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What does Tachiaigawa mean?

In Japanese History on January 18, 2019 at 2:52 pm

立会川
Tachiaigawa
(Tachiai River; more at water meets water)

untitled-1

Tachiaigawa in the Edo Period and today

It’s been about a year since I updated the site. A whole fucking year [i]. Long time readers will remember the time I got rivered and almost abandoned the project altogether. Well, I started an article one year ago that, on the surface, seemed so simple, but actually turned into a nightmare. So, I’ve decided to take smaller bites and get things up and running again. I also apologize for keeping everyone waiting and hope I didn’t have anyone worrying. Also, a note about footnotes. WordPress changed the backend editor, so there is a chance the footnote links may not work.

So without further ado, let’s talk about a place in Tōkyō that foreigners don’t often go. Actually, a lot of Tōkyōites have never heard of this area either. It lies on 東海道 Tōkaidō the Eastern Sea Route[ii], just past the former post towns of 北品川宿 Kita Shinagawa-shuku North Shinagawa Post Town and 南品川宿 Minami Shinagawa-shuku South Shinagawa Post Town, between the former fishing village of  鮫洲 Samezu and 鈴ヶ森死刑所 Suzugamori Shikeijo Suzugamori Execution Grounds. Of course, I’m talking about 立会川 Tachiaigawa[iii]. In the Edo Period, travelers leaving the capital for Kyōto would have probably lodged in either Shinagawa Post Town or 川崎宿 Kawasaki-shuku Kawasaki Post Town[iv], but they definitely would have passed this rural seaside area, called 大井村 Ōi Mura Ōi Village at the time.

Further Reading:

suzugamori at night (1 of 1)

Suzugamori Execution Grounds at night. Ooooooh, spooooooky.

Let’s Look at the Kanji


tatsu, tachi
stand, rise, set up

au, ai
meet, join

kawa, -gawa
river

There are several creative theories that try to explain the origin of this place name, yet none of them are particularly convincing to me. I have my own pet theory which is not creative and seems super-obvious, but before we talk about the explanations people have put forward over the years, I want to talk about the geography of the area.

Until the late 1950’s, the coastline of  江戸湾東京湾 Edo-wanTōkyō-wan Edo/Tōkyō Bay was more or less the same. The neighborhood called Tachiaigawa was outside of the old city limits on the Tōkaidō Highway and lay directly on the beach at a place where a distributary of the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River called the Tachiai-gawa which flowed into Edo-Tōkyō Bay[v]. Until 1903, when 立会川駅 Tachiaigawa Eki Tachiaigawa Station opened, the area was not called Tachiaigawa. In fact, this is just a local term. In the Edo Period, this area was just considered 荏原国大井村 Ebara no Kuni Ōi Mura Ōi Village, Ebara Province[vi]. Even today, Tachiaigawa is not an official postal code. These days, this is 南大井一丁目 Minami Ōi Itchōme 1st block of South Ōi. The only thing you have to remember is that the Tachiai River has flown and continues to flow through this area. That’s key to its etymology.

samurai battle

Theory 1: There was a Samurai Battle here

This theory posits that the name derives from the combination 太刀 tachi long sword 会 ai meeting 川 kawa river (ie; the river where long swords met). And sure, since the 弥生時代 Yayoi Jidai Yayoi Period (let’s say from 300 BCE) until the Edo Period (1603), the history of Japan was dominated by warfare, but without a specific battle connected to this location, it’s really hard to say if this is just oral tradition or false etymology. If 太刀会 tachiai meeting of long swords is a prevalent place name in other places in eastern Japan or the rest of the country[vii], I might buy into this theory. However, what would seal the deal for me is if someone could point to a specific battle at this location[viii].

waterfall

Theory 2: There were Beautiful Waterfalls

It’s well a known fact that Edo Period castle towns didn’t have street names, so when people described their villages or neighborhoods to each other they used landmarks, hill names, and bridge names. It’s fair to say that either the bridges over the Tachiai River or the river itself could become an unofficial reference to the area.

The story goes that the original village lie on a calm section of the river between two waterfalls and was originally called 滝間 takima between the waterfalls, so locals began to refer to that stretch of the river as 滝間川 Takima-gawa the river between the falls which over time changed into Tachiai-gawa. I find this to be pretty unconvincing because in all my years running this site, I don’t remember a /ki/ becoming a //. Not that it isn’t possible[ix], I just can’t recall an example of that sound change in Japanese off the top of my head. Also, given the constant waterworks projects over the centuries, it would be hard to prove this.

buddha suzugamori (1 of 1)

Buddha statue at Suzugamori Execution Grounds. Recently, I’ve been going here late at night because I like creepy ghost shit. Awwwww yeah.

Theory 3: The Suzugamori Theory

I’ve written about 鈴ヶ森死刑所 Suzugamori Shikeijo Suzugamori Execution Grounds in the past[x] and in that article, I mentioned 涙橋 Namida-bashi the Bridge of Tears. For reasons of ritual cleanliness, executions were generally carried out beyond the city limits, so Suzugamori was a great place for that. People coming in and out of Edo would have seen the shōgunate’s ultimate authority, that over life and death. Also, it’s well known that 浜川橋 Hamagawa-bashi Hamagawa Bridge is generally known by locals as Namida-bashi. This was the last chance for condemned criminals to say their final farewells to their families[xi]. If this is the case, 立会 tachiai has a literal meaning of “standing and meeting.” Family and friends stood and watched their loved ones for the last time here.

namidabashi at night (1 of 1)

Namidabashi at night. Everyone’s coming home after a hard day of work at Suzugamori…

There is a corollary theory that pertains to the specifics of death sentences in the Edo Period. Condemned criminals would have been paraded through the streets as an example to all and then executed at one of the Three Great Execution Grounds of Edo. This related theory says that this river was where 御立会 o-tachiai government “involvement” happened. In short, shōgunate officials would arrive at Suzugamori to confirm the details of the condemned person’s case and observe (another meaning of the word o-tachiai) the execution. That means Tachiaigawa would mean “the place on the river where the shōgunate observed and confirmed executions.”

Because there are two theories presented, this seems to be a solid case for this etymology – on the surface. But guess who has two thumbs, writes JapanThis!, and thinks this is bullshit?

two thumbs

The Edo Period wasn’t that long ago. In fact, last year (2018) was the 150th anniversary of 大政奉還 Taisei Hōkan the shōgunate handing political authority over to the imperial court or 明治維新 Meiji Ishin the Meiji Coup (depending on which side you take). But think about it. Who the fuck would want to brag about living in a neighborhood famous for thousands of executions? To this very day, the former execution grounds of Suzugamori and Kozukappara are some of the least desirable places for real estate, with rent being cheap, and zero developers swooping in to build swanky high-rise apartments and shopping centers[xii]. In fact, the only reason people even live in areas like Tachiaigawa is because of necessity caused by urban sprawl in the post-war years. It’s the main reason the area still feels like the post-war years. Very little has changed since the 1960’s and 70’s! I doubt the execution thing would be a source of pride for the local fishermen and seaweed farmers who operated in this area from before the Edo Period until the 1950’s. Even the “Bridge of Tears” is a nickname. The official name is still “Seaside River Bridge” referring to the fact that it was literally a bridge crossing a river that emptied into the sea. Way more kosher than all that dark execution shit.

ryoma warehouse (1 of 1)

Because Tosa Domain had a huge residence here, you’ll find references to Sakamoto Ryōma and the Black Ships everywhere. For example, on this warehouse or whatever it is.

Theory 4: Where Water Meets Water

In doing this research, I remembered that time I got rivered. There were a few times I came across the kanji stand and meet. We see this in place names like 立川 Tachikawa Tachikawa and words like 合流 gōryū confluence. Without ever reviewing my previous research, it just seemed natural that a place where a river flowed into the sea would be called Tachiai-gawa. Why invoke all this stuff about samurai battles and executions?

To quote from my article on the Meguro River:

The Shinagawa clan was a branch of the main 大井氏 Ōi-shi Ōi clan. 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.  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).

I can’t find any maps from the Kamakura Period for this area[xiii], but Edo Period maps are readily available both online and in my private collection. Although it’s underground today, you can still trace a split in the river near Tachiaigawa Station that once flowed into the 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki suburban palace of 土佐藩 Tosa Han Tosa Domain. I’m assuming this is a remnant of the Kamakura Period waterworks. And when I say you can trace the path, I mean you can literally walk the path of the river today. Like right now. I dare you to do it, you lazy fuck.

All of those other fantastic theories are great stories, but if I were a betting man, I’d venture to say the etymology of Tachiaigawa is a mix of “rivers that split off from each other” and “where the river meets the sea.” In a bayside region full of rivers, Occam’s Razor comes down hard in favor of this theory. It’s clean and simple, looks like other derivations we’ve seen before, yet doesn’t require unattested battles, unconfirmed waterfalls and irregular diachronic sound changes, or a bizarre glorification of public executions for 250 some odd years and the shōgunate’s protocol in such matters. It’s just where water meets water. Pretty sure that’s it.

Further Reading:

hamakawa daiba (1 of 1).jpg

Cannon commemorating the Hamakawa Battery. Yup, that’s right. There’s a big ol’ cannon in the middle of a playground for children. Sounds more American than Japanese…

Sakamoto Ryōma

If you get off the 京急線 Keikyū-sen Keikyū Line at Tachiaigawa Station, you’ll find yourself in a very 下町 shitamachi low city neighborhood with a distinct post-war looking 商店街 shōtengai shopping street replete with local bars, yaki-tori joints, and a big old statue of 坂本龍馬 Sakamoto Ryōma. I’m not gonna explain who he was, you can read about him here. But across the street from the station is a school and residential area that sit on the suburban palace of his native domain, 土佐藩 Tosa-han Tosa Domain – modern 高知県 Kōchi-ken Kōchi Prefecture. He most definitely spent some time walking on the Tōkaidō while serving guard duty at the nearby by 浜川砲台 Hamagawa Hōdai Fort Hamagawa in his twenties[xiv]. In Tachiaigawa, you can find a cheap knock off of a famous statue in Kōchi, which itself is a cheap knock off of the iconic photograph of Ryōma himself taken at the 上野撮影局 Ueno Satsueikyoku Ueno Photography Studio in Nagasaki some time in 1867[xv]. At any rate, nearby is a placard depicting the four 黒船 Kurofune Black Ships commanded by Commodore Perry that arrived in Edo Bay in 1853: the Susquehanna, Mississippi, Saratoga, and Plymouth[xvi].

Further Reading:

ryoma tachiaigawa (1 of 1)

Ryōma voguing Bakumatsu style

tachiaigawa at night (1 of 1)

After a day of walking the old Tōkaidō, I love grabbing dinner Shōwa-style in Tachiaigawa.

