A highway of the Edo period invites you to a trip down memory lane
The Tōkaidō (東海道 / とうかいどう) is one of the few important roads in Japan whose names have been heard outside the country (mostly in connection with the “Tōkaidō” line of the bullet-train network (Shinkansen / 新幹線) of Japan Railways, which connects the cities of Tōkyō and Ōsaka). In general, however, this refers to the historic highway that in the Edo period (江戸時代 / えどじだい) (1603-1867) connected the old imperial city Kyōto (京都 / きょうと) with the headquarters of the Tokugawa Shōgunate (徳川幕府 / とくがわばくふ) in Edo (江戸 / えど). The street was much-sung about – and certainly even more often the subject of artistic contemplation (quite a few will be familiar with the colourful woodblock prints of the “53 Stations of Tōkaidō” (東海道五十三次 / とうかいどうごじゅうさんつぎ).
In reality, however, the roots of this important highway go back to a road system that was taken over from China in the early 8th century. The Tōkaidō gained greater significance only from the end of the 12th century, in the era of the Kamakura Shōgunate (鎌倉幕府 / かまくらばふく), which had its seat of government in Kamakura (about 50 km south of today’s Tōkyō, located at the shores of the Pacific Ocean). But of course, this road was certainly the most important one in the Edo period, when it was one of the prime ways to commute over a distance of 488 km between the two most important cities of the empire, Kyōto and Edo (today’s Tōkyō) (if one had obtained a permit for this – but that is an entirely different story that should not be elaborated here).
Today the Tōkaidō “lives on” mainly in sections of its old grandeur (which are used as normal roads, even as national roads) and in names.
So, don’t be surprised to also find a “Tōkaidō” in Tōkyō, the old Edo. It is called “Kyū Tōkaidō” (旧東海道 / きゅうとうかいどう), former Tōkaidō, because it is no longer used as a main road and “only” reminds us of the old times. It is particularly “hikable” from Kita Shinagawa (北品川 / きたしながわ) to the Shinagawa Aquarium (品川水族館 / しながわすいぞくかん) over a length of almost five kilometres. And in this secition it is not just a historic road, but also one that even today shows how important it must have been in the past. The road is lined with an almost uncountable number of temples and shrines. Attentive readers of this website already know one of them:
The Six Jizō Bosatsu of Edo (江戸六地蔵)
– A prilgim’s way to ancient copper Jizō sculptures across Tōkyō
The very first and oldest of the Jizō statues described in that article can be found at the Honsen Temple (品川寺 / ほんせんじ) – one of the remarkable Buddhist temples along the old Tōkaidō.
The street scene
But let us stroll along the old main road from north to south. Of course, the street scene today has nothing to do with what the eye saw in the old Edo days, but even today you can tell that the street used to be a busy one. Recent years have seen some investment in infrastructure, the road surface has been renewed, more space for pedestrians has been created, and apparently the retail trade has been encouraged to settle (or at least to persevere). Nevertheless, the big city is eating its way into this rather small-town section Tōkyō – gradually, larger and larger apartment buildings are being built.
The origins of this temple are unknown. It is assumed that the Honkō-ji (本光寺 / ほんこうじ) received this name in 1382. During the Muromachi period (1336-1573) the temple was given to the Hokke sect of Japanese Buddhism. And it is said that the third of the Tokugawa Shōguns, Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光 / とくがわいえみつ) visited the temple. Like so many other historical buildings of Tōkyō, the main hall of Honkō-ji was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1923 and rebuilt in 1926. When several schools (sects) of Japanese Buddhism merged, the temple joined the Nichiren sect in 1941, which it again left after World War II.
After it was destoyed again during World War II, the main hall was rebuilt in 1968. The pagoda that visually dominates the compound today dates from 1985.
There isn’t much to report about the history of the Honei-ji (本榮寺 / ほんえいじ), except that it is said to have been founded in 1574.
According to legend, the temple was built in 1285 by Tenmei (天目 / てんめい), a student of Nichiren (日蓮 / にちれん). From the end of the 16th century the temple was closely connected with the Tokugawa family (徳川 / とくがわ). A five-storey pagoda dating from the 15th century was destroyed by a storm in 1614, but renewed by the third Tokugawa Shōgun before being destroyed again in 1702 – this time by fire – and never rebuilt after that.
One usually enters the grounds of the Tenmyōkoku-ji (天妙国寺 / てんみょうこくじ) through the Sanmon (山門 / さんもん). This bright red main gate seems to be as “as good as new”, not only because it was only built in 1955, but also because it has certainly been painted several times since then. It belongs to the “one hundred scenic spots in Shinagawa” – and one almost feels tempted to say: Rightly so! Even the massive main hall, which was built in the middle of the 18th century, clearly stands out from the mass of small temples in the neighbourhood.
The Shinryō-ji (真了寺 / しんりょうじ) was founded in 1673 as a Nichiren temple. For more than 20 years it has been an animal cemetery – a niche in the market, which will certainly be profitable in Tōkyō – without any real service having to be rendered (for animals, of course, much less than for humans) – as people here are particularly inclined to humanise their pets. But for the visitor, the massive main gate with the two elephants is probably more impressive anyway.
