after one of the gates of Edo Castle. The gate and the moat and bridge system that made up the area no longer exist. But the name persists officially and any Tōkyōite should be familiar with where the area is.

There are various ways to write the name.

虎門 tora no mon classical “Chinese” writing
虎之御門 tora no go-mon high style writing common on Edo Period maps
(where space allowed)
虎之門 tora no mon casual writing during Edo Period,
affected classical style until the Shōwa Period
虎ノ門 tora no mon Meiji to Shōwa style, used officially by the train and bus companies; the most common writing
虎の門 tora no mon casual style before the advent of predicative text which usually suggests the spelling used by train and bus companies.
no! tora no mon the style I use to annoy people


There are roughly 8 distinct theories that I’ve found – all of varying degrees of dubiety.

It’s based on 四神思想 shijin sōō, a Chinese precept that stated that the 4 seasons and 4 compass directions were controlled by 4 distinct deities. Those gods were:

玄武 genbu the black tortoise, guardian of the north
朱雀 suzaku the vermilion sparrow, guardian of the south
青龍 seiryū/seiryō the blue dragon, guardian of the east
白虎 byakko the white tiger, guardian of the west

Pre-modern Japanese cities, or at least castles and religious buildings, were often laid out according to Chinese principals of 風水 sui feng shui and other similar mythologies. This theory states that the tora tiger is a reference to the White Tiger.

This surprised me because Toranomon is actually the southernmost gate of Edo Castle. So I did a little more research and I found out that the White Tiger and Blue are considered polar opposites in feng shui. Among other things, the Blue Dragon represents the left-hand side, which the White Tiger represents the right-hand side.

This also seems strange because if say north is the top and south is the bottom and the southernmost portion of the castle is the “front,” Toranomon is still south (not west) and just a tad to the left. In fact, if we continue this assumption, there is handful of other gates on the “right side” of the castle – including the actual front gate, 大手門 Ōtemon[i].

But that’s a freaking stretch. Another twist on this theory states that the gate was facing the right. But again, I doubt it was the only gate facing “the right.” And in architectural terms, left and right are relative terms. Only north, south, east, and west are consistent.

So this theory is baffling to me. I’m not sure how it works. If anyone has a clue what’s going on here, let me know. I’d love to know.

Clearly this person has never seen a tiger before.....

Clearly this person has never seen a tiger before…..

The explanation of the 4 gods isn’t all wasted because the second theory maintains that the gate was decorated with a white tiger, clearly a reference to the White Tiger of Chinese mythology. But again, my skeptic radar is flashing again. Is it “clearly a reference” to the White Tiger? I’m not an art history specialist, but tigers (of any color) are common in formal Japanese paintings of the day. The White Tiger of Chinese mythology has certain distinguishing features, but even at that… where is this decorated gate? We have no picture or painting of it. Also, I don’t think wooden castle gates were generally decorated – at least not like temples and funerary gates.  The Bakumatsu/Meiji Era photo I have of the gate doesn’t look very flashy. It’s pretty basic.

The original gate didn’t survive the Meiji Era, so unless there are some fantastic photos of this gate with a tiger on it, I’m not completely sold on this theory either.

The only tiger remaining in the area is this little fellow. And I think this person hasn't seen many real tigers either...

The only tiger remaining in the area is this little fellow.
And I think this person hasn’t seen many real tigers either…

On first coming across this explanation in Japanese, I was totally confused. The translation was “It’s related to tigers, of which it’s said that even if it goes a thousand ri it will return a thousand ri.”[ii]


Well, it turns out this is an old proverb.
In Japanese, it’s 千里ゆくとも無事にて千里を帰る senri yuku to mo buji nite senri wo kaeru. It’s something that was said of tigers (not indigenous to Japan) a little like people in the Anglosphere might say “an elephant never forgets” (even if elephants are not indigenous to their area).

There are 2 interpretations of this proverb:
1) A tiger is an agile and strong animal that hunts with purpose. Even if it travels a long distance on the hunt, it has the determination to walk the same distance back.
2) A tiger is an agile and strong animal that hunts with purpose. But after hunting so far away, it will always return to its young with the fruits of its labor.

