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What does Yotsugi mean?

In Japanese History on November 12, 2015 at 5:08 am

Yotsugi (4 trees)

Yotsugi Station

So sorry for the long break. October, November, and December are my busiest times of the year at work. The good thing about this season is I actually economize my writing time and my articles. For most of the year it’s a free for all and I just go crazy. I thought this article would be really brief, but it turned into a monster. Better yet, I think I’ve found some more specific locations to explore as a result.

So What Slowed Me Down This Time

Honestly, I’m re-watching Twin Peaks since the first time it originally aired when I was in high school lol. Family stuff. Work stuff. Yada yada yada.

Culture Day also Slowed me Down

Hell, on October 4th it was 文化の日 Bunka no Hi Culture Day and I had a half day, so I went crazy. I couldn’t stand another minute in the office and the only way I could take in some Japanese Culture was to go see a movie by myself[i]. So I watched We Are Perfume. As a pretty dedicated fan for about 9-10 years, I think it was time and money well-spent. It wasn’t history, but it was nice to just have fun and got me thinking a lot about how Japanese culture has and hasn’t changed over the centuries. The film is a documentary about their 3rd so-called “world tour” and so it focuses on how Perfume is received abroad[ii] and how the group experienced their appreciation and fame abroad. As the only foreigner in the theater, I could sense how Japanese people were looking out at the world with fascination at fans from Taiwan, Singapore, Los Angeles, New York, and London. All of these fans were looking right back, trying to get a glimpse of some aspect of Japan.

Here on JapanThis!, I think a lot of the same thing happens. If web stats are anything to go by (and they are), there are a lot of people from Japan looking to see how foreigners view their history. There are also a lot of foreigners wanting to learn more about Japan. I find this mutual fascination very comforting – beautiful, really. If there’s ever any hope for world peace and understanding, it’s through mutual respect and understanding. Maybe Perfume is some aspect of disposable pop culture. But, hey, samurai were disposable, too. They gave it a good run, but you don’t see them around anymore, do you?

Anyhoo, I’m not gonna ramble on anymore about how I tried to justify my use of Culture Day by watching a documentary about Perfume that set me back $25[iii]. But I did do some reflection on the context of Japanese history and everything I know about Japanese Culture in its various fluctuations over time. And I’m pretty sure the first shōgun 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu would not only be totally WTFed by this movie – he would have totally been #TeamKashiyuka.

On the left, you can see the Sumida River. In the middle, the Arakawa and Ayase Rivers. On the right, the Nakagawa. Come back to this map later and you'll see more familiar faces.

On the left, you can see the Sumida River. In the middle, the Arakawa and Ayase Rivers. On the right, the Nakagawa. Come back to this map later and you’ll see more familiar faces.

Sorry For All That. Now, Let’s Get Down to Bidness.

Today, we’re talking about an area of Tōkyō that isn’t so famous. Tōkyōites know about it, but probably just as a train station. The area is called 四ツ木 Yotsugi and is located in 葛飾区 Katsushika-ku Katsushika Ward and it lies between 中川 Nakagawa (literally, the “Middle River”) and the parallel stretch of the 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa River and 綾瀬川 Ayase-gawa Ayase River. Long time readers may recognize the area due to its proximity to お花茶屋 Ohanajaya, 宝町 Takaramachi, and 曳舟 Hikifune. It’s also not very far from 向島 Mukōjima and 浅草 Asakusa.

Wanna read more?

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

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

History of Yotsugi

The earliest mention of Yotsugi is an inscription[iv] on a statue of 聖徳太子 Shōtoku Taishi at 西光寺 Saikō-ji. The statue has the presumably authentic date of 1341 written on it[v]. This is roughly 140 years after Minamoto no Yoritomo’s death so let’s put some things into perspective, namely why is Yoritomo even relevant to the story? He may or may not be, but when he became the first shōgun of the 3 great shōgunates[vi], his government put Kantō on the map – politically and economically speaking. Edo was just a fishing village at the time, but the proximity to the shōgunal capital of Kamakura was a massive boon to tiny villages in the area. By 1341, power had transferred back to Kyōto in western Japan with the establishment of the 室町幕府 Muromachi Bakufu Ashikaga Shōgunate. 140 years had passed and the prestige of Kantō was diminished.

