Castles, Cats and Sumo in Setagaya

Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward is best known as Tokyo’s bedroom, the most populous ward of the metropolis, principally a residential area. It also has a number of sights to enjoy and even history to experience. Here’s an uncrowded suburban walk of around four kilometers, mostly through greenery, culminating in some of those sights and history.  There’s a map below to help you find your way.

Begin from Sangenjaya Station.  If, for whatever reason, you’re not after the journey, just the destination, you can skip the 2.9 kilometer walk I’m about to recommend by taking the Tokyu Setagaya Line from Sangenjaya to Miyasaka and just focusing on the three main sights (but the walk is pleasant and relaxing, hence my recommendation).

From the plaza in front of the Tokyu Setagaya Line Senganjaya station, turn left and follow the map along a little shopping street, taking a hard left onto the Karasuyama Promenade. This is a green walkway that follows the course of the Karasuyama River, a tributary of the Meguro River, that now runs underground.  Many of the small rivers and irrigation canals of suburban Tokyo were put underground during post-war redevelopment. In many cases, including this one, we can still enjoy the course of the river, preserved as a green walkway.

The key point of this walk is simply to enjoy the pleasant green space.  At many of the intersections with regular roads there are signposts with the names of the bridges that once crossed the river, poignant reminders of a lifestyle long gone.  Keep an eye out at intersections, especially on the right, for various local shrines, which are quaint and worth a bit of an aside to take a look at.  As just one example, at the intersection where the bridge was called “Inari-bashi”, you will see the red torii of Wakabayashi Inari Shrine a couple of blocks away. Inari Shrines, honoring the god of the harvest, are everywhere in Japan, often marked by tunnels of red shrine gates. Although this one has no such tunnel, it is a pretty red and white shrine, with satellite shrines to Daikokuten, the god of prosperity, and a shokonsha shrine honoring those who died in war serving the Emperor.

The promenade passes along the edge of the campus of Kokushikan University, notable for its high retaining wall on the left of the promenade.  Just beyond is a stretch that has a small water channel burbling alongside the walkway, an homage to the now defunct river.

All along the way are signboards with maps, frequently topped with images of cats, a harbinger of the talisman of this area, as you will soon see.

Sometimes the paving tiles of the promenade include historical images of Setagaya-ku, such as old maps and images associated with local legends.

At the signboard marked “Oba-bashi”, there is a traffic light at a larger cross street. Turn right onto this street. After less than 100 meters you’ll find a wooded park running up the hill on the right. This is the ruin of Setagaya Castle. This place doesn’t fit our image of Japanese castles, with massive stone walls. Rather it was a defensive bastion with earthen ramparts during Japan’s Warring States Period (1467-1615). It was abandoned at the end of the 16th century after the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) besieged and ultimately took Odawara Castle, not so far away. To ensure the ramparts don’t erode, they have been shored up with modern blocks. Nonetheless, it is interesting to take a few minutes and scramble around on the paths over the various earthworks and imagine how these could have been used defensively.

Another 50 meters up the road, the entrance to Gotokuji temple, on the hill above, is also on the right.  This  venerable temple, founded in 1480, is particularly known for its maneki neko, lucky cats. Why maneki neko, one may ask. The legend is that the Edo Period daimyo Ii Naotaka (1590-1659) was hunting in this area when a thunderstorm struck.  Looking to shelter at the temple, he saw Tama, the pet cat of the temple’s abbot, beckoning to him.

Moving toward the beckoning cat, he narrowly avoided being struck by lightening. Ever since, the maneki neko, sitting with one paw raised to beckon, has become a lucky charm. Businesses, especially those heavily reliant on customers, like restaurants and small shops, often keep maneki neko figurines in the front window to beckon customers to enter. They are also popular charms for home safety. The ones at Gotokuji have mostly been placed here as prayers for luck or fortune. And there are a lot of them!

As you might expect, the ema votive plaques of this temple also feature maneki neko, and there is even a maneki neko serving as a Kannon goddess of mercy.


The maneki neko are so associated with Gotokuji that a vending machine in the visitor rest area on the grounds also features maneki neko images.

The cats are quite something, but there is more to this serene and well-tended temple. The temple’s bell, cast in 1679, is a registered cultural property. Opposite the belfry stands a three-story pagoda which, although only completed in 2006, blends perfectly with the more historic buildings on the site. Like many pagodas, there are carvings of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac under the lowest eave of the pagoda, each facing its designated direction (the Chinese zodiac once also served to mark the directions on a compass). The carving of rats shows them frolicking around a maneki neko.

Since it was a cat of this temple that saved the life of Ii Naotaka, it is only fitting that his final resting place should be here, too. Take your time to wander around the nooks and crannies of temple’s grounds.

Your next stop is Setagaya Hachiman Shrine, less than 350 meters from Gotokuji. This shrine was founded in 1091 by Minamoto Yoshiie (1039-1106), a powerful lord who was stranded in this area by heavy rains. (Is this neighborhood especially rainy? Both Naotaka and Yoshiie got caught in rain and I was rained on during my visit, too.  Hmm.) The Minamoto clan have long regarded Hachiman, the god of war, as their special god, so Yoshiie founded the shrine here as a branch of Usa Jingu.

Yoshiie also amused himself, and his men, by arranging for them to have sumo matches with each other. He even joined the matches himself. The shrine continues to host an Autumn sumo tournament in an amphitheater on its grounds (although probably not in 2020). Several large “strength stones” are also on display, with names carved in, presumably of the powerful wrestlers of the past who picked them up.

Among the small satellite shrines on this shrine ground is another shokonsha shrine, established to honor those fallen in the Russo-Japanese War but re-dedicated after World War II to include those war dead and a little shrine to the goddess Benten, surrounded by a delightful pond filled with ornamental carp, turtles and even ducks.

When you’ve finished here, it’s just a couple of minutes’ walk back to Miyasaka station, which you passed earlier.

© 2020 and Vicki L. Beyer
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