This is an interesting theory, but I don’t see how it bears any connection to this particular gate. Maybe if I knew what the original purpose of this gate was, it might help. But this is a pretty random story, in my humble fucking opinion.

A variation on the previous theory is this one (and it’s not much better):
Right before Ōta Dōkan marched off to battle, he stopped here and quoted the proverb 
千里行くとも千里帰るは虎 senri iku tomo senri kaeru ha tora “Tigers, baby. They go the distance and come the fuck back like a boss.”

This is all well and good, but my understanding is that Ōta Dōkan’s fortress was located north of this area near the 大手門 Ōtemon main gate. I don’t see much reason to think he’d be using a gate that was so far from his residence (or that any gate at all existed here at the time). Again, I’m not a castle expert, so if anyone can shed light on this, let me know.

Real white tigers...

Real white tigers…

This was the location of a massive cage that held a tiger given to the shōgunate by emissaries from Korea. The Tokugawa viewed the Korean embassies as paying tribute to the shōgunate (or at least wanted to project it as a tribute).

Well, there were 12 Korean missions to Edo during the Tokugawa Period. The problem with this theory is simple. I can’t find any example of a tiger being imported to the capital. There were diplomatic missions from Korea at the time.

I mentioned in my article on Shinbashi that the area used to be called 芝口 Shibaguchi and that there was a 芝口御門 Shibaguchi Go-Mon Shibaguchi Gate. That gate was built in anticipation of the 1720[iii]. In 1734, the area was ravaged by a fire and never rebuilt[iv]. The Shibaguchi Gate ruins are a short walk from Toranomon. There could be a possible connection.

But a real tiger would have been a real attention-getter in the capital city of Edo – especially if it was located in front of the gate of the outer moat where the townspeople could see it. There doesn’t seem to be any record of this, at least not that I’ve seen.

The only thing I can think of is this: if the tiger died soon, the shōgunate would suffer some embarrassment so they’d try to write this one out of the history books. But if it were “written out of history,” I don’t think it would have persisted as a place name.

Another theory I saw that was related to Korea, which also has nothing to back it up, suggests that Korean emissaries brought a statue of a tiger that was installed in the area. Again, there is an association with Korea missions in this general area, but where’s the statue? Not a single picture or painting remains.

This is taken from an Edo Era map of the area. On the right side you can clearly see the Toranomon gate and mitsuke. Next to that is the office of the Naito clan, their upper residence is located to the left.

This is taken from an Edo Era map of the area.
On the right side you can clearly see the Toranomon gate and mitsuke.
Next to that is the office of the Naito clan, their upper residence is located to the left.

The last theory I’ve found is this… There were many 虎の尾 Tora no O tiger’s tail (a kind of flowering plant) growing in the area on the grounds of the residence of the Naitō family[v] who lived inside the gate. I checked some Edo Period maps and the Naitō clan possessed two major properties just within the gate, one of which was their Upper Residence, but they had building for government affairs right next to the gate. But sadly, again, I don’t know how to confirm this botanically-based etymology. The geography matches up, but there’s no way to confirm the presence of these plants.

The second variation is that on the Naitō property there was a particularly spectacular  sakura cherry blossom tree that had the shape of a lion’s tail.

Tora no o is a kind of sakura (cherry blossom) but it's also a kind of flowering plant....

Tora no o is a kind of sakura (cherry blossom) but it’s also a kind of flowering plant….

The etymologies say it was  cherry blossoms that grew in the area, but this unique plant has the same name.

The etymologies say it was cherry blossoms that grew in the area, but this unique plant has the same name.

The gate was demolished/knocked down in 1873 (Meiji 6) but the name continued to be used for the area, in particular the main intersection (many Tōkyō neighborhoods derive their place names from old local landmarks that persist in intersection names that became train station and bus stops in the Meiji and Taishō Eras).

In 1949 the area got the official name 虎ノ門町 toranomon-chō. In 1977, it received an official postal code under the name 虎ノ門 Toranomon.