(one of the “one hundred scenic spots in Shinagawa”)
The Kaiun-ji (海雲寺 / かいうんじ) is also one of the 100 “scenic spots” of Shinagawa. That being the case, one might wonder, why the gardens of the temple in a rather untended state.
The origin of the temple is said to be a pagoda, which was built in 1251. Initially the temple belonged to the Rinzai sect of Japanese Buddhism, but in 1596 it was renamed to its present name and joined the Sōtō sect.
On the grounds of the temple there are several cultural assets, for example an eleven-headed Kannon, which is said to date from 1251 (the year the temple was built). The temple is also associated with the Christian Shimabara uprising of 1637, when the Nabeshima (Fujiwara sideline) worshipped here supported the Tokugawa Shōgunate (they had received the region of Saga, one of the richest domains in the country, from the Tokugawa). This uprising is of particular historical significance, as it was one of the main factors that led to the closure of Japan for over 200 years.
By the way, this temple is located in the immediate vicinity of the Honsen Temple (品川寺 / ほんせんじ) with its impressive Jizō statue.
In the far north, on the northern banks of the Meguro River (目黒川 / めぐろがわ), you will find the Ebara Jinja (荏原神社 / えばらじんじゃ). This ancient shrine dates back to a foundation in the year 709 – this is where the gods from the imperial city of Nara (奈良 / なら) (at that time still called Heijō-kyō 〈平城京 / へいじょうきょう〉) were worshipped, as well as the gods from the “eternal” imperial city Kyōto (京都 / きょうと) (at that time still called Heian-kyō 〈平安京 / へいあんきょう〉 or simply Miyako 〈京 or 都 / みやこ〉 , “imperial residence”).
During the Tokugawa Shōgunate (徳川幕府 / とくがわばくふ) (1603-1867) the shrine enjoyed the special support of the Tokugawa clan.
After the Meiji Emperor took over the government in 1868, the shrine even became an imperial site. The main building of the shrine is the oldest one still preserved – it dates back to 1844. Since 1875 the shrine “listens” to the name “Ebara Jinja”, after the former district of Shinagawa, which however lost its independence in 1947.
The deities worshipped here take care of happiness, success in learning, prosperity in business, road safety, curing illness, family safety and love. Obviously there is hardly any reason not to make a short stop here.
Samezu Hachiman Jinja
Quite far south of our route we find the Samezu Hachiman Jinja (鮫洲八幡神社 / さめすはちまんじんじゃ). It is not as old as the surrounding temples (the exact date of foundation is unknown anyway – it must have been sometime in the second half of the 17th century). At that time there was a fishing settlement called Ohayashi-machi (御林町 / おはやしまち) – that is why the shrine was originally called “Ohayashi Hachiman Jinja”. Izanami no mikoto (伊弉冉尊 / いざなみのみこと) and Izanagi no mikoto (伊弉諾神 / いざなぎのみこと) are also worshipped here. These two primal gods of Japanese mythology are not just “any” deities, but so to speak mother and father of the most important deity of Japan, the sun goddess Amaterasu ōmikami (天照大神 / あまてらすおおみかみ) and her brother Susanoo no mikoto (素戔嗚尊 / すさの･おのみこと). Izanagi no mikoto could therefore also be called one of the great-great-great…-grandfathers of Japan’s first emperor.
The main building of the shrine dates back to 1972 – but the shrine area impresses most with its enchanted atmosphere and the two neighbouring small shrines (Inari Jinja / 稲荷神社 and Itsukushima Jinja / 厳島神社) with a carp pond (which is also home to a lot of water turtles).
On the worldly side
Statue of Sakamoto Ryōma in Tachiaigawa
(one of the “one hundred scenic spots in Shinagawa”)
Sakamoto Ryōma (坂本竜馬/ さかもとりょうま), who was born on January 3, 1836 in Tosa (today Kōchi) and died on December 10, 1867 in Kyōto, is considered one of the pioneers of the Meiji Restoration, at the end of which (shortly after Sakamoto’s death) the emperor again took over all worldly power from the Tokugawa Shōguns who had ruled for over 250 years until then. Today revered as one of the national heroes, he was – in his days – certainly considered more of a terrorist, because he openly rebelled against the authority of the state by attacking the Tokugawa government, but also by rebelling against an opening of the country. The fact that he did not die “of natural causes” (the background and context of his murder was never clarified) should not come as a surprise.
The statue here in Shinagawa – like many others – is currently revered as a symbol of a successful fight against the Corona pandemic. On the sign at the feet of the great rebel is written: “私たちはコロナに負けないぜよ！”, which has been “kind of” translated as “We would not lose to CORONA!
(one of the “one hundred scenic spots in Shinagawa”)
There will always be quite a variety of points of view, when it comes to whether a location can pass for a “picturesque place”. The Shinagawa Hanakaidō (品川花海道 / しながわはなかいどう) provides an eloquent testimony to this. However, please keep in mind, the park cannot be blamed for the fact that I was a little late for the Cosmos blossoms…