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō With Me Japan This Guided Tours
(And yes, I’ll take you through Shinagawa post town and to Tachiaigawa, or even the execution grounds. It’s not for tourists, it’s for history nerds!)

 


[i] Or, a hole fucking year, if you’re on #TeamIenari.
[ii] One of the 5 Great Highways. The 東海道 Tōkaidō Eastern Sea Route and 中仙道  Nakasendō Mountain Pass Route connected the shōgun’s capital of 江戸 Edo Edo (modern day Tōkyō) with the imperial capital 京 Kyō (modern day Kyōto).
[iii] Of course I am lol
[iv] I’ve actually walked from 日本橋 Nihonbashi, the easternmost starting point on the Tōkaidō (the name literally means “the bridge to Japan”), to the modern city of Kawasaki. Without visiting too many temples and shrines and walking at a brisk pace, I made the journey in a day. I think most Edo Period people would easily spend a full day and night in Shinagawa before beginning the tedious walk to Kawasaki. Shinagawa offered delicious seafood, plenty of drinking and whoring, and a non-stop variety of amazing views of 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay. Some ghoulishly curious types probably checked out the execution grounds, cuz, yeah. Humans.
[v] At various points in history and depending on the stretch of river in question, this may have been referred to as the Shinagawa River.
[vi] It was directly controlled by the 幕府 bakufu shōgunate, but it wasn’t part of Edo proper. The term 国 kuni province was basically a traditional term – as it is today – to refer to old Heian Period territories. Today, it’s nostalgic, but in the Edo Period, province names were retained for their “classical appeal” and used in court titles.
[vii] It’s not.
[viii] I can’t find anything that satisfies these criteria.
[ix] This exact sound change is quite well known and regular in Latin languages – Italian and French in particular. Latin centum /kentum/ became Italian cento /tʃento/ (one hundred) and Latin cattus /cattus/ became French chat /ʃat/ (cat).
[x] Here’s my article on Suzugamori.
[xi] If their families even bothered to show up.
[xii] The exception being 小伝馬町 Kodenmachō, which is near 日本橋 Nihonbashi whose thriving business district overshadows the grim atmosphere of the neighborhoods around Suzugamori and Kozukappara. Kozukappara was so awful that the place name doesn’t exist outside of historical landmarks. Suzugamori’s name is still attached to a park and an elementary school.
[xiii] There might not be any, but maybe I’ll visit the 品川歴史館 Shinagawa Rekishikan Shinagawa History Museum again to see if they can help.
[xiv] This is a 30-40 minute walk today. I suspect in the Edo Period it would have taken about an hour.
[xv] If I remember correctly, the statue used to stand in front of a convenience store or something as a kinda gimmick. But since the renewal of the old Tōkaidō beginning in 2008 or so, they’ve played up Ryōma’s association with the area much more and put the (I’m assuming) plastic statue on a large concrete pedestal and put him in a park next to the train station.
[xvi] Not that these ships ever actually made it to Edo. They did their business in Uraga Bay which is actually miles from Edo-Tōkyō.

What does Honjo mean?

In Japanese History on September 10, 2015 at 6:16 am

本所
Honjo (main place)

An exit of Honjo-Azumabashi Station and its new friend in the background.

An exit of Honjo-Azumabashi Station and its new friend in the background.

The etymology of this area is pretty straight forward and actually does little justice to the neighborhood’s actual value. The name seems to be derived from the 荘園制度 shōen seido shōen system[i]. Shōen were administrative units that were originally more or less autonomous from the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court, though they owed their legitimacy to their connections to the court. In English, this is often rendered as manor or estate[ii].

Under the shōen system, the 本所 honjo main place (main estate) designated the place where the 荘園領主 shōen ryōshu lord of the shōen lived[iii]. This would include the lord’s 本家 honke main family line and their direct retainers. Branch families would live elsewhere. As such, a honjo is actually a designation of an area that is not unlike the capital of the shōen (the lord’s territory). This use was common throughout Japan and as such there are many places in the country called Honjo. The most popular story ties the area to 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu, but whether the name dates from Ieyasu’s time or reflects an ancient honjo is unclear. Some have even suggested it’s a reference to the 江戸氏 Edo-shi Edo Clan or 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, first of the Tokugawa shōguns and possible namer of the area - also possible non-namer of the area. Nobody knows.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, first of the Tokugawa shōguns and possible namer of the area – also possible non-namer of the area.
Nobody knows.

When 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu was granted control of Edo in the 1580’s by 太閤豊臣秀吉 taikō Toyotomi Hideyoshi imperial regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the term 荘園 shōen was all but obsolete, but some associated place names persisted. If this line of thinking is to be trusted, by the time Ieyasu assumed control of Edo and 関八州 Kanhasshū the 8 Kantō Provinces, the term was just an archaism that gave the area a touch of class. The area set one of the early models for the 山手 yamanote high city. Ieyasu required the old Edo samurai families to move to the area to be closer to Edo Castle where he could keep his eyes on them[iv]. To keep them in check, those samurai families were granted 旗本 hatamoto status (ie; they became direct retainers of the Tokugawa). He later ordered 3 譜代大名 fudai daimyō daimyō loyal to the Tokugawa at the Battle of Sekigahara to build their 上屋敷 kamiyashiki upper residences there to keep the old Edo elite in check. I suppose the granting hatamoto status and naming the area Honjo was essentially the spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine go down. But because of its elite beginnings, the area was replete with nature. It was famous for its greenery and suburban feel even in the late Edo Period despite the changes that would come with time.

The main gate of Tsugaru Domain's upper residence. The scene is decidedly yamanote. Note the lush greenery behind the mansion walls. Also note the drum tower inside the compound. It was a drum tower and used a huge taiko (Japanese drum) to sound the alarm.

The main gate of Tsugaru Domain’s upper residence. The scene is decidedly yamanote. Note the lush greenery behind the mansion walls. Also note the drum tower inside the compound. It was a drum tower and used a huge taiko (Japanese drum) to sound the alarm.

In the very early Edo Period, people used local terms to identify themselves. Perhaps you were 向島っ子 Mukōjimakko a child of Mukōjima.  Perhaps you were 吾妻っ子 Azumakko a child of Azuma. But for the first half of the Edo Period, if you were 本所っ子 Honjokko a child of Honjo that meant you were a real 江戸っ子 Edokko child of Edo. Your family may have even preceded the Tokugawa – or at least that was the image[v].

Before you perish in a fire, the last sound you might've heard in Honjo was the Tsugaru no Taikō (the Tsugaru Drum) which meant

Before you perish in a fire, the last sound you might’ve heard in Honjo was the Tsugaru no Taikō (the Tsugaru Drum) which meant “Fire! Get to the other side of the river now!!!!”
この写真はイメージです

In 1657, the area was still quite rustic. After the 明暦之大火 Meireki no Taika Meireki Fire[vi], the site was chosen for the burial of those who perished in the conflagration. The fire burned for 3 days in some parts of the city and destroyed 60-70% of Edo – including sections of Edo Castle itself. Some accounts say 100,000 Edoites burned to death in the disaster. To appease the souls of the dead, a temple was built to tend to the mass grave of the victims. The temple is called 回向院 Ekō-in Ekō Temple which is still located in Honjo. By the way, an 回向 ekō is a Buddhist prayer for the repose of the dead[vii].

Mukōjima Ekō-in started when 5th shōgun Tsunayoshi declared the burial mound where bodies were dumped a 万人塚

Mukōjima Ekō-in started when 5th shōgun Tsunayoshi declared the burial mound where bodies were dumped a 万人塚 manninzuka “mound of a thousands of souls.”
Since that time, the temple has been tending to the souls of the poor, those rejected by their families, the unclaimed dead, the executed, and animals. The temple has connections with sumō wrestling, too.

If the Area was so Elite, Why is it Shitamachi Today?

In 1719, the area was officially incorporated into Edo and fell under direct control of the shōgunate. This happened after the construction of 両国橋 Ryōgokubashi Ryōgoku Bridge. The building of the bridge saw an influx of craftsmen and laborers who worked on the project. Many remained in the area as 町人 chōnin townspeople of the commoner areas. The completion of the bridge created more demand for jobs that only commoners could do under the rigid social hierarchy of the Tokugawa.

The daimyō residences alone must have been big business. They needed maintenance of their villas, but they also needed landscaping work, they needed fish and other foodstuffs brought to their estates. They needed rain coats and new underwear. The other samurai families required the same conveniences of the day. As more businesses arose in the area, the commoner population exploded. Woodworkers and other craftsmen had quick access to the lumberyards of Kiba which made the area famous for woodwork. A unique culture emerged in the area. It was a culture of means – but one that depended on the working class.

The Tsugaru residence is great example of the Edo- Tokyo dichotomy. The streets in yellow were Edo Period thoroughfares, typical of the yamanote. I marked the main entrance of the Tsugaru Estate in blue so you can get a point of perspective from the ukiyo-e I showed earlier.

The Tsugaru residence is great example of the Edo-Tokyo dichotomy.
The streets in yellow were Edo Period thoroughfares, typical of the yamanote.
I marked the main entrance of the Tsugaru Estate in blue so you can get a point of perspective from the ukiyo-e I showed earlier.

The daimyō residences were essentially palaces. The original 3 daimyō were joined by a few other daimyō families that built 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residences in the area. These were fairly large estates with sprawling gardens and safe, wide streets. They weren’t very populated, though. The truth is, by the middle of the Edo Period, the commoner population of Honjo far outweighed the nobility, much like some parts of 麻布 Azabu[viii].

As such, wealthy artists, writers, farmers, and actors came to this area to hang out. Many 茶屋 chaya tea houses existed in the area that catered specifically to the non-samurai, moneyed bourgeoisie. Commoners of substantial means could come to Honjo and go drinking and whoring in a town that looked and felt like the yamanote. The commoners who grew up in this area were Edokko heart and soul, but they typified the next generation of sophisticates of the Meiji Era. In Honjo, commoners were gentrified, knew the arts and culture, and hobnobbed with the samurai elite[ix].

Tea houses in Honjo

Tea houses in Honjo

Rise of the Shitamachi

By the early Meiji Period, the look of the area changed dramatically. The daimyō and largest samurai residences disappeared and were either reclaimed by nature or became new homes for the working class. The lots that became overgrown with unkempt trees and tall grasses became inhabited by stray animals. Those spots became popular with people who wanted to commit suicide. It was said that in Honjo at least one person a day would hang themselves in the night and be discovered the next morning. Of course, this changed over the 44 years of Meiji. By 1912, most of the abandoned lots had become factories that relied on the river for distribution, bringing in raw material, and dumping of whatever waste byproduct they produced. The Sumida River became extremely polluted and whenever the river flooded it caused outbreaks of disease because of all the waste that was left in the streets and in people’s homes after the waters receded. It was fucking nasty.

