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SHIBUYA DOWN THE AGES

Battle losses to fashion victims

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Shibuya has many faces: a glitzy youth-oriented fashion center as represented by the 109 Building, a mass transit terminal handling 1.77 million passengers a day, a fast growing village of IT niche market players, and so on. With a complex network of large and small streets, the versatile town offers something for everybody, if short of the scale and stylishness of Shinjuku and Roppongi.

Modern Shibuya first emerged in 1885 when Nippon Railroad, now the Yamanote Line, was built across the farming valley of the Shibuya River. Toyoko and Keio lines soon followed, bringing commuters from western suburbs, and Japan’s first subway, the Ginza Line, emerged from Asakusa in 1939, all combining to change the Shibuya landscape from a pastoral suburb to a bustling urban center.

Before the advent of railroads, an upland southwest of Shibuya Station was initially settled. In the late 11th century a military tribe built a fortress there and called themselves the Shibuya Clan, using the name of the area to claim their territory. Supporting Minamoto-no Yoritomo in his uprising against the Taira family in Kyoto, the Shibuyas achieved fame and developed a strong base in the area until they were defeated by another clan based in Odawara in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1526.

After the clan’s demise, a shrine known as Konno Hachiman-gu remained at the fortress site. Dedicated to the Minamoto clan deity, Hachiman, the shrine enjoyed extended prosperity in the Edo Period thanks to special patronage by Lady Kasuga, nurse of the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu. When Iemitsu was not yet the shogun and was precariously positioned in the succession race, Kasuga paid deep devotion at this shrine, praying for the Hachiman god’s blessings on Iemitsu. In 1615, Iemitsu received a positive declaration that he succeed to the throne, and Kasuga donated a gate and main hall in thanksgiving to the god.

In the accompanying wood-block print, the donated main hall is depicted in the upper part of the print, linked to the roofed gate by a straight path. The buildings at the top right are Tofuku-ji, a Buddhist temple that formed a part of Konno Hachiman-gu, but which was separated from the shrine after the 1868 Meiji Restoration.

Notice a tree in the garden, surrounded by a low square fence. It is a flowering cherry and is called Konno-zakura, derived from a legend that the tree was planted by Minamoto-no Yoritomo in honor of Konnomaru, son of the 12th century clan leader Shibuya Motoie. Konnomaru fought many battles for Yoritomo’s father, Minamoto-no Yoshitomo, but died young. Celebrated for the legend as well as the rare beauty of its purplish pink flowers in both single and double forms, the tree was counted among the three best cherry trees in Edo.

The historic shrine now exists in the jungle of modern high rises, five minutes on foot from Shibuya Station. Leaving the station via the South Exit, turn right and take the pedestrian bridge to diagonally cross the intersection toward Shibuya Police Station. Descending by slope (not stairway), walk straight and turn right, around the corner of Hakka Building.

Shortly after leaving the traffic behind, you reach the front of Konno Hachiman Shrine. As you enter through the roofed gate with slatted side walls and face the charming main hall, it’s possible to feel a palpable stirring in the heart at the realization how fortunate it is that these wooden buildings have remained at the same location in the same style after 390 years since those first visits by Lady Kasuga. The carved ornaments on the wall and pillars — a tiger, dragon and a pair of baku (an imaginary, pig-like animal) — are done in the typical 17th century ornamental style similar to their kin at the Nikko Toshogu. With a new coat of paint from a recent refurbishment, the enigmatic animals look great in the sunlight filtering through the natural shelter of old evergreen oaks and laurels.

The precinct is where the main quarters of the Shibuya clan’s medieval fortress stood at 25-30 meters above sea level. The Shibuya River used to skirt the western slope of the upland, serving as a natural moat to protect the hilltop fort from attack.

Leaving the shrine via the front gate, walk straight to the stop light ahead. The street forming a T-shape here follows the medieval Kamakura-kaido highway, leading to Kamakura — Japan’s political center in the 13th and 14th centuries — via Meguro and Futako Tamagawa.

Crossing over the street, however, take a smaller road immediately on your left, which takes you to Shibuya Hikawa-jinja, which is dedicated to the Shibuya’s clan deity. The road bends slightly and ends at a stop light, beyond which Hikawa-jinja nestles in dense woods. On lower land, a sumo rink has been kept from centuries past, attesting to the ancient origin of the Japanese wrestling in Shinto rituals. The annual tournaments used to be integral to the ritual program of the autumn festival, fought by professional and amateur wrestlers from near and far. The tradition lives on today as a recreation in which local schoolchildren compete for prizes.

The main hall at a higher level is usually very quiet, a result of continuing worship from local communities.

Backtracking toward the sumo rink, walk straight to reach Meiji-dori and turn right to return to Shibuya Station. If, however, you turn left, you will be following Meiji-dori winding left to run north parallel to the Shibuya River. Bus No. 06 on this road from Shibuya Station has many stop names with the suffixes “hashi” or “bashi” indicative of the bridges crossing the river. At Ichi-no-hashi junction, the river takes a sharp right, and flows in to Tokyo Bay.