Shiba: Guardian of old Edo

By Vicki L Beyer

Situated to the southwest of the center of historical Edo (now Tokyo), the Shiba area has long stood guard over the entrance to the old city. In particular, Zojoji Temple serves to guard the ura-kimon, or Devil’s backdoor. One can comfortably spend half a day exploring this historical site and its modern neighbor, Tokyo Tower.

Zojoji, the largest temple of Jodo sect Buddhism in the Kanto area, was particularly patronized by the Tokugawa family. In fact, it was Ieyasu, the first shogun, who moved the temple to this ura-kimon location in 1596. It once operated as a seminary with students numbering in the thousands. Like Kan-ei-ji, its kimon counterpart guarding Edo’s northeast, the grounds of Zojoji were declared a public park in 1873, early in the Meiji Restoration. Unlike Kan-ei-ji (now Ueno Park), Zojoji was later able to reclaim part of its original grounds, leaving a donut-shaped Shiba Park encircling the temple.

Begin your visit in the southwest corner of Shiba Park (exit 4 of Shibakoen subway station is most convenient). Wander west through the gnarled trees of the plum grove to Maruyama, a hillock that is actually the fifth century burial mound of a wealthy family of the day. On top of the hill is a monument to Tadataka Ino, the surveyor/cartographer who created the first modern map of Japan in the early 19th century.

Near Maruyama, but most easily accessed by returning through the plum grove to Hibiya-dori, is a satellite Toshogu shrine. The central Toshogu Shrine is located in Nikko, but as the shrine honors Ieyasu Tokugawa, satellite shrines are found in many locations associated with him. The shrine is small and quaint. The real attraction is the giant Gingko tree, believed to have been planted in 1641. Early December is the best time to enjoy the tree in its golden splendor.

Continuing north along Hibiya-dori, you will soon come to the lavish red Go-somon gate, housing Nio (deva king) guardians. This gate was originally situated further from the street, marking the entry to an elaborate treasure hall on the site of the current Prince Park Tower Hotel. This is one of seven temple gates still in existence around the perimeter of the temple grounds, two of which, Onarimon and Daimon, have given their names to subway stations.

The next gate, Kuromon, leads to a small collection of modern temple buildings; best to continue to the next gate, the large and imposing Sangedatsumon. This is the oldest structure remaining on the site, built in 1622. It has a second story containing several Buddha, bodhisattva and arhat statues that is, alas, only rarely open to the public.

Inside Sangedatsumon is the central courtyard leading to the main temple hall. Around the perimeter of this courtyard are various historical markers and monuments including, on the far right, a memorial to the Awa Maru, an off-course Japanese vessel sailing as a Red Cross hospital ship that was torpedoed by an American submarine in the Straits of Taiwan in April 1945, killing all but one of its 2,004 passengers and crew. While the ship’s cargo and precise mission are still unclear, that most victims of this disaster were civilians is beyond doubt and this is a fitting memorial to them.

The large pine tree (photo below) in the center of the courtyard was planted by Ulysses S Grant during his famous visit to Japan in 1879; further to the south of the courtyard is a tree planted by George H W Bush during one of his visits to Japan while he was vice president of the United States.

The main temple hall, or Daiden, is a relatively modern structure, built in 1974. Rather than climb the stairs to it, bear right, past the bell tower. This bell, 3.3 meters high and 1.7 meters across, is one of the largest bells in eastern Japan. It is rung twice a day, morning and evening.

Just beyond the bell tower is Shien, a tea house offering refreshments. To the right is a satellite Kumano Shrine. To the left, at the end of a slope, is Ankokuden, an elegant temple in traditional style housing the “Black Buddha” said to have been one of Ieyasu Tokugawa’s favorite Buddhist images.

Along the edge of the temple grounds extending from Shien west, past Ankokuden, are innumerable statues of Jizo, the St Christopher of Buddhism. Jizo is the patron saint of travelers, children and pregnant women. One of his particular jobs is to help the souls of dead children to cross the Sanzu, River Styx, into the first of the six Buddhist hells. The river is swift and deep and without the help of Jizo, small children would be unable to make the crossing safely. These Jizo statues are put in place by parents who have lost pregnancies or babies, a symbol of their prayer for the lost child. They are often dressed by grieving parents in colorful hats and bibs.

The Jizo statues mark the northern edge of the modern temple grounds. Across the lane sits the Tokyo Prince Hotel opened in 1964, just in time for the Tokyo Olympics. The hotel was built on the site of several Tokugawa family mausoleums that were destroyed during the Tokyo fire bombings of World War II, enabling railroad and real estate magnate Yasujiro Tsutsumi to acquire the land cheaply shortly after the war. The Tokugawa family graves were moved to a site immediately behind Ankokuden which is often open to the public on weekends and holidays.

Cross the street behind Zojoji in the direction of Tokyo Tower and you’ll find yourself in part of Shiba Park again. To the left is a small artificial gorge known as Momiji-dani (Maple Valley), with a 10-meter-high waterfall and a stream running through it.

Continue up the hill to Tokyo Tower . The 333-meter-tall tower is regarded by some as a kitschy knock-off of the Eiffel Tower, and has, to some degree, been supplanted by Tokyo Skytree, but for many Japanese, Tokyo Tower remains a symbol of Japan’s postwar modernization. This year marks its 55th birthday.

Once the site of a famous restaurant and noh stage -- the latter now standing on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine -- Tokyo’s first communications tower was placed here due to its high-set location. The tower became a popular, if not de rigueur, tourist destination almost immediately upon its opening and has remained so ever since. Foot Town, a four-story building immediately under the tower, houses various shops, restaurants and other tourist entertainments, as well as the elevators leading to the tower’s two observation platforms, at 150 and 250 meters above ground. (Alas, the 250-meter platform is currently closed due to a recent elevator incident; hopefully it will reopen soon.) The panoramic views, even from the 150-meter platform, are quite fine.

Having built an appetite during your wanderings, you could seek refreshments at Foot Town, but for a special treat, consider a meal at Tofuya Ukai, next to Tokyo Tower. Spread over 6,500 square meters, the restaurant reproduces traditional Edo architecture with dining areas around a central garden and offers kaiseki meals for lunch (5,500-6,800 yen) or dinner (8,700-13,000 yen).

© Japan Today

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Good article. Visited the temple site and Tokyo Tower in October, at night and during the day, and could have used the narrative.

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A correction: George W Bush was never vice president. His father, George H W Bush, was vice president under Reagan.

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