View from Ryōunkaku, the 12 story tower in Asakusa. You can see Sensō-ji in the foreground and factories lining the Sumida River on the Mukōjima and Honjo banks of the river.

View from Ryōunkaku, the 12 story tower in Asakusa. You can see Sensō-ji in the foreground and factories lining the Sumida River on the Mukōjima and Honjo banks of the river.

By the middle of the Meiji Period, the area was famous for cheap housing. Notably, day laborers could find daily or weekly lodging for a pittance as they hopped around from menial job to menial job. Whatever entertainment existed there in the Edo Period had long since disappeared[x]. Honjo, in contrast to nearby 向島 Mukōjima, was a place to work and live and nothing more. It also failed to hold on to its vigor in contrast to 浅草 Asakusa, which lay on the other side of the river and was still a bustling hub of 下町 shitamachi low town excitement, art, and culture. Honjo died in the late Meiji Period. And talk about kicking someone when they’re down, the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake of 1923 laid another epic smack down on the area. It wouldn’t start to recover until after WWII.

The destruction of Honjo by the Earfquake was no less total than other parts of the city. The difference was Honjo was full of poor people and when poor people die they can't rebuild. Factories and other business get cheap real estate quick. It's pretty sad.

The destruction of Honjo by the Earfquake was no less total than other parts of the city. The difference was Honjo was full of poor people and when poor people die they can’t rebuild. Factories and other business get cheap real estate quick. It’s pretty sad.

So Why Should I be Interested in this Area?

Thank you for asking that question. And rest assured, I will answer in the form of biographies that show the diversity of people who have lived in the area. Unfortunately, I ended up with an article that was 18 pages in MS Word with more than 50 freaking footnotes. The footnotes alone were like… 3 or 4 pages. So I’ve decided to cut the article in half, using the first 4 pages and more than 2,000 words to talk about the area. Part 2 will be a beast, clocking in at 13 pages and more than 6,000 words. Trust me, you don’t want the original, unsplit version.

.

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[i] The fine folks at Samurai Archives have a good definition of this term: Shōen – Private estate exempted from central government control and often subject to a multi-layered proprietorship. Established in the Nara Period, the shōen system lasted until the late 16th Century, when it was finally eliminated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s sweeping land surveys.
[ii] I don’t like this translation, but I don’t know a better one. It’s similar in some ways to European feudalism… but in other ways it’s really different. Let’s save this discussion for another day.
[iii] Sometimes translated as “lord of the manor/estate.” I don’t like this translation either.
[iv] We’ll be coming back to this later.
[v] However, by the end of the Edo Period 江戸っ子 Edokko was the only word used to describe natives of Edo and Edoites in general.
[vi] Also called the 振袖之大火 Furisode no Taika Unmarried Woman’s Kimono Fire because legend says the fire began when a Buddhist priest burned a cursed kimono. The kimono was said to be cursed because it was owned by 3 young girls who died when it came into their possession. They never even had a chance to wear it. After the kimono had been passed to the 3rd girl and she died, the family asked the priest to destroy it.
[vii] This name should be familiar to long time readers. There is a temple of the same name near 小塚原死刑場 Kozukappara Shikeijō Kozukappara Execution Ground. You can see my article here.
[viii] See my article on Azabu here. It’s old and not so good, but whatevs.
[ix] Not entirely true. The area was prestigious, even as a commoner area. Even to this day, samurai heredity pulls some weight. But in the late Edo Period and early Meiji Period, Honjo was prime real estate and if you lived there or hung out there, that carried a lot of social power. That said, the shōgunate didn’t want samurai and commoners hanging out with each other too much. They either turned a blind eye to it or it was done on the down low. Of course, in the Meiji Period, there was no problem with mixing if you were “a person of talent.”
[x] The only exception was Mukōjima, where a unique geisha culture emerged.

What does Mukōjima mean?

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

向島
Mukōjima (island/s over there)

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

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

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

First, Let’s Look at the Etymology

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


mukō,
mukai

over there,
facing


shima

island
The Sumida-gawa Palace

The Sumida-gawa Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, Let’s Look at the Area Today

mukojima desu

Mukōjima Hyakkka-en

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

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

hyakka-en

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

hyakka-en2

Japanese Sweets

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

Kototoi Dango

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

Kototoi dango

Kototoi dango

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

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

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

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

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

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Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s Biggest Geisha District

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

Ryōtei are exclusive dining establishments that provide geisha entertainment.

Ryōtei are exclusive dining establishments that provide geisha entertainment.

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

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

mukojima geisha

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

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

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

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

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

Ōedo Line: Azabu Jūban

In Japanese History on July 2, 2015 at 6:57 am

麻布十番
Azabu-Jūban (Azabu #10)

Azabu Jūban Shrine has never been a major shrine, but it had much more land prior to WWII. Today, the shrine is an echo of its former self.

Azabu Jūban Shrine has never been a major shrine, but it had much more land prior to WWII. Today, the shrine is an echo of its former self.

In the early days of the Edo Period, the Furukawa river was tamed a bit and a series of bridges were built along it to encourage growth of the local villages that had existed in the area. The construction team that worked in this area was apparently called Azabu #10. The name stuck. There’s even a shrine called Azabu-Jūban Inari Shrine.

Today, very little remains of Azabu Jūban Shrine. (click the photo to see more of my photos of Japan)

Today, very little remains of Azabu Jūban Shrine.
(click the photo to see more of my photos of Japan)

Azabu’s reputation is glamour, fashion, expensive shops, ridiculous rent, international jet setters, and playground of the rich and beautiful. But history nerds can find a lot in this area. If you have a copy of Tōkyō: A Spatial Anthropology by Jin’nai Hidenobu and some good maps, you’ll find yourself weaving in and out of former daimyō residences, commoner towns, samurai homes of every rank, and temples and shrines affiliated with various military houses.

Even the yamanote (high city/samurai areas) of Azabu have shitamachi (low city/commoner areas)

Even the yamanote (high city/samurai areas) of Azabu have shitamachi (low city/commoner areas)

A walk in any direction out of Exit 4 will send you on an adventure illustrating how yamanote and shitamachi were actually intermixed and interdependent. But I recommend following the Furukawa River towards Tōkyō Tower or heading down the shopping street towards Roppongi Hills or Moto-Azabu. Check the maps first and don’t be afraid to hit the side streets.

This oven produces some of the best pizza outside of Italy. No joke.

This oven produces some of the best pizza outside of Italy. No joke.

You can see where Henry Heusken was killed, where Kiyokawa Hachirō was killed, where the first American Embassy was, and much, much more. Oh, and did mention that there are a handful of shops that have been in operation since the Edo Period? I recommend Sarashina Nagazaka and Sarashina Horii (both are soba shops family owned since the Edo Period)[i]. I also recommend Savoy for one of the most authentic napoletano pizzas in Tōkyō[ii].

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[i] Both soba shops are excellent. Sarashina Horii seems to be more popular and has a wider variety, but Sarashina Nagazaka is just as good and less cramped and crowded. Sarashina Horii’s big plus for me is that they have history books about soba shops in Edo-Tōkyō sitting around that you can read while you wait for your food. Sarashina Nagazaka has a stone monument commemorating the location and a photo from the 1860-70’s of the original shop and the shopping street. In short, you can’t go wrong with either shop.
[ii] The chefs can speak fluent Italian so if you can speak the language they seem pretty eager to interact. As a result, from time to time you’ll find Italians here (including diplomats who work at the embassy, which is about a 20 minute walk from here – on, you guessed it, a former daimyō residence).
[iii] The 上屋敷 kamiyashiki upper residence of the Mōri clan was located here. There’s a plaque commemorating the 毛利甲斐守邸跡 Mōri Kai no Kami Teiato Remains of the Mansion of Mōri of Chōfu Domain (a branch family of main Mōri clan in Chōshū). A handful of the 47 Rōnin were held in custody here (and if I’m not mistaken, committed seppuku on the site). The nearby National Art Center Tokyo sits on the former site of the Uwajima Domain (in modern Ehime Prefecture). Tōkyō Midtown sits on the former site of the middle residence of the main branch of the Mōri clan, lords of Chōshū.

What does Tsukuda mean?

In Japanese History on November 30, 2014 at 5:23 pm


Tsukuda (a cultivated rice field)

Edo's river town origins mixed with her ultra-modern skyscraper imagine. Tsukuda a sight to behold.

Edo’s river town origins mixed with her ultra-modern skyscraper imagine. Tsukuda a sight to behold.

佃 Tsukuda is an area in 中央区 Chūō-ku Chūō Ward. These days it’s not very famous. There are no train stations bearing its name. Unless you’re a Japanese History nerd or live in the area, there’s probably no reason to ever go there. But this small, out of the way area was one of the most famous spots of Edo and has bestowed a lasting legacy upon Japanese cuisine. Tsukuda has humble commoner roots as well as a connection to not only the samurai class, but to the very shōgunate itself.

On the surface, the kanji itself is not very helpful in figuring out where this place name came from. But actually, the origin is very simple and we’ll get to that in a minute. For the time being, I can tell you that the kanji 佃 tsukuda refers to a “cultivated rice field.” However this area was never used for rice production.

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P1210369

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Tokugawa Ieyasu Had Some Fishing Buddies… in Ōsaka?

In 1590, 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu entered Edo and began his urban planning efforts. He needed to ensure a solid infrastructure for his new home, 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle. Supplies, water, and food needed a way into the castle. Edo was located on a pretty bad ass bay and had a strong tradition in fishings so securing fresh fish and other seafood for the castle was an absolute priority.

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This is a great picture of Edo Castle. But see that big tower in the back? That amazing tower was built in 1607 but burnt in 1657. For most of the Edo Period, there was no tower in Edo. The shogunate knew the city was secure.

This is a great picture of Edo Castle.
But see that big tower in the back? That amazing tower was built in 1607 but burnt in 1657. For most of the Edo Period, there was no tower in Edo. The shogunate knew the city was secure.

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The Connection is Unclear but…

In 摂津国西成郡佃村 Settsu no Kuni Nishi Narigōri Tsukuda Mura Tsukuda Village, Nishi Narigōri, Settsu Province[i] there lived a certain fisherman by the name of 森孫右衛門 Mori Magoemon who was quite famous for his fishing techniques. Ieyasu invited him to be one of the main purveyors of fish and seafood to Edo Castle. He gave Magoemon some land in the 日本橋 Nihonbashi area and granted him control of an unnamed sandbar at the mouth of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River[ii]. The sandbar ideal for keeping boats that could go out into 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay for fishing, and yet have fast access to the rivers and channels of the city.

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Modern Tsukuda carries on much of its Edo Period tradition beautifully. Even though the design of this restaurant is from the Showa Era, it would be immediately recognizable to any person from the Edo Period just by the architecture.

