Tōkyō’ modern skyline and iconic public architecture are well worth seeing on any trip to Japan, but so are the quiet, low-rise neighbourhoods that make up its old Shitamachi – not least because of the glimpse they allow into the everyday, unvarnished side of life in the Japanese capital.
Second part of two. To read the first part, click here.
At the end of the previous post, we saw the old pagoda that once towered over the vast temple compound of Kan’ei-ji, back when it still occupied the space now taken up by Ueno Park. Even though the complex was almost completely obliterated during the Boshin War, Kan’ei-ji itself is still a functioning temple today, albeit reduced to a small group of buildings north of Ueno Park.
The upper and eastern sections of the park are packed with museums and cultural venues, chief amongst which is the Tōkyō National Museum. If you haven’t been there yet, I’d strongly recommend making it a stop on your itinerary. For my part, I’d already visited the TNM on several occasions – including just the day before (though I didn’t write about that particular visit in detail) – so I headed west and then north…
…passing a few interesting architectural features as I did so.
First amongst them was the so-called Kuro-mon (黒門, literally “Black Gate”), located on the southern edge of the TNM grounds and easily visible from across the street. Constructed in the Edo Period, this once served as the main gate of a daimyō’s mansion before being moved and reused several times, ultimately ending up where it now stands.
A little further on, I passed the attractive brick-faced Kuroda Memorial Hall (黒田記念館, Kuroda Kinenkan). Completed in 1928, the building recently became part of the TNM and houses a collection of works by the Western-style painter Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924).
Right next to the hall was a palatial building that wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of the great capitals of Europe. Built in 1906 and expanded in 1929, it was once the home of the Imperial Library of Japan before assuming its present-day role as the International Library of Children’s Literature (国際子ども図書館, Kokusai Kodomo Toshokan).
In due course, I reached the end point of the route plotted on the map above: the edge of a large cemetery attached to the temple of Kan’ei-ji (寛永寺). The temple itself was of little interest to me – though we’ll have a look at it shortly – since my primary target was actually this old gateway.
For much of the Edo Period, the Tokugawa shōguns were buried on an alternating basis within the temple compounds of Zōjō-ji (located in a different part of Tōkyō) and Kan’ei-ji. Their earthly remains were laid to rest in huge, lavishly decorated mausoleum complexes, all of which were destroyed during Allied bombing raids in the Second World War. Instead of reconstructing the lost buildings, the authorities redeveloped much of the former burial grounds, leaving just a few isolated remnants to remind people of the splendour that once existed. This particular gate is virtually all that remains of the mausoleum of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), the fifth Tokugawa shōgun, a historical figure I’ve been reading a fair bit about recently due to my ongoing research into the Akō Incident (which took place during his reign).
After spending a few moments in the commoners’ cemetery that had grown up around the former site of Kan’ei-ji’s shōgunal mausoleums…
…I walked a short distance to the west and entered Kan’ei-ji proper. Interestingly, in the course of routine research for these posts, I discovered that the present main hall of the temple was originally a part of Kita-in in Kawagoe, which I’d visited just the day before this stroll. It was disassembled and rebuilt here in 1879 – a fair trade, perhaps, considering a Tokugawa shōgun’s earlier donation of parts of his own Edo palace to help rebuilt Kita-in after a 1638 fire levelled much of that temple.
Now then, for the next stage of our walk.
A quick look at the map for orientation, then off we go.
My next stop was a small temple just north of Kan’ei-ji. Erected in the first half of the 18th century, the dark timbers and grey roof tiles of the entrance gate to Jōmyō-in (浄名院) stood out quite nicely in the low-rise, modern concrete neighbourhood…
…but I was immediately distracted by something altogether different.
Imagine the scene: late morning on a very sunny day, with a long walk behind and still quite some way to go ahead. I’d packed a small amount of water but it wasn’t enough, so by the time I got to this point I was feeling very thirsty indeed.
Ahh, sweet relief.
Now back to the sightseeing. Jōmyō-in was established in 1666, which makes its contemporary main hall – an ugly block of concrete built to a soulless modernist design – seem particularly inappropriate and woefully ill-conceived, architecturally speaking. Fortunately, turning one’s gaze a little to the west not only removes that eyesore from view, but also rewards the visitor with something altogether more scenic.
Those aren’t gravestones, by the way – they’re jizō statues. Over 20,000 of them, according to one count.
