Shiba area is located in the center of Tokyo where the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan built Tokaido, one of the most important Five Routes of the Edo period in Japan, connecting Kyoto to Edo (modern-day Tokyo). And thus, the area flourished as a key transportation hub under the reign of the shogun. Many believe that this area is just a neighboring town of Tokyo Tower, but when unravelling its history and how the area evolved, one can easily spend a day exploring this historical site and its landmarks.
Flourished under the reign of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Shiba area has many remnants starting with the entrance to the Edo City, the Takanawa Ookido Ruins. It was in 1710 that this ruin was built on the Tokaido Road as the entrance to Edo.Only a partial stone wall currently remains along Route 15 near Sengakuji Station. The ruins on the western side were removed at the beginning of the Meiji era and only the eastern side is preserved now.
In particular, Zojoji Temple, a family temple of the Tokugawa is a very important landmark in the Shiba area. The temple was founded in 1393 in Edo Kaizuka (present-day Hirakawacho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo) by Yuyo Shoso, a priest who was a member of the family of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who ruled the Kanto region. When Tokugawa Ieyasu came to rule the Kanto region, Zojoji Temple became the Tokugawa family temple and was moved to Shiba in 1598. The temple became very prosperous and at its peak, there were 3,000 ascetic monks. Six shoguns are buried there, including the second shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada who was famous for eliminating Christianity from Japan taking first steps toward closing the country to all trade or other intercourse with foreign countries.
Zojoji Temple seen from Tokyo Tower Observatory Deck
Zojoji Temple with Tokyo Tower in the back
The main gate of the temple, Daimon, from which the name of the place is derived still stands in the same place as it did back in Edo when compared on the map. When Zojoji Temple was moved to Shiba in 1598 due to the expansion of Edo Castle, the Koryo-mon gate, which had been the main gate of Edo Castle, was given to Zojoji Temple by Tokugawa Ieyasu as the temple's front gate. However, in 1937, it was rebuilt in concrete to be larger than the original for the maintenance of traffic on the national road. The original gate, Daimon, was in danger of collapsing due to the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, so it was moved to Ekoin Temple, but was destroyed by fire in an air raid in 1945.
Map of the area in Edo period with the red circle indicating Daimon (main gate)
Map of the area now with the red circle indicating Daimon (main gate)
Since Zojoji Temple is the family temple of Tokugawa, many hereditary daimyo lived in the area, and was a samurai residential area too. While there were many samurai residences, there were also temples and shrines, as well as residences of ordinary people along the Tokaido Road. The Shiba-Daimon area, where these three areas coexist, is very different from other areas and makes the area unique. Even some stores and restaurants survived till now and run in this area. Although there are taller buildings in the area compared to Kyoto, visitors can tour this historical town like you would go on a sightseeing trip in Kyoto. In such a place, 200 year old soba place, Sarashina Nunoya, still sits on the same ground as they did back in the Edo period keeping its history and taste. They have 5 different types of soba available with two being a seasonal.
The owner of Sarashina Nunoya kindly explained that back in the Edo period, there were roughly 3500 to 3600 soba places within the Tokyo 23 ward and dozens more in a stall style. In order for these stores to keep their originality and acquire customers, the soba-tsuyu (soup) was the key. These were made with dissolving sugar into soy sauce which was put in a kame (fermentation crock pot). For a soba-tsuyu to be ready to serve, it takes about 20 days. The process sounds easy however, the point here is the microorganisms that live in its pot. This is unique to each pot and affects the taste of the soba-tsuyu. Once the soup is gone, the pot will then be refilled again with the ingredients and thus, the microorganism will create the same taste that has been passed down since the Edo period. If there were no fire and earthquake, the owner of Sarashina Nunoya said that these kame might have been preserved since the Edo period and used up till now.
Tsuyu served at Sarashina Nunoya which its taste have been passed down for more than 200 years
There are three big brand names of soba places with long history and traditions; Yabu, Sarashina and Sunaba. Yabu is a little bit salty and dry from soy sauce, Sarashina is sweet and Sunaba is in between salty and sweet. The most important feature of “Sarashina” is that it serves Sarashina soba noodles. It's a white soba made from only the center of buckwheat. At Sarashina Nunoya, they offer a soba-tsuyu (soup) with a perfect mixture of four different ingredients harmoniously mixed together creating a deep mellow sweet taste. Somewhat fruity, this soba-tsuyu goes well with any of their noodles. Moreover, it's recommended to add hot water and drink it.