So there you have it. 8 theories on the origins of this place name and unfortunately I have no way of confirming a single one of them. The name of the gate seem firmly in place since the expansion of Edo Castle under the Tokugawa, but the all of the above etymologies are clearly suspect. However, I hope I might be allowed to be so bold as to throw this idea out there:  is it possible that there is no story behind this name at all. They might have just chosen the name because the gate needed a name and since tigers are bad ass they chose to give the gate a bad ass name? I mean this was a samurai government after all. Samurai loved bad ass things like tigers and dragons and shit. Just my two cents.

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[i] I haven’t covered Otemachi yet, but I have covered Marunouchi.

[ii] 千里 senri 1000 ri = about 2,440 miles, but was generally used to mean “a long distance” without any specific numerical meaning attached to it.

[iii] 1719? I have conflicting dates for this mission.

[v] I mentioned the Naitō in my article on Shinjuku. They were originally from 岡崎 Okazaki but later were the lords of of 高遠藩 Takatō Han Takatō Domain (located in modern Nagano). Their lower residence in Shinjuku became 新宿御苑 Shinjuku Gyoen Shinjuku Gyoen National Park.

UPDATE: This is a different branch of the Naitō clan. These were the lords of 延岡藩 Nobeoka Han Nobeoka Domain (in present day Miyazaki Prefecture (Kyūshū).

What does Ushigome-Yanagicho mean?

In Japan, Japanese History on September 27, 2013 at 6:28 am

Ushigome-Yanagichō (Crowd of Cows Willow Tree Town)

Some of Yanagicho's shitamachi vibe (low town)  still exists.

Some of Yanagicho’s shitamachi vibe (low town) still exists.

Will someone please stop the Ushigome insanity??? I wanna get off. I’m starting to feel dizzy.

牛込 ushigome a crowd of cows
柳町 yanagi-chō willow tree town

Every explanation seems to be “there used to be a bunch of willow trees here.”

Well… duh… yeah… that’s what the name means. Willow Tree Town all night long, baby.

Willow trees. Yanagi.

Willow trees.
Perhaps Yanagicho once looked like this in the greener, more river-y Edo Period.
(btw – this is not Yanagicho)

So, there are places called 柳町 yanagi machi or yanagi-chō all over Japan[i] because there are lots of willow trees in Japan. But generally, we can associate willow trees with riversides and low water-rich environs. This area fits that profile. So at one time, there may have been an abundance of willow trees.

This particular place name is a merging of a few elements.

Before the reshuffling of special wards in Tōkyō, the name of the town was 市谷柳町 Ichigaya Yanagichō[ii]. After the reshuffling[iii], parts of Ushigome Ward and Ichigaya Ward were merged into the newly created Shinjuku Ward. When a station was built here the station name became Ushigome Yanagi-chō.

Ushigome-yanagicho is just another train station. You might not even notice it.

Ushigome-yanagicho is just another train station. You might not even notice it.

A Little Bit About the Area

After the 明暦大火 Meireki Taika the Great Meireki Fire, many victims were relocated to this area. This area is located in the 下町 shitamachi the low town. In the Edo Period it was an area for commoners and merchants. It was also famous for candle shops. Woo-hoo.

While we have said that Ushigome is a traditionally 山手 yamanote high city area, there was a 下町 shitamachi low city element too. Yanagichō was that element.

Because it was shitamachi, the main intersection is located in a deep depression. By the 1970’s people started noticing that exhaust fumes from cars was supposedly getting trapped here. Residents were turning up with symptoms of lead poisoning and there was a brief media scare about a lead poisoning problem. The government banned trucks over a certain size and took a few other measures to reduce traffic in order to remedy the problem. Supposedly the area is cleaned up now. (I hope TEPCO wasn’t involved in this project or it’s probably worse…)

Yanagicho intersection in the 1970's.

Yanagicho intersection in the 1970’s.

Yanagicho intersection these days.

Yanagicho intersection these days.

The Shinsengumi Connection

A train geek stamp for the Oedo Line's Ushigome-Yanagichou Station.Note Kondo Isami on the left and the Shieikan marker in the middle.

