August 23, 2019

Backyard Tourism Vol. 1

The names of many places in Japan belie a hidden history and Meguro is no exception. This article will reveal the origins of Merugo's moniker.

An Edo period (1603–1868) depiction of Meguro's Ryusen-ji temple