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The History of Hanami

In Japanese History on April 4, 2017 at 8:01 am

hanami (cherry blossom viewing, but literally “looking at flowers”)


I was recently asked to write an article about the history of 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing, which I was happy to look into. Although I had a broad understanding of this uniquely Japanese tradition – and one of my favorite aspects about living in Japan – I’d never really researched the subject in depth. Needless to say, going all JapanThis! on a non-history website or publication isn’t always appropriate[i], but I was super excited when they agreed to publish the stripped down, 650-word version while allowing me to publish the extended 12” remix here for you guys.

So, without further ado, here’s the history of hanami.

china plum blossom

Chinese courtiers enjoying plum blossoms and crappy plum wine. Sorry, I can’t drink plum wine. It’s so nasty.

The Classical Origins of Hanami

If we take the word literally, hanami just means “looking at flowers.” It’s a Japanese word that falls into a broad category of “looking at things” words – two other famous examples might be 月見 tsukimi moon viewing and 富士見 fujimi Mt. Fuji viewing[ii].

In a world without TV or movies, bored humans have always found ways to entertain themselves. And, as is the case in most cultures, while the poor were toiling in the fields, the rich built lush private gardens. In the West, this happened in the Roman Empire. In the East, this happened in Ancient China. The Chinese were particularly enamored with the fragrant plum blossoms – an equally beautiful flower, but much heartier and less vibrant than 桜 sakura cherry blossoms.

gokusui en

Gokusui no En was a typical Heian Period poetry even linked to seasonal changes practiced by the Northern Fujiwara clan. This one is recreated once a year in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture. It wasn’t a sakura-centric event but definitely influenced by China and was focused on seasonal events like hanami in the literal sense of “looking at flowers.”

When the imperial court was based in Nara in the 700’s, local aristocrats would read Chinese poems celebrating the transient beauty of plum blossoms. In their gardens, each flower’s location became a new venue for poetry writing events or places to engage in other artistic endeavors, such as calligraphy, flower arrangement, and painting. The most common flowers were wisteria[iii], plum blossoms, peach blossoms, and ultimately cherry blossoms which were treasured for their brief yet brilliant bloom. By the Heian Period, the term hanami had become synonymous with cherry blossom viewing specifically, and not just flower viewing in general.


Toyotomi Hideyoshi at one of his final hanami events in Kyōto before his death.

The Heian Period, as I’m sure you’re aware, essentially ended with the rise of the samurai class. Eventually, in the 1500’s, a warlord named 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified the country. He sought to legitimize the samurai – not just as warriors, but as protectors of aristocratic cultural practices. It’s here that we first find paintings of high ranking samurai, called 大名 daimyō, enjoying hanami – placing themselves on par with the imperial court. Hideyoshi encouraged the warriors to engage in other arts such as poetry, tea ceremony, and flower arrangement.


Hanami in the Premodern Era

Hideyoshi failed to establish a lasting dynasty, but his ideas of promoting cultural practices of the court among the samurai was a success. When Japan’s most stable warrior government was formally established in Edo in 1603 by 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu, hanami was an inherent aspect of the elite culture in peace time. But the Tokugawa Shōgunate took things a step further. They began planting cherry blossoms in Ueno, where you could visit the magnificent mausoleums of the shōguns. This vast religious center was open to the public and would become Ueno Park in modern times. Daimyō from other parts of Japan brought the concept of public cherry blossom viewing spaces from Edo back to their respective domains.

shogun harem hanami chiyoda castle edo castle tokugawa

Ladies of the shōgun’s harem enjoying hanami on the expansive grounds of Edo Castle, once the largest castle in the world – a city within a city.

This brought hanami to the commoners. Kabuki and entertainment in the pleasure quarters were looked down upon by the shōgunate as morally questionable, but enjoying cherry blossoms was good clean fun and people of any rank could enjoy it if they had access to the trees. Of course, some of the best groves where behind the high walls of the palaces of the feudal lords in Edo and of shōgun’s castle in particular, but temples, shrines, and common spaces were open to all.

gotenyama hanami.jpg

One of my favorite ukiyo-e of all time, two groups of women doing hanami on Goten’yama. You can see Shinagawa below, the calm waters of Edo Bay below, and the ever present boats on premodern Japan’s busiest harbor. Looking out at the bay must have seemed like looking at the end of the world – and by that I mean the Pacific Ocean and modern Chiba Prefecture.

Furthermore, large scale planting of sakura in Edo in places like 御殿山 Goten’yama[iv], 飛鳥山 Asukayama[v], 道灌山 Dōkan’yama[vi], and other famous spots provided public spaces where anyone could enjoy the beautiful pink blossoms. Even Yoshiwara, the moated and sequestered red light district had streets lined with cherry blossoms. The tradition of 夜桜 yo-zakura, or nighttime sakura viewing, is generally thought to have origins in Yoshiwara and similar Edo Period red light districts because businesses stayed open late and used lanterns to maximum effect to make their shops seems more attractive at night, especially during the short cherry blossom season. While usually men frequented the pleasure quarters, wives and daughters often came to enjoy the illuminated trees and try to catch a glimpse of the courtesans in their flashy kimono. Anyone who has enjoyed yo-zakura knows there’s a dramatic difference between daytime hanami and nighttime hanami.

yoshiwara night hanami

Nighttime hanami in Yoshiwara. You can see the lanterns illuminating the trees. Also, notice the guy covering his head. Men of prominent positions in the community, while allowed to – and often expected to – have concubines, were discouraged by the shōgunate from going to red light districts like the Yoshiwara. They often covered their heads to avoid recognition. But, of course, they went. Because oiran!!! Who wouldn’t?!!💛

With the great Tokugawa Peace came re-branding. The samurai, traditionally warriors, now found themselves with no wars to fight – essentially functioning as bureaucrats. In order to legitimize their function in society, they were expected to be living examples of Japanese morality and behavior for all of society beneath them to admire and emulate. A proverb arose: 花は桜木、人は武士 hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi as for flowers, there are sakura – as for men, there are samurai. On the surface, this simply means the greatest of flowers are cherry blossoms and the greatest of men are samurai. But there’s another meaning; it’s a reference to the warrior tradition and the expectation of samurai to commit 切腹 seppuku hara kiri/ritual disembowelment for failing to live honorably. A samurai’s life may seem noble and poetic – a thing of beauty, if you will – but at any moment he may be cut down in battle or asked to give his life. Therefore, the life of a samurai was likened to the sakura. He is beautiful, but fleeting. Likewise, a strong storm or sudden frost might ruin all the cherry blossoms, ending the season early. The link between samurai and sakura persists to this day, and commonly comes up in historical movies and TV dramas.


Seppuku Fun™

After the Meiji Coup in 1868, the new government embarked on a decade’s long modernization initiative. One of the biggest changes to Japanese society was the abolition of the caste system, including the samurai. There were some in the new government who lobbied – unsuccessfully, luckily – for the removal of sakura from places associated with the Tokugawa and the samurai, such as Ueno and Edo Castle because of the strong connection between the samurai and cherry blossoms. In the end, cooler heads prevailed and as the concept of public parks was introduced, hanami was rebranded as a pan-Japanese tradition that dated back to the heyday of the imperial family during the Heian Period. In fact, to many westerners who learned about Japan through postcards and movements like Japonisme and Orientalism, Japan was often reduced to imagery of Mt. Fuji, geisha, and cherry blossoms.

Further Reading:

ueno daibutsu.jpg

The Great Buddha of Edo. It was destroyed in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake and had been a minor spot in Ueno Park until quite recently. Now it’s famous with Asian tourists, even though most Tōkyōites don’t even know it exists.

Modern Hanami

In the 1880’s and early 1900’s, newspapers began announcing famous spots for hanami and recommending the best times to go. The blooming of sakura coincided with the newly established school year, and companies latched on to this cycle to welcome in new hires and reinforce the commitment of existing workers’ dedication to the organization. In this way, the sakura became a symbol of birth and rebirth, rather than the fleeting existence of the samurai.

shinjuku gyoen.gif

As horticulture and the art of garden construction incorporated new scientific discoveries, public parks and botanical gardens soon learned that they could extend the hanami season by planting two to three varieties in the same park. Why only have two weeks of hanami when you can have three or four?

yoshino sakura.jpg

Having a picnic and drinking sake while looking at cherry blossoms is a tradition that goes back to the Heian Period.  Until recently, you could usually only carry a bottle or two with you, so the parties were shorter. Since the 70’s and 80’s, there have been convenience stores on every corner in major cities. This has made it possible for hanami parties to run from 6 AM to 11 PM because you can just refuel at 7-11 whenever you run out of booze. Furthermore, hanami goers in parks these days can even order delivery pizza, sushi, or whatever they need. In the age of instant gratification, an old proverb came to be associated with hanami: 花より団子 hana yori dango – literally, sweets over flowers. The implication is that some people don’t come to enjoy the sakura as much as for the wild partying.

FullSizeRender (1)

Japanese companies often send the youngest or lowest ranking people on their teams or in their departments to go stake out prime hanami spots in busy locations at the crack of dawn. Inevitably, they begin partying, often from 6 AM until the main group arrives. I came across this poor fellow at noon and it seems like… well… I guess hazing is a thing in his company.

Crazy Parties and Secret Spots

If you go to some of the larger parks in Tōkyō, like Ueno, Yoyogi, Inokashira, Meguro, etc., you’ll find a very party-like atmosphere. Ueno Park, in my experience, tends to be the craziest. People used to bring portable karaoke machine – a practice that has long since been banned – but still it’s the rowdiest and booziest. However, Yoyogi Park definitely gives it a run its money. In fact, I’ve seen DJ’s spinning house and techno in that park. Inokashira Park in Kichijōji is still all about the party, but has a much more hippied-out vibe. The Meguro River isn’t as crazy as those three, but it’s pretty noisy because it’s so congested and the sound of generator powering the food stalls forces people to raise their speaking volume just to communicate with one another.

anaba sakura.jpg

All of this is great fun. I love it for sure, but sometimes you just don’t want to deal with all the craziness. As such, a lot of people seek out the best kept secrets, or 穴場 anaba in Japanese (usually shared by word of mouth). This could be anything from a very local shrine to an obscure park. These places tend to have a great hanami experience without the crowds and often don’t have all the drunks shouting and laughing with each other or passing out on wherever on the ground. And while not a secret spot, some places like Shinjuku Gyoen have specific rules banning alcohol – though, that doesn’t actually stop people from bringing it in, but the people who do tend to be low key about it.

So, Edo’s big 5 hanami spots were Goten’yama, Ueno, the banks of the Sumida River, Asukayama, and Koganei. What are your favorite spots in modern Tōkyō? And do you know any cool secret spots?

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō

Do You Even History Geek, Bro?



[i] There’s a little mantra you’ve probably heard: know your audience.
[ii] Both of these words made their way into architectural terminology of the Edo Period. For example, Edo Castle and Kawagoe Castle both had 富士見櫓 Fujimi Yagura Fujimi Turrets and many places in Tōkyō still bear the place name Fujimi since you could see Mt. Fuji from there, for example 中野富士見町 Nakano-Fujimichō. Tsukimi appears everything from teahouses to castles, most notably Matsumoto Castle’s 富士見櫓 Fujimi Yagura Fujimi Turret.
[iii] Wisteria, or 藤 fuji, were closely linked to the 藤原氏 Fujiwara-shi Fujiwara clan, a powerful family of the imperial court that was the ancestor of a number of powerful samurai clans which preserved the kanji for wisteria when establishing new branch families with new names
[iv] This was one of the preeminent hanami spots in the Edo Period, but sadly shōgunate destroyed the area to build defensive islands to protect Edo from the threat of a sea based invasion by western powers in the 1850’s.
[v] This is still a popular hanami spot located a short distance from Ōji Station.
[vi] There are famous ukiyo-e of this spot, but today it’s a shadow of its former glory.