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The Ōsaka Fishermen Take Control of the Island

Mori Magoemon accepted the offer and came to Edo with 32 other fishermen. They found the “sandbar” to be of a fairly substantial size were able to build a few permanent buildings and docks and could use it as a base for their business. They made a deal with the 幕府 bakufu shōgunate to send their first catches and biggest catches to Edo Castle and the rest could be sold at a profit. At the beginning of the Edo Period it was a risk (Ieyasu wasn’t shōgun yet, just a very powerful daimyō[iii]) but it turned out to be a pretty sweet deal. As the city expanded and the Tokugawa power grew, these fishermen from Ōsaka found themselves running one of the largest seafood concessions in the new metropolis. Magoemon’s son[iv], 森九左衛門 Mori Kūzaemon[v], established a wholesale fish market in Nihonbashi[vi]. That private fish market was the origin of the 日本橋魚市場 Nihonbashi Uo’ichiba Nihonbashi Fish Market[vii], Edo’s most famous fish market.

The “sandbar,” which was actually more of an island at the mouth of the Sumida River, came to be referred to by the fishermen from 佃村 Tsukuda Mura Tsukuda Village as 佃嶋 Tsukuda-jima Tsukuda Island after the place of their birth[viii]. However, maps at the time label the area 森嶋 Morishima (or Mori-jima) and 鎧嶋 Yoroi-jima[ix], but this was all soon to change.

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For most of the Edo Period, the island looked like this (after the shogunate subsidized expansion in 1645).  Note the red area. That is Sumiyoshi Shrine, a branch of shrine of an Osaka-based shrine.

For most of the Edo Period, the island looked like this (after the shogunate subsidized expansion in 1645).
Note the red area. That is Sumiyoshi Shrine, a branch of shrine of an Osaka-based shrine.

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The Island Becomes Home to Commoners and Samurai  

In 1645, 3rd shōgun 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu granted the fishing concession rights to expand the sandbar with landfill. The shōgunate subsidized the project and extended the island’s north bank substantially creating a massive island in the Sumida River delta. Shōgun Iemitsu gave[x] the north bank of the island to a certain 石川八左衛門 Ishikawa Hachizaemon. Because of this, the north bank of the island came to be known as 石川嶋 Ishikawa-jima Ishikawa Island.

By this time, the island was famous first and foremost for providing seafood to the shōgun at Edo Castle and secondly for providing fresh fish to the citizens of central Edo. This location served both the commoners and samurai. The walk from Tsukuda to 大名小路 daimyō koji daimyō alley[xi] would have been 30-40 minutes tops on foot. That meant the most elite lords who served the Tokugawa could get a fresh fish in less than an hour. If the delivery was sent by boat, maybe we can halve that to about 15 minutes. Tsukuda was a force to be reckoned with. It was prime bayside property. It had access to Edo’s major river delta. It was enfranchised by the shōgunate. It was also producing a new, local product that would put the name Tsukuda in the history books. That product was called 佃煮 Tsukuda-ni. But let’s talk about that later…

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Tokugawa Ienari looking quite dapper and not-so-riddled by syphilis.

Tokugawa Ienari looking quite dapper and not-so-riddled by syphilis.

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For most of the Edo Period, Tsukudajima and Ishikawajima were marked as separate on maps (presumably because the south bank was for lowly fishermen and the north bank was a samurai’s fief). However, in 1817, a monumental land survey of shōgunate holdings and later the entire realm was undertaken. The Party Shōgun, 徳川家斉 Tokugawa Ienari[xii], commissioned a map made by “western standards[xiii].” The map in question is known as 江戸実測図 Edo Jissokuzu A Realistic Map of Edo[xiv].  At this time, the area began appearing on maps as 佃島 Tsukudajima with no regard to the north/south differences[xv].

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Inō Tadataka - the first "modern" map maker of Japan.

Inō Tadataka – the first “modern” map maker of Japan.

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Modern Tsukuda 1-chōme and the northern part of Tsukuda 2-chōme make up the former Tsukuda-jima and Ishikawa-jima. Now the island is supplemented by reclaimed land that includes 月島 Tsukishima, 勝鬨 Kachidoki, and 晴海 Harumi. The collective area is generally referred to as 月島地域 Tsukishima Chiiki the Tsukishima Area or just Tsukishima, though technically speaking 中央区佃 Chūō-ku Tsukuda Tsukuda, Chūō Ward is a real postal code.

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If you compare the blocks, and bridges, you can still make out much of the late Edo Period layout of the island despite all of the expansion. The river's path has also been modified since the Edo Period. The easiest way to get your sense of size and direction is to use Sumiyoshi Shrine as an anchor.

If you compare the blocks, and bridges, you can still make out much of the late Edo Period layout of the island despite all of the expansion. The river’s path has also been modified since the Edo Period.
The easiest way to get your sense of size and direction is to use Sumiyoshi Shrine as an anchor.

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Why Did Ishikawajima Disappear?

It didn’t really.

And if you look at the map above this paragraph, you’ll see it didn’t. Scroll up a little higher to review the Edo Period map.

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Today there are no official references to the Ishikawa family except for a park called 石川島公園 Ishikawajima Kōen Ishikawa Park and 石川島記念病院 Ishikawajima Kinen Byōin Ishikawajima Memorial Hospital. Interestingly enough, in the bakumatsu, the land called Ishikawajima was bought by 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain to be used as a shipyard – presumably to follow through with their psychopathic 尊王攘夷 sonnō jōi[xvi] philosophy. This happened in 1853. After the Meiji Coup, the shipyard was privatized in 1876 (Meiji 9) and became 石川島造船所 Ishikawajima Zōsensho Ishikawajima Shipyard[xvii]. Until the shutdown of the shipyard in 1979, much of the traditional atmosphere of Tsukudajima was preserved.

Ishikawajima Shipyard in the Meiji Era

Ishikawajima Shipyard in the Meiji Era

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After the shutdown of Ishikawajima Shipyard, the old facilities were cleared out and real estate developers descended upon the area with a vengeance. They began throwing up massive タワーマンション tawā manshon sky rise apartment buildings. This forever changed the look of this traditional area via 都心回帰 toshin kaiki – renewing antiquated or depressed areas as modern residential areas desirable to families. Toshin kaiki is essentially the Japanese version of gentrification. As a result, the area is mix of modern sky rise apartments towering over traditional 1 and 2-story wooden residences. You can still get a feel of the Edo Period – or at least the pre-bubble Shōwa Period – but it’s fast disappearing. The Tōkyō Metropolitan Government has deemed the traditional wooden buildings and their tiny traditional alleys a fire hazard. In order to protect the city from a conflagration in the event of a major earthquake, in 2012 they enacted a 10-year plan to rid the city of old wooden buildings. The traditional legacy of Tsukudajima will surely disappear sooner rather than later.

,

A "panoramic" shot of Tsukuda 1-chōme in 1989.

A “panoramic” shot of Tsukuda 1-chōme in 1989.

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About The Name

I’ve been throwing around the names Tsukudajima and Ishikawajima. Some local residents still refer to the area as Tsukudajima, but in 1967, 佃島 Tsukudajima and 石川島 Ishikawajima were merged into an official postal code as 佃 Tsukuda. Interestingly, while the former Ishikawajima has been expanded greatly and is more or less unrecognizable when compared to its Edo Period predecessor, Tsukuda still retains much of the original street plan. Even the shape strongly resembles the shape of the island in the late Edo Period.

Tsukuda 1-chōme in January, 1988.

Tsukuda 1-chōme in January, 1988.

Tsukudajima Transcends Geography in Favor of Your Mouth


tsukuda
Tsukuda

ni
simmering, boiling

Tsukudani, in its most generic sense, is a vegetable or seafood simmered in soy sauce and sugar, dried, and then served as a topping on rice or eaten as a side dish. There is probably an infinite variety of tsukudani available all across Japan. Today it is as ubiquitous as 御新香 o-shinko Japanese-style pickled veggies – second only to… I dunno… rice? This type of dish is so widespread and so entrenched in the pantheon of modern Japanese cuisine that few people even give a thought to where it began. Well, of course, it originated on Tsukudajima in Edo.

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Kelp tsukudani. The modern versions use sugar to make the taste mild.  While Edo Period food would be a bit bland to the modern international palate, tsukudani was considered quite flavorful. This was a hallmark of the Edo flavor of Kanto in comparison to the light flavors of Kyoto.

Kelp tsukudani.
The modern versions use sugar to make the taste mild.
While Edo Period food would be a bit bland to the modern international palate, tsukudani was considered quite flavorful. This was a hallmark of the Edo flavor of Kanto in comparison to the light flavors of Kyoto.

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The Origin of Tsukudani

When the fishermen of Tsudajima had bad weather or bad fishing conditions, they wouldn’t have food for themselves or their families. Also, when they were on the boats fishing, they needed a kind of preserved food that was small and light and that they could take with them. For these times, the wives used cooking techniques called 煮付ける nitsukeru hard simmer and 煮切る nikiru reduce by simmering[xviii]. They would hard simmer very small fish, minnows, and shellfish in salt and soy sauce and boil it down until no liquid remained. The end result was a preserved food that could be stored for a rainy day or brought out to sea by the fishermen.

As Edo’s population exploded and prospered, it wasn’t long before the process was used for making a side dish or topping for rice, rather than a staple for starving fishermen[xix]. The simple and delicious seasoning combined with the unique, gelatinous texture was an instant hit with the 江戸っ子 Edokko Edoites. Tsukudani quickly became popular in the areas surrounding Tsukudajima and soon became one of many 江戸之名物 Edo no Meibutsu Special Dishes of Edo. Also, because it was a stable, preserved food, samurai serving sankin-kōtai service in Edo would bring it back to their domains as 御土産 o-miyage souvenirs for friends and family. As such, tsukudani – which was not difficult to replicate – spread throughout the samurai families of the various domains and many local variations began to develop among the households of the elite.

Edo-mae tsukudani made from seaweed. It's rice time, baby!!!

Edo-mae tsukudani made from seaweed.
It’s rice time, baby!!!

The Imperial Army placed huge orders for tsukudani in 1877 (Meiji 10) during the 西南戦争 Seinan Sensō the Satsuma Rebellion. It’s said that the dish endowed the emperor’s soldiers with such superhuman strength that Saigō Takamori actually never had a fighting chance[xx]. Again, in 1894 (Meiji 27), tsukudani played an important role in the Imperial Army’s strategy during the 日清戦争Nisshin Sensō the First Sino-Japanese War[xxi]. After the wards, the soldiers came back to their hometowns with a taste for the real deal, the so-called 江戸前佃煮 Edomae tsukudani Edo Style Tsukudani. It’s after these two wars that the dish really took off with the common people. By the middle of the Meiji Period it had become a standard household side dish.