A train geek stamp for the Oedo Line’s Ushigome-Yanagichou Station.
Note Kondo Isami on the left and the Shieikan marker in the middle.

But the area’s real claim to fame, in terms of Edo-Tōkyō History, is that Yanagichō is where 試衛館 the Shieikan was located. Bakumatsu and seppuku lovers alike will recognize this name as the dōjō of 近藤勇 Kondō Isami, leader of the 新撰組 Shinsengumi[iv] – some of the biggest bad asses of the final days of the Tokugawa shōgunate.

Today the dōjō is gone; it disappeared from the historical record[v] in 1867. This is no doubt due to the shame the Meiji Government tried to cast on the samurai who supported the shōgunate – in particular, the Shinsengumi – and especially Kondō Isami, who was essentially rounded up and tried in a kangaroo court of imperial loyalists to be disgraced and put down like a sick dog.


Recently some have suggested that the location where the historical marker is today may not be in the correct location.

Marker of the place where the Shieikan once stood.

Marker of the place where the Shieikan once stood.

If you go past the marker and down the hill, there is a small shrine.

If you go past the marker and down the hill, there is a small shrine.

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[i] If you don’t believe me, here’s a small list.
[ii] Let it be noted, I haven’t covered Ichigaya yet.
[iii] In short, old Ushigome Ward + old Ichigaya Yanagi Town → Ushigome-Yanagi Town.
[iv] The Shinsengumi were an elite force of swordsmen who were in charge of taking down any anti-shōgunate terrorists in Kyōto. They had an extraordinary will to power and an unsurpassed propensity to kill according to a certain book on the topic that just repeats those phrases until the reader wants to slit their own belly just to make it stop.
[v] At least the records that I have access to.

What does Ushigome mean?

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

Ushigome (Crowd of Cows)

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asakusa Shrine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ushigome Bridge and Ushigome Mitsuke

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does 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 Takadanobaba mean?

In Japanese History on March 22, 2013 at 12:17 am

Takada no Baba (Takada Horse Grounds)

view from takadanobaba station

I don’t see any horses… but that sky looks purdy….

Today’s 地名 chimei  (place name) is long as shit. It’s 高田馬場 Takada no Baba. It’s a college town,  and is affectionately referred to as ババ baba because… well, who the fuck wants to say Takada no Baba every time you refer to the area.

All Night Crazy Party!! Waseda Style!!!

Waseda University is known as Japan’s Party School.

The etymology of this name is quite straight forward. 高田 Takada is a surname – and a pretty common one at that. 馬場 baba means “horse place,” which is better translated as “horse grounds” because “horse place” sounds retarded.

Now that we have the basics out of the way, let’s talk some history.

Majime Neko

Majime Neko sez “Let’s Get Serious Now.”

What Are Horse Grounds?

In the old days, the highest ranking samurai elite had horses and they needed large, open spaces to do horse stuff. Remember that Edo was a castle town. The main parts of the city radiated out from the castle. The city proper would have been too crowded for horses, so the suburbs and rural areas were better suited for that sort of thing.

Takada no Baba in the Edo Period

Hiroshige painted this picture of Takadanobaba in the Edo Period. (But then again, everything he painted looked like this…)

What Went Down at the Horse Grounds?

馬術 went down. Lots and lots of 馬術.
“Oh, what’s 馬術?” you ask.


Bad ass shit went down at Takadanobaba. Check out this bitch. She’s a bad ass bitch doing some bad ass horsemanship and archery at the same time. Can you do that? I can’t do that. That’s a bad ass bitch. Takadanobaba style.

馬術 bajutsu is horsemanship. And in samurai society, horsemanship meant all kinds of cool shit. In the Olympics, you see the equestrian events… think of that, but without pussies doing it. And these non-pussies are wearing samurai armor and carrying swords and arrows and are just fucking shit up left and right.

