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Posts Tagged ‘yamanote’

Yamanote Line Extravaganza (intro)

In Japan, Travel in Japan on April 23, 2016 at 2:21 pm

Yamanote-sen (the High City Line)


After my Ōedo Line Extravaganza back in June 2015, I got a few requests to do a Yamanote Line Extravaganza. One message was hilarious and too long to quote in its entireity here, but the author said (and I quote):

How could you do the Oedo Line before the Yamanote?
It’s an upstart and a poseur. It’s not even a real loop.

He ended the email with:

You are dead to me, sir. Dead.

I don’t get a ton of mail, but gems like that keep me going. If you’re that on board with my JapanThis! style, then by all means, send emails! Well, it’s actually better to leave a comment. I take back the email thing. Leave comments for the sake of my inboxes. But either way, let’s be friends! Also, bonus points for spelling poseur correctly.


Just kidding, I love you all!

Anyhoo, the reason I started with the 大江戸線 Ōedo-sen Ōedo Line is because I’d already covered a lot of the areas it services and because the name 大江戸 Ōedo literally means the Greater Edo Area and was a nice way to wrap up some articles I had written previously to that series.  Also, just including the word 江戸 Edo in the name was enough to make it first. Furthermore, I hadn’t re-written my looooong reference page about Yamanote vs. Shitamachi. I couldn’t very well write about the Yamanote Line without first exploring what those loaded terms meant, could I?

yamanote line.jpg

So What is the Yamanote Line?

The Yamanote Line has been described as Tōkyō’s most important train. It’s just a train line that runs in a circle around some prominent neighborhoods in Tōkyō. And just like the 大江戸線Ōedo-sen Ōedo Line, it runs in a loop around much of the old Edo city limits. However, unlike the Ōedo Line, it is in fact a true loop line that runs in an uninterrupted circle around the city center.

The word 山手 yamanote high city is the opposite of 下町 shitamachi low city. In the Edo Period, it referred to the secure high ground upon which the 大名 daimyō feudal lords and the 武家 buke samurai families lived. These days, residential addresses inside the Yamanote Line loop are seen as prestigious because they lie in the true center of Tōkyō. Owning or renting an apartment within the “Yamanote Line Loop” is generally expensive, but owning actual real estate[i] puts you into a unique segment of the city’s population. Sometimes you’ll see very old wooden houses within the loop that look run down and often decrepit. The owners may not have a lot of money and their houses may not look like much, but they’re the owners of a small plot of ancestral land that is literally worth a fortune. These families try to keep their land and live traditionally, passing on the plot to the next generation. Sometimes some son or daughter gets rich and knocks down the house and builds a modern domicile, but there are a few who resist and try to maintain this disappearing style of home – the idea being that if the head of the family falls into financial ruin, they could sell the ancestral plot for a huge sum of a money and recover the family’s inheritance.


The train line currently services 29 stations and in terms of passengers per day it puts most cities’ entire public transit systems to shame[ii]. A new, 30th station and business center will be added between 品川駅 Shinagawa Eki Shinagawa Station and 田町駅 Tamachi Eki Tamachi Station before the 2020 Tōkyō Olympics. This is the first route update to the Yamanote Line since 1971 and it will make use of an old trainyard and maintenance center that is being phased out by JR East, the company that operates the Yamanote Line. Incidentally, it will also give quick access to the 高輪大木戸 Takanawa Ōkido, one of the three original access points to the shōguns’ capital of 江戸 Edo.

The Original Route

The predecessor of the modern loop line was built in 1885 (Meiji 18) and started in 品川 Shinagawa (a seaside port area important for distribution, but relatively rural), then continued to 目黒 Meguro, then 渋谷 Shibuya, then 新宿 Shinjuku, then 目白 Mejiro, then 板橋 Itabashi, and terminated at 赤羽 Akabane (on the border of present day 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis and 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Saitama Prefecture, at the time a rural area near a river begging for industrial revolution pollution). This was the beginning of a new definition of 山手 yamanote high city. This was when the suburban and rural areas west of 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle (then 東京城 Tōkyō-jō) came to be called “yamanote.” Of these stations, none qualified by Edo Period standards as yamanote. Sections of those towns were indeed home to a handful of daimyō, but for the most part they were the outermost suburbs of the shōgun’s capital.

