Walking history on the outskirts of old Edo

In this time when safety restrictions are slowly being relaxed and summer weather is upon us, many people want to get out a bit, while minimizing any health risks of doing so. How about a nice urban walk with plenty of history and greenery and not too many crowded places?

This easy walk of about four kilometers explores a little-known, historical Tokyo suburb.  Use the map at the bottom of this post to guide you. It’s fun for adults, but also suitable for children. Try this Togoshi Scavenger Hunt to get your kids involved.

While I don’t make any specific food recommendations, you will find lots of options for snacks as you pass near Togoshi-koen station, if you’re feeling peckish by then.

Begin from Shimo Shinmei Station on the Tokyu Oimachi line, just one stop from Oimachi. Your first stop, Shimo Shinmei Tenso Shrine, is a 5 to 7 minute walk away. This area was originally a village known as Hebikubo. By 1644 the village had grown to the point that it was split into “upper” and “lower” Hebikubo, each with its own “Shinmei” shrine.  Shimo Shinmei shrine is the shrine of lower Hebikubo (a neighborhood now known as Futaba) and was founded in 1644.

These days the shrine is particularly known for its preservation of gagaku, a thousand year old performing art featuring traditional Imperial court music, stylized dance and colorful traditional costumes.  It also continues to maintain a small rice paddy, the harvest of which features in the shrine’s annual harvest festival in mid-September, an homage to this area’s history as a major rice producing area.

On the way to your second destination, watch for a small Jizo shrine.  Jizo is known as a guardian of children and travellers.  But just in case that’s not enough protection, note the koban (police box) just next door.

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The second destination on this walk is Togoshi-koen, a 1.8 hectare leafy park featuring a languid pond fed by a small cascading waterfall known as “Edo Falls”.

From 1644 to the end of the 19th century, this was the site of the residence of the Hosokawa lords of Kumamoto domain, whenever they were in Edo, as Tokyo was known until 1868. The Hosokawa chose the site because of the falls and the excellent hawking and pheasant hunting the area offered. The fact that it was just outside Edo’s technical boundary may have been an added bonus.

Today the park, especially the shallow stream below the falls, is a popular play spot for local children.  Nearby old men sit on the park’s benches reading newspapers.

The park has some nice wooded walkways and is particularly known for its traditional bamboo fencing.  The main gate to the park is a replica of the gate when this was the Hosokawa estate.

Just 100 meters from that main gate is Bunko no Mori, another public green space with a pond as its central feature. The park’s name literally means “Library Forest”, in recognition of the fact that this was the site of the National Institute of Japanese Literature until early this century when the institute moved to a new facility.  A 1920s stone building that belonged to the institute anchors the park’s northeast corner. You will pass by as you leave the park for your next destination, Togoshi Hachiman Shrine.

The shrine is located on the approximate boundary of old Edo.  The kanji character “to” is the same as that of Edo’s “do” and the “goshi” character means “to cross”. Thus the name “Togoshi” means something like “crossing into Edo”. Although I don’t include it in this walk, nearby is Togoshi Ginza, famously the longest shopping street in Tokyo.

Togoshi Hachiman Shrine, founded in 1526 (early days for Edo), is dedicated to Hachiman, the god of war. The current shrine building, slated for reconstruction in 5 years, is 180 years old.

Like many shrines, there is a mai-den (dance stage) to one side of the shrine’s courtyard. Unlike any other shrine I’ve visited, the courtyard is filled with outdoor sofas, turning it into an giant living room. As one of the priests explained to me while another served me a cup of cold tea and a sweet, they want people to feel welcome to linger and enjoy the atmosphere, and, by doing so, to feel closer to the gods.

Like most shrines, Togoshi Hachiman Shrine has an annual festival, when an o-mikoshi containing the god is carried through the neighborhood, effectively allowing the god to make housecalls.  Every three years (last in 2019) the shrine also brings out its elaborate float, otherwise housed in a special, tall fire-proof storehouse, to join the parade. Whether this year’s festival can take place as scheduled on the second week-end of September has not yet been decided.  Similarly, the shrine and the neighborhood are still deciding how they will reconstruct the shrine building when the time comes. In the meantime the old shrine building, while a bit dilapidated, remains dignified and picturesque.