Yamanote Line: Tōkyō

In Japanese History on August 3, 2016 at 5:08 am


tokyo station taisho

Tōkyō Station shortly after its completion

I so just wanna say, we’ve all been there and done that because that would just be easier that repeating myself again and again… After all, my long time readers have all been there and done that. In fact, if anyone knows anything about Japanese history, it’s the fact that the Tōkyō used to be called Edo and the name was changed after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. But if there’s any lesson I’ve learned from Kevin Smith[i] and from the resurrection of the Star Wars franchise[ii], it’s this: When you’re constantly writing about the same topic, you have to be remember that even though you have long time readers, it’s always someone’s first time to learn some of these things. If someone finds this blog post 2 years from now, it could still be their first time to learn anything about the subject.

And that’s where my job gets a bit tricky[iii]. I have to keep things interesting for everyone – longtime readers and first time readers. Hoping to keep everyone happy, especially the longtime readers who probably already know most of this story.

Well, anyways, enough of that. Today, we’re going to cover the Tōkyō Station area.


Tōkyō Station during its 100 year anniversary jubilee.

Tōkyō Station Area?

Yes. Tōkyō Station is a place, but I don’t think of it as just a station. It’s also the name of the city in general, a fact that shouldn’t be overlooked. This “area” is smack dab in the center of Edo-Tōkyō and it’s kind of one of the oldest developed parts of the city. And while it’s definitely a major hub station, the area itself represents so much more.

The station faces a wide open boulevard that has an Edo Period nickname, 大名小路 Daimyō Koji Daimyō Alley. This thoroughfare bisected an island located between the inner moat and outer moat of Edo Castle[iv]. On this fortified island sat the 上屋敷 kami-yashiki upper residences of some of the feudal lords with the closest connections to the Tokugawa shōguns who lived within the inner moat. The area was 丸之内 maru no uchi inside the citadel[v]. It wasn’t just elite because of all of the daimyō living here with direct access to the shōgun that made this neighborhood unique; it was also its location. The north side of Daimyō Alley was located near the 大手見附御門 Ōte-mitsuke Go-mon Main Gate of the western citadel[vi], essentially the main entrance to the shōgun’s castle[vii].

Directly accessible from Tōkyō Station or accessible on foot if you care to walk 10-15 minutes are a plethora of famous spots:

  • Marunouchi – a financial and banking district; it was formerly a daimyō neighborhood and includes Daimyō Alley (you can walk Daimyō Alley from Yūraku-chō to Taira no Masakado’s Kubizuka).
  • Ōtemachi – a business/financial district; the name refers to the Ōtemon (main gate) of Edo Castle.
  • Sukiyabashi – a shopping district/salaryman nightlife district between Ginza and Marunouchi; tradition says it refers to a tea ceremony instructor of the upper echelons of the daimyō class[viii].
  • Masakado Kubizuka – a haunted tomb dedicated to the head of Taira no Masakado, a symbol of eastern independence from the imperial court in Kyōto.
  • Anjin Street – the last remaining direct reference in Tōkyō to the English samurai William Adams (三浦按針 Miura Anjin in Japanese). He was a close advisor to Tokugawa Ieyasu, though to increasingly lesser degrees to the 2nd and 3rd shōguns who were increasingly distrustful of foreign influences on their hegemony.
  • Yaesu – a reference to William Adam’s associate who was given samurai status but was soon forbidden access to the shōgun because he was apparently a drunk twat of the highest order.
  • Daimyō Koji – Daimyō Alley is actually still referenced on some modern maps, but it’s not an official street name.
tokyo construction

Tōkyō Station under construction

Of all the Stations in Tōkyō, Why is this one called Tōkyō?

In 1914 (Taishō 3), this was the largest and most monumental train station in the East. Architecturally, it was more European than American, but in comparison to both modes of thinking, it wasn’t just hub station for Tōkyō, it was a hub station for the new imperial state. It was designed to ensure that Tōkyō was the capital of Asia and had the infrastructure to prove it. In a move the shōgunate would have never tolerated, the station was built on the then fallow yamanote lands confiscated years ago by the imperial government (that were later purchased by the Mitsubishi Corporation) – land that once stood at the front door of Edo Castle[ix].

Long time readers may remember some of the earliest major stations in Tōkyō. The stations that stick out in my mind are Shinbashi, Shinagawa, and Ueno. These stations had all been built in the very early years of the Meiji Period and any of them could have been expanded to become the main station for the city. They were getting a lot of traffic for sure. The problem was that construction would have interrupted traffic for years. Not including the delays cause by the Russo-Japanese War, the actual construction took about 6 years. It was better to leave the other stations alone and build a grand new hub in the former daimyō lands that connected the 東海道本線 Tōkaidō Honsen Tōkaidō Main Line with the north-south running 東北線 Tōhoku-sen Tōhoku Line[x] while giving direct access areas of the former Edo Castle that were slowly being opened up to the public, sold off to real estate developers, or repurposed by governmental agencies of the Japanese Empire. In short, the station was central[xi], it linked important existing lines, and showcased the city as capital equal to the capitals of Europe and the United States[xii]. That’s a station worthy of the name “Tōkyō Station.”

The station took a bit of a hit in the 1923 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake, but it suffered serious damage in the firebombing at the end of WWII. The original building was 3 stories, but 3rd floors of the north and south wings weren’t rebuilt. Although it was repaired and train service was greatly expanded between 1945 and 2000, the station remained a shadow of its former glory until the Bubble Economy. The station was slated for demolition, but an effort to preserve the station as an historical landmark saved the brick monstrosity it had become. From that time on, more and more people became interested in the revitalization of the station and the Marunouchi area in general. Recently, the 3rd floors of the north and south wings have been rebuilt and the temporary triangle shaped rooftops were replaced with domes in accordance with the original design.

View of Tokyo Station in 2000, before renovation work

Tōkyō Station in 2000, before the most recent renovations. Note the north and south wings are only 2 stories. Both wings and the central atrium have cheesy angular roofs rather than elegant domes.


When I first visited Japan, some 15 years ago or so, the station looked like ass. However, today it is actually quite impressive. There are a lot of skyscrapers towering over it that detract from its original Taishō Period glory – and the fact that at the time of writing, the main approach to the station is undergoing redevelopment, doesn’t help – but if you spend a little time checking out the exterior of the building, you can clearly see the new bricks and the old bricks. When I see the restored Tōkyō Station, I’m struck by the amazing history of the area. Standing in this area – former holdings of feudal lords, a few minutes’ walk from Edo Castle – a flood of thoughts come to me. I think of Ōta Dōkan. I think of the Tokugawa Shōguns. I think of the Meiji Restoration. I think of the quirky Taishō Era that ended amid recovery from the Great Kantō Earfquake. I think of the rise of ups and downs and subsequent ups of the Shōwa Period. This area, while it looks like a central business district built around a huge garden where the emperor lives, is actually one of the most profound historical areas in Japan. Sadly, most of it doesn’t exist anymore, but Tōkyō Station is most definitely there linking the past with the present.

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[i] Writer, filmmaker, podcaster, professional geek, and a bit of an inspiration to me: Kevin Smith.
[ii] Star Wars: the Force Awakens was Mrs. JapanThis!’s first exposure to the Star Wars universe. I tried to get her to watch the originals but she wasn’t down with it at all. The Force Awakens changed everything.
[iii] That’s metaphorical. This isn’t my job. I write this for free and cross my fingers that one or two of you might decide to donate a dollar or two each month. Fingers crossed!
[iv] The outer moat was filled in after WWII and is now a major thoroughfare called 外堀通り Sotobori Dōri Outer Moat Street, despite not a drop of water in sight.
[v] 丸 maru, which literally means “circle” but in military use means “enclosure” or “encincture,” referred to a variety of fortified enclosures within the walls or moats of a Japanese castle – ie; a “citadel.” In the Edo Period, the 本丸 honmaru main enclosure usually referred to encincture that protected the living quarters of the shōgun or a daimyō (though technically speaking, this was the most secure and final defensive position, so it could also refer to a position a warlord could retreat to and try to hold out or commit seppuku before being overtaken).
[vi] That name is the formal Edo Period parlance; today the gate is just called 大手門 Ōtemon the main gate.
[vii] For you nerdy nerds, Daimyō Alley now stretches from 数寄屋橋 Sukiyabashi (the legendary home of Oda Nobunaga’s younger brother who was a tea ceremony instructor to daimyō; and 数寄屋 sukiya means a kind of tea room) to the 将門塚 Masakado-zuka burial mound of Taira no Masakado’s Head – something I talked about in this unrelated article.
[viii] A 数寄屋 sukiya is tea house for practicing tea ceremony.
[ix] Or as the imperial court liked to call it 東京城 Tōkyō-jō or Teikyō-jō Tōkyō Castle. But until the end of the war, it was usually called the 宮城 Kyūjō Imperial Castle. During the American Occupation, this title was eliminated because the first kanji has religious implications, especially to Shintō and the divine ancestors of the emperor. So it was decided that 皇居 the place where the emperor lives, was best.
[x] This train line wasn’t called the Tōhoku Line until the early 1900’s. Previous to that, these sections of track were part of a network built and operated by 日本鉄道 Nippon Tetsudō Nippon Railways.
[xi] The original proposed name was actually the 中央停車場 Chūō Teishajō Central Depot. The name 東京駅 Tōkyō Eki Tōkyō Station was chosen 2 weeks before the opening of the new station.
[xii] And superior to the capitals of Asia which were just a mess in their opinion – or they’d like you to think so.

Book Review – Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective

In Book Reviews, Japanese History on December 28, 2015 at 6:07 pm

Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective
Nicolas Fiévé & Paul Waley


The subtitle of the book is Place, Power and Memory in Kyōto, Edo and Tōkyō[i].

Since last year, all of my book reviews have a standard format. You can read a description about it here. This message won’t appear in reviews from 2016 on. I just expect you to go to the reviews page if you don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m pretty sure it’s OK.

Nicolas Fiévé is a scholar of Japanese architecture and pre-modern urbanism. Paul Waley is scholar of human geography[ii]. The two have extensive backgrounds in disciplines that often overlap. This book is a testament to that overlapping. They brought in other big guns to fill in the gaps and the result is a really unique 500ish page collection of historical comparisons and contrasts of urbanism in Kyōto and Edo-Tōkyō[iii].

Quick Review


  What I expected What I got
Overall Impression Nothing. My friend, Rekishi no Tabi[iv], suggested it to me. So, I bought it because I trust his taste in these sorts of books more than most people’s. A really interesting exploration of the development and portrayal of Kyōto and Edo-Tōkyō. This book is now in the permanent collection of books I keep within an arm’s reach while writing JapanThis!.
Type of Book A comparative analysis of the history of Kyōto, Edo, and Tōkyō. Some comparative analysis, but the articles are much more interested in exploring Kyōto and Tōkyō on their own terms and in their respective urban histories – as it should be.
Readability I expected it to be very readable. It is extremely accessible. Many of the chapters about Edo-Tōkyō serve as a good companion to Seidensticker’s book which I reviewed before.
Bias I expected very little bias. I didn’t perceive any bias in the book. There was a little cynicism about some of Tōkyō’s post war and bubble era policies, but they were spot on. Any fan of the Edo-Tōkyō continuum would agree.
Audience Scholars, university students, history nerds. People with in depth and active knowledge of the city. Long time JapanThis! Readers can get a lot out of this book. Yes, the more in depth and active understanding you have of both Kyōto and Edo-Tōkyō helps. But I’m not nearly as familiar with Kyōto as I’d like to be but I had no problem keeping up with the chapters on the imperial capital.
Stars[v] ★★★★☆

Pros & Cons

I’ll start with the cons – because there aren’t many of them.