Note the gelatinous texture... that is the result of the cooking process.

Note the gelatinous texture… that is the result of the cooking process.

With advent of modern packing, refrigeration, and other technological advances, tsukudani is an ubiquitous food throughout Japan. You can make it from pretty much anything given it is tiny enough or julienned small enough for the cooking process. The most popular form across the country is without a doubt 昆布佃煮 konbu tsukudani kelp tsukudani. The modern versions are often coated with sesame oil and sesame seeds for a richer flavor.

Shio-konbu (salted kelp), Tokyo's new twist on Tsukudani.

Shio-konbu (salted kelp), Tokyo’s new twist on Tsukudani.

Although it’s technically not tsukudani, one of my favorite toppings for cabbage is a tsukudani-inspired condiment called 塩昆布 shio konbu salty kelp. It’s not made through the simmering and boiling down process, but rather dried and cured with salt. The end result is similar to tsukudani but with a much more intense flavor that is aligned with the globalizing Japanese palate.

As I mentioned earlier, the dish was originated in a fishing community. It diversified to a point where marine vegetation came to be included. To this day, the most common forms of tsukudani are seafood and plant and fungus based. But there are always a few people who have to take a good idea and fuck it up for everyone. The word tsukudani has a dark side. Ask a person from the extreme country or far mountain villages[xxii] what tsukudani means and they may tell you that it’s something like 蝗佃煮 inago tsukudani. This dish is basically cooked locusts[xxiii]. Another rustic variation is ざざ虫佃煮 zaza mushi tsukudani. Zaza mushi refers to a variety of semi-aquatic insects in Nagano[xxiv]. Silk worms and bee larvæ[xxv] are also fair game for this type of insect tsukudani.

And there it is... tsukudani's logical conclusion....

And there it is… tsukudani’s logical conclusion….

I’m a picky eater, but believe it or not, yours truly has actually eaten 蝗佃煮 inago tsukudani (locusts). The taste was actually good. But I have to be honest. I had to eat them with my eyes closed, because seeing segmented legs and robot-like antennæ is a major gross out.

Well… whatever. You only live once and sometimes having certain cultural experiences is worth stepping outside of your comfort zone. No regrets and all that shit.

Awwwwwwww yeah.

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[i] This is present day 大阪府大阪市西淀川区佃村 Ōsaka-fu Ōsaka-shi Nishi Yodogawa-ku Tsukuda Mura, Tsukuda Village, Nishi Yodogawa Ward, Ōsaka City, Ōsaka Prefecture.
[ii] Read more about the Sumida River here!
[iii] A daimyō who controlled the so-called 関八州 Kanhasshū 8 Kantō Provinces (Musashi, Sagami, Kazusa, Shimōsa, Awa, Kōzuke, Shimotsuke, and Hitachi) – most of the Kantō region.
[iv] By some accounts his first son, by other accounts his second son.
[v] Another possible reading is Kyūzaemon – both being equally ridiculous sounding names.
[vi] I have an article about Nihonbashi here.
[vii] Many other fishermen set up markets in the Nihonbashi area. Eventually these were consolidated to become the 日本橋魚河岸 Nihonbashi Uogashi Nihonbashi Riverside Fish Market. This was the largest fish market in Edo (and possibly the world). It was also the predecessor of Tōkyō’s world famous 築地市場 Tsukiji Shijō Tsukiji Market – but that’s a story for another day.
[viii] Remember, they came from Tsukuda Village in Settsu Province (present day Ōsaka).
[ix] The name 森嶋 Morishima derives from the family name 森 Mori who controlled the fishing concession on the island. The name 鎧嶋 Yoroijima (literally “armor island”) is a bit mysterious.
[x] I was going to use the verb “enfeof” but then I thought my own neologism “infief” would be better. Then I realized if modern spell checks don’t recognize either of those words, then neither will you, dear reader.
[xi] Modern day Hibiya, Yūraku-chō, Tōkyō Station, and Marunouchi.
[xii] #TeamIenari for life, y’all!
[xiii] And by “western,” we mean “Dutch.”
[xiv] This monumental survey and map-making project was conducted by 伊能忠敬 Inō Tadataka (merchant/surveyor) – he has his own stamp. He’s that important to Japanese history. He is known for completing the first map of Japan created using modern surveying techniques.
[xv] Interestingly, this is the same year Tokugawa Ienari deported Titia Bergsma. Titia sounds like “titty ya” but I assure you Ienari had no idea – if he had, he probably wouldn’t have deported her.
[xvi] I’m assuming anyone reading this is familiar with the basics, but just in case, sonnō jōi used by anti-foreign radicals. The word means “revere the emperor – expel the barbarians.”
[xvii] The company still exists, though. It’s called IHI Corporation in English. The Japanese name is 石川島播磨重工業株式会社 Ishikawajima-Harima Jūkōgyō Kabushiki Gaisha Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries. It’s a pretty major company. In 1995, the company merged with another company with a Bakumatsu connection, but since I think “business” is a boring ass topic, you can read more here, if you like.
[xviii] The entire process can also be described by a single Japanese word: 煮詰める nitsumeru the general word for “boiling down.”
[xix] Edo and fishing go hand in hand well into time immemorial. But after the establishment of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, the city prospered like no other city in Japan. Being a fisherman in a city of a million hungry people meant you probably weren’t going to go hungry.
[xx] OK, that’s actually not true.
[xxi] OK, that’s actually not true either, but it is true that as they had in the Satsuma Rebellion, the Imperial Army again relied heavily on tsukudani for troop rations.
[xxii] Niigata and Nagano, I’m looking at you.
[xxiii] 蝗 inago (also written in katakana as イナゴ or less commonly as 稲子) is sometimes translated as rice grasshopper. There are a variety of species in Japan and I assume they all taste more or less the same and that if you’re out in the rice paddies gathering up bugs to eat, you’re probably not terribly concerned with what species you’re getting so… let’s just go with “locust” as this is pretty much gonna cover everything.
[xxiv] Again, if you’re out there, you know, getting bugs for food. You’re probably not going to be too bothered by which species you get. This is also a reminder that every time you eat a lobster or crab or shrimp, you’re essentially eating an insect’s cousin.
[xxv] Bee larvæ, known as 蜂の子 hachi no ko “baby bees” in Japanese, is a subject worthy of discussion all on its own because there seem to be a variety of ways to make dishes from them.

What does Tabata mean?

In Japanese History on April 29, 2014 at 4:25 pm

田端
Tabata (on the edge of the field)

In JR's ongoing effort to put department stores in every train station, Tabata Station looks like every other JR station.

In JR’s ongoing effort to put department stores in every train station, Tabata Station looks like every other JR station.

First Let’s Start with the Kanji, Shall We?

ta

rice paddy

hata

edge, boundary, beside, close to

This is a place name found all over Japan, with reading variations.

It’s also a family name found all over Japan… yes, also with reading variations[i].

And despite sounding really backwatery to our modern ears, many people with this family name can apparently claim descent from the 源氏 Minamoto-shi/Genji Minamoto clan. So, stuff that in your pipe and smoke it.

In the Edo Period, 田端村 Tabata Mura Tabata Village was located on a section of the elevated area that is geographically referred to as the 上野台地 Ueno Daichi the Ueno Plateau, but was to known at the time as 上野山 Uenoyama Ueno Mountain. The area was well known because one side was bordered by a cliff. Although, most people don’t notice it now, the west side of Tabata Station clearly shows the cliff – it’s just been woven into the fabric of the modern metropolis.

The cliff of former Tabata Village.

The cliff of former Tabata Village.

It’s said that meaning of the name is 田ノ端 ta no hata on the edge of a rice paddy. Historical records and maps from the early Edo Period are vague at best, but the area would have been quite rural at the time. The presence of 田畑 tahata rice paddies and fields is more or less a given. Speaking of tahata, a second etymology says that via rendaku, tahata became tabata. So there, you just got 2 for the price of 1.

Tabata sits on a ridge – a cliff, if you will – on the edge of the Ueno Plateau. The agricultural lands here were eventually surrendered to the Tokugawa Shōgunate in the name of 参勤交代 sankin-kōtai alternate attendance[ii], for the purpose of building daimyō residences and samurai residences. Without clear historical records, the “edge” could have referred to rice paddies on the plateau itself, or could refer to the cliff – a proverbial “edge” clearly delineating the yamanote and shitamachi, thus indicating the farming was being done in the valley.

one the left, you can see the Hongo Plateau, on the right, the Ueno Plateau. Where you see 田端駅 is Tabata Station.

one the left, you can see the Hongo Plateau, on the right, the Ueno Plateau.
Where you see 田端駅 is Tabata Station.

A second, more intriguing theory maintains that the place name is most likely far more ancient than the kanji reveal. We’ve seen this in really old names. This theory maintains that the oldest place names are all based on the terrain. In an age where most people were illiterate and there were very few – or no – maps, short and descriptive places were the easiest way to find your way around. In my experience writing Japan This!, I’ve definitely noticed this pattern. As areas became more literate, kanji were added post hoc. However, using kanji for their phonetic values distorts forever the original meaning of the word, especially if it’s a name that predates the importation of kanji to Japan or if the place name dates from the languages of the aboriginal peoples of Japan (ie; before the spread of the Yamato people).

This alternate theory uses some archaeological findings to back it up. The area has been inhabited since the Jōmon Period[iii] but the real activity picked up around the Yayoi Period[iv]. During the early to mid Jōmon Period (7,000-4,000 years ago), this area was coastline, and the high areas were inhabited by villagers, communities highly reliant on the sea and not farming. The sea began receding during the Yayoi Period and we find evidence of all kinds of coastal fishing activity, but no farming. Because the only people who farm next to the ocean are idiots[v].

Again, if this is an ancient name – not a medieval[vi] name – the kanji does not matter. Kanji have sounds (readings) but no kanji is divorced from meaning. It always has a meaning. Going by this theory, the archaeological evidence has led a small group of people to maintain that the name comes from a very ancient place name that originally meant “the top of the plateau.” One of the more interesting speculations[vii] was that the name is evidenced by 束旗 tabahatatabata a bundle of flags, because the high ground is where you can build your fort (and of course put up your flags, which can be seen from everywhere).

A residential alley in the shitamachi area near Tabata.

A residential alley in the shitamachi area near Tabata.

So Which Theory Do I Like?

I think the 2nd theory is more or less crap. Trying to relate a place name to the Paleolithic Period or the Jōmon Period is just absurd. Even the Yayoi thing is stretch. If we had a record from the Nara or Heian Period, I’d start to loosen up my skepticism. But we don’t. This name doesn’t even seem to appear in Kamakura Period records, which is when the Kantō area really starts showing up in the historical record. No matter what activity happened here 2000 years ago, I’m willing to bet that has absolutely no connection with what was happening here by the time the Edo clan was established or Ōta Dōkan came around. I don’t know if Japanese clans were raising flags on the high ground around their forts or not before the Sengoku Period, but flags all over the place is an image I associate with the rise of the warrior culture, and in particular with the Sengoku Period[viii].