The earliest surviving textual mention of Yotsugi comes to us from 1398 (Muromachi Period) in a document called 下総国葛西御厨注文  Shimōsa no Kuni Kasai Mikuri Chūmon Shimōsa Province’s Kasai Mikuri Annotation [vii]. It references a place called 四ツ木新田村 Yotsugi-Shinden Mura Yotsugi-Shinden Village.


In the Edo period, this area was primarily agricultural – fields and trees as far as the eye could see. It fell under the administration of 江戸葛飾郡 Edo Katsushika-gun Katsushika District, Edo area. Yotsugi was technically under the direct control of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, but administration was handled by various organs of the shōgunate over the almost 250 years of Tokugawa control. These ranged from 町奉行 machi bugyō[viii] to 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun to 大名 daimyō lords controlling the bordering 藩 han domains – but more often than not, the administrators were high ranking hatamoto.

It lay along the 本所上水 Honjo Jōsui Honjo Clean Water Aqueduct, which was later known as the 葛西用水 Kasai Yōsui Kasai Aqueduct[ix] or more popularly as the 曳舟川 Hikifune-gawa Hikifune River. The site where the Hikifune River and Ayase-gawa intersected offered a scenic riverside view that Edoites cherished. This spot was where the Hikifune Towpath began.



Because of its proximity to the shōgun’s capital and its scenic beauty, it was a popular destination for Edoites who wanted to get out of the city for a day or two. The most popular destinations were the religious institutions of 西光寺 Saikō-ji, 客人大権現Maroudo Daigongen (modern 渋江白髭神社 Shibue Shirahige Jinja Shibue Shriahige Shrine), 木下川薬師 Kinoshita-gawa Yakushi (modern 浄光寺 Senkō-ji), and 柴又帝釈天Shibamata Taishakuten. With the exception of Shibamata Taishakuten, these temples (and one shrine) are pretty minor, but in the Edo Period they were quite important. Each site is pretty interesting in its own right, so I may come back to them in a later article – especially if you guys are interested in that.

Shibamata Taishakuten

Shibamata Taishakuten

During the Meiji Period, the area remained rural and agricultural – it was more or less unchanged from the Edo Period. However, in 1912 (Taishō 1), 四ツ木駅 Yotsugi Eki Yotsugi Station was built. This made the area accessible and factories that wanted to take advantage of the space, cheap land, and access to rivers for distribution and “waste disposal[x]” were set up in the area. It’s around this time that the area became famous for the production of celluloid[xi].

Old Yotsugibashi

Old Yotsugibashi

In 1922, a wooden bridge called 四ツ木橋 Yotsugibashi Yotsugi Bridge was built across the Arakawa River linking 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward and 葛飾区 Katsushika-ku Katsushika Ward. In the chaos following the 1923 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake, the 旧四ツ木橋 Kyū-Yotsugibashi Former Yotsugi Bridge – as it’s known today – was the site of wanton racist attacks against Chinese and Koreans living on the Sumida Ward side of the bridge. Apparently, some Tōkyōites blamed them for the earfquake or just took advantage of the chaos to indulge their own fucked up racism.  At any rate, another wooden bridge was soon built and life went on as usual.

View of Sumida Ward/Tokyo Sky Tree and Yotsugibashi from Katsushika Ward.

View of Sumida Ward/Tokyo Sky Tree and Yotsugibashi from Katsushika Ward.

In the post-WWII years, the area rapidly urbanized. City historians cite the building of a new 四ツ木橋 Yotsugibashi Yotsugi Bridge in 1952 as making urbanization possible. Prior to the post-war era, cars were relatively rare in Tōkyō – trains and trolleys were the norm. The new bridge was a modern truss bridge made of steel that allowed automobile traffic to cross the Arakawa in this area. The area’s agricultural heritage began to fade quickly.

In 1964, the name was changed from 四ツ木 Yotsugi to 四つ木 Yotsugi and astute readers will note that the only change was orthographic:  katakana ツ tsu became hiragana つ tsu.