The first con is no fault of the authors or of the book itself. This is an academic book. It presumes the reader is familiar with the geographies of Kyōto, Edo, and Tōkyō. It also presumes the reader is familiar with the history of both cities. Furthermore, it presumes the reader is familiar with the vocabulary of historical architecture and urban studies – in particular, that of Japan. Depending on your level familiarity with the subject matter, this could be a major or minor hurdle. For example, as I mentioned before, I’m not nearly as familiar with Kyōto as I am with Tōkyō so I found myself spending a lot of time with the Kyōto maps in the book and checking some other books/maps when I was confused.

In the article, Metaphors of the Metropolis, William Coaldrake makes some assertions about Utagawa Hiroshige mocking the shōgunate’s use of architecture as a symbol of authority and power in his 浮世絵 ukiyo-e prints. I’m not an expert on ukiyo-e, but I do love it and consider myself fairly familiar with the greats – such as Hiroshige – and when I look at the prints he cites, I just don’t see the same thing he does. While I disagree with him on this point, the rest of the article is really fascinating as he brings up reference guides for samurai to identify the rank of daimyō by the architecture used in their gates – indicating that there was a literal architectural vocabulary in Edo.

And lastly, while it’s fine to put citations at the end of an article or at the end of the book, I just wish more people would put footnotes at the bottom of the page. It’s so much more reader friendly. Who wants to constantly flip to the end of a chapter or the end of a book just to get some further information about something they just read. It makes no sense for writers to maintain this convention in the age of the internet where we have hyperlinks and instant access to things. Even though I’m reading a physical, printed copy of the book, I shouldn’t be expected to flip back and forth. It seems so archaic. This isn’t a criticism of just this book, though. There’s no reason for any writers or editors to do this.

So Let’s Go Through the Book

There are 13 contributors to this book. It starts off, and rightly so, with a focus on Kyōto from its simple and well planned beginnings (end of the Nara Period) to the chaos of the 応仁の乱 Ōnin no Ran Ōnin War[vi] which literally brought the city to its knees and plunged the country into a century of civil war. The book comes back to Kyōto in the final chapters, mainly discussing how the political climate after the ’64 Tōkyō Olympics left Kyōto to fend for itself. The establishment of standards for the preservation of the city is a fascinating insight into the successes and failures of preserving an active urban space that is second to none – I dare say a city that is on par with Rome in terms of cultural heritage and significance[vii].

The majority of the book, as you can imagine, deals with Edo-Tōkyō. This is out of no ill will towards Kyōto. In fact, many of the articles compare and contrast Edo-Tōkyō with the old capital. However, it’s obvious that the legacy of Tokugawa controlled Edo still resounds throughout the capital, the country, and the world in general. We also just have much better records from the Edo Period.

Here are a few interesting tidbits from the book from my notes.

Japan was one of the first countries to establish laws protecting its ancient architecture. “Modernization” began almost as soon as the foreign powers arrived in 1850’s, but believe it or not, the first laws protecting national architectural and artistic treasures began in 1871 (Meiji 4). This tradition protected Kyōto until the 1964 Olympics[viii]. It protected Tōkyō, too. Unfortunately, Tōkyō was subjected to the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923 which pretty much erased Edo permanently. Thus, Kyōto and Tōkyō have evolved on distinctly different paths both culturally and legally. Kyōto’s geographic location is far less prone to destructive seismic active than Edo-Tōkyō.

Great attention is spent discussing the contrast of the streets near Edo Castle as compared to the intricate, maze-like system of gates leading into the Castle itself. I’ve argued many times, that the castle was a city in and of itself. I love the detail this book goes into about the city’s relationship with the castle.

I was really happy to see rivers, ferries, and bridges get a lot of attention. If you’ve been following JapanThis! over the years, you know about my obsession with rivers and bridges. In fact, my last article on Umayabashi was inspired by a casual reference to the bridge in this book. These places were obviously important to the people of Edo, too. They’re a constant theme in the art of the day.

While this book doesn’t address the connotative evolution of the word 江戸っ子 Edokko “Child of Edo,” the article By Ferry to Factory lends much credence to my pet theory that the current definition of Edokko is a byproduct of authors active in the Meiji Period. Those writers may have pined for Edo and they may have even been born in the final years of Tokugawa Japan. However, they lived most of their lives in Tōkyō. This is the same sentiment that Seidensticker alludes to time and time again in his epic Tōkyō: from Edo to Shōwa. But like this book, Seidensticker doesn’t concern himself directly with the word or concept itself, but there’s much implied about its usage when you combine the 2 books. Just like the terms 山手 yamanote high city and 下町 shitamachi low city, this term has changed with subsequent generations[ix].

There’s so much more to say about this book, but I think I want to wrap things up with Jilly Traganou’s chapter, Representing Mobility in Tokugawa and Meiji Japan because this is a topic of great interest to me. As with many of the other Edo-Tōkyō chapters, it ties in with the work of Constantine Vaporis, who has written extensively about mobility of both commoners and samurai in the Edo Period[x]. Anyways, Jilly introduces train maps into the discussion. Trains were the first great successors of the feudal network of highways linking major cities. Pre-modern highways, check points, post towns, rivers, ferry crossings, bridges, modern urban elevated highways, trains, and subways; these are all connected – particularly in Edo-Tōkyō where we can see remnants of the continuum of mobility.


A lot of people thought my review of Seidensticker’s Tōkyō: from Edo to Shōwa was negative and so if you’re one of those people, let me clarify my feelings about his book. It’s a pretty bad ass book; I just didn’t like his style of prose. It was written in a literary style that no one uses anymore[xi]. The content isn’t bad, though. This book, Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective, actually gave me a new appreciation for Seidensticker’s book. It sort of verified, clarified, and demystified a lot of what Seidensticker said. By adding Kyōto to the conversation it really pushes the discussion to places I didn’t expect it to go. This is a really good thing. I love learning new things and this book taught me a lot and best of all, it has me asking more questions. So, I give this book a solid 4 stars![xii]

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[i] The lack of an Oxford comma pisses me off to no end lol.
[ii] Waley wrote the introduction to the Tuttle Edition of the Seidensticker book that I reviewed last January. It’s a good book and I think these two books make good companions.
[iii] Kyōto is really in a world of its own. It probably warrants a similar book, that shifts things back to the mysterious kingdom of 倭 Wa the oldest recorded name of a political entity in the Japanese islands. Kyōto marked the pinnacle of that burst of Japanese civilization and culture. In this book, Kyōto is very much put in contrast to Edo and the samurai government. It also plays foil to imperial Tōkyō. I wonder what another 500 pages on Nara and Kamakura would have yielded.
[iv] Rekishi no Tabi – the name can be translated as “a trip through history” – is a photographer and Japanese history nerd based in Tōkyō. Check out his photos here. Follow him on Twitter here.
[v] About my “star system,” 4/5 is probably as good as it will get. I’m reserving 5/5 for something really mind blowing. I dunno…, a picture book of Hijikata Toshizō’s girlfriends or something. Every book, every movie, every song has some room for criticism. Also, I have no half-stars because they don’t display correctly across platforms.
[vi] What was the Ōnin War? I’m glad you asked.
[vii] At least in my opinion.
[viii] It also provided a tradition and a framework for new laws in the post-Olympic era.
[ix] I had an article about Yamanote vs. Shitamachi, but I deleted it because it sucked ass. There will be a new reference article in 2016. Hopefully in the first few months of the year.
[x] His book, Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan, is required reading for any Japanese history nerd. I’ll be reviewing this book some time next year.
[xi] I was in high school when he died – totally pre-internet. I used to enjoy, and sometimes still do, that “great books” or “classics” approach to writing. But, it just doesn’t hold up today. It’s heavy on a classical style at the sake of straightforwardness.
[xii] When I introduced my new review system, I said that getting a 5 is an almost impossible target because… well, nothing’s perfect. A 4 definitely means you should read it. It’s the highest ranking you can get on JapanThis!.

What does Ōji mean?

In Japanese History on October 4, 2015 at 4:32 pm

Ōji (imperial prince, but more at “a kami divided from another kami”)


Otonashi Park in Ōji is one of Tōkyō’s secret cherry blossom viewing spots. Nearby Asukayama is even more beautiful and also a little bit off the beaten path.

Hello all! Sorry for the gap since my last article. I got bogged down with work and this article and its follow up.

Here’s the honest truth. I started re-searching and writing this article in January. It turned out to be such a colossal mess that I just made a bunch of notes taken from Japanese texts and left them as they were. I ignored the article after that.
Totally abandoned it.

But during 花見 hanami the cherry blossom season, I revisited it. As the weather got better, I found myself with a confusing list of quotes in Japanese and English and nary a timeline to speak of. So I abandoned the topic again. But then lost my research notes. Couldn’t find them anywhere.

But something amazing happened at the middle of October.

I was able to recover my notes.

The notes rambled and were pretty much all over the place. But most of the research was intact. And so, submitted for your approval, here is an article started some 6-7 months ago and finally finished now.
If it’s unpolished and rambling, I apologize, but I just wanted to get it over with. 

Ōji – A Princely Namesake… or Something Like That…

To modern eyes, this place name means “prince.” In a very general sense, it could be understood as a son of a king or emperor. In this case, it most likely isn’t a reference to a literal prince. The name of the area seems to be derived from 王子神社 Ōji Jinja Ōji Shrine. If you visit today, the shrine doesn’t look so ancient. It was lost during WWII and rebuilt in 1959 and again in 1982 with some of that sweet, sweet Bubble Economy money. But don’t let the modern veneer fool you. There’s good evidence that this shrine dates from at least the Kamakura Period. Some even suggests its history goes farther back than that.

oji shrine

Where is Ōji?

Ōji is in present day 北区 Kita-ku Kita Ward[i]. Today the area has a shitamachi image, though this area was the straight up boonies in the Edo Period. The area surrounding the shrine was actually a favorite 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing spot of the upper echelons of the Tokugawa shōgunate[ii]. These days, the area boasts 紙の博物館 Kami no Hakubutsukan the Paper Museum, 狐の行列 Kitsune no Gyōretsu the Fox Parade every New Year’s Eve, and a station catering to 都電荒川線 Toden Arakawa-sen the Toden Arakawa Line, Tōkyō’s last remaining street car. Interestingly, the area is also home to a certain ラッコズニューヨークスタイルピザ Rakkozu Nyū Yōku Sutairu Piza Rocco’s New York Style Pizza. Having lived in New York for 3 years, I definitely developed a taste for a proper New York slice. In Tōkyō, this is as close as you’re going to get. The shop has a nice New York vibe with red & white checkered tablecloths and the essential shakers: oregano, parmesan cheese, and crushed red pepper. It’s not the most convenient location for me, but I’ll make the trek if I have a hankering[iii]


Click the pic for Rocco’s website


New York style pizza toppings

So, anyways, that’s the short answer to the question “What does Ōji mean?” and I threw in some reasons that I think you might want to visit the area. The short answer ends here. If you wanna get deep into what Ōji means, find yourself a nice chair and let’s get into it proper[iv]


A Long Time Ago in a Province Far, Far Away

One of the most ancient temple and shrine complexes in Japan is a cluster of 3 major mountaintop sites called 熊野三山 Kumano Sanzan in modern Wakayama Prefecture which is in western Japan. You could translate the name as the 3 Muthafuckin’ Mountains of Kumano, but most people don’t – they usually just call them the Kumano Sanzan and are done with it[v]. That means the 3 Mountains of Kumano. Between the 3 religious complexes, something like 12 神 kami Shintō deities called 熊野権現 Kumano Gongen[vi] are enshrined. Since the Heian Period, the 3 mountains have been the focus of a major pilgrimage which is still popular today. It’s my understanding that today the entire pilgrimage course – mountains and manmade structures alike – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The shrines themselves seem to be quite ancient. The history of these shrines clearly predates their appearance in the historical record and as such is probably affiliated with the rise of the imperial cult and the Yamato State. The shrines are mentioned in the 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki, which is Japan’s second oldest written history (finished in 720 or 750). I’m assuming the capital was in Nara at this time, but there was some reshuffling of things from 740-745ish that I can’t say with certainty. But the Nara Period is generally thought of as the time from 710 to 794. I’ll get back to this aspect at the end of the article.