If we start messing around with ateji again, it becomes a game of unsolvable multiple choice. I’m going to use Occam’s Razor and say that “a village next to a rice paddy” is the most realistic etymology. The fact that this place name occurs all over Japan backs up this rationale as well. After all, why did people make rice paddies? Well, it was to feed villages! Even the “rice paddies and fields” makes more sense than referencing the Yayoi Period.

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[i] There are approximately 23,900 people with the surname 田端 in Japan today. As a place name or surname the variations are: Tabata, Tahashi, Tahata, Tabashi, Tabana, and Tabuchi – in order from most common to least common. As a family name, I think we can say this is fairly rare in Japan.
[ii] See my quick overview here.
[iii] I’m not going into the Jōmon thing because it’s soooo far beyond the scope of Edo-Tōkyō. That said, it bears repeating that the Jōmon people were racially distinct from the Yayoi people. The Jōmon may have been more Caucasian looking. It’s with the Yayoi people where we start getting people whose bones, at least, start looking Japanese.
[iv] Let’s say from 400 BC to 200 AD just to be conservative. But this is where we start seeing people who are racially “Japanese.”
[v] Unless you’re farming seaweed, but that’s completely different from maintaining fields and rice paddies. But try to grow some vegetables in salt water and see what happens.
[vi] This is a term I hate using, but I can’t think of a better one.
[vii] And there are a lot more!
[viii] This is just the image in my head; I honestly don’t know shit about flags and banners in Japanese history.

What does Sendagi mean?

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on April 14, 2014 at 8:28 am

千駄木
Sendagi (a lot of trees)

sendagi_station

Sendagi is a mixed residential and shopping area between Nezu and Yanaka[i]. Today the area is distinctly shitamachi[ii]. However, if you go there you’ll notice slopes which are clear indicators that in the Edo Period the area was mixed with the elites living on the yamanote (high city) and the merchants and other people living on in the shitamachi (low city) while low ranking samurai naturally lived on the hillsides according to rank.

The area of Tōkyō extending from Ueno Station[iii] out to Nippori Station[iv] is one of the most popular destinations for lovers of Edo-Tōkyō to take walks. There are many different routes one could take through this area, but one common route is walking the 谷根千 Yanesen, an abbreviation based on the collective areas of  谷中 Yanaka, 根津 Nezu, and 千駄木 Sendagi. The area is dotted with temples, shrines, shops dating as far back as the Edo Period, and is literally so steeped in history that it would probably take a book to do it justice[v]. Also, there are a lot of references to past articles, so be sure to check the footnotes (remember, they’re clickable).

Given the cultural richness of the area, I will just point you here, and move on to the timeline of Sendagi and then get into the place name itself. If that’s alright with you…

Edo Period gate to the residence of the Komagome Village headman.

Edo Period gate to the residence of the Komagome Village headman.

The area was formerly part of 駒込村 Komagome Mura Komagome Village and in fact today is still officially part of Komagome[vi]. The name Komagome isn’t attested until the Sengoku Period. One the other hand, 千駄木 Sendagi isn’t attested until the early Edo Period when it appears as a label in a map. The label reads 上野東漸院持ち駒込千駄木御林 Ueno Tōzen’in mochi Komagome Sendagi o-hayashi the Komagome Sendagi o-hayashi which is controlled by Ueno Tōzen Temple. Another early Edo Period map includes the label 上野寒松院持ち駒込千駄木御林 Ueno Kanshō’in mochi Komagome Sendagi o-hayashi the Komagome Sendagi o-hayashi which is controlled by Ueno Kanshō Temple. An 御林 o-hayashi was a hilltop wooded area owned by the shōgunate, but control of the area was granted to a lord or temple[vii]. Which temple was actually in control of Komagome Sendagi O-hayashi at what time isn’t clear to me, but it’s not really important for us today[viii].

O-hayashi Inari Shrine in Sendagi is one of the legacies of the old forest.

O-hayashi Inari Shrine in Sendagi is one of the legacies of the old forest.

About 1656, the former hilltop forest came to be the site of a daimyō residence of the lords of 豊後国府内藩 Bungo no Kuni Funai Han Funai Domain, Bungo Province (present day Oita Prefecture in Kyūshū). The family was the 大給松平家 Ōgyū Matsudaira, a samurai family from 三河国 Mikawa no Kuni Mikawa Province, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s homeland. As Edo depended on the shōgunate and the shōgun himself was from Mikawa, having a Mikawa family bearing the name Matsudaira bolstered the area’s prestige[ix]. The hill became a yamanote town comprised of high ranking samurai residences. It seems that because the Ōgyū residence was first the prestigious palace built on the hilltop, the area came to be to be known as 大給坂 Ōgyūzaka Ōgyū Hill. If you go to the top of Ōgyūzaka there is a crappy little park with a huge gingko tree called the 大銀杏 Ōichō[x]. They say this tree stood inside the original Ōgyū property.

Yup. That's a big tree, alright.  OK, let's move on.

Yup. That’s a big tree, alright.
OK, let’s move on.

Nearby is another hill called 道灌山 Dōkanyama. It’s said that at the end of the Muromachi Period, 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan had a branch castle here which he built for tactical support of 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle[xi]. I only jumped way back in time to mention this because… well, you’ll see.

Dokanyama is the large slope next to Nishi-Nippori Station. I've seen this hill hundreds of times, but I never knew it was called Dokanyama until today. Cool!

Dokanyama is the large slope next to Nishi-Nippori Station.
I’ve seen this hill hundreds of times, but I never knew it was called Dokanyama until today.
Cool!

 

OK, so now let’s look at the kanji.

 


sen
1000

da
a pack horse;
a load carried by a pack horse

gi
tree

 

WTF?! This fucking kanji again?

WTF?!
This fucking kanji again?

The other day, we looked at 千駄ヶ谷 Sendagaya and we learned that 千駄 senda was another word for 沢山 takusan a lot. If we want to take the kanji as they are written today, which is by all means the easiest way to do things, we can deduce that the name 千駄木 Sendagi means “a lot of trees.” From what we know, the place name is first written down[xii] in the early Edo Period. From what we know, the area was a hilltop forest at that time. One could make a very strong case that this is the origin of the name Sendagi.

 

But it’s Never That Easy, Is It?

So there are some other theories of varying quality – or a few variations with some anecdotal stories added to lend credence to the general narrative[xiii]. OK, so where to begin?

 

Sexxxy firewood. Awwwwww yeah!

Sexxxy firewood.
Awwwwww yeah!

 

The 1000 Da Theory

In the late Muromachi Period and opening years of the Edo Period, the forest here was used for lumber or for firewood. You could easily get 千駄 sen da 1000 da each day. (If you don’t know what 1000 da are, you should read the last article). This is basically adding information to the above theory.

 

Chinaberry is a flowering tree. There are many planted around Edo Castle. In the background you can see (I think) Shimizu Mon.

Chinaberry is a flowering tree. There are many planted around Edo Castle.
In the background you can see (I think) Shimizu Mon.

The Ōta Dōkan Did It Theory

During the construction of Edo Castle (or perhaps his aforementioned branch castle), Ōta Dōkan used the area for lumber. After cutting down so many trees, he re-forested the area by planting 栴檀 sendan Chinaberry trees here. In the old Edo accent, sendan ki became sendagi. The Ōta Dōkan thing could be true or not. Who knows? The Chinaberry tree thing? It’s possible. Still, we’re looking at a bunch of trees any way you look at it.

 

20121218160224a11

 

It’s a Reference to a Traditional Japanese Prayer For Rain

The last theory is interesting. The godfather of Japanese folklore and linguistics, 柳田國男 Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962), actually spoke about this place name. The reason his story bears repeating is because he insisted that prior to the Meiji Restoration, the common narrative of Japanese history was the story of the elite classes only. The day to day toils and reality of the commoners was just omitted. He was also fascinated by the variety of Japanese dialects and began laying the groundwork for modern Japanese dialectology.

Anyhoo, his theory says that in the Edo Period, and indeed, in his youth, at the beginning of summer as the rains got scarcer, the farmers would bring 1000 da of reeds or wood to the nearest body of water and burn them as an 雨乞い amagoi prayer for rain. In the common parlance, this activity was called 千駄焚き senda-taki burning 1000 da. While he was making some of the first modern dialect maps of Japan, he noticed that in many parts of the country the phrase senda-taki was contracted to sendaki. He speculated that this might be the origin of both Sendagi (sendaki – burning 1000 da of wood) and Sendagaya (senda kaya – buring 1000 da of reeds).

His speculation is interesting because he’s a guy who was born with the first 10 years of the Meiji Era, watched Japan modernize, go all crazy theocratic and fascistic, be occupied by a foreign power for the first time ever, modernize again, and host the Olympics. He also lived through the greatest and fastest advances in linguistics and the scientific method.

Kunio himself. Or as I like to call him, "kun'ni."

Kunio himself.
Or as I like to call him, “kun’ni.”

 

So Which Theory Is Correct?

With all this talk of Yanagita Kunio, it’s gotten me thinking about my choice in terminology up to this point on JapanThis!. Linguistics is a science and as such when talking within the framework of science, terminology is important. I’ve been using the word “theory” for some time in the vernacular sense. But “theory” actually means a kind of testable model – something that is so predictable that we can say it’s a fact – for example; the Theory of Gravity or the Theory of Evolution. These things we know are true. The correct term for dealing with much of what I write about on this blog is “speculation.” Unless we have an actual historical document saying “so-and-so named this place such-and-such because of this-and-that” were are dealing with speculation[xiv].

but_i_digress

 

As usual, we saw some interesting speculations today. Without extraordinary evidence, I tend to err on the side of simplicity. For me, I like the literal reading of the kanji. There were a lot of trees in the area. I think the rest of the stories are embellishments, folk etymologies, or downright wishful thinking and coincidence.

Then again, what do I know? I’m just some dude with an internet connection.

 

 

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.

_____________________

[i] See my article on Yanaka.
D’oh! I’ve never written about Yanaka before. Weird. Well, anyways, if you scroll down a little bit, on the right hand side there is a list of the 50 most recent articles. Above the list is a search field. If you type “yanaka,” a ton of articles will come up. (If you click word “yanaka” above, it will bring up the same list of articles. Can everyone say, “let me google that for you?”)

[ii] In the modern sense of the word.

[iii] See my super old article on Ueno. Or not, because I just looked at it and it sucks. It’s from when I started covering place names. Night and day difference.

[iv] See my super old article on Nippori. One of the early ones that got researched well.