Especially during New Year's Eve, many rush to this store for Japan's unique New Year’s customs, Toshikoshi-soba. Literally translated as “year-crossing noodle”, many eat noodles as it is said to be a symbol of “breaking off the old year” to wish for a long lasting life. Plus, coming over to Sasashina Nunoya serves practical purposes where the majority of Japanese people head over to Zojoji Temple at midnight on New Year’s Eve to see the traditional bell-ringing ceremony, Joya no kane. It is a ceremony of ringing the temple bell 108 times where it is said that 108 is the number of passions and obsessions entrapping us in the cycle of suffering and reincarnation called “bonno” in Buddhism. It is believed that these 108 chimes remove these desires to make you happy.
The grounds of Zojoji Temple were declared Shiba Park, a public park, in 1873, early in the Meiji Restoration. Along with Ueno, Asakusa, Fukagawa and Asukayama park, Shiba Park is the first five public parks in Japan.
At the southern end of Shiba Park, the 112-meter largest tomb in Tokyo, Maruyama Kofun, built in the 5th century still remains. Because it is currently covered with trees, it is difficult to imagine its appearance from the outside, but a round shape still remains at the top of its posterior crescent.This is said to be the first landmark for Shiba area followed by Zojoji Temple.
In the middle of such a burial mound, there is a small shrine, Enzan Maruyama Zuishin Inari Daimyojin, which enshrines the God of Inari. This shrine was brought along with the statue of Amida Nyorai (Buddha) from Kuwana during the Edo period when Zojoji Temple was relocated. Along with Zojoji Temple, this shrine serves to guard the ura-kimon, or Devil’s backdoor to protect Edo from bad things entering the city from the southwest, which was considered an unlucky direction.
There are fox statues around the shrine and across the shrine grounds, which are thought to be Inari's messengers/divine servants. These iconic statues, known as Inari foxes can be found at over 30,000 shrines throughout the country. The most famous would be the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto where it is known for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, which straddle a network of trails behind its main buildings. The delicately carved shrine building of Enzan Maruyama Zuishin Inari Daimyojin on this burial mound still exudes a special presence as the shrine's guardian to exorcise evil.
Going further behind Zojoji Temple in the direction of Tokyo Tower and across the street, a small artificial gorge known as Momiji-dani (Maple Valley) will appear right before continuing up the hill to the Tokyo Tower. Inside this gorge, there is a 10 meter high waterfall and a stream running through it as well as 9 different maple leaves. During the autumn foliage towards the mid November, these leaves will turn red and yellow creating a stunning view of the foliage.
Just above the hill of the gorge leads to Tokyo Tower, which was once Koyokan, a members-only restaurant and a Japanese style social space built in 1881. Until burnt down due to the Great Tokyo Air Raids in 1945, Koyokan served as guesthouse for foreign guests, politicians, novelists, etc. More than a decade later, Tokyo Tower was built in the same place in 1958 as a new landmark of the area at that time. By night, the tower will be lit up attracting many photographers and by day, its observatory is popular both with locals and tourists.
Less than 15minutes walk from Tokyo Tower stands the Atago Jinja Shrine built atop the Mt. Atago, the highest mountain in Tokyo's 23 wards. The shrine was constructed in 1603 under the orders of the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu for the deity of fire protection. Its distinctive feature is the steep 86 steps dubbed the “stone steps to success”. While the summit once had a panoramic view of the city looking out to spot any fires, currently the view is blocked by high-rise buildings. The view may not be rewarding but overcoming the challenge to hike up to the top may bring some success and fortune your way.
Over by the Tokyo Wan Bay, an oasis in the middle of the metropolis surrounded with tall buildings sits Hama Rikyu Garden, one of the largest remaining feudal lord gardens in Tokyo. Unlike its busy surroundings, once inside the garden time goes by slowly and peacefully and visitors will for a while forget that they are still in Tokyo.
Between 1624 to 1644, the garden was originally a duck hunting ground. But in 1654, when the lord of Kofu domain, Tokugawa Tsunashige, the third son of the 3rd Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, was granted permission to build his Kofu Hama Palace here and this is believed to be the start of this Hama Rikyu Garden. And the garden went under a major renovation in 1707. Before opening to the public in its current form, the garden served as an imperial detached palace. Currently, the garden features Shioiri ponds which change level with the tides, Otsutai-bashi bridge across the pond and a teahouse on an island where visitors can rest and enjoy the scenery while munching on delicious Japanese sweets with green tea.
Shioiri Pond still home to dozens of ducks
Peaceful quiet moment overlooking the pond while enjoying Japanese sweets and green tea
Tokyo Tower and Zojoji Temple are already impressive enough to satisfy your wanderings but there is more to this surrounding areas which are full of historical sites to engage in places to explore. Spending a day strolling around the temples and sprawlings grounds once belonging to the Tokugawas and feast on the century old soba noodle which its taste has been passed down for more than 200 years, the areas around the iconic Tokyo Tower and Zojoji Temple is a great hub to feel the Edo era serenity and immerse in the historical culture.