The priest assured me that whatever they do, the shrine’s antique art treasures are sure to be preserved.

The next stretch of this walk is where you will encounter the most people, as you are heading past Togoshi-koen train station.  Before you reach the station, make a brief stop at Togoshi Fushimi Inari Shrine, a small satellite of Kyoto’s famed Fushimi Inari Shrine. Inari shrines are dedicated to the goddess of the harvest, whose messenger is the fox. Especially in areas like this one, that were once filled with rice paddies, Inari shrines are plentiful.

As is the case with many suburban train stations, the main roads leading to the station have become shopping streets, lined with shops and restaurants.  Fortunately, this isn’t a particularly busy station, so the crowding along the way isn’t too bad.  Keep going past the station to the south side and continue.  After about 150 meters, you’ll come to an area known as Yutaka-cho.  The merchants in this area have invested in special street lights to decorate their shopping street, based on a legend associated with this area.

According to the legend, this was an area where the nighttime darkness was particularly deep, causing villagers various problems.  One night when the full moon was concealed by fog, a maiden prayed at the feet of the Ohara Fudo, a wrathful god paradoxically known for his compassion. You can find the Ohara Fudo in his little shrine just next door to the Yutaka-cho police box (are we noticing a pattern here?).

As she prayed, “O Fudo-sama, please provide us with some light,” there appeared at the feet of the Fudo a sliver of light and a boy and a girl, each carrying the light of the moon.

The children cheerfully called out, “Leave it to us” and ascended into the skies to grab light from the mouth of the gods. As they did this, the fog lifted and the light of the moon shone through. From that time, flowers bloomed, crops thrived, children and animals were happy, and the adults were filled with optimism. The town became known as “Yutaka”, meaning abundance.  The merchants have commemorated this by installing street lights that look like lanterns held by children in Heian period (794-1185) costume.

Although the tangle of power lines co-existing with these lights somewhat spoils the view, you can still enjoy the creativity of these adorable lights. At the end of the street (ie, where the special lights end), turn right and continue to your final stop: Kami Shinmei Tenso Shrine.  You’ll know you’re on the right track when you see the street lights in the shape of a white snake.

Also known as Hebikubo Shrine, Kami Shinmei Tenso Shrine is the original shrine of the village of Hebikubo. It was founded in 1322 to commemorate successful prayers for rain that saved the village from drought. The village’s history dates from at least 100 years before that.

There was once a spring on the site that was said to be occupied by a white snake, a known messenger of the goddess Benten (the “hebi” in Hebikubo means snake). Consequently, there is also a small Benten shrine here, although it is being renovated this year.

True to form, there is also a small Inari shrine to ensure a good harvest for the local farmers.

Until June 30, 2020, when there will be a small summer festival (scaled back this year due to the contagion), visitors will also find a “nagoshi” ring in the shrine’s courtyard.  Follow the prescribed route to pass through this ring three times for good fortune.

IMG_4604From Kami Shinmei Tenso Shrine it’s just a 6 or 7 minute walk to Nakanobu Station on either the Tokyu Oimachi line or the Toei Asakusa subway line. Hopefully you’ll find this little walk a welcome opportunity to stretch your legs and explore a bit of history while keeping social distance.

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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2 thoughts on “Walking history on the outskirts of old Edo

  1. Tim Leyland says:

    So enjoy your posts, thank you : ) We’ve been to Japan several times, and are always updating our future itineraries with ideas from the places you report on! Can’t think of any of your posts that aren’t intriguing, but the pre-Meiji industrial archaeology is especially interesting. You don’t seem to get up to Hokkaido much (?) – that was the first area we explored back in the early 2000’s, so much history that is incongruous with the rest of Japan – – how weird to see street signs in Kanji, English, and Cyrillic !!!!

    >

    Like

    • Jigsaw Japan says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m glad you’re enjoying Jigsaw Japan. No, I haven’t been to Hokkaido in ages. But I’m keeping busy reporting on other places for now. Stay tuned for more!

      Like

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