OK, they probably weren’t fucking shit up left and right, but they did have swords and armor and they were practicing martial arts on horseback. They would have practiced basic riding skills, but the main art would have been 流鏑馬 yabusame (horseback archery) – which is fucking cool as shit.

samurai takadanobaba

I typed “samurai fucking shit up left and right” into google and this is what i got…

So Who is this Takada Guy?

Well, according to one theory, it’s not a guy. It’s a girl.

As I said, the name means Takada Horse Grounds – and we’ve established that Takada is a name.

This one is a little complicated if you’re not familiar with Japanese “feudalism” during the early Edo Period. But I’ll try my best to explain.

Much of the area that is now Niigata Prefecture was called 越後国 Echigo no Kuni (Echigo Province). Inside that area was a fiefdom called 高田藩 Takada-han (Takada Domain). The mother of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s 6th son was from Takada-han. Her name was 茶阿局 Chā no Tsubone, but according to Japanese naming taboo and manners, she was referred to by most people as 高田殿 Takada-dono (Her Highness Takada). She apparently loved the area for sightseeing because it wasn’t too far from the castle and she could watch strapping young samurai ride horses while fucking shit up left and right.

Takada no Baba

This is Her Highness Takada (Châ no Tsubone) (もしかして高田ノ婆?)

Because she loved the area, her son, Matsudaira Tadateru, built a park here to enjoy 遊覧地遠望 yūranchi enbō (something like “a scenic pleasure resort”).

So the country bumpkins living here nicknamed the spot Takada no Baba because they were so happy to be favored by a court lady who had had sex with the first Tokugawa shōgun – or the park was really named Takada no Baba by the son. Either way, name would mean something like “Her Highness Takada’s Horse Grounds.”


The horsegrounds in the Edo Period… they do look pretty nice.

The area was called 戸塚 Totsuka for a long time. But when the Yamanote Line opened in 1910, the original station got the name Takada no Baba. (The local people rejected the official suggestion of 上戸塚 Kami-totsuka (Upper Totsuka) in favor of Takada no Baba. Until 1975, this was just a station name, but the area was still called Totsuka. But in 1975, Shinjuku Ward did a revamping of their displayed addresses and the region that is now Takada no Baba became Takada no Baba officially.


Original Takada no Baba Station, this picture is Post War.

If you’re interested in visiting the site of the old horse grounds, you’ll probably be sadly disappointed. However, there is a monument there to commemorate the site.

Takada no Baba Plaque

A plaque commemorating the original site of the Horse Grounds.

I’ve heard there are more than one commemorative plaque for the ruins/spot of the original horse grounds, so if you have links or want to share pictures, contact me. I’m very curious about this.


Yabusame… go see it because it’s bad ass.

Why is Kagurazaka called Kagurazaka?

In Japanese History on February 18, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Kagurazaka (Entertainment of the Gods Hill)

Don’t you just love these names?

Why is Kagurazaka called Kagurazaka?

Kagurazaka at night.

This one doesn’t have much of a story, but it’s definitely a cool spot in Tokyo. Kagura is a kind of Shinto ritual dance. It’s ancient and stylized and… I’ll be honest, I don’t know very much about it besides the name. If you want to learn more about it, read here: Kagura.

Anyways, the name was most likely given around the 1820’s (Edo Period) because music coming from the shrines echoed through the streets.

Why is Kagurazaka called Kagurazaka?

Kagurazaka by day.

In the Edo Period this area fell outside the very outermost boundary of Edo Castle (the present day, much diminished Imperial Palace).  As you can imagine, rich samurai and the feudal lords are the only types who could live or enjoy recreation in the areas surrounding the castle. “Kagura Hills” was just such an area. It wasn’t a “pleasure quarters” in the sense that Yoshiwara was, but it was the site of several high end shops for enjoying entertainment by Edo’s top geishas. If I’m not mistaken, the only 2 places in Tokyo where you can still see geisha are Kagurazaka and Ginza – the shops are extremely expensive. There might be some other places, but Kagurazaka is the most famous.

Why is Kagurazaka called Kagurazaka?

Feels like Edo!