[v] Here’s an English article I came across about the Yanesen.

[vi] See my article on Komagome here.

[vii] The emphasis on hilltop is most likely because the low city was developed for commerce and commoners and wouldn’t have had many trees, whereas the hilltops were kept lush and green.

[viii] More interesting is that both temples still exist. Tōzen’in was established in 1649 and is affiliated with Kan’ei-ji, the Tokugawa Funerary Temple. You can find Tōzen’in in Uguisudani. Kanshō’in, established in 1627, is also in Uguisudani and is also affiliated with Kan’ei-ji. In fact, later they became of a sub-temple of 上野東照宮 Ueno Tōshō-gū. See my article on Uguisudani here. Don’t worry that the temples are located in Uguisudani and not Komagome – although it’s walking distance, both temples have actually been relocated a few times.

[ix] Keep in mind, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s real family name was Matsudaira.

[x] Literally, big ass gingko tree.

[xi] However, there is an alternate theory which claims the name Dōkanyama is actually derived from a powerful noble who had a fortified residence here in the Kamakura Period. His name was 関道閑 Seki Dōkan.

[xii] A first attestation doesn’t necessarily mean the name was created at that time. It only means it was the first time anyone bothered writing it down. So, in theory, a name in Kantō could be hundreds of years old before anyone made a record of it that we still have.

[xiii] It’s not always the case, but when you get anecdotal stories, your BS Detector should start blinking; often times these stories reek of folk etymology.

[xiv] Even in that case, the document would have to be proven authentic and written by the person who named the place.

Fukagawa Shichi Fukujin

In Japanese Holidays, Japanese Shrines & Temples on January 6, 2014 at 5:14 pm

深川七福神巡り
Fukagawa Shichi Fukujin Meguri (Walking Tour of the Fukugawa 7 Gods of Good Luck)

The Fukagawa 7 Fukujin Course

The Fukagawa 7 Fukujin Course

I hope everyone had a safe and happy (and delicious) winter holiday. I’ve been out of the country and haven’t updated JapanThis! for a few weeks. Did you miss me?[i]

At the beginning of every new year, Mrs. JapanThis and I do a traditional walking tour of the 七福神 shichi fukujin the seven gods of good luck. There are shichi fukujin walks all over Japan. This kind of pilgrimage[ii] seems to have begun in the late Muromachi Period (1333-1573)[iii]. The practice was brought from Kansai to Kantō and grew in popularity during the Edo Period when most of the old temples and shrines associated with the 7 gods of good luck had become settled. Prior to the Edo Period, the exact set of deities wasn’t standardized. This lack of standardization has resulted in some shichi fukujin walks including an 8th deity of varying provenance. Occasionally, you’ll actually see a 八福神巡り hachi fukujin meguri walking tour of the 8 gods of good luck. But more often than not, these are a distinct set of 7 deities and when represented in a group, they should be immediately recognizable by any Japanese person[iv]. Anyways, as most of the shichi fukujin pilgrimages became settled in the Edo Period and the popularity of these walks during the new year holiday increased, it should be no surprise that most of these are found in the heart of Edo. There are more than 20 possible shichi fukujin walks in Tōkyō alone[v].

Tōkyōites walk a lot, but in the Edo Period, people walked everywhere and for much greater distances – even in the dead of winter. An average pilgrimage in Tōkyō will require anywhere from 2 to 3½ hours of walking. Every route is unique, but generally people do it from Jan. 1st to Jan. 6th[vi]. Each route is well-organized and you can buy 七福神色紙 shichi fukujin shikishi stamp board for about 1000 (roughly $10) and at each stop you can get a stamp for 100 or 200 (roughly $1 or $2). Temples and shrines that are not major destinations are usually closed except for special events, so the week or two after the new year is big business for them. That’s why the routes are well-marked with flags and there are maps available everywhere.

Shikishi are decorate pieces of cardboard used to collect signatures for special events. Here you can see the name of each shrine/temple in black and then a red ink stamp pressed over it confirming that you actually visited the temple/shrine. At the bottom, in gold, you can see the 7 gods of good luck riding on the the takarabune "treasure ship."  Awwwww yeah.

Shikishi are decorate pieces of cardboard used to collect signatures for special events.
Here you can see the name of each shrine/temple in black and then a red ink stamp pressed over it confirming that you actually visited the temple/shrine.
At the bottom, in gold, you can see the 7 gods of good luck riding on the the takarabune “treasure ship.”
Awwwww yeah.

Today is the first day that most Japanese companies started work after the holiday, so there were two kinds of people we mostly encountered: salarymen and old people. As it was the first day back at work for most Japanese companies, people are still feeling pretty lazy and any excuse to get out of the office and walk around is welcome and so groups of co-workers tend to be permitted to visit a shrine near the office to pray for success in business. I doubt they’re allowed to do the whole shichi fukujin meguri, but visiting a shrine dedicated to a god of good luck makes much more sense than visiting a shrine for, say, 安産 anzan safe delivery of babies. There are lots of old people because… well, they don’t have to work and Japan is just crawling with old people anyways.

I’m not going to go into detail about each of the 7 gods because you can look them up in Wikipedia or here is a nice description of them. But I am going to list each of the 7 gods and the shrine or temple with which they are affiliated. Now, I say affiliated because many times these gods are not the main deity venerated at a certain temple or shrine – they may be part of a small shrine attached to another larger religious structure[vii]. As it so happens, except for 1 structure, most of the sites of the shichi fukujin in Fukagawa are very minor, simple buildings. They’re probably only open a few days a year to perform certain religious duties and the rest of the year, the family who owns the property is engaged in other work that has nothing to do with the temple/shrine[viii]. Keep in mind that this list is for Fukagawa only, the names of the temples and shrines of another course will be totally different.

Name

Domain

Shrine/Temple Name

Description

寿老人
Jurō-jin
longevity 深川神明宮
Fukagawa

Shinmei-gū
I always think of this guy as the bearded old man with a big head. This shrine participates in the famous Fukagawa Mizukake Festival.
大黒天
Daikokuten
amassing wealth, good harvest 円珠
Enju-in
Daikoku is one of the more famous of the shichi fukujin, but the temple in Fukagawa is TINY. Daikoku is enshrined in what is essentially a round Buddhist style shack.
恵比須神
Ebisu-jin
love & respect; bountiful food 富岡八幡宮
Tomioka

Hachiman-gū
This is one of the most important shrines in Edo-Tōkyō. I mentioned it here. However, the small shrine to Ebisu seems like an add-on. It’s located on the left, back-side of the main hall. Read more about the Tōkyō place name, Ebisu, here and here. Also, if I’m not mistaken, Ebisu is the only of the 7 gods of good luck who is of native Japanese origin.
布袋尊
Hotei-son
selflessness & generosity 深川稲荷神社
Fukagawa

Inari Jinja
This shrine is tiny. I think I’ve mentioned Inari before. Inari is generally an auspicious kami and shrines to this deity are all over Japan. It’s my understanding that the cult of Inari spread under the sankin-kōtai system because this kami was popular with daimyō. In the Edo Period, Inari became popular with the common people too.
毘沙門天
Bishamonten
risk taking; gambling 龍光院
Ryūkō-in
This is a tiny temple in a residential area that almost blends into the background. It looks just like any other modern building on the block.
弁財天
Benzaiten
being rich & famous; the glamorous life 冬木弁天堂
Fuyuki

Benten-dō
Another small shrine, but this one has an older, traditional feel. The name of the shrine is interesting. It literally means “Fuyuki’s place to venerate Benzaiten.” Fuyuki was the name of a family of lumber workers who supposedly lived here and had a small shrine to Benzaiten. Benzaiten is sometimes depicted as a slutty, music playing, and jealous bitch. It’s often said if couples visit her shrines together, she’ll get jealous and the couple will break up.
福禄寿
Fukurokuju
popularity, happiness & prosperity 心行寺
Shingyō-ji
This temple is doing its own Buddhist thing, but has a small “shack” dedicated to the veneration of Fukurokuju. It seems like they only open it for viewing a few times a year, including the new year holiday.

So, as I said earlier, Mrs. JapanThis and I have done many shichi fukujin walks. This year we decided to do the Fukagawa Shichi Fukujin Meguri. Fukagawa is a very shitamachi area and even boasts a fantastic museum called 深川江戸資料館 Fukagawa Edo Shiryōkan Fukagawa Edo Museum which reconstructs a block of Edo Period Fukagawa and brings a little bit of Edo to life – highly recommended. Because the area was in the heart of Edo, it wasn’t surprising to find out that it’s one of the easiest shichi fukujin courses. It took us no more than 2 hours to walk the whole thing. They started us at Monzen Nakachō Station[ix] and marked the entire path with flags so that we didn’t need any maps or any GPS (even if we did get lost, there were groups of old people being led by cute tour guides waving flags – they’re easy enough to follow).

Monzen-Nakacho

“Mon’naka” Station.
Every time I visit an area I’ve written about it’s like seeing an old friend.
Hello, old friend!

Then we entered Tomioka Hachiman-gū. At the entrance was a massive stone lantern. Its size reminded me of the Monster Lantern in Ueno Park – but the Monster Lantern is much bigger. Still, it’s pretty cool to see a stone lantern of this size. We ventured around to the left hand side of the 本殿 honden main hall of Tomioka Hachiman-gū and found a small grove with 3 stalls housing 3 kami, the middlemost kami was Ebisu.

The giant stone lantern at the entrance to Tomioka Hachimangu.

The giant stone lantern at the entrance to Tomioka Hachimangu.

The main hall of Tomioka Hachimangu!

The main hall of Tomioka Hachimangu!
Notice the group of salarymen walking together.

The torii that leads to the shrine dedicated to Ebisu.

The torii that leads to the shrine dedicated to Ebisu.

The actual shrine to Ebisu is basically a wooden shed behind Tomioka Hachimangu.

The actual shrine to Ebisu is basically a wooden shed behind Tomioka Hachimangu.

The next stop on the Fukagawa Shichi Fukujin Course is Fuyuki Benten-dō, home of Benzaiten, the only female kami (女神 megami) of the 7 gods of good luck. It’s a very small temple and today it was filled with old people standing around and looking very confused… until the tour guide told everyone to make a single file line and pay their respects. We got our stamp and got out of there as quickly as possible so as to beat all the old people to the next stops on our course.

IMG_3893

The shrine to Benzaiten is so small and the grounds so narrow that it is literally wedged between to small apartment buildings. If it weren’t for the flags announcing the 7 fukujin walk, you might not even notice it!

Next stop was Shingyō-ji where Fukurokuju-son is enshrined. The temple itself isn’t’t much to look at, but the interesting thing is the Buddhist style stall in which Fukurokuju is venerated, it’s a good example of syncretism in Japanese religion (ie; foreign religions like Buddhism naturally mixed with the native Shintōism).

