Let’s Explore Arakicho: Empty Fields Turned into a Temple District in the Heart of Tokyo.

The Teramachi district, in the heart of Tokyo, consists of many temples, and the famous Suga Shrine featured in the “Your Name” movie. In this walking tour, we head South of Arakicho, along quiet residential streets, till we reach a long narrow temple-lined, one of which may be of interest to swordfighting adepts. We will then make our way back to Arakicho, stopping by another temple, held in high esteem by people training in the arts of the ninja, and finishing at a famous Taiyaki shop.

Oiwa Shrine and Younji Temple

Our Arakicho walking tour ended on Shinjuku Dori Avenue, at the top of Sharikimon Dori. At this stage, you could wrap up the walking tour and head back to Yotsuya-sanchome station. However, if you are hungry for more (or you feel the need for a digestive walk after a tonkatsu lunch), turn left and cross the busy avenue at the first crossing. Then turn right, in the direction of the station, and take the first small straight street on the left, then the second street right. If you do this walk on a Wednesday or a Thursday, you’ll see the sign for Garage Coffee, a small coffee shop located on the right side, where Makoto Shinkai, the director of the “Your Name” movie once got interviewed.

Sign for Garage coffee

After passing in front of “Garage Coffee”, turn left and then continue straight. Eventually, you’ll see some trees on the right, as well as red banners. This is the Yotsuya Oiwa Inari Tamiya Jinja Shrine  or Oiwa Shrine for short (四谷於岩稲荷田宮神社). It’s rumoured to be haunted but you probably won’t get that feeling, if you go during the daytime. There is a sign in English and Japanese with a short explanation of the legend, but the full story of love, murder, and revenge is worthwhile reading.

The Oiwa Shrine is a shrine that worships Inari or the fox god

A little further on the left you´ll find a temple called Younji temple (陽運寺). Although of no particular historical interest, I would recommend checking it out, since it has recently been renovated. For 200 yen, you can  draw a fortune slip (“omikuji” おみくじ) to see whether you are super lucky, lucky, a bit lucky or just plain unlucky. There is a how-to explanation in English and a box with English fortune slips, a rarity in Japan. You can also pay 500 yen to write a wish on a small wooden board called “ema” (絵馬). There are 2 types – the round one on the left to wish for marriage (“enmusubi” 縁結び) or for a separation (“enkiri” 縁切り), and the square one in the middle for better fortune (“kaiun” 開運).

“Ema” at the Younji Temple

On the very left there is something called a “wishing ball” (“kanodama” 叶玉). I can’t recall seeing something like it at any other temple, but it seems to be the Japanese version of a wishing well. For 100 yen you can purchase 3 small balls in a wooden cup. Then you should try and throw each ball in turn into the water basin carved in the top of a rock just behind, and make a wish. Even if you miss (one or all) the wish should still come true. Afterwards, return the cup to its original location – you must not take it with you!

“Wishing balls” for the wishing well

Honshoji and Saioji Temples

 Once you’ve stocked up on your luck and made all your wishes, continue straight till you reach a T junction. This street cuts across the center of the Teramachi district and has several temples on either side. It is worthwhile walking its entire length and checking out each one in turn. Towards the South and East, the terrain drops somewhat towards Wakabacho Town – check out the very steep street in the middle called Kurayami Zaka or “darkness slope” (闇坂). Although I didn’t find it particularly dark when I was there, the explanation on the signpost says that the street gets a lot of shade from the abundance of trees growing in the temple areas on both sides. Even though it is a narrow street, it is used by cars so be careful when walking.

Originally this wasn’t a temple area, just empty grassy fields on the outskirts of the old city of Tokyo, or Edo. In 1634, Iemitsu Tokugawa (1604-1651), the 3rd shogun of the Edo period, ordered the digging of a 15km outer moat, encircling Edo castle on three sides (present day Imperial Palace). Today, parts of the outer moat on the Western side still exist between Iidabashi and Akasaka. However, back then that land wasn’t empty but was occupied by temples and shrines. These were moved to the higher parts of Yotsuya area and it thus became known as the temple district or Teramachi. As Edo increased in size, people started living in other parts of Yotsuya, and it gradually became part of the city.