Why Are We Going Back This Far in History? And Will Talk About Ōji, Tōkyō Again?

Great questions and I’m glad you asked! As for your second question, yes, we’ll be getting back to that later. As for your first question, well… while the Tōkyō place name, Ōji, has little to do with the daily concerns of the modern Tōkyōite, all of this backstory is critical to understanding few aspects of religion in Japan.


So, Back to the… Backstory[vii]

You see, in the 500’s, Buddhism first showed up in Japan. The native Shintō priests, of course, weren’t having any of this foreign Buddhist bullcrap. After all, they had a lucrative monopoly on the traditional spirituality of the people. Nonetheless, various factions within the imperial court at Nara either embraced it or rejected it. But ultimately, the imperial court got on board with the whole idea of Buddhism (see my article on Taishi-dō) and in the end everyone seemed to agree that there wasn’t much of a conflict with the native Shintō religion.

One way of reconciling the native Shintō beliefs with Buddhism was the creation of 権現 gongen. When a Buddhist temple was established, it had to appeal to the Shintō believers of the area. They understood their own traditions but the Buddhist stuff was foreign and strange in those early days of Buddhism in Japan. The quick fix was this: if a foreign or native Japanese 菩薩 bodhisattva (a person who has reached Buddhist enlightenment) wants to communicate with Japanese people, he/she would take the shape of a Shintō 神 kami. In short, use the local language to communicate with the local people. Buddhists could endear themselves to the skeptics by saying, yes, this is a Buddhist object of veneration/reflection, but it is appearing as a native Japanese avatar that can operate on a Shintō platform. A 権現 gongen, while Buddhist in nature, was flexible and thus could be experienced through a Shintō filter and was subject to Shintō rituals – in our case, ritual division and re-enshrinement.

Gongen are often depicted as half-nekkid, pissed off, sword wielding demons. In this picture, not Kumano Gongen, he appears to be wielding a karaoke microphone.

Gongen are often depicted as half-nekkid, pissed off, sword wielding demons. In this picture, not Kumano Gongen, he appears to be wielding a karaoke microphone.

Why Didn’t They See a Conflict?

Because syncretism.

Most western countries have a cultural heritage derived from the 3 batshit crazy Abrahamic religions, the so-called Big 3 Monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam[viii]. These religions, by definition, just hate other religions because if you only have 1 god you can’t accept or tolerate another one. That is, when you think there can only be one god, everyone else is just flat out wrong. End of story. If you’re polytheistic (ie; you believe more than one god exists), another god is no big stretch of the imagination and doesn’t threaten your world view. Polytheistic societies like Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt were able to mix and match their native religions with foreign religions easily. This is called syncretism. You could also call it, “just getting along” (as far as religious ideologies are concerned)[ix]. Japan was/is pretty much the same way. Once people got over the initial fear of something strange and foreign, they found ways to incorporate the 2 systems, as they obviously weren’t mutually exclusive. This is syncretism

kumo shrine

And just in case you’re wondering, the Japanese word for syncretism is 習合 shūgō “learning joined.”[x] This word is derived from the 四字熟語 yoji jukugo 4 kanji word 神仏習合 shinbutsu shūgō which means “syncretism of bodhisattvas and Japanese kami.”

Your average person on the street in the Edo Period wouldn’t have even thought about the blending of Buddhism and Shintō – they were so perfectly intertwined. The native Shintō and foreign Buddhism blended well in Japan for centuries until the Meiji Government tried to separate the two in order to establish a proper Shintō-based cult based on the Imperial Family. Shrines would act as organs of the Imperial State[xi]. They succeeded in promulgating what came to be called “State Shintō”[xii] and suppressed certain Buddhist sects. Much to the chagrin of the so-called “Modern Statesmen” of the Meiji Coup who hailed from Satsuma and Chōshū, they never quite separated the two completely. After WWII, separating Shintō and Buddhism was illegal – in fact any connection between government and religious institutions became unconstitutional – so don’t be surprised to find syncretic shrine complexes still exist throughout the country. Even more so, don’t be surprised to find bizarre, modern cultish hybrids from time to time.

Nikkō Tōshō-gū. Dedicated to the great gongen of the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Nikkō Tōshō-gū. Dedicated to the great gongen of the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Dividing Up Deities

OK, I’ve explained syncretism and finished my anti-monotheistic rant. So, let’s talk a little bit about the mechanics of Shintō and Japanese Buddhism, shall we? In the past at JapanThis!, we’ve talked about shrines called 東照宮 Tōshō-gū dedicated to the deified 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu[xiii]. There are something like 130 shrines dedicated to 東照宮大権現 Tōshō-gū Daigongen throughout the country. The name, by the way means something like “The Great Gongen Prince of the East.” You might think that this is a lot. Were they hacking up Ieyasu’s corpse and sending bits and pieces to various domains all over the country?

Kunōzan, the birthplace of the cult of Tōshō-gū.

Kunōzan, the birthplace of the cult of Tōshō-gū.

Of course not. Ieyasu’s corpse is most likely very much intact and rests at either 日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshō-gū or 久能山東照宮 Kunōzan Tōshō-gū[xiv]. But just as Buddhism venerates objects associated with a particular bodhisattva (person who has achieved pure enlightenment) and allows for those objects and images to be copied or even modified for each culture, Shintō allows for kami to be divided. Again for people in western cultures, it’s hard to imagine this. Without a physical body or some holy event having occurred on a spot, how is there anything to venerate?

Interestingly, Shintō has a mechanism that operates on a level similar to biological cell division. A kami can divide and a new kami is thus born. Just as a Buddhist statue or similar object of veneration can be copied or recreated infinitely, a Shintō kami can be divided infinitely.

Tokugawa Ieyasu - Tōshō-gū Daigongen (the Great Gongen Eastern Prince).

Tokugawa Ieyasu – Tōshō-gū Daigongen (the Great Gongen Eastern Prince).

130 Tōshō Daigongen?

We’re Not Even Getting Started.

I mentioned Tōshō-gū. Ieyasu was deified as 大正大権現 Tōshō Daigongen the Great Deity Who Guards the East. There were about 500 shrines dedicated to Ieyasu in the Edo Period. This means that the kami named Tōshō Daigongen was divided at least 500 times. And for those who have a short memory, a 権現 gongen is a 菩薩 bosatsu bodhisattva (buddha) who manifests him/herself  to the Japanese in the form of a 神 kami[xv]. But other kami were divided far more times than this. I’ll put it this way, Tokugawa Ieyasu died in 1616 and so he was relatively late to the game. But he’s a perfect example of a syncretic deity – a “gongen” for the Edo Period, if you will. He was buried in a perfectly normal syncretic tradition for a person of his stature. He was both a buddha and a kami.


Bunrei – separating a kami

How Widespread Was Dividing Kami and Gongen?

As a Tōkyō resident, one of my favorite kami is 稲荷神 Inari-gami. This is kami visually characterized by foxes. In Edo, this kami was associated with the daimyō class and the samurai class. In the outskirts of the city, he was associated with farmers. But as far out as you go in 本州 Honshū the main island of Japan, Inari was originally a tutelary kami of the 大名家 daimyō-ke daimyō families during the Sengoku Period. Since the daimyō families were expected to take care of their farmers, the farmers also latched on to this kami. Veneration of Inari exploded during the Edo Period.

It exploded to such a point that the number of Inari shrines in Japan is literally impossible to count[xvi]. One great example is 伏見稲荷大社 Fushimi Inari Taisha Fushimi Grand Inari Shrine in Kyōto – truly one of the world’s greatest treasures. But you can find dollhouse sized Inari shrines and shrines on temple precincts that seen like after thoughts. My point? Inari has been popular for ages and divided again and again.

Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine

Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine

The 2nd place holder is 八幡 Hachiman, the god of war who is the tutelary kami of 武家 buke samurai families. Veneration of Hachiman was spread by 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo. The most famous shrine is 鶴岡八幡宮 Tsurugaoka Hachimangū in 鎌倉 Kamakura. But this shrine wasn’t the first shrine dedicated to Hachiman. There are an estimated 44,000 Hachiman shrines in Japan.

OK, so there are an unknowable number of Inari shrines, some 44,000 Hachiman shrines, about 130 remaining Tōshō-gū shrines, and roughly 3000 shrines dedicated Kumano Gongen. and 13 shrines dedicated to various kami in Hawaii, Colorado, and Washington. I’m assuming those were brought from Japan[xvii].

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū at Kamakura. Many say the cult of Hachimangū was the main cult of the post-Minamoto samurai families.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū at Kamakura. Many say the cult of Hachimangū was the main cult of the post-Minamoto samurai families.

OK, Time to Bring the Story Back to Edo-Tōkyō

The Toshima were granted control of 豊島郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District in the 1000’s, which included this area. It’s not clear when the Kumano Gongen was installed in the area because there are two contradictory stories about how the place name Ōji came about.



Theory 1: The Shrine Dates From Well Before the Kamakura Period

Some claim that Ōji Shrine existed in some form or another before the Kamakura Period.

A popular story says that pre-shōgun Yoritomo passed through Toshima District near Edo[xviii] on his way to fight the 奥州藤原 Ōshū Fujiwara in Tōhoku[xix] in 1189. Praying for good luck, Yoritomo presented a full set of armor to 若一王子社 Nyakuichi Ōji-sha Nyakuichi Ōji Shrine – later Ōji Shrine Ōji Jinja Ōji Shrine.

Conspicuously, Ōji Shrine possesses no armor from Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Conspicuously, Ōji Shrine possesses no armor from Minamoto no Yoritomo.

The earliest textual evidence seems to come from an obscure reference in a war chronicle thought to have been written between the 南北朝時 Nanbokuchō Jidai Nanbokuchō Period[xx] (1334-1392) and the very early 室町時代 Muromachi Jidai Muromachi Period (1337-1573)[xxi]. This war chronicle is called the 義経記 Gikeiki[xxii] and it sings the praises of 源義経 Minamoto no Yoshitsune[xxiii], brother of Yoritomo.

A passing reference is made to Yoshitsune crossing the 王子板橋 Ōji Itabashi Ōji Plank Bridge. Was there an epic battle here? Did Yoshitsune give a rousing speech here? Probably not. The reason the “plank bridge” is probably even mentioned at all is that the area was such a backwater at the time that elegant plank bridges were few and far between. You could see them in Kyōto and maybe in Yoritomo’s capital at Kamakura, but never in the nasty, rural marshlands of the Toshima. People would take a boat across a river or just stay on their side of the river.  Interestingly, this plank bridge is most likely the same bridge related to the etymology of nearby 板橋 Itabashi[xxiv], which literally means “plank bridge.

Yoritomo vs Yoshitsune

Yoritomo vs Yoshitsune

Theory 2: The Shrine Dates From the Kamakura Period

There’s a contradictory claim about the age of the Ōji Shrine in an Edo Period text called the 新編武蔵風土記稿 Shinpen Musashi Fūdokikō Lands and Customs of Musashi Province (New Edition)[xxv].  This text claims, quite clearly, that in 1322, the Toshima Clan had the 熊野若一王子 Kumano Nyakuichi Ōji brought from 熊野新宮 Kumano Shingū New Main Kumano Shrine of Kumanoto Toshima District.

