Tokyobling's Blog

Jimbocho Stores

Posted in Places, Shops by tokyobling on June 19, 2015

Early this year I visited the legendary book shop district of Tokyo: Jimbocho. While books made it famous, there are actually a lot of tiny and interesting shops, restaurants and cafes apart from just the book stores. The combination makes it one of my favorite shopping districts of Tokyo, and so far very much off the tourist radar.

Look closely in these photos and you will find a very old glasses store that has not changed much since the 1960 (which must be when they put up the John Lennon photo in the store window) and the more recent but excellent German styled cafe Schwarzwald, which is the place to go for German coffee and cuckoo clocks! It is absolutely tiny but usually always full of students and artists and not expensive at all. Every time I visit this cafe I pass a dozen others that I always promise myself to explore – maybe one of these days I will!

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Masakadozuka – The Ghost of the Samurai

Posted in Places by tokyobling on May 21, 2015

I should have perhaps saved this story for Halloween but here goes. Nestled among the tall business towers and government agencies in central Tokyo is a tiny little cemetery holding only one single grave: the tomb of the head of Taira no Masakado (903 A.D -940 A.D.), often regarded as the first samurai in Japan. In life, and as it would turn out – also in death, he was an exceedingly troublesome fellow. Not happy with being the mere subject of the Emperor in Kyoto, emperor Suzaku (朱雀天皇, 922 A.D. – 952 A.D.), he moved to eastern Japan (the modern Kanto region) and declared himself the New Emperor of Japan! Such insolence could not be tolerated and a bounty was placed on the head of the upstart samurai. Vengence came in the form of the young Taira no Sadamori, a distant clan relative of Masakado, whose father had been killed by Masakado in a battle five years earlier. Sadamori engaged with the rebel forces in modern Saitama Prefecture and managed to put an arrow in the face of Masakado, killing him instantly. Proof of the killing came in the form of the decapitated head of Maskado being put on public display in distant Kyoto. However, such powerful men as Masakado do not die easily, and the head, now furious over such an ignoble fate, flew into the skies of Kyoto and raced off to Kanto find its body. His body having long since been disposed off in fire, was nowhere to be found and the exhausted head, according to legend, fell to the earth and crashed on a small mound in the village of Shibasaki, what is today modern Chiyoda ward of central Tokyo. The local villagers cleaned the head up and buried it with full rituals and put a heavy tomb stone over it to prevent it from flying off again.

However, the local villagers complained of a ghost terrorizing them for centuries, and in 1307 a buddhist monk tried to appease the angry spirit with lavish buddhist ceremonies, which seems to have been somewhat successful. He even built a stupa on the tomb, with the finest stone from Chichibu near where Masakado fell in battle.

Almost a thousand years after Maskado was decapitated, the grave and the tombstone and the legend still going strong, Tokyo is rocked by a massive earthquake in 1923. The government who has long had its eyes on the tomb took the opportunity to remove the tombstone, level the tomb and fill in the little pond where the villagers had cleaned the head up all those years ago. This would soon prove to be a terrible idea. Between 1923 and 1926 The Ministry of Finance conducted archeological research in the spot and reportedly found a stone chamber belonging to the tomb. In 1926 they held a ceremony where the sprit of Masakado was symbolically transferred to the the grand Kanda Myojin near Akihabara.

Thinking all was good, the Minister of Finance, the newly appointed Hayami Seiji ordered the erection of a new office building on the spot, but within days he hospitalized by a strange illness and died after spending three months in hospital, only 57 years old. He would not be the first victim of the curse: within a couple of years fourteen other people, from office workers to provicinial officials would die in mysterious accidents. Although he did not die on his post, it is interesting to note that Hayami Seiji’s successor Takahashi Korekiyo was killed by assassins in a failed military coup a few years later. The many deaths led the Ministry of Finance to tear the building down and rebuild the tomb complete with hill and pond. They even tried to reverse the failed ceremony and apologized for having disturbed the spirit of Masakado.

This did not work out. In June 21st, 1940, the one thousand year anniversary of the death of Masakado, the building next to the tomb, the Ministry of Finance, was struck by lightning and half destroyed. The Ministry responded by holding a much larger ceremony and attempting to appease the spirit with a much larger and nicer tomb than it had had before. The accidents stopped, but in 1945 when the whole area was taken over by the US Military Head Quarters there was a decision to turn the tomb into a parking lot for the American forces. The work had hardly started when one of the bulldozers rolled over in a freak accident, killing its driver. Local officials asked the US Military to halt the construction project and they wisely agreed to restore the tomb.

Since then many people and corporations have attempted to buy the lot containing the tomb but as soon as negotiations would start bad things would occur to all the companies involved. Even the neighboring buildings bear the marks of the curse, as some buildings were designed so that the people working in them would spend as little time as possible looking down upon the tomb from above, not risking to anger the spirit. People working in other buildings nearby have reported that their desks are arranged so that no one will be turning their back on the tomb when sitting down to work, putting a cramp on the office layouts even to this day. There are even television celebrities who have suffered after behaving indecently near the grave.

Now this is the official version of events. The other side of the story, is that Masakado no Taira, far from being a mere rebel, was actually fighting for the well being of the people of Eastern Japan and that he felt the government in Kyoto did little to alleviate the plight of the poor people in Kanto who had suffered famine and crop failure due to flood and draughts several years in a row. As such, he is regarded by some as a true hero of the people, and the noblest and first of all true samurai. I am not sure which is correct, but the legend is fascinating!

I visited the tomb myself one cold winter day and asked the spirit to be kind to the people working in the area, as they surely had enough to worry about right now. As you can see from my photos of the neighboring buildings, it is massively developed area right in the heart of Tokyo. Now, you may wonder why all of a sudden this story is being retold, but you see, in 2020 someone has decided that Tokyo will host the Olympics and there are quite enough people willing to risk the wrath of Masakado no Tairo, and raze his tomb once again. Here’s hoping that they never even try!

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Jimbocho Brush Store

Posted in Places, Shops by tokyobling on April 16, 2015

Jimbocho, the area in central Tokyo famous for antique (and used, and new) bookstores might be heaven on Earth for book lovers, but there is room for more! I found this lovely little store specialized in brushes, all kinds of brushes for every imaginable purpose and of every imaginable material. Every brush had a tag attached to it, describing exactly what it was made from and why. Naturally I have a few brushes of my own, mainly for shoes and sometimes I see the kimono brush in use but I had no idea there were these many variants! In Tokyo truly there is a specialist store for anything you can imagine.

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Komiyama Book Store – Jimbocho

Posted in Places, Shops by tokyobling on March 27, 2015

A few days ago I posted about the Jimbcho used book and bookstore paradise, but I wanted to save this one for a special post – the Komiyama Book Store (小宮山書店). This is a used book store that specializes in modern art, culture, photography, subculture, philosophy and recent history, with a heavy emphasis on art and photography. I have visited hundreds of used bookstores on three continents in my life so far but nothing comes even close to this place. They have the most random, most obscure and most well curated stock of any similar store I have ever come across. For a japanophile like me this store is pretty close to paradise on Earth. Anyone who was ever something in recent Japanese art and performance history and ever published, wrote or shot anything, is bound to be represented in this store. The collections are all incredibly jumbled, and you will find an autographed biography of an obscure 1970s political figure next to a signed poster sized silver print of a portrait of Mishima Yukio, in heaps and heaps. Even if you are not particularly interested in Japan they have plenty of foreign books and related items. For the sheer variety just have a look at their list of new arrivals. It is also a great place to sell your rare art book collection, which I sometimes do and regret shortly afterwards.

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