Hikifune Hydrophilic Park

Hikifune River Hydrophilic Park today

In 1989, during the Bubble Economy, the 曳舟川 Hikifune-gawa Hikifune River was filled in due to pollution and presumably to use it as a sewer. The remaining marshes that surrounded the river also became landfill. By 2000, the only left over bit of this once scenic Edo Period day trip spot was present-day 曳舟川親水公園 Hikifune-gawa Sunsui Kōen the Hikifune River Hydrophilic Park.

Let’s Take a Look at the Kanji




Not kanji, but a syllabary character used to indicate pronunciation.

ki, gi


In Pre-Modern Japan, there weren’t writing standards as we would recognize them today[xii], so the place name was written as 四木, 四つ木, or 四ツ木 – all read “Yotsugi” or “Yottsugi.” The final variant was the most common in the Edo Period because the first variant was ambiguous as to pronunciation[xiii].

Unfortunately, due to the seemingly mundane nature of the kanji, the origin of this place name is either a just mystery or could be one of the most boring place names ever. That said, we do know that the area appeared on Pre-Meiji maps as Yotsugi Shinden Mura, which literally means Yotsugi New Field Village.

lets etymology

Theory 1: The Trees Did It

There used to be 4 tall pine trees in the center of the village.

This is the simplest and most literal attempt at an etymology. It’s hard to disprove without corroborating evidence and it’s impossible to prove without corroborating evidence. That said, roads, trains, or routes in general can be counted with ~本hon/-bon/-pon. So, while the kanji looks like 4 trees, it could be 4 routes – which we’ll get to a little later.

We have no paintings or literary references to 4 huge trees in the area from any point in history, so I’m gonna have to say this is iffy. It’s not impossible, but there’s just no way to prove it one way or the other.

Founder of the Kamakura Shōgunate and Unlucky Guy With Horses, Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Founder of the Kamakura Shōgunate and Unlucky Guy With Horses, Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Theory 2: Minamoto no Yoritomo Did It

This theory is actually 3 interpretations of the same story.

First, there’s a legend from the Edo Period that 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo passed through the area 4 times coming and going on various expeditions to put down resistance of the 藤原氏 Fujiwara-shi Fujiwara clan. According to this theory the name is derived from 四ツ過ぎ yottsu sugi the 4 passes through the village.

Second, in coincidence with the previous etymology, this theory often claims that as Yoritomo’s army was composed of various samurai warlords who supported him with their armies, this was the most convenient spot to meet. They came from various regions and converged upon this area, camped out, resupplied, and then moved on to battle. Therefore 四ツ過ぎ yottsu sugi actually means “4 armies passed through” or “4 armies passed through on 4 roads.” The idea of four roads leading to this area stands up to a point – after all, the 古東海道 Ko-Tōkaidō Ancient Tōkaidō Highway passed through here[xiv]. However, no one seems to agree on which roads are referenced in the name.

Lastly, another interpretation of this theory is that Yoritomo and his army passed through the small village at 四ツ過ぎ yottsu sugi just past the 4th hour. Prior to the adoption of the western hour, the Japanese used temporal hours. That is to say, the “hours” were of unequal lengths that varied throughout the seasons[xv]. The 4th hour was more commonly called 巳 hebi the hour of the snake[xvi]. If my sources are to be trusted, the meaning of “just past the 4th hour” means “roughly after 10 AM.”

Passing through the village 4 times might be possible, but I don’t have access to records that record Yoritomo coming to Edo 4 times. I’ll have to defer to Yoritomo nerd out there. But even if he did, I just don’t think people would name a village after that unless he established a shrine or something one of those times – and I can’t find any evidence of that, either. Also the reference to 4 armies is ambiguous so again, I’ll defer to the Yoritomo nerds on this one.

And while the 4 routes theory seems reasonable, the lack of agreement on which roads these would have actually been makes that theory questionable at best. Naming a village after the approximate time a bad ass samurai warlord strolled through town in an era when the chances of a bad ass samurai warlord marching through any given place were reasonably high, seems tenuous at best.

Wanna read more about Yoritomo in Edo?

shotoku taishi

It may be made of 4 kinds of wood – hard to tell from the picture – but it’s also made of metal.

Theory 3: Shōtoku Taishi Did It

Long time readers will know about 聖徳太子 Shōtoku Taishi Imperial Crown Prince Shōtoku or Shōtoku the Great Teacher. He was an imperial prince and one of first great propagators of Buddhism in Japan. He lived during the Asuka Period[xvii].