New Grand Shrine

New Grand Shrine

Nyakuichi Ōji is the name given to kami that are separated from 浜王子Hama Ōji. Hama Ōji itself was split from the 熊野権現 Kumano Gongen at the 熊野本宮 Kumano Hongū Kumano Main Shrine. So it’s a split of a split.



The 新宮 shingū “new main temple,” itself a branch temple of the 本宮 hongū “officially designated main temple,” is cited in the 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki Japan Chronicles[xxvi] and so is believed to have existed before 大化の改新 Taika no Kaishin the Taika Reforms of 645. The Nihon Shoki refers to the title 熊野国造 Kumano no Kuni Miyatsuko – a provincial governor of the Yamato court controlling the area[xxvii]. The argument for the shrine’s antiquity is that 熊野国 Kumano no Kuni Kumano Province was a pre-Taika Reforms province, 造 miyatsuko is a pre-Taika Reforms title, and the Nihon Shoki was finished about 75 years later in 720 after Kumano Province had been abolished[xxviii]. Most of the provinces we encounter at JapanThis! are post-Taika Reforms – Kumano was abolished. The provinces remained relatively unchanged until the abolition of domains and provinces in the early Meiji Period. Of course, in the Edo Period, 藩 han domains were more important than provinces (which were archaic territories with no practical civil administration).


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[i] Literally, the North Ward. And yes. I have an article about that.
[ii] 飛鳥山 Asuka-yama Mt. Asuka is still a popular spot for hanami today. It’s located a short distance from Ōji Station. The park is not very well known, so it doesn’t attract huge crowds. I highly recommend it.
[iii] On the topic of pizza, there is another shop also big among the expats in Tōkyō that specializes in Chicago style pizza called DevilCraft. The shop has been successful enough to open 2 shops, one in Kanda and one in Hamamatsu-chō. But I fucking can’t stand Chicago style pizza. It’s not pizza. It’s pizza flavored quiche – and it needs to get over itself. That said, DevilCraft brews their own beer and I respect that. Beer is good.
[-iv] Read that with a British accent – or else it’s just ungrammatical.
[v] Believe it or not, Japanese doesn’t have a word for “muthafuckin’.”
[vi] What’s a “gongen?” Have patience, my flower. All in due time.
[vii] Unfortunately, not a porno – though it may sound like one.
[viii] And just to be fair, yours truly thinks all religions are batshit crazy. I tend to show a little more respect to the peaceful ones and a great amount of disdain to the overbearing or violent ones. #AntiTheism
[ix] Yes, this is a simplification, but I think it’s more or less the case. Before a funerary memorial service, I was talking with the officiating Buddhist priest about the history of the graveyard at the temple. He said that while religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam reject Japanese spirituality altogether, the Japanese tradition can make room for aspects of those religions and even adopt aspects of them while ignoring other aspects. I believe his conclusion was “the Japanese have the potential for a richer spiritual tapestry.” I both agree and disagree with that statement, but it was the first time I heard a Buddhist priest say it in a cemetery. So, there’s that.
[x] Pssst! Hey dude, you still haven’t told us what a fucking “gongen” is yet. FFS, will you settle down, I’m getting to it now! I told you this was going to be a convoluted story.
[xi] Though, to be honest, this was nothing new. The Tokugawa and other shōgunates and the imperial family itself were always harnessing the power of both shrines and temples.
[xii] “State Shintō” is a term invented by the Americans during the post-WWII occupation. There was no “separation of church & state” in the Meiji Constitution, but in many ways Shintō was just seen as Japanese tradition. Some argue the term “State Shintō” isn’t accurate or fair. But c’mon, let’s be real here. What the winners of the Meiji Coup set in motion, got waaaaaaaaaaay out of control. And while I’ll grant they didn’t create “State Shintō,” by the 1930’s and 1940’s they definitely had something that looked like, smelled liked, and quacked like “State Shintō.”
[xiii] You can find my article about Tōshō-gū here.
[xiv] Interestingly, both shrines bicker over who has the body. Simply opening up the 宝塔 hōtō 2 story urns would solve the question once and for all, but neither shrine wants to allow that – probably because neither wants to be the one who was wrong.
[xv] This is one way that Buddhism tried to one up the native Shintō religion. Shintō was originally of shamanic roots, but Buddhism offered a kind of salvation (or second chance) through reincarnation or transcendence. Shintō seems to have been more daily and superstitious. Both were as ridiculous as any modern religion, though.
[xvi] Tiny shrines are littered all over the country, especially in agricultural areas or in the confines of castles and the detached residences of daimyō. In Edo, there was a idiom used by Edoites to describe common place sights and occurrences: 火事喧嘩伊勢屋稲荷に犬の糞 kaji kenka, Iseya Inari ni, inu no kuso which essentially means “fires and fights, shops named Iseya and Inari shrines are scattered like dog shit in the streets.” I can vouch for this one. If I walk 15 minutes in any direction from my home, I’ll stumble across 2 or more Inari Shrines. In some places you’ll find shrines so small they look like Edo Period doll houses.
[xvii] But I don’t know for sure.
[xviii] Long time readers will know that I’ve talked about the Toshima extensively throughout the blog. This isn’t a focused list, but this link will bring up any article in which I referenced the Toshima.
[xix] His victory in this battle paved his way for receiving the title shōgun.
[xx] Read about the Nanbokuchō Period here.
[xxi] The dates I gave for the Muromachi Period are one of many reckonings. Samurai Archives has a brief summary of the Muromachi Period here, they also have a pretty handy timeline of the Muromachi Period here.
[xxii] The name Gikeiki is sometimes misread as Yoshitsune-ki. The title means “Yoshitsune’s Story.”
[xxiii] Yoshitsune is the archetypal tragic samurai character in Japanese culture. He’s not important to our story today, but he is interesting. You can read about him here.
[xxiv] Long time readers will recognize this as the spot where 近藤勇 Kondō Isami of the 新撰組 Shinsengumi was executed in the 1860’s. Read my article here.
[xxv] The translation is mine. Not sure if this book has a standard English title. The book was compiled from 1804 to 1829.
[xxvi] Japan’s second oldest book.
[xxvii] From what I can tell, the hereditary title Kuni no Miyatsuko was not as much a governmental official as a person who oversaw regional Shintō matters. But I don’t know about it in detail.
[xxviii] Interestingly, the title wasn’t abolished and was still passed down among the same families until the mid 1300’s. It had fallen out of use by the end of the Nanboku-chō Period.

Ōedo Line: Toshimaen

In Japanese Castles, Japanese History on July 21, 2015 at 9:11 am

Toshima-en (Toshima Park, the name of an amusement park)

Remains of the natural moat of Nerima Castle (the Shakuji'i River) taken before the amusement park was constructed.

Remains of the natural moat of Nerima Castle (the Shakuji’i River) taken before the amusement park was constructed.

To the average Tōkyōite, Toshima-en is an amusement park. To Japanese history fans, Tohima-en is an amusement park built on the ruins of 練馬城 Nerima-jō Nerima Castle.

This “castle” was actually a hilltop fortification that the 豊嶋氏 Toshima-shi Toshima clan established in the 1330’s as an outpost to protect their larger 石神井城 Shakuji’i-jō Shakuji’i Castle[i]. All of the Toshima held castles and fortifications fell to the 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan in the 1470’s. Dōkan was the first warlord to really stir up shit in the area near Edo and he made his main fortification in the Chiyoda area[ii], by kicking out the Edo clan and taking over their satellite fort on the coast. He hunted down and killed off the Toshima clan and forced the Edo clan to stay at their distant fort in Kitami. In short, the path of this corner of the Kantō region changed dramatically with the fall of these castles and clans – and they fell Game of Thrones style. Dōkan himself would be assassinated a few years later.

The remains of the natural moat today.

The remains of the natural moat today.

Hydropolis water park

Hydropolis water park

But today, the Sengoku Period fortification that was Nerima “castle” is an amusement park. One of the main attractions, a waterslide called ハイドロポリス Hydropolis, is built on one of the old natural fortifications and you can still see part of the natural moat system. And while Japanese castles are pretty cool, waterslides are way more fun than warfare, killing off entire families, and forcing people to do 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide. Also, 4 sweet, sweet words: Japanese Girls In Bikinis™.


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[i] The clan’s patriarch controlled the main “castle” at 平塚城 Hiratsuka-jō Hiratsuka Castle in modern day  北区 Kita-ku Kita Ward.
[ii] Edo Castle.

Ōedo Line: Tsukishima

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on June 23, 2015 at 6:32 am

Tsukishima (moon island)


The history of Tsukishima, Tuskiji, Kachidoki, and many other place names are closely linked etymologically. Most of these are late Edo Period and early Meiji Era names. I recommend you read the two links at the end of this section to get the whole story.


But if you go to Tsukishima, you’re there for one thing: もんじゃ焼き monja-yaki, a kind of food you cook at the table made of vegetables and meat or fish toppings sealed together by various soupy bases that make the mix tight enough that you can pick it up with a tiny spoon that allows a bite sized mouthful. The word “monja” is said to be derived from the shitamachi dialect of the early Meiji Period. The grill looked like the newly imported blackboards used in the new public schools. What did you write on blackboards? 文字 moji letters, of course. In Edo, this word was pronounced monji not moji, and according to some accounts, in the low city dialect spoken in the Sumida area, the word was pronounced monja. If this is true, the name means “cooked on a blackboard.”

Because the cooking style is similar to お好み焼き okonomi-yaki, a similarly prepared food from Western Japan, the two dishes are often lumped together. Historically, okonomi-yaki was born in Ōsaka and Hiroshima (very different styles), but monja-yaki was born in Tōkyō’s shitamachi districts. Both are delicious, but okonomi-yaki actually has a predictable shape and most of the recipes are also predictable. Monja-yaki, a dish that developed with the same cooking technology, is much more freeform. Visually, monja-yaki looks like someone puked on a heated service. But, it is easily one of the most versatile dishes to come out of the Meiji Era (though most people associate it with the Taishō and Shōwa Eras). If you want to see how far you can stretch this particular style of cooking; instead of bar hopping, make reservations at 2 famous shops in Tsukishima 5 hours apart. Then, go early on a weekday night to go monja-yaki hopping for the rest of the time[i].

This half-naked maid has absolutely nothing to do with Tsukishima. Woo-hoo!

This half-naked maid has absolutely nothing to do with Tsukishima.

By the way, Tsukishima is a manmade island from the Meiji Period. Name “moon island” is a reference to the Edo Period teahouses and restaurants that straddled the old coast of Edo Bay. These teahouses were famous for “moon watching” because you could watch the moon move across the sky and be reflected in the bay. Without any electricity and no buildings over 2 stories, a full moon over the bay must have been a glorious sight to behold.

Wanna read my original article about the Tsukishima Area?
Wanna read my original article about Tsukuda Island?

In defense of

In defense of “moon watching,” there was no “Game of Thrones.” Watching the moon was about the best thing you could do outside of the Yoshiwara.

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[i] Pro-Tip: check out the area around 4:30-5:00 PM and see which shops are already full. Those are the best and most popular shops. Make reservations, and then do the rounds. Once the dinner rush happens, you’ll have to wait and hour or more for the best shops.