Entrance to Shingyoji. Again, if you didn't know what you were looking for, you probably wouldn't even bat an eye at this temple.

Entrance to Shingyoji.
Again, if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you probably wouldn’t even bat an eye at this temple.

This is the shrine to Fukurokuju.  The shape of this structure is distinctly Buddhist.

This is the shrine to Fukurokuju.
The shape of this structure is distinctly Buddhist.

Here's a statue of the little bugger himself.

Here’s a statue of the little bugger himself.

Along the way, we passed a famous 和菓子屋 wagashi-ya Japanese sweets shop called 伊勢屋 Isei-ya. We picked up some 大福 daifuku and went on our merry way.

Iseya has been in business since 1907 (Meiji 40) and has quite a good reputation in Tokyo for quality Japanese sweets.

Iseya has been in business since 1907 (Meiji 40) and has quite a good reputation in Tokyo for quality Japanese sweets.

Our 4th stop was Enju-in which houses and enshrinement of Daikokuten. As I mentioned before, most of the shichi fukujin are commonly recognized when seen together, but separately, it may be hard to remember who is who. Ebisu, Benzaiten, and Daikokuten are the most recognizable, I think. Daikokuten’s gig is granting wealth – not just wealth, but ever accumulating wealth. There is a famous chain of “pawn shops[x]” called Daikokuya. The one near my house specializes in high end wallets and bags (Hermes, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, etc…), I can’t help but think there is a connection. Anyhoo, the temple itself is non-descript and if it hadn’t been for the flags lining the path, I might have had a hard time finding the place.

A paper lantern with the name "Daikokuten" written on it.

A paper lantern with the name “Daikokuten” written on it.

IMG_3903

Again, if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d probably never look twice at this temple.

During my winter vacation, I visited Arizona. Feeling a bit stir crazy one day, I took a 2 hour walk just to see what I could see – and I saw nothing. But walk for 10 minutes through the heart of Edo-Tōkyō and you’ll see lots of things! As we were moseying along, we stumbled across a solitary grave near an intersection. Turns out, this was the grave of Mamiya Rinzō. He was a map maker and a spy for the Tokugawa shōgunate. He made maps of northern Japan and the Kuril Isla— and wait, did you just say “spy?!

Yes, I did.

In 1826, the Dutch doctor and botanist, Phillip von Siebold was caught collecting maps of northern Japan (drawn by a member of the imperial court in Kyōto, no less). But the Tokugawa shōgunate was all about very limited access to the country[xi]. Furthermore, they insisted on keeping the imperial court out of the business of real politics and especially out of the limited international exchanges possible at the time. So this was quite a big deal to the government in Edo. Today, most of us look back at it and laugh but really this was some North Korea-style shit, right? Well, North Korea shit could get you killed but luckily for von Siebold, the shōgunate didn’t want to create an international riff, so they effectively deported him and that’s the end of story.

But who was the douchebag who told on von Siebold like a little bitch? Oh, it was Mamiya Rinzō from 水戸藩 Mito Han Mito Domain[xii]. Make what you will of that.

Grave of Mamiya Rinzo.

Grave of Mamiya Rinzo – Tattletale extraordinaire.

IMG_3906

Plaque in front of Rinzo’s grave.


Then, we moved on to Ryūkō-in. This is where Bishamonten is revered. It’s another less than memorable temple.

Ryūkō-in - yet another non-descript temple.

Ryūkō-in – yet another non-descript temple.

A makeshift sign for the season that says "Bishamonten."

A makeshift sign for the season that says “Bishamonten.”

After that, we headed to Fukagawa Inari Shrine to see Hotei-son. This shine is literally crammed into a tiny corner of a residential intersection. I bet this is the most action this place gets all year.

It's hardly fair to even call this a shrine.

It’s hardly fair to even call this a shrine.

Finally we hit up Shinmei-gū which was larger than the last few places, but not so big. They had their o-mikoshi (portable shrine) on display with pictures indicating that they participate in the mizukake matsuri which is generally spearheaded by Tomioka Hachiman-gū[xiii].

Torii and entrance to Shinmeigū. The premises were quite large, but the architecture and space weren't much to look at.

Torii and entrance to Shinmeigū. The premises were quite large, but the architecture and space weren’t much to look at.

So, having done quite a few shichi fukujin walks, I was really looking forward to the Fukagawa walk because it’s so famous. But it was a bit of a letdown compared to the others. The highlights were definitely Tomioka Hachiman-gū (because of its size and importance to Edo-Tōkyō) and the grave of Mamiya Rinzō (which just pissed me off). But all in all, I got a lot of good exercise, quality time with Mrs. JapanThis, and best of all, I got a future place name to research. Check this shit out:

Bakuroyokoyama FTW!!!

Bakuroyokoyama FTW!!!

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[i] It’s a rhetorical question; I don’t need my inboxes flooded with “no” e-mails.

[ii] For lack of a better word.

[iii] This is the most liberal reckoning I can think of for this era. Various scholars will assign different dates for the beginning of the Muromachi Period depending on how they are trying to frame certain topics. I probably won’t even mention the Muromachi Period again in this article, so let’s leave it at that for now.

[iv] And I reckon most foreigners who have spent a few years in Japan would recognize them too.

[v] And according to Wikipedia, there are at least 10 more in the Kantō area.

[vi] Some routes are officially open as late as Jan. 15th.

[vii] Not unlike in Europe where a church may be dedicated to a certain saint, but the relics or bodies of various other saints and holy people may be also be located on the premises.

[viii] That is too say, they have a real 9-5 most of the time.

[ix] Again, if you’re interested in the etymology of the place name Monzen Nakachō, I recommend you read my article here.

[x] Again, for lack of a better word.

[xi] Some say it was 開国 sakoku a closed country, others say it was under 海禁 kaikin a policy of limited access by sea.

[xii] The same Mito Domain that produced Mito Gaku and the grand douche daimyō extraordinaire, Tokugawa Nariaki. Oh yes, Mito Han. JapanThis! loves to hate on Mito Han almost as much as Satsuma and Chōshū.

[xiii] More about this next summer…

What does Asakusa mean?

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

浅草
Asakusa (Low Grass)

Senso-ji at night

Senso-ji at night

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

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

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

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

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

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

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

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

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

The Story So Far…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

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

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

This

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

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

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

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

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

Kabuki

Kabuki

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

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

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

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

Yoshiwara

Yoshiwara

Then WWII happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, let’s get down to the biz nasty.

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

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

浅草寺 Sensō-ji
浅草寺 Sensō-ji

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

Same Kanji, Different Readings

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

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

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

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

Look at the Kanji

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

asa ain’t nuthin’ goin’ on
kusa grass

OK, so what do the kanji tell us?

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

浅草 asa kusa shameful/bald grass

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

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


These are references to other types of vegetation in the area

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

Two other etymologies are circulating.

Ainu

アツアクサ atsu akusa cross over the sea

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

Tibetan

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

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

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

So that’s Asakusa, bitches.

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

What does Okachimachi mean?

In Japanese History on June 19, 2013 at 2:42 am

御徒町
O-kachimachi (Kachi Town)

okachimachi-station

In former castle towns all over Japan you can find areas with similar names.

So what exactly is a kachi?

Well, a 徒 kachi [i] is one of the lowest ranking samurai of the Edo Period. They were not permitted to ride horses[ii]. Until the 1800’s, they were not allowed to wear clothes with a family crest as their families were not considered successive clans[iii]. Some people draw a parallel between this rank of samurai and low level salarymen and low level management of Tōkyō – the analogy being in the type of housing and accessible neighborhoods according to their salary.  This isn’t a good analogy, in my opinion, in that the samurai ranks were highly regulated by the Tokugawa Bakufu and a modern worker can marry “out of his station” or just move to the suburbs and get a bigger place.

from the "incident in front of the sakuradomon" movie.

from the “incident in front of the sakuradomon” movie.

the work of a low level samurai is never done.

the work of a low level samurai is never done.
look how tired this dude is….

In more recent times this kanji has become associated with gangs and the yakuza, so, except for the station name in Tōkyō, the name “o-kachimachi” doesn’t exist in the official list of postal codes.

Even though these kachi were direct retainers of the shōgun, they were a kind of non-commissioned officer. They were expected to live in barracks[iv].  In many cases they wouldn’t be granted permission to live with their wives and children[v]. In times of war, they were forbidden from marching in the vanguard. In times of peace, they were basically the white trash of Japan. They were supposedly privileged, but in reality, they were just commoners. The commoners had to show deference to them, but the rest of the samurai elite probably shat on them.

okachimachi

This isn’t Tokyo’s Okachimachi, but another town’s Okachimachi.
Even the big merchant quarters were more lively than this.
The Meiji Era and WWII blew a new breath of life into Okachimachi.

Anyhoo, I’ve touched on this a bit in my ongoing[vi] piece on yamanote vs. shitamachi in Edo-Tōkyō. But areas of the castle town of Edo were sectioned off for people of certain ranks. This area was a border between the high town (yamanote) of Ueno and the low town (shitamachi). Today, the whole area from O-kachimachi to Ueno is considered the low town today.

This isn't O-kachimachi, but the layout it similar.

This isn’t O-kachimachi, but the layout it similar.

O-kachimachi is roughly located between Ueno Station and Akihabara. These were the outskirts of Edo at the time. It was a bad location when you had to walk everywhere. If you pay attention to the layout of the streets in O-kachimachi, at first you’ll notice what looks like an easily navigable grid layout, but you’ll soon find it has seemingly random streets crossing at various points creating sub-neighborhoods within the neighborhood. This is typical of Japanese castle towns and typical of Edo-Tōkyō in particular. So it’s still a fantastic area to walk around.

The long blocks echo the existence of the Edo Period barracks (nagaya). And today the area has a markedly shitamachi culture that has persisted since the mid-Meiji Era. Nothing exists of its military past, but the shitamachi atmosphere hangs heavy, as does the merchant vibe that has reigned here since the Restoration was underway. The samurai who stuck around mostly became merchants themselves after the warrior class was abolished.

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[i] Also written 徒士, and referred to in the common language as 御徒さん o-kachi-san, though the more polite 御侍さん o-samurai-san would probably have been used to their face.

[ii] I mentioned briefly referred to the Edo Period view of people on horseback in my article about Heusken.

[iii] This changed in 1862 (Tokugawa Iemochi), who made their status as Tokugawa retainers successive.

[iv] In Edo, these were less barracks, and essentially the same as the ubiquitous 長屋 nagaya. So it was a step up from a fully military setting. Still, you were living in a gated off dormitory kinda building with a bunch of other dudes. After a while, I’m sure it got old.

[v] In which cases, they could visit on their days off and they would be expected to send money wife and children who would reside with the parents.

[vi] Read: “unfininished.”

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