In the 19th century, a resident priest of Jōmyō-in decided to set up a thousand such images on the grounds of his temple. After reaching that target, he fixed a higher goal of 84,000. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a case of aiming too high and having one’s arrow fall short, but his successors picked up where he left off, and at present they’re somewhere around the 25% mark. (Good luck with the rest, chaps.)
From here, I continued west along Kototoi-dōri. Mid-rise buildings and a quiet street … not the sort of scene one would ordinarily associate with congested, heaving, perpetually moving Tōkyō.
Set aside for a moment the visions of soaring skyscrapers, scrambling crowds, or slick architecture that scenes of such places as Shinjuku, Shibuya, or Marunouchi might have engendered in your mind. This neighbourhood is the Tōkyō that Shitamachi locals are more familiar with, the Tōkyō that an ordinary chap of these parts might say farewell to in the morning and come home to after the day’s work is done.
And up until a few decades ago, he might have stopped here to pick up a bottle of sake on the way back.
Dating from 1910 and in active use up to 1986, the Former Yoshida-ya Sake Shop (旧吉田屋酒店, Kyū-Yoshida-ya Saketen) is now run as an annex of the Shitamachi Museum in Ueno Park – which you’ll no doubt remember from the previous post. It’s a splendidly preserved slice of early 20th-century Shitamachi life, with vintage posters and other artefacts helping to maintain a suitably old-fashioned atmosphere.
Shortly afterwards, I was back on the street and heading north. The trek to my next stop was fairly straightforward – at least on paper – as suggested by the route plotted below…
…but as occasionally happens on rambling explorations of this sort, serendipity struck again.
With noon fast approaching, I was casting my eyes about for a place to have a quick bite in. A street corner signboard led me on a short detour to the right of my intended path, down a narrow side street…
…and back in time.
Well, not quite. But there was certainly a strong retro vibe in this small clutch – almost a mini-neighbourhood unto itself – of preserved houses from the 1930s, collectively branded as Ueno Sakuragi Atari (上野桜木あたり). With places to eat and spaces to hang out in, it certainly feels like the perfect rest stop for visitors exploring the area.
In the end, I decided not to take my lunch here, mainly because I had a very specific craving to satisfy. (More on that in a future post.)
I pressed on towards my next stop: the vast, serene, almost otherworldly expanse of Yanaka Cemetery (谷中霊園, Yanaka Reien).
The place was huge, and there’s even a broad main street lined with cherry trees – a popular blossom viewing spot in the spring – that cuts through the middle towards the local temple. I’d love to come back someday and explore the graveyard more thoroughly, but on this particular visit, one specific tomb caught my attention.
I mentioned earlier how most of the Tokugawa shōguns were buried in either Zōjō-ji or Kan’ei-ji. The very last of them, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913), was laid to rest in neither of those places. Instead, his mortal remains were entombed right here in Yanaka Cemetery, nearly fifty years after the fall of the shōgunate, and in far simpler circumstances than those of his predecessors (quite understandable given that he no longer held the title of shōgun at the time of his passing).
Ironically, apart from the intact mausoleums of the first and third Tokugawa leaders in faraway Nikkō, Yoshinobu’s is perhaps the only shōgunal tomb amongst those of his family to have remained more or less undisturbed.
His grave is located in a small family plot surrounded by an iron fence, with the Tokugawa family crest displayed on the locked entrance gate.
I’d only seen a tiny sliver of Tōkyō’s large and inexhaustibly fascinating Shitamachi, but lunch was overdue and my homeward flight was just hours away. Here, at the tomb of a man whose passing marked the end of an era, I called an end to my own long walk in the Low City…
…with the happy prospect of a future return, of course.
From Yanaka Cemetery, I proceeded west towards Sendagi Station, where I eventually caught a train to my next stop of the day (more on that in another post). The quiet neighbourhood with its mess of power lines and narrow streets might not strike one as an interesting destination in itself, but I found it a delight to walk through. After all the grand public buildings and parks and shrines and temples I’d seen thus far, this simple, unvarnished side of Tōkyō almost felt like a blessed relief – a holiday from my own holiday.
Next, we’ll have a spot of lunch and pack one last bit of sightseeing into what remains of my time in the Japanese capital…
…but, as always, that’s a story we’ll save for another post.