Book Review – Tokyo: From Edo to Showa

In Japan Book Reviews on January 9, 2015 at 8:37 am

From Edo to Shōwa (1867-1989)[i]
Edward Seidensticker

Click the link to order this book

Click the link to order this book

So a quick word about this book before I begin. This is actually a compilation of 2 works. It’s more than 600 pages in its entirety. The first volume was a book called Low City, High City published in 1983. The second volume was published in 1990 and was called Tōkyō Rising. Even though this is a compilation, the author’s intention is very clear. He argues that post-Tokugawa Edo grew into a new modernized city of sorts from 1868-1923. He further posits that after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, the city began a second blossoming and became the sprawling metropolis that it is today. I can’t argue with him on these points. No one can. General consensus laments the end of Edo by:

The introduction of foreign architecture into the city
in what were literally the final days of the Tokugawa Shōgunate

The importance put on the importation of foreign architecture and customs during the Meiji Period

Destruction by fires & earthquakes
and the subsequent rebuilding leading up to the Great Kantō Earthquake

The almost total devastation of the city in the Great Kantō Earthquake
and the tendency to reject traditional architecture afterwards

The adoption of radically Western urban planning
and an almost obstinate refusal to look backwards after the Firebombing of 1945[ii]

Anyways, I’d like to open this review with a lovely quote from the forward by Paul Waley. “There can be few cities in the world that live, pulsate, and breathe through their geography as Tokyo does, few cities with a history that shifts through the creases of space as does that of Tokyo.” This line struck a chord in my heart because everywhere I walk in this city of hills, plateaux, plains, valleys, rivers, and constant change I can’t help but feel that even when you can’t see Edo right in front of you, there are shadows and whispers of the shōgun’s capital all around me. You just need to know where to look for them.

The subtitle of the book is “The Emergence of the Greatest City in the World.”  Right out of the gate, we know that this is a book written by a lover of Tōkyō for other lovers of Tōkyō. Anyone who’s even taken at glimpse at my blog knows that I proudly include myself in the list of Tōkyō Lovers. Let’s get it on, baby. Awwwwwwwwww yeah!


Quick Review[iii]

What I Expected What I Got
Overall Impression I expected a light, narrative history of Tōkyō on the change from the Edo Period (including the establishment of the city) to the Shōwa Period (I had no idea whether this meant ending at the beginning of Shōwa or ending of Shōwa). I definitely expected a “timeline-based” narrative. 2 books: one covering the post script of the Edo Period, then covering Meiji to the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake; the other covering the recovery from the earthquake to the building of TDL[iv]. Well over 630 pages of prosaic descriptions, many from the personal recollections of famous writers who lived and loved the city.
Type of Book A well-researched but lightly-written academic history of the city, backed up by nice photos. A history – clearly well-researched – but it’s unique angle is it cites personal recollections of literary greats who lived in the city during its transitions[v].
Readability A light descriptive narrative style, accessible to anyone who wants to understand the evolution of Edo into Tōkyō. Written in a prosaic “Great Books” style. It’s never dry and the author clearly loves Tōkyō. But at times the “classical prose style” is horribly distracting from the content[vi]. The organization of the book is awkward and so the author tends to repeat himself but I think this may be helpful to newbies.
Bias Wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had high hopes. Politically, completely unbiased[vii].
Audience Anyone with a passing interest of any city, be it Cairo, Rome, London, Tōkyō, or Santa’s Village.
Light reading.
IMO, this book requires in depth and active understanding of and familiarity with both Edo and modern Tōkyō. If I wasn’t writing this blog, I might only really understand 30-40% of it.

It’s written in a light style, but I think it presupposes a very high familiarity with the city.





Edward  Seidensticker was a guy who looooooved Tōkyō. 2 pages into this book and you understand that he loved the city profoundly[ix]. He’s best known as a translator of Japanese literature, in particular, Japanese classics[x]. As a translator, he had the opportunity to meet many of the authors he translated. He became close with quite a few of them. Be they friends or acquaintances, Edward had many opportunities to talk with many Japanese writers who lived during the biggest changes of the city. They often talked about their impressions of the city over the years. Of course he talks about the evolution of the city from Edo to Tōkyō historically, but he often refers to quotes from and memories of the authors he translated and befriended over the years.


Bad Points

Here’s a quote from Wikipedia: Seidensticker has been sometimes described as “the best translator of Japanese that has ever lived”[xi]. But I’ve catalogued a list of ridiculous translations that he used throughout the book (link below), most of which he never quoted the original Japanese which left me at times unable to do further research because the source material is only in Japanese and all we have is his useless “prosaic English translations.” Daily terms that a person would have used in the 80s’s and 90’s are also rendered into obscure literary terms, rather than plain English. This isn’t the sign of a good translator. It’s the sign of an old man who’s clearly out of touch with his native language[xii], or more accurately, Seidensticker presumes his reader is a lover of Western Classics with a little hankering for a spankering of Japan. This book is pre-Internet so that cultural divide is bound to be expected. Unfortunately, it severely dates the prose of this book.  In this, Seidensticker proves himself to be a stepping stone towards multiculturalism and to a modern person with internet and daily and hourly access to various cultures, he fails in a grand way. Maybe he was born 30 years too late[xiii].

I have a free download on my Patreon page that describes some of Seidenlicker’s most egregious translation failures in part one of this book. You can download it for free here.


Good Points

In English, there is very little literature available about the year by year changes of Edo to Tōkyō. This book pretty much is the only one that everyone can access easily. Seidensticker obviously has a passion for the city. He lived in Tōkyō on and off for about 50 years. His passion shines through in this book.

While reading this, I asked myself “How would I write a history of Edo-Tōkyō?” It’s such a gargantuan task. One approach would be to methodically go through the evolution of the city in a timeline. That would be a convenient reference book. However, that would miss all the nuances of what makes Tōkyō so special – all the unique nooks and crannies. Each neighborhood has its own stories to tell. My blog uses the etymology of place names as an excuse to explore a certain area of the city. Seidensticker’s methodology isn’t so different. Instead of place names, he chooses to explore some of the original 15 wards of Tōkyō City. Furthermore, he compares and contrasts the 下町 shitamachi low city and 山手 yamanote high city. To my delight, he covers how the lines blurred (and at times swapped completely) over the years.

When he quotes writers’ memories of the old city, there is often a bitter sweet tone. People often pine for the past. Seidensticker’s choice of quotes isn’t a mere pulling at the heartstrings. He deliberately chooses descriptive quotes that bring Tōkyō’s various neighborhoods to life. Regardless of what I think of some of his prosaical proclivities, he does a fantastic job of bringing the old city to life.

In a weird way this book is a like a veritable “Who’s Who of JapanThis!.” No joke. On almost every page, I was like, “Yo! I wrote about that, too!” In some places I’ve given more information. In other places, Seidensticker filled in some gaps that I was wondering about.

This is what my version looks like. I feel like a university student again! lol

This is what my version looks like. I feel like a university student again! lol



This is a freaking great book and I highly recommend it. However, the person who will get the most out of it is someone intimately familiar with Tōkyō’s geography and history. If you don’t have a good understanding of Tōkyō’s geography, you should probably invest in a few maps of early Edo, late Edo, Meiji Period Tōkyō, Taishō Period Tōkyō, and Shōwa Period Tōkyō and keep them on hand at all times. But seriously, if you are passionate about the history of “the world’s greatest city,” this book is something you must have in your personal collection. I’ll be referring back to my copy for almost every future article.


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[i] I love the subtitle: The Emergence of the World’s Greatest City.
[ii] Granted these are all architectural and urban planning aspects, but this book digs deep into the loss of cultural traditions. In particular, the loss of geisha in Tōkyō and the loss of the 遊郭 yūkaku (the so-called “pleasure districts”). But this refusal goes deeper. “Officially speaking” (a vague phrase, at best), a lot of Japan hasn’t wanted to look back at post-Earthquake Tōkyō because the next big step on the history ladder is WWII. The author doesn’t argue this, but I think this is symptomatic of the same refusal of going back to Meiji and Taishō architecture – all the same longing for Edo while just wanting to put everything behind.
[iii] More about my book review system here. Keep in mind, this “system” is still under development.
[iv] Tōkyō Disneyland. The book claims to end at 1989, the last year of the Shōwa Period. The theme park opened in 1983, but to my memory TDL is the latest date mentioned in the book.
[v] It may rely on some writers a little too heavily, but it also makes ample use of diaries/letters of foreign dignitaries, guests to the city, and (importantly, I think) early travel guides.
[vi] It’s replete with out of date phraseology and vocabulary that is downright clownish in this decade. Believe me. I’m coming back to this later.
[vii] Some of his sources were artists who famously suffered from serious depression. I think the author fairly reports their impressions of the city, but the reader should take some of these melancholy recollections with a grain of salt.
[viii] About my “star system,” 4/5 is probably as good as it will get. I’m reserving 5/5 for something really mind-blowing. I dunno… a picture book of Hijikata Toshizō’s girlfriends or something. Every book, every movie, every song has some room for criticism. Also, I have no half-stars because they don’t display correctly across platforms.
[ix] In fact, he lived in Tōkyō until his death in 2007.
[x] Not necessarily Classical Japanese works, but classics of Japanese literature – think Meiji, Taishō, and Shōwa periods. But that said, his translation of the Tale of Genji is considered one of the greatest English translations. I have no interest in that book so… whatever.
[xi] Not to be totally out of context, the rest of the sentence was: “and yet, he admitted that sometimes translation is a nearly impossible task.”
[xii] In Japanese, he would be called a クソジジイ kuso jijii fucking old man (or as he might have rendered it “a cantankerous old codger”). Tell me whose translation is closer to the point?
[xiii] And maybe my use of the word “grand” makes me guilty of the same “crime.” Because who the fuck uses the word “grand” anymore? lol

You Know You’ve Been in Edo Too Long…

In Japanese History on May 16, 2014 at 11:43 am

You Know You’ve Been in Edo Too Long…
Twitter, what??



About 10 years ago, when I first came to Japan, I stumbled across an article on the internet called “You Know You’ve Been in Japan Too Long When…” It was basically a bunch of expats who – for better or worse – lived in Japan and had Japanized to some degree or another[i]. The list outlined all of the ways these foreigners had adopted certain (or many) aspects of traditional Japanese life.

I don’t know if this was a list compiled by a single person or by a forum or BBS. But only having been in Japan for a few months, I was intrigued by the concept. Of course, loads of other foreigners were going through similar experiences as me. Westerners tend to see themselves as not FOB, but come on, let’s be real: if you came here from another country, you were – and still are FOB[ii].

10 years ago, there wasn’t a strong online community of foreigners in Japan, but there definitely was something. Since then I’ve seen countless versions of “You Know You’ve Been in Tōkyō Too Long When…” posts.

A quick Google search brings up the following:

b4b1c411 Since I’ve started making more and more contacts with people who love Japanese History, and who, in fact, are passionate about the Edo-Tōkyō, I started wondering, “Hey, what if we tried this meme in the Edo Period?” I threw the question out to Twitter and this is what came back! This is a pretty nerdy exercise in Edo Geekdom. But for the n00bs, I’m gonna explain the more arcane posts, OK? Bear with me! The “You know you’ve been in Edo too long” thing can go on forever!!