The area retains some of the Edo flavor, so it’s a nice area to visit if you want to get a feel for the traditional look of Edo/Tokyo. There is a huge French ex-pat community in Kagurazaka, so if you want to get a feel for Paris, you can do that here, too…. lol

Why is Shinjuku called Shinjuku?

In Japanese History on February 16, 2013 at 6:09 am

Shinjuku (New Shuku → New Post Town)

The word 宿 shuku (宿場 shuku-ba “rest town”) was used in the Edo Period to refer to post towns on the highway system connecting various feudal domains. When a certain daimyō built his lower residence in the area, a new post town was created on the Kōshū Kaidō post road and named “new post town.”

koshu kaido

Map of the shukuba on the Koshukaido.
The road stretched from Edo to present day Nagano.

The daimyō family who lived here was called 内藤 (Naitō), so the name of the town became NaitōShinjuku (New Shuku Naito). The name Naito-Shinjuku persisted until the 1920’s.

As a post town, there would have been many places to drink and get laid. Modern Shinjuku isn’t much different… except that the Tokyo Municipal Government is also based there. Awwwww yeah.

Shinjuku or Sinjuku?

Shinjuku at night

Yodobashi – A Haunted Bridge in Nakano-Sakaue?

In Japanese History on June 8, 2011 at 12:00 am

The other day, I was walking home from Shinjuku. I walked on the Ōmekaidō towards Nakano and I crossed the Kanda River. The area is the border of Shinjuku Ward and Nakano Ward (the area is called 中野坂上 Nakano Sakaue). I noticed a small sign and became curious.


The sign on the modern bridge.

The sign said 淀橋 Yodobashi and talked about the history of the bridge. There’s a famous electronics shop called Yodobashi Camera in Shinjuku so I got curious and decided to check out the sign.

Well, it turns out that in the Edo Period this area of the Ōmekaidō west of the Kanda river was part of 淀橋村 Yodobashi Mura (Yodobashi Village).

Yodobashi Village Nakano Sakaue Edo Period

Yodobashi Village as it looked in the Edo Period. Seems like a pretty lively place.

Supposedly, the 3rd Tokugawa shōgun, Iemitsu named this area.

The bridge used to be called 姿見ずの橋 Sugata-mizu no Hashi (Invisible Figures Bridge). The reason was that in this area there was a legend that a certain Suzuki Kūrō (1371-1440) – the so-called “Tycoon of Nakano” – who hid his vast fortunes underground here. While burying his treasure, he became paranoid that the people helping him dig and carry the money might try to come back to steal his money. So, he killed the dudes who helped him bury it and threw their corpses into the river. People in the town saw a group of figures (姿) go over the bridge, but only one figure (姿) came back. So they named it the “Invisible Figures Bridge” (I guess this is a kind of 15th century Japanese joke…)

Suzuki Kuro Yodobashi Nakano-sakaue Shinjuku

“Hey don’t kill me, bro! You asked me to help you carry all this shit out here and….”

The Tokugawa shōguns used to make a long journey from Edo Castle to Mitaka for falconry. One time, Iemitsu and his entourage rested their horses by the bridge and heard the local story about the bridge’s inauspicious name. He thought it was an unlucky name for the bridge. The view of the river crossing reminded him of the 淀川 Yodogawa (Yodo River) in Kyōto and so he commanded the people to name the bridge 淀橋 Yodobashi (Yodo Bridge).

Of course, it was a great honor for the people to have the shōgun rename their bridge, so they started to call their town Yodobashi. The famous electronics store, Yodobashi Camera began in the area that is now Shinjuku Nishiguchi. The name of the store and area comes from this bridge.

Yodobashi Nakano Shinjuku 1960's Tokyo

Yodobashi Bridge in the 1960’s.

Actually this area made up a ward called 淀橋区 Yodobashi-ku, but was merged with 四谷区 Yotsuya-ku in the 1947 restructuring into the 23 Special Wards. The merged area became present day 新宿区 Shinjuku-ku.

Yodobashi Bridge Nakano Shinjuku 2011

View from Yodobashi Bridge Today

UPDATE: To learn more about Shinjuku, click here for What does Shinjuku mean?

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