The train line was eventually connected to form its present day loop in 1925 when Akabane was dropped from Yamanote Line service. Like most loop trains in major cities, the Yamanote Line had come to be one of the most efficient ways to get around the city. It united business centers, cultural centers, and the associated red light districts[iii] for maximum economic impact. Tourists tend to find themselves on the Yamanote all the time given the train’s access to major hub stations and hotel districts. Think of a major destination in Tōkyō, it’s probably on the Yamanote Line: 渋谷 Shibuya, 新宿 Shinjuku, 原宿 Harajuku, 代々木 Yoyogi, 上野 Ueno, 秋葉原 Akihabara, 東京駅 Tōkyō Eki Tōkyō Station, and 有楽町新橋 Yūraku-chō/Shinbashi. For residents of the city, almost every station is necessary throughout the year.

I hope you’re excited about this series, because I am. Keep reading and keep watching this spot because I have a special announcement coming up very soon!

Further reading:


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[i] In terms of housing, this generally means the plot of land has been passed down the family for generations.
[ii] Yes, you heard me. This single line does more business than most cities’ entire transit systems.
[iii] For, as long time readers know, drinking & whoring.

Ōedo Line: Azabu Jūban

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

Azabu-Jūban (Azabu #10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This article is part of an ongoing series that starts here.

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

What does Keyakizaka mean?

In Japanese History on February 1, 2014 at 4:53 pm

Keyakizaka (Zelkova Hill)


Today’s place name etymology is another easy one. The first kanji is 欅 keyaki and means zelkova tree. The second kanji is 坂 saka hill. The kanji for keyaki is pretty rare in Modern Japanese, so this name is almost always written as ケヤキ坂 keyakizaka so people can actually read it. The Roppongi area has a long standing connection with zelkova trees. In fact, some people cite 6 giant zelkova trees as the etymology of the place name Roppongi[i].

But basically, the Azabu and Roppongi areas were a short walk from 江戸湾 Edo Wan Edo Bay but and the terrain was marked by lush wooded high ground (which became yamanote) and not-too-wet lowlands (which became shitamachi). The lush high ground was perfect for daimyō residences and lowlands were suitable for the merchant towns that catered to the elite domain “embassies.” Interestingly, the area is home to a number of embassies – many occupying former daimyō properties.

Anyhoo, I’m getting side tracked. I can’t say whether this name has survived from the Edo Period or not, but this 400 meter or uphill promenade is definitely befitting of the area’s Edo Period elite history. The street is wide and lined with trees and flower beds. The flowers are changed seasonally. The zelkova trees are richly illuminated – much more so now than the first time I visited in 2003. The street runs through a part of the Roppongi Hills “urban center” connecting the formerly shitamachi Azabu-Jūban shopping street with the 5-star Grand Hyatt Tokyo at the top of the hill. If you view off the road into the Roppongi Hills complex you will come upon the so-called Mohri Garden.

A quick word about this garden’s name. Roppongi Hills was developed by a dude named Mori Minoru. This garden is named after the Mori Clan who ruled 長州藩 Chōshū han Chōshū Domain. The developer’s name is 森 Mori and the daimyō’s name is 毛利 Mōri (spelled Mohri in the official Roppongi Hills jargon). So don’t confuse the two. But all I wanted to point out is that the developers claim that the garden is a partial holdover from the original daimyō garden. Take that with a grain of salt. It’s definitely a nice garden, if not a busy garden, and it’s definitely in the Japanese style. But I’m not willing to vouch to say any of it is actually a remnant of the Edo Period.

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[i] 六本木 Roppongi literally, “6 Trees.” Another version of the story says they were pine trees and not zelkovas. I don’t buy into that theory at all because there is a much more compelling derivation.
BTW – I just looked up my original article on Roppongi and was shocked at how short and uninformative it was. So I’m adding Roppongi to my “do over” list and will give a detailed explanation about the ‘Pong. 

What does Aoyama mean?

In Japanese History on April 26, 2013 at 1:19 am


Aoyama (Blue Mountain, Green Mountain)

Aerial view of Aoyama Cemetery

Aerial view of Aoyama Cemetery

Today, Aoyama is one of Tōkyō’s most fashionable and expensive neighborhoods. It borders Harajuku and Shibuya and is famous for shopping, high end dining and has a remarkable amount of green space – sorely lacking in other areas of the city.

The word is made of two characters:
ao blue or green (depending on who you ask)
yama mountain
Aoyama is a family name.