The first point of interest is located on your right: Honshoji Temple (本性寺) founded in 1641. It contains a wooden statue of Bishamonten (毘沙門天), one of the 7 lucky gods (“shichifukujin” 七福神) and the god of happiness and good fortune. The statue used to be inside the Edo castle when Tokugawa Ieyasu was shogun (the first shogun of the Edo period and grandfather of the above-mentioned Iemitsu). It’s interesting to note that the statue is facing North – this is so that the god Bishamonten could keep watch over the Northern area of Japan which was prone to rebellion at the time. Another interesting aspect of the temple is that it was spared the destruction of World War II so it’s in its original state. You’ll need a prior reservation in order to go inside to check out the statue but you can see a picture of it here.

Front gate of Honshoji Temple

At the other end of the street, just before it starts to slope downwards, is Saioji Temple (西應寺) where the samurai and martial artist Sakakibara Kenkichi (1830-1894) is buried. There is a commemorative plaque outside (Japanese only) with his picture. Unfortunately, his tomb is hard to find and I was unable to locate it on my visit. A shame, since he certainly led an interesting life during a time of great change in Japan. Before the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, he headed the school of the Japanese martial art of sword fighting (“kenjutsu” 剣術) and was part of the personal guard of the last two shoguns. During the Meiji Period, he was one of the founders of the martial art of Kendo. There is an interesting anecdote about Sakakibara: He once demonstrated a technique called “helmet-breaking” (cutting through a steel helmet in a single stroke) in front of the Meiji Emperor in 1887, with two other sword masters. He was the only one who was able to do it successfully, although he failed during the practice attempts.

By the way, if you’re interested in Japanese swords or “katana”, you should definitely pay a visit to the tomb of Minamoto Kiyomaro, apparently the most sought after swordsmith of the late Edo era (about 150 years ago). It’s located inside the Sofukuji temple (宗福寺) – continue past Saioji and take the second street to the right, just when the main street starts to slope downwards. 

Suga Shrine

 After checking out the temple, walk back a few meters, take the first street right and you’ll reach the entrance to the famous Suga Shrine (須賀神社), marked by a big stone gate, or “tori”, on the left. In front, there is the staircase made famous in the 2016 romantic fantasy movie “Your Name” (“kimi no na wa” 君の名は). There is nearly always somebody taking a photo of it or comparing it with the screenshot of the corresponding scene in the movie. If you are a fan of the movie, there other locations nearby that also appear in the movie.

A fairly typical Tokyo staircase

 Before walking down the staircase however, take a few minutes to take a look at the real Suga Shrine. The most interesting thing in my opinion is the collection of “ema” boards. In most places, they simply contain handwritten wishes in Japanese. Here however, many of them have drawings of the main characters from the movie, Mitsuha Miyamizu and Taki Tachibana.

Taki, on the left, and Mitsuha, on the right

There are a few more interesting things to see at Suga shrine. First, next to the place for hanging the “ema”, there is a big board with different ages written on it (the chinese character for age is 歳). These are the unlucky ages (in center in red “taiyaku” 大厄)  with men (男性) on the left, and women (女性) on the right. To find out whether this is your inauspicious year, or “yakudoshi”,  (厄年), you’ll need to add one year to your age in the current year. This is because of an old system used for counting a person’s age called “kazoe” (数え) – newborns are automatically one year old, and then a year is added at every New Year. For example, if you  turn 25 in 2018, then your Japanese age is 26. In that case, according to the chart, if you’re male then you are OK, since the unlucky age is 25. However, the ages before and after that are also considered somewhat unlucky…For those in their unlucky year, the shrine can perform a purification ritual.

The list of unlucky ages is on the white sign on the right

The inside of the shrine is also home to the portraits of the “Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry”. This is a selection of the 36 best poets by Fujiwara no Kinto, a poet himself, who lived about a thousand years ago, during the Heian era. The poets represented in the pictures lived between the 7th and 10th centuries. The entire collection inside Suga Shrine was painted in 1836, but the oldest set of paintings of the 36 poets was completed in 1118. If you are unable to go inside the shrine during your visit or if you’d to like to have a closer look, there is a replica of the pictures outside on the left.