In 四つ木一丁目 Yotsugi Icchō-me 1st Block of Yotsugi, there is a temple called 西光寺 Saikō-ji Saikō Temple. The temple was established in 1225 at the beginning of the Kamakura Period and as far as written records go, it pre-dates the first record of the place name Yotsugi by about 100 years. Saikō-ji claims to have statue of Shōtoku Taishi that is made of a unique combination of four kinds of wood. In Japanese 木 ki means both “tree” and “wood,” thus they say the name is a reference to this revered Buddhist statue.

That’s all well and good, but time and time again we see temples claiming to be the namesake of an area when in fact, the place names pre-date the temples. Some objects in those temples match the place name by coincidence or have been deliberately manufactured to match the place name. In any case, I find this etymology highly dubious.

This is the Japanese word for "heir, successor" - yotsugi. It's one of the most generic words you can imagine.

This is the Japanese word for “heir, successor” – yotsugi. It’s one of the most generic words you can imagine.

Theory 4: A Truly Half-Assed Folk Etymology

A noble family’s 世継 yotsugi heir lived here. See what they did there? Yotsugi and yotsugi are homonyms.

I’ve come across a lot of stupid folk etymologies[xviii] over the years of doing this blog and this one falls into the top 5. This is like getting a place name like “Trust Fund Hill.” Sure, it’s possible, but it’s just too vague for me. Without a family name a reason for them to be here, this reeks of people just making up shit.

A 4-way intersection in West Tōkyō.

A 4-way intersection in West Tōkyō.

Theory 5: The 4 Roads Did It

This theory posits that the original reading was a 四辻 yotsu tsuji 4-way intersection – or possibly 4 intersections. This ties back into part of the theory about Minamoto no Yoritomo.

In ancient times, there was an intersection of 官道 kandō provincial highways in the area – or so the story goes. Kandō were established under the 律令制 ritsuryō-sei ritsuryō system in the 600’s based on the Chinese model and the word literally means “government road.” The kandō would later evolve into the 街道 kaidō highways that most people associate with Pre-Modern Japan – the Edo Period in particular. The term kaidō is even still used today when referring to old highways that survived into the Modern Period.

In the Yoritomo Did It Theory, the number 4 and the idea of 4 roads was a persistent theme. This theory asserts that certain aspects of those theories are true but suggests that the name may actually date back to at least the Heian Period or earlier. Having 4 kandō in the area (or a whopping 4 major intersections of 8 roads, depending on which interpretation you choose), would definitely be something special. Trade would be massive and travelers and armies passing through the area would be a constant source of income. You can see how a place might come to be called Yotsu Tsuji since that the area’s defining characteristic.

In Yoritomo’s time, there may not have been 4 great highways in the area anymore. It’s actually unclear if there ever were, but the one fact we do know is that in 1341 we find the first record the place name. It is written as 四木 with the character for “4” and “tree.”

There's a Yotsutsugi Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

There’s a Yotsutsugi Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

This is actually the best theory that I’ve come across. It’s pretty believable and there are place names all over Japan based on the kanji 辻 tsuji crossing. It’s not unreasonable to imagine Yotsutsuji getting contracted to Yotsuji in the local dialect since the /tsutsu/ in the middle is awkward. A phonetic change from YotsutsujiYottsujiYotsuji[xix] seems fairly consistent with Modern Japanese slang, dialects, and even the slurred speech drunk old men. I don’t see why a similar transformation couldn’t happen in older versions of the language.

The only problem? There’s no agreement on the exact routes that existed here from 600-1200 in the area. Furthermore, the just because the theory suggests kandō, any street or path can intersect with another one. This could be a reference to really minor routes. The area was always rural until quite recently[xx] and that’s probably the reason we never hear about the great trading village of Yotsugi. But again, if it’s a particularly ancient name, it might have just had its boom when no one was taking things seriously Kantō, the roads fell into disuse, and only the name remained with new kanji because there were no long 4 intersections to speak of.

Wanna check out another intersection place name?

Wanna read about the 5 Great Roads of Edo?