Aoyama Coat of Arms

The Gujo Aoyama mondokoro (coat of arms)

In the Edo Period, 郡上藩 Gujō-han Gujō Domain (located in 美濃国 Mino no kuni Mino Province; modern day 岐阜県 Gifu-ken Gifu Prefecture) was administered by the Gujō branch of the Aoyama clan. The castle and seat of the domainal government was at 八幡城 Hachiman-jō Hachiman Castle, so sometimes the domain is referred to as Hachiman-han. Since the clan originated in Mikawa, the family had a special relationship with the Tokugawa. At one point, during the Sengoku Era, they were responsible for the education of Tokugawa Hidetada who would later become the second shōgun.

Gujo-Hachiman Castle Today (it's a reconstruction from 1933), but the town and castle look well worth a visit.

Gujo-Hachiman Castle Today (it’s a reconstruction from 1933), but the town and castle look well worth a visit.

They had a sprawling palatial residence (下屋敷 shimoyashiki) in the outskirts of Edo. When daimyō residences were confiscated by the Meiji government for re-purposing, the land of the Aoyama residence was converted into present day Aoyama cemetery. It’s a massive urban cemetery. If you walk around it, you can get a feel for how large the estate once was. Even though the family was only worth 48,000 koku, this sub-residence was one of the biggest in all of Edo. None of the domain’s buildings exist today, but the Aoyama family temple, 梅窓院 Baisōin Baisō Temple, can still be found in Minami Aoyama.

Supposedly, the building on the right is one of the Aoyama residences.

Supposedly, the building on the right is one of the Aoyama residences.




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Why is Nihonbashi called Nihonbashi?

In Japanese History on April 22, 2013 at 12:49 am

Nihonbashi (Japan Bridge, more at “The Bridge to Japan”)

A Classic View of Edo... from Nihonbashi.

A Classic View of Edo… from Nihonbashi.

This one is going to be a bit of a monumental task. Not because the etymology of the place is name is difficult, but because the area is so steeped in history is will be forever linked to Edo and Tokyo.

Is there a bridge called Nihonbashi?

This is Nihonbashi today. (That street is the bridge, that “thing” that looks like a bridge is the highway that crosses over the bridge. Looks like shit, right? More about that later…)

I wrote a long ass blog about Nihonbashi. Loooong. After I wrote, found pictures and had everything ready to publish I realized I had made a horrific mistake. I had confused Edobashi and Nihonbashi. I found pictures and paintings which included two bridges, Nihonbashi and Edobashi. And yet somewhere I remembered learning that In the Edo Period the bridge was called Edobashi and in the Meiji Period it was called Nihonbashi. I consulted old maps and new maps, both of which had the places marked as distinct locations – albeit in the same vicinity. I found Edo Period paintings using the term Nihonbashi.

I even consulted the English Wikipedia entry, which said:

The Nihonbashi bridge first became famous during the 17th century, when it was the eastern terminus of the Nakasendō and the Tōkaidō, roads which ran between Edo and Kyoto. During this time, it was known as Edobashi, or “Edo Bridge.” 

I had so much conflicting information that I killed the entry on Nihonbashi and just put it on the back burner.

Since that time, I’ve read up a little more. Looked at more pictures and maps and I’ve come to the conclusion that what I was told (and what is written in Wikipedia) is wrong.

Edobashi in the late Edo Period. Note the white warehouses that line the river. This is a typical view of the area. The river was used for transporting goods and so the warehouses were very important.

Edobashi in the late Edo Period. Note the white warehouses that line the river. This is a typical view of the area. The river was used for transporting goods and so the warehouses were very important.

Edobashi and Nihonbashi are two totally different bridges, crossing the same river, running parallel. The Nihonbashi area was the starting point of the 五街道 Go-kaidō the 5 Great Highways connecting Edo and the provinces. If you crossed the bridge, proceeded towards Kyōbashi, you were following the Tōkaidō to Kyōto and Ōsaka (today this street is 中央通 Chūō Dōri Center Street/Main Street. If you walked a little east on the river, you’d come to second bridge, Edobashi. If you crossed Edobashi, you’d follow a road along a channel to another bridge called 白魚橋 Shiraōbashi “Whitefish Bridge” (today the river is gone and, if my understanding is correct, that road was incorporated into 昭和通 Shōwa Dōri Shōwa Street, which was built as part of the revitalization of Tōkyō after the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923).

Obviously, the history of the two bridges is closely linked, but they have always been two separate bridges connecting 2 separate roads.

Anyways, I’m not a scholar of Japanese History. This is just my hobby that I use to waste my valuable free time. But that said, I don’t want to waste yours and I don’t want to spread misinformation.

What's up with the 3 ghosts in the boat????

What’s up with the 3 ghosts in the boat????