You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you ask for extra scratchy rope on your 下駄 because #BoysDontCry
下駄 geta are wooden “flip flops” that look like this. If you’re not used to wearing them, the hemp rope will chafe the shit out of the space between your big toe and second toe until it bleeds. Boys Don’t Cry is just a random reference to The Cure.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when they let you bring a sword (or at least a knife) into Yoshiwara.
Weapons were not allowed in the Yoshiwara.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you start finding small pox scar patterns on people attractive and even sensual.
As in other cities and communities throughout the world before science gave us vaccinations/inoculations, Small Pox outbreaks were common in the Edo Period. The Japanese even had a 神 kami deity whom they blamed for spreading the deadly disease.
@RekishinoTabi @SubBeck you know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you consider Asakusa people country bumpkins.
Asakusa was town on the outskirts of Edo from the beginning. It wasn’t until the creation of Tōkyō City that these people were also considered 江戸っ子 Edokko, children of Edo – a term still used for a person who is at least a 2nd or 3rd generation Tōkyōite.
You know you’ve been in #Edo 2 long when Ienari’s syphilis & Iemochi’s beriberi are the punchlines to 50% of your jokes w/ the American legation.
Tokugawa Ienari, the party shogun, was riddled with syphilis. Tokugawa Iemochi, the died in Ōsaka shogun, died of beriberi – the 19th century version of “first world problems” for rich Asians. The American Legation refers to the original diplomatic envoys that came to Japan to establish and maintain relations with Japan. They were moved around, but were most famously confined to 善福寺 Zenpuku-ji in present day 元麻布 Moto-Azabu.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you see nothing wrong with using face whitening makeup made from bird sh*t.
Just read the next one.
@RekishinoTabi Or even better, face masks with it:
Thanks to @MetropolisTokyo who saved the day with the above URL that explains everything.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you start to believe there’s a giant underground catfish wriggling about, causing earthquakes.
In Old Japan, there was an old wives’ tale that earthquakes were caused by giant catfish under the ocean and in the rivers.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when the people in Namamugi Village recognize you. … And you actually know where Namamugi is.
Namamugi was an insignificant village on the Tōkaidō that was the scene of the Namamugi Incident, which was not insignificant at all. Today it’s pretty much an unknown suburb of Yokohama. However, there is a Kirin Beer Factory there.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you’re like “what is this 6 year old future music?”
Fuck you, I was taking a walk along Tōkyō Bay listening to Perfume. lol. Anyways, this album came out about 6 years ago and was their first full-length, non-compilation[iii] album.
@RekishinoTabi You know you’ve been in Edo too long when you know more prostitutes in Nagekomi-dera than in Yoshiwara.
This is a really dark joke.投込寺Nagegomi-dera means “temple for throw aways” or “dumping temple.” It was originally a local pejorative nickname for one of the most depressing places I’ve ever been – 浄閑寺 Jōkan-ji[iv]. This is the temple where some 25,000 girls from the Yoshiwara were dumped after they died because they had no family and the teahouses that they were indentured to couldn’t afford properly burying STD havin’, always gettin’ pregnant, no money makin’ liabilities. If you ever need a good cry, stop by Jōkan-ji, home of the only people who cared enough about all those girls to memorialize them. (Please see the footnotes about this).
@JapanThis @RichardMedh @RekishinoTabi You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you meet foreigners on Twitter who don’t live in 築地居留地.
This is a reference to the Tsukiji Foreign Settlement, but I translate it as the Tsukiji Foreigner Reservation because as an American I can instantly understand the legal connotation[v].
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when the name changes to Tokyo.
Touché, pussycat!
@RichardMedh @RekishinoTabi You know you’ve been in #Edo too long if you’re still there in 1871 when 東京府 was created and 藩 were abolished.
In 1868, Edo Castle was handed over to the Imperial Family, there was a massive gray area that lingered. Did the Emperor control all of Edo or just the castle? Well, the imperial court assumed they owned everything and they named the somewhat ambiguous Edo to Tōkyō. None of this was really clear until 1871 when a clear definition of re-administration was implemented – at the same time, all feudal lords were stripped of their holdings and the first incarnation of the modern state of Japan was born.
@RichardMedh: @RekishinoTabi You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you find yourself enjoying a good fire and fight.
The Edo Period was a martial society… I don’t understand this particular reference, though. My first guess is it’s a reference to a book or drama.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you walk from Kanda to Akanebashi and your feet don’t even hurt.
I figure this walk is from 1 hour to 1.5 hours, could be shorter if you walk as fast as I do. Most people drive, or in Japan, take the train. An Edo Period person could probably outwalk most modern people…[vi]
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long if you spend more than 2 minutes in front of a mirror messing about with your mage.
A 髷 mage is a top knot (hair style). In modern day Japan, girls might put their hair up in a ball called お団子 o-dango. But in Old Japan, 髷 mage means men’s or women’s hairstyles that look like this. Truth be told, in the Edo Period, maintenance of this hairstyle would have been taken care of by a woman (wife or otherwise in the case of man; a subservient female to an elite woman).
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long if instructions on how to wear a cod piece can be found in a rangaku book.
This is a weird Sengoku joke mixed with a weird joke about a weird habit of European 15th century aristocracy wearing a bra-like piece of clothing to enhance the size of your cock[vii]. This is a codpiece. Rangaku is “Dutch Learning.” When Japan was a “closed country,” there was still a slow trickle of information from Holland.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long if you drink 6 flasks of sake while partying but hardly feel buzzed (sake was usually cut to 3.5% alc)
In the era of turning everything up to 11, I’m sure we could out drink any Edo Era pussy. I would have liked to challenged Tokugawa Ienari to filth-a-thon, though.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long if you stay up partying all night every 60 days so the 3 worms inside you can’t tell your sins to 青面金剛
I’ll admit it. I have no idea what this one means! Sounds like a Buddhist thing to me, but I don’t know…
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you wonder if these hakama make your butt look big…
Hakama are a type of formal “pants” worn in Old Japan. The type worn by samurai looked like this.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you’re drinking with the shōgun and he hands you a #Tenga Egg and calls you 上様.
上様 ue-sama is how you addressed the shōgun. A Tenga Egg is this.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you hear 天誅! and think to yourself だよね!!!!
天誅 tenchū divine retribution is what 尊王攘夷 son’nō jōi revere the emperor/expel the foreigners supporters would shout when they assassinated samurai who supported opening the country or even interacted with foreigners.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when they fast track you through 関 on every 街道.
A 関 seki was a checkpoint on the highway. A 街道 kaidō was a highway.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you can’t tolerate translations of the word
A 神 kami is a Shintō deity. It’s often translated as “god,” but it’s very different from the Judeo-Christian word “god” which carries a lot of cultural/historical baggage. Granted, 神 doesn’t come baggage free either.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you find yourself drunk in 大名小路 on a horse and everyone wants to talk to you.
大名小路 Daimyō Kōji Daimyō Alley was the nickname of a long street in modern Marunouchi, an area technically within the confines of Edo Castle. The street was lined by mansions of the daimyō who had the closest historical connection to the Tokugawa Shōgun Family.Pretty sure this is a reference to a certain translator and man-about-town.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when a procession from Dejima or Ryūkyū is a breath of fresh air compared to all these asshole daimyo
I’m getting really tired of explaining these tweets… Dejima is where the few foreigners who could conduct trade with Japan were forced to live. Occasionally, they had to make trips to Edo to meet with the shōgunate. The Ryūkyū Kingdom is modern Okinawa, but at the time was an independent state that paid tribute to Satsuma Domain. Occasionally, they too had to make trips to Edo. It wasn’t every day that an Edoite got to see such exotic people.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when 従六位上 upper junior sixth rank still confuses you, but you know you best bow deep or else!!!!!
There was a super confusing court rank system.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you know the correct gesture while saying「失敬」
How can I even explain this?失敬 shikkei is the samurai way of saying すみません sumimasen “I’m sorry.” The hand gesture was raising the left hand as if in prayer in front of your face. The correct way would have been both hands, but the manly way was just one.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you 土下座 while talking on the phone… … or texting.
It’s a famous thing that Japanese people bow when talking on the phone just as they would bow during a regular conversation. A土下座 dogeza is the most formal bow of all. It’s done on the floor with the head down to the ground. It’s rare today, but it would have been normal in the Edo Period when speaking to a person of significantly higher rank.
@RekishinoTabi You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you know where to buy fundoshi that chafe the least… for a good price.
Fundoshi are traditional Japanese underwear that feature a fat, towl-like g-string.
@SublightMonster @RekishinoTabi You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you get annoyed having to walk 25 meters to the NEXT conbini
Conbini are convenience stores. They are everywhere. There is one 1 minute from my house. There are 8 within an 10 minute radius. Hence the word “convenient.”
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you can shamelessly rut with your spouse while the kids are “sleeping” right next to you.
Rut… lol. Anyways, traditional Japanese nagaya had a single room for sleeping in which the entire family slept together.
You know you’ve been in #Naniwa too long when you know the spot price of rice at this exact moment.
Naniwa was the ancient name of Ōsaka. Whereas Edo was the samurai epicenter of the country, Ōsaka had a merchant culture which was used to paying close attention to prices. Rice was more or less the standard for currency in the Edo Period. To this day, Tōkyōites will mock Ōsakans as “the sort of people” who will ask for a discount at any store – something the samurai culture of eastern Japan found extremely shameful (and still find shameful).
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when #Naniwa means Ōsaka is shit.
Just rude. Since the Edo Period (and especially after the Meiji Coup), there has been a rivalry between Ōsaka and Edo-Tōkyō. The source of this contention comes from the fact that Old Japan always had dē factō rulers. One day, I’ll more about this.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when polishing your sword is a double entendre.
Samurai polished their swords. Just look at the picture and you’ll get it. Work safe, btw…
You know you’ve been in Edo too long when you no longer mind staring down at your mud splattered tabi while bowing when a daimyo passes by.
Daimyō processions keep coming up, don’t they? Anywhoo… when a lord passed by you, you had to stop what you were doing and get down on the ground (dogeza) and wait until the entire retinue passed by. After all, you were a piece of shit and they were a daimyo. Tabi are traditional Japanese socks. (I have a feeling if you could see your tabi, you’d be killed.)
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long if you’re a samurai dandy & you’ve got more gold on your tsuba than Spain’s central bank reserves.
A tsuba is a decorative guard at the top of a sword hilt. I don’t know the English word for it. They were decorated and if removed from the sword….
@RekishinoTabi you know you’ve been in #Edo too long when tsuba is a double entendre.
If removed from the sword, they looked like vaginas.
@RekishinoTabi you know you’ve been in #Edo too long when a certain mon on a certain pillbox is scarier than an earthquake.
This is a reference to the old TV show 水戸黄門 Mito Kōmon where the vice-shōgun displays his 印籠 in’rō, a lacquered pillbox or purse that bears the crest of the Tokugawa family and everyone does dogeza (bowing on the ground).
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when the sight of a woman’s nape sends you into a ravenous, erotic frenzy.
Clothing in the Edo Period covered the entire body. Even to this day, the sight of a kimono wearing woman’s nape is a fetish. Yours truly is even a victim of this.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when a women asks to see your “hanzo,” you leave the katana sheathed but start loosening your fundoshi.
I don’t know where to begin.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when all the nagaya in the low city don’t all look the same… and you know which ones house the hotties.
Nagaya are the traditional row houses of Old Japan.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when spending the afternoon watching executions in Minami Senjū just ain’t what it used to be.
One of Edo’s 3 famous execution grounds was in Minami Senjū. The area still bears some stigma today (but is gaining notoriety among backpackers, artists, and foreigners who are slowly changing the image of the place).
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when your #iPhone autocorrects “hijinks” to “Hijikata.”
If I have to explain this one, stop reading my blog.
You know you’ve been in #Edo too long when you know the kanji 袴, 褌, 裃 and your Japanese wife doesn’t.
Since it’s a kanji joke, I’ll let you look those up yourself.
You know you’ve been in Edo too long when you always add the words “late, great” before the name Arashi Rikan.
This is a kabuki reference. That much I know. But I’ve never seen kabuki and so I can’t say much about this. That said, if anyone wants to go see kabuki with me, let me know. I’m dying to go!
You know you’ve lived in #Edo too long when you’re on a first name basis with most of the 飯盛女 working in Kita Senju.
飯盛女 meshi mori on’na (literally food+fuck girls) were girls who worked at teahouses in 宿場 shukuba post towns in the Edo Period. They were waitresses and conversationalists who were also available for sex. Kita Senjū was one of the first and last places into Edo.