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[i] It was my first time to see a movie by myself. But Japanese people travel abroad and watch movies and karaoke by themselves a lot recently, so I was OK with it. But still, that first time is a little scary or embarrassing.
[ii] Japanese people tend to be shocked that anyone understands them. That said, god damn, foreign Perfume fans are a bunch of fucking weeaboos. Ewwww.
[iii] Yes, it fucking costs 2000円 ($20 USD) to see a freakin’ movie in Tōkyō.
[iv] This is called epigraphic evidence in diachronic linguistics as compared to textual or manuscript evidence.
[v] The actual date in Japanese is 暦応4念7月5日 Ryakuō yon nen shigatsu no itsuka 5th day of the 7th month of the 7th year of Ryakuō.
[vi] The Kamakura Shōgunate (headed by the Minamoto and Hōjō clans), the Muromachi Shōgunate/Ashikaga Shōgunate (headed by the Ashikaga clan), and the Tokugawa Shōgunate/Edo Shōgunate (headed by the Tokugawa clan).
[vii] The name 下総国葛西御厨 Shimōsa no Kuni Kasai Mikuri Kasai Mikuri, Shimōsa Province refers to an area of Kasai. The last word 注文 chūmon usually means “order” as in “order at a restaurant,” but it has a secondary meaning of “explanatory text.” Not sure what chūmon means in this context. This document came up in 2014, in my article on Kameari.
[viii] Here’s a quick explanation about machi bugyō.
[ix] 上水 jōsui, literally “high grade water,” refers to aqueducts that supplied drinking water. 用水 yōsui, literally “usable water,” refers to aqueducts that supplied water for irrigation, washing, firefighting, and general use.
[x] Read: “pollution.”
[xi] Celluloid is a tough, highly flammable substance consisting essentially of cellulose nitrate and camphor. It’s used in the manufacture of motion-picture film, x-ray film, and other products.
[xii] And to be honest, even in modern Japanese, there is so much flexibility that people exploit the looseness of spelling for humor or slang all the time.
[xiii] Without the kana ツ tsu, the name could be read: Shiki, Shigi, Shimoku, Yonhon, Yotsuki, Yotsugi, or possibly by some other regional variants. And why the katakana character was more prevalent than the hiragana character is a mystery. I can only speculate that the katakana was easier to write because the brush strokes were more similar to the cursive style of kanji and therefore more quickly written.
[xiv] On JapanThis!, I often reference the 東海道 Tōkaidō the Eastern Sea Route of the Edo Period. In Modern Japanese, this Edo Period highway is referred to as the 旧東海道 Kyū-Tōkaidō the Old Tōkaidō or Former Tōkaidō. The 古東海道 Ko-Tōkaidō Ancient Tōkaidō is a slightly different route. Vast stretches were abandoned over the years as the Tōkaidō was made more efficient by centuries of successive logistical demands.
[xv] ie; western hours were equally 60 minutes each and did not change with the seasons.
[xvi] This kanji is from the Chinese zodiac. The usual kanji for snake in Japanese is 蛇 hebi. People often translate this as “the hour of the serpent” because it sounds more classical, I guess. But same difference.
[xvii] I’m not going to get into his story because I have many times before. Here’s my break down of Japanese Eras. And here’s Shōtoku Taishi’s story. If you want to know more, I suggest you check those out.
[xviii] Folk etymology is when people just take a guess at the history of the word without paleographic or scientific inquiry.
[xix] Bear in mind, this is completely hypothetical on my part.
[xx] And by recently, I mean the last 100 years.

What does Taishido mean?

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

Taishi-dō (Taishi Hall)

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

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

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

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

Let's go!

Let’s go!


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

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


Long Story, Short

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


Long Story, Long

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

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

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

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


Who the Hell is Shōtoku Taishi?

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

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

Shotoku Taishi. Notice the archaic hairstyle and clothing.

Shotoku Taishi. Notice the archaic hairstyle and clothing.

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

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

Stupidest system for identifying rank ever

Stupidest system for identifying rank ever

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

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

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

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


About the Area and the Temple

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

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

Two Koshin statues housed inside a hollowed tree.

Two Koshin statues housed inside a hollowed tree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

88 Holy Places

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

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

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


The Supermonk

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

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


Kūkai the Superskunk.

Kūkai the Superskunk.


Spreading Buddhism & Writing Reform

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

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

Katakana didn't happen overnight...

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


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

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


Closing the Book on Setagaya

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


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

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