A Little Background

1590 – Toyotomi Hideoyoshi sends Tokugawa Ieyasu’s ass to Edo. He wants to uproot him from his base in Mikawa and use him to fight the Hōjō in Kantō. Essentially this keeps Ieyasu out of Hideyoshi’s hair and far enough away from Kyōto and Ōsaka to make any problems (or so he thinks). Ieyasu begins rehabilitation of Chiyoda Castle (soon to be Edo Castle) and Edo begins to prosper under the auspices of the Tokugawa.

1600 – Battle of Sekigahara. Ieyasu wins. Except for a few pockets of resistance in Ōsaka, Ieyasu is the de facto ruler of Japan.

1603 – Ieyasu is granted the title 征夷大将軍 sei’i taishōgun (shōgun) by the Emperor. As the master of Edo and the master of all Japan, Ieyasu continues building up the city of Edo, but now with a renewed vigor to make the city a worthy capital – one that rivals Kyōto, but also expresses his vision of a final and lasting Tokugawa hegemony. It is in the year that Nihonbashi is built.

A beautiful panoramic triptych of Edo, focusing on Edobashi.  (big time anachronism going on here, btw. this is supposed to be the shogun minamoto yoritomo's procession)

A beautiful panoramic triptych of Edo, focusing on Nihonbashi.
(big time anachronism going on here, btw. this is supposed to be the shogun minamoto yoritomo’s procession)

So What Does the Name Mean?

Any foreigner who visits Japan learns a few basic Japanese words right off the bat. The first word is usually 日本 Nihon Japan. If you stick around long enough, you’ll figure out that 橋 hashi is bridge. There ya have it. Nihonbashi means “Japan Bridge.”

But as I briefly mentioned above, the bridge was seen as the starting point for the major roads into and out of Edo. From the beginning the Tōkaidō road linked the city directly with Ōsaka (and therefore with Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s court and the nearby imperial court in Kyōto). When the bridge was built in 1603, it literally connected Edo, a small castle town, to the rest of Japan. As Edo flourished, especially with the presence of daimyō coming and going for alternate attendance duty in Edo, the bridge became a symbol of Edo’s power as a capital that unified Japan.

What does Nihonbashi mean in Japanese?

This was the “zero kilometer” marker for the 5 roads placed there by the Meiji Government. It has since been moved as a memorial thingy so you can take pictures of it without getting run over by a car.

Enter Edomachi

The area between Kyōbashi and Nihonbashi was a little island surrounded by channels to bring goods in and out. It was a commercial district, not an elite area. This area was called 江戸町 Edomachi – the town of Edo. Today this area makes up parts of Kyobashi, Edobashi, Nihonbashi and Yaesu. Because most of the channels are gone, it directly borders Marunouchi and Hachobori.

I suppose this name, Edomachi, set it apart from the samurai part of town surrounding the castle. I’m just speculating here, but the area was typified by living in close quarters with many merchant families packed into cramped spaces, so it’s being surrounded by water might have been an effort to contain fires. If the merchant area burnt down it was OK, losing the elite samurai class would have sucked balls — in the eyes of the shōgunate.

Ieyasu’s first concerns were in building up his castle and its fortifications. His second concern was surrounding the castle with the residences of his vassals, the damiyō built “modest” residences spiraling out from the castle as a secondary fortification. But the castle and the daimyō had needs, which sent business from all classes and walks of life to Edomachi.  In the beginning, Edomachi was as safely removed from the castle area and conveniently located on the major route into and out of the city. As Edo spread and became a metropolis, things changed.  but for all of the Edo Period Edomachi was the commercial heart of Edo and therefore the commercial heart of Japan.


Nihonbashi Edobashi Edomachi

Nihonbashi in the Meiji Era. Note the white warehouse can still be seen along the river. The bridge’s white stone is new and clean. Nice.

So What Happened After Edo Became Tōkyō?

1911 – A new stone bridge, in the European Style, is built across the river. It still stands today.

1923-1928 – In efforts to rebuild Tōkyō after the Great Kantō Earthquake, the canals on the east and west sides of Edomachi were filled in, thus blending the old commercial center with the surrounding areas.

1963 – In preparation for the Tōkyō Olympics, they built a freaking highway over the river. This highway killed the classical view of Mt. Fuji and made the area pretty ugly.

Present – Nihonbashi is famous as a financial and business center. The Tōkyō Stock Exchange is there, as are many large companies and banks. Some of the shitamachi flavor persists even to this day if you spend enough time walking around the area. You can find small izakaya and restaurants that have a decidedly 江戸っ子 Edokko style.

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