Hidden History in the Edo Outskirts: the Rolling Hills of Magome

In keeping with the current trend of “micro-tourism” (keeping tourism close to home), here’s another walk through a less well-known suburban Tokyo neighborhood.  This walk is less than 4 km. in length and includes a small local museum, so expect it to take about half a day. Use the map at the bottom of the post to guide you.

Begin from JR Nishi Oi station, which only opened in 1980 and services the Yokosuka and Shonan-Shinjuku lines.

IMG_6115Your first stop is behind the station, just across the train tracks: the gravesite of Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909). London-educated Ito was a key figure during the modernizing times of the reign of the Emperor Meiji (1868-1912). Ito was the primary author of the Meiji Constitution, Japan’s first modern constitution, and went on to become the first Prime Minister of Japan. Ito served as Prime Minister four times and remains one of Japan’s longest-serving Prime Ministers. In 1905, after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War, Ito became Japan’s Resident-General of Korea. In 1909, after Ito changed his position regarding Korean independence (shifting toward the Japanese military view that Korea should be annexed by Japan), he was assassinated in Harbin, China by a Korean nationalist. (Japan did annex Korea about a year later.)

The gravesite is a large wooded park that is usually not open to visitors, but its features can be seen through the fence from the playground next door. In keeping with the promotion of Shintoism as part of the restoration of the Emperor’s powers, the gravesite contains a number of Shinto features, including a torii. The lanterns at the gate are similar to those of Harajuku’s Meiji Shrine.

It’s a 5 to 7 minute walk to your next destination. Part of the route takes you alongside the Yokosuka/Shonan-Shinjuku train tracks; the Tokaido Shinkansen regularly whir past on elevated tracks high above, all of it infrastructure installed in the early 1960s. As the street begins to descend, have a glance at the landscape. There are rolling hills from this area westward to the Tama River, which locals used to call “the 99 hills” (99 being a common was to express “innumerable” in Japanese). This walk will explore that further, though fortunately the hills will not be too steep. As a result of the area being so hilly and therefore not conducive to traditional farming, locals bred and raised horses as their primary source of income. Even in our modern times, the neighborhood is known as Magome, which means “horse enclosure”.

Yogyokuin, also known as Nyoraiji, is a Tendai Buddhist temple that can trace its history to the Heian Period (794-1185), although it was only moved from Nara to Edo (now known as Tokyo) in the early 17th century, at the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate. The temple precincts are very pretty, with a soothing atmosphere. The most interesting feature is not the main temple structure–lovely though it is–, but the red barn-like building known as zuio-den that houses five large statues of Nyorai Buddhas, the “great Buddhas of Oi”.

The five Nyorai embody five fundamental wisdoms: wisdom against anger, envy, desire, ignorance, and pride. Each is identified by the hand positions. The wisdoms are said to help humans break free from the cycle of death and rebirth–to achieve nirvana. These five Nyorai, each standing nearly three meters tall, were originally carved in 1636 in Shinano (modern Nagano Prefecture) and brought down the Tone River to Edo.  They were installed at Zojoji temple, then a major Buddhist seminary, but when Zojoji lost its status in the late 19th century, the statues were removed to Yogyokuin, which then also came known as Nyoraiji. Use the small side door to step inside for a closer look.

After Nyoraiji, stroll the full length of Magome Ginza, once a thriving market street for this neighborhood. While some characterize this street as “retro”, it has been updating itself this century, so that the number of 21st century buildings are now at least equal to those of the 20th century, and there are few left that are even 50 years old. While the newer buildings may be attractive, the styling of the older buildings is quite fascinating.

Use the walkover bridge to get across Kannana-dori, one of the ring roads built in the 1960s to promote traffic flow in increasingly crowded Tokyo. Apparently, this part of Kannana-dori was once a riverbed.

If you follow the map, your route will take you through Magome Natural Forest, a small hill-top nature preserve that provides a pretty respite from the suburban streets below. To the extent that this is an example of the predominant landscape of the past, it’s easy to see why the locals raised horses.

Your next stop after leaving the “forest” is Magome Manpukuji, an exquisite local temple founded in 1190 by the head of the Kajiwara clan, retainers of the Minamotos then in the ascendancy.

The temple’s gate is covered by traditional thatch, a rarity in modern Tokyo. Just in front of the gate is a statue of the favorite horse of the scion of the Kajiwara–a gift from Minamoto Yoritomo. The beloved horse even has a grave on the temple grounds. The statue stands as a symbol of the horse-raising tradition of this area.

Manpukuji, like many suburban temples, centers on its cemetery. Yet, the temple ground contains many other interesting features. Perhaps the most interesting is the “rindo”, a rotating library that, in this case, contains wooden carvings of various Buddhist deities, arranged with a zodiacal meaning.

The two-storied bell tower on the site is also note-worthy. Such bell towers are rare in Tokyo’s precincts.

Just over the hill from Manpukuji is the Ota City Local History Museum, a small museum featuring various aspects of the long history of this area. I’ve written before about exhibitions at this delightful little museum and highly recommend it. The museum contains a permanent exhibition on the archeological and industrial history of this area, which has been inhabited for millenia. The dioramas recreating various historical periods are particularly interesting.

The museum also hosts special exhibitions. Through September 22, 2020, there is an exhibition on the work of the modern Japanese print artist Kawase Hasui (1883- 1957). The exhibit, on the theme of “walking through Japan,” features a number of Hasui’s prints, some in Ota-ku and others more broadly in Tokyo and other parts of Japan, as well as some of Hasui’s sketches, used to create his prints, and photos of Hasui and his contemporaries. It provides wonderful insights into the artist’s life and inspiration.

The museum is open from 9 am to 5 pm Tuesday through Sunday (open on Mondays that are public holidays) and is free of charge.

Just beyond the museum, on the opposite side of the road, is a small local shrine on the site of a medieval fortress recorded in history as “Magome Castle”. No remnants of the ancient fortress remain today, only the shrine on its wooded hillside.

From here it is just a short walk to Nishi-Magome station–the terminus of the Toei Asakusa subway line–, the entrance to which is on the Dai-ni Keihin highway. Just before reaching Dai-ni Keihin, you’ll see a small “shrine” on the right containing a statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. This particular statue is known as the Mukoku Kannon, the Kannon of Dreams.

The exact history of this statue is unclear, doubtless due to its advanced aged (Kannon statues were particularly common/popular immediately after Kannon was introduced to Japan in the 9th century, although stylistically this one appears to be of more recent derivation). Nonetheless, the name tells us this Kannon was believed to be one that would fulfill dreams. Share one of your dreams with her and see if she can’t help you.

Just a few more paces to Nishi-Magome station, the end of today’s walk, a micro-tourism experience that provides a bit of a getaway during these troubled times.

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
We’re thrilled if you share this; if you want to re-use in any other way, please request permission.

One thought on “Hidden History in the Edo Outskirts: the Rolling Hills of Magome

  1. Tony Jarrett says:

    Hi Vicki, I enjoy your local neighbourhood stories which make me yearn for Tokyo again! I have made many trips to Japan and try each time to step into the local history and culture – often on recommendations I find in blogs like yours.
    I cancelled one trip last November due to illness, and another this coming March is off due to COVID-19. Hopefully November 2021.
    While I am patient, I am not a spring chicken any more.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s