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Japanize – (vt, vi) to become Japanese, to adopt Japanese styles, mannerisms, and/or culture.
[ii] Fresh off the boat. You’re a first generation immigrant or temporary expat.
[iii] Non-compilation but Japanese music industry style, because every Japanese album is comprised of previously released material plus some new stuff. Don’t get me started on the Japanese music industry, I could rant for hours!
[iv] I briefly alluded to this about a year ago in a really shit blog entry about Yoshiwara. I plan to re-write this blog entry, I was still figuring out what my blog was at that time. In the meantime, I recommend you check out this excellent explanation and photo essay on Jōkan-ji.
[v] In the shōgunate’s defense, they weren’t being racist as much as they were actually trying to protect the foreigners from racist attacks from hostile samurai who didn’t agree with the shōgunate’s view that opening the country was a good idea. If all the foreigners were safe and accounted for in restricted areas, no one could kill a diplomat. Killing a diplomat meant advanced foreign military technology would rain down upon Edo. The shōgunate were playing their cards VERY CAREFULLY.
[vi] That said, I’d put myself up against any of them. I can easily walk around Tōkyō for 6 hours (maybe that’s my max).
[vii] I doubt this was ever used in Japan. It’s use in Europe even seems to be limited to aristocracy.

Questions from Readers

In Japan on February 21, 2014 at 8:32 am
Wanna know who this is? So did other readers. Today I'll tell you!

Wanna know who this dude is?
So did other readers.
Today I’ll tell you!

I don’t get a lot of e-mails, but I’ve gotten a few over the past few months asking about my personal opinions or musings on certain topics. I don’t think Japan This! is really the place for my personal opinions on things like the “Do you think Korea has a good argument for renaming the Sea of Japan “the East Sea?” That said, I’m a human being and of course I have opinions on such topics.

So I wrote a 5 page article answering reader questions about my personal opinions on a few topics related to Japan and Tokyo. I included a little hate mail, too. (Believe it or not, I do get hate mail from time to time.)

I’ve posted the article on my Patreon page. For those who don’t know, Patreon is a crowd sourcing network that let’s you support artists, bloggers, and other creative people. Basically, if you like all this free content and you want to make a donation to support the blog, it’s a safe and trustworthy way to do so.

Some topics that get discussed are:

What does “Japan This” mean?
The Senkaku Islands.
Eating dolphins.
Hate mail. (My favorite part!)
 Much, much more…

The article is here:

Begging for donations or charging for content makes me feel like shit, so even if you don’t donate, I’ve decided to include a free post here. I really appreciate everyone who reads Japan This! If no one read this, I wouldn’t do it.

Well, that’s not true. It’s a labor of love. I’d still do it. But it just wouldn’t be as much fun. So thank you to each and every one of my readers (even the ones who send me hate mail). I have lots of love for you. And don’t worry, this blog is always going to be free!

OK, so as for today’s post, I just went to the Regional Immigration Office (every expat’s favorite place in the world), and I had to change trains at Daimon Station. I love this station because inside they have a few old pictures up on the wall. I decided to make a video of one huge photograph they have on display. This panoramic photograph shows a view from Tokyo Station/Marunouchi to Tōkyō Castle (Edo Castle) to Yurakucho/Hibiya Park and Shiodome (which at the time was called Shinbashi). Tameike Sannō was still an 池 ike lake. Sotobori Road was still a moat. You can see the Shiba area is still more or less Zōjō-ji’s massive, wooded precincts and that the bay is lacking the sprawling man-made islands that protect central Tōkyō from the sea. It’s really a spectacular photo.

What does Haneda mean?

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on January 24, 2014 at 3:23 am

Haneda Machi (Wing Field Town)

Haneda Anamori Inari Shrine in the late Meiji or Taisho Period.

Haneda Anamori Inari Shrine in the late Meiji or Taisho Period.

It may sound familiar. It may look familiar. But you will never find this city on a map of Japan.

That’s because this city doesn’t exist anymore. It was abolished in 1947 when 大森区 Ōmori-ku Ōmori Ward and 蒲田区 Kamata-ku Kamata Ward were merged into present day 大田区 Ōta-ku Ōta Ward. 3 humble postal codes are all that remain of this obscure Edo Period fishing village: 羽田 Haneda, 羽田旭町 Haneda Asahi-chō, and 羽田空港 Haneda Kūkō.

In 1818, a major shrine called 穴守稲荷神社 Anamori Inari Jinja Anamori Inari Shrine was built here. There were some other Inari shrines scattered throughout the area and since they came to a grand total of seven, someone got the idea of making a 七福稲荷巡りShichi Fukuinari Meguri Pilgrimage of the 7 Lucky Inari Shrines. At the beginning of the year, I spoke about how common courses for the 七福神 Shichi Fukujin 7 Gods of Good Luck are. Well, I know Inari became an extremely popular kami with the common people during the Edo Period, but this is the only 7 Lucky Inari course that I’ve ever heard of. (Of course, if there are more of these, I’d love to hear about it!)

Anyhoo, the area was just an obscure backwater until…


They built an airport here.

Haneda Airport.

Above, I mentioned 3 postal codes; the last one is the airport. And that area takes up the bulk of what was once 羽田町 Haneda Machi Haneda Town. That is to say, the town was more or less bulldozed over and everyone was relocated elsewhere[i].

If you want to read about the history of Haneda Airport – which is actually a pretty interesting story in and of itself[ii]I’ll direct you to the English Wikipedia page which seems pretty thorough in my humble estimation.


Map of the Haneda Shichi Fuku Inari

Map of the Haneda Shichi Fuku Inari.
Notice the river drawn vertically. That’s the Ebitori River.
Note the river drawn horizontally. That’s the Tama River.
Gonna talk about those again in a minute, mkay?

Ready! Set! Etymologize!

Now let’s talk about where this name came from, which, after all, is pretty much the only reason anyone comes here.

First, I’d like to give a little background. Today, Haneda is part of 東京都 Tōkyō-to the Tōkyō Metropolis. It was never part of Edo. Under the classical administrative system, this was 武蔵国荏原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara District, Musashi Province. The area was not a han domain, rather it fell under the direct control of the shōgunate[iii]. Until the 1950’s and 1960’s, the area had been, since time immemorial, a fishing village of little consequence.

Kantō place names start coming into the historical record in a sort of haphazard “abundance” for the first time in the Heian Period – but this particular area was in a dark age of sorts. There doesn’t seem to have been much activity here during the Kamakura Period – which is when we usually start getting solid information on place names in the Kantō area. The next big burst of information usually comes with the ascendancy of the Late Hōjō, but alas, this area gets skipped over (except for a passing reference which I’ll get to in a minute).

It’s not until the Tokugawa Period when we get any sort of reliable information on the area. Up to this point the area is more or less recognized as 羽田村 Haneda Mura Haneda Village. With the creation of 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture in the late 1860’s came the arrival of modern census-taking, modern map making, and – thankfully – modern record keeping.

But before that time in this area, we’re probably looking at a place name that went through a number of changes. The phonemes themselves could have changed, the kanji representing the phonemes could have changed, and such willy-nilly kanji-use could have been replaced by other kanji later – also willy-nilly. So, yes, once again, take everything, and I mean, everything, with a grain of salt.


Japanese Flight Attendants at Haneda Airport in the 60's.

JAL Flight Attendants at Haneda Airport in the 60’s.

So, here we go!

Theory 1
“Haneda” is a reference to where the inlets of the Pacific Ocean met the Tamagawa River.
The idea was that はね met :

muddy splash
(water) brushing up against (against the shore)

Fields (ie; the land being splashed upon or brushed upon)

This actually seems to be one of the most popular theories. The first kanji is rarely used in Modern Japanese place names[iv]. The second kanji is plain rarely used. Let’s file this under “not so crazy, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”

This torii marks the original location of Haneda Anamori Shrine (the shrine was removed to make room for the airport). You can see the Tama River in the background.

This torii marks the original location of Haneda Anamori Shrine (the shrine was removed to make room for the airport). You can see the Tama River in the background.

Theory 2

The area was famous for 半田 handa solder (heating up metals to melting point and fusing them). I couldn’t find many references to this business in the area, so who knows.

The story goes that in the old Kantō dialects, はんだ handa solder/pewter was pronounced はねだ haneda. Interestingly, I’m pretty sure the kanji 半田 are ateji[v]. So, if this etymology is true, it’s referencing a very ancient Japanese word and any kanji attached to it were added post hoc. Let’s file this under “adventures in ateji.”

I've got no pictures for this theory. But, hey, here's a picture of a cloud that looks like a dick.

I’ve got no pictures for this theory.
But, hey, here’s a picture of a cloud that looks like a dick.

Theory 3

OK, this is a kind of a stretch, because I probably can’t provide you with a visual for this, but, when viewed from the sea, the 海老取川 Ebigtori-gawa Ebitori River[vi] was split in two by the fields (). The fishermen said it had a shape that looked like a bird with its hane wings spread as if about to take flight. Let’s file this under “unlikely.”

Aerial shot of Haneda Airport. The bulk of the current airport is built on landfill that didn't exist during the Edo Period so there's no way to confirm this theory now.  I'm too lazy to pull out an old map because this theory sounds like BS. But from the air, you can see how various inlets split off into new rivers. I guess that could look like a bird's wings. Just not sure how you'd see it from a boat.

Aerial shot of Haneda Airport.
The bulk of the current airport is built on landfill that didn’t exist during the Edo Period so there’s no way to confirm this theory now.
I’m too lazy to pull out an old map because this theory sounds like BS.
But from the air, you can see how various inlets split off into new rivers.
I guess that could look like a bird’s wings. Just not sure how you’d see it from a boat.

Theory 4

This one is a total déjà vu, but it’s Totally Tōkyō®. First, let’s compare Akabane and Akabanebashi to this one. It’s said that the area was famous for its hani clay (for pottery, etc). In the local dialect, はに hani was pronounced はね hane. Completely plausible and consistent with other place name origins in the region. Let’s file this under “my preferred theory.”

"Haniwa" (the "hani" means "read clay") are ancient pottery or modern pottery done in the ancient style made of, yup, red clay.

“Haniwa” (the “hani” means “clay”) are ancient pottery or modern pottery done in the ancient style made of, yup, red clay.

Theory 5

The final one isn’t really a theory at all. It’s more of a half-assed observation.

This “theory” states that because fields () were so common in this part of Ebara-gun, many place names in the area included the kanji which means field.

OK, sure. But you can find place names and family names[vii] all over Japan with the kanji in them. And if we wanted to see if there was a particular trend for using that kanji here, we’d need to do some heavy statistical research that just sounds waaaaaaay too boring to me. Not to mention, this theory doesn’t say anything about the first part of the name. Let’s file this under, “not thought out very well.”

At ease, soldier.

The Mac Daddy himself.
“At ease, soldier.”
Haneda airport’s first real expansion effort was begun by the Supreme Allied Command during the American Occupation of Japan.

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[i] Of course, this didn’t all happen at once. The original airfield was a modest fraction of what it is today. The bulk of eviction and development was initiated by the Supreme Allied Command under General MacArthur. The Americans didn’t just evict a bunch of people, though. The area had been thoroughly devastated by firebombing and so most of the people were probably happy to get the hell out of the rubble and move to the new Haneda area which was fresh for development.

[ii] Although, its official story begins in 1931, it had become Japan’s major airport by 1938. But even just a quick look at the planes flying in and out and the size of the airfield bares testament to just how technologically unprepared for WWII Japan actually was. Wow.

[iii] If I’m not mistaken – and please correct me if I’m wrong – this was called 天領 ten’ryō and referred to lands that didn’t fall under the control of daimyō, but were nevertheless obviously part of the 天下 tenka the realm. So these lands traditionally fell under direct imperial control, but in the Edo Period they fell under control of the shōgun and his direct retainers. Basically they were worthless fiefs in the boonies. It seems like there were many ways to categorize these types of fiefs, so today a general term 幕府領 bakufu-ryō “shōgunal territory” is used.

[iv] A quick Google search only turned up 6 place names across Japan that use .

[v] The literal meaning is “half a field” which doesn’t mean shit when talking about blacksmithing.

[vi] Interestingly enough, this river’s name means the “the river where we pull up some delicious-ass shrimp.”

[vii] And apparently words (I’m looking at you, 半田 handa solder).

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