A few famous poets with some of their poetry (outside replica)

Finally, at the back of the Shrine grounds, there is a small temple dedicated to the fox god “Inari”, and also a statue of Daikoku (大黒), the god of wealth, and another of the 7 lucky gods. The shrine shop, in front, is also a good place to buy some “My Name” charms or amulets (“omamori” お守り”). Because of the shrine’s popularity with overseas visitors, there are English instructions on how to pray, as well as free wi-fi.

View of Suga shrine from outside the tori

Sainen-ji and Taiyaki Wakaba

 After leaving the shrine and walking down the famous staircase, continue straight, cross the street and walk up the steep slope opposite, called Tofukuin Zaka (東福院坂), after the name of the temple on the left side. The slope is also known as Tennou Zaka (天王坂). Tennou used to be the old name of Suga Shrine before the Meiji era (1868-1912). Once you reach the vending machine, mid-slope on the left, look back for another famous view from the “My Name” movie. In case it doesn’t ring a bell there is screenshot stuck to the side of the vending machine to jog your memory.

 On your right you will see the Aizenin temple (愛染院) and inside you will find the tomb of Hanzawa Hokiichi (1746-1821) a famous blind scholar, who became blind at the age of 5, but who went on to learn history, literature, medical science and law theory during his lifetime. Apparently, Helen Keller was told by her mother that she should take him as a role model and she made a point of touching his statue during her trip to Japan.

 At the top of the slope, turn right, then right again down a narrow street. Continue straight, ignoring both right and left streets, till you eventually reach Sainenji temple (西念寺). Sainenji is interesting for several reasons. First, inside the temple lies the remains of the spear of the famous samurai and ninja Hattori Hanzo. It’s two and a half meters long – originally it measured more than 4 meters – and is over 400 years old! If you want to see it want to see it with your own eyes, it’s better to call ahead. Outside to the right of the temple is his grave, the only known burial spot of a person who trained and lived as a ninja. Next, around the back, you´ll find a memorial to the first son of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was ordered by his father to commit ritual suicide. If you can read Japanese, you’ll notice that the sign refers to him as “Okazaki Saburo Nobuyasu” (岡崎三郎信康), because he was the lord of Okazaki castle in Shizuoka prefecture. “Saburo” was his nickname and “Nobuyasu” was his first name. 

Hattori Hanzo’s grave

From the temple entrance, continue along the same street, turn left (with your back to the slope), right and then left again. Follow this street straight and after a couple of minutes you’ll see a line of people on the left. They are lining up in front of Wakaba for a freshly made hot taiyaki (たい焼き), a fish-shaped Japanese snack filled with sweet-tasting red bean paste called “anko”. If you are feeling peckish then line up. Since taiyaki are made fairly quickly, the line moves fast and you can peek inside and watch how they are being made on the traditional iron called “icchoyaki” while you wait. Each taiyaki costs 150 yen and is fairly big and filling. There are tables inside, where you can sit down and have some tea with your taiyaki, if you feel like taking a break as well. Wakaba has existed since 1953 and is one of the most famous taiyaki shops in Tokyo

A taiyaki from Taiyaki Wakaba

 After this short break, you are only a few meters away from  Shinjuku Dori avenue, from where it is short walk to the right to the JR Yotsuya station, where our second walking tour ends. The total walking distance is just over two kilometers, and takes between an hour and a hour and a half, depending on how much time you spend lingering at the temples and shrines on the way! Our next walking tour will take us along the backstreets to the North of Shinjuku dori Avenue and back to Arakicho. 


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Let’s Explore Arakicho: Empty Fields Turned into a Temple District in the Heart of Tokyo

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Writer / Translator

I’ve been in Japan for over 10 years although it feels shorter because I am constantly discovering new things and new places. Sometimes it can be hard to get the full Japanese experience because of cultural differences and linguistic barriers. For that reason, I want to share what I have learned in order to enhance your experience in Japan. Having said that, figuring out stuff on your own can also be fun. In any case, I hope you can find here whatever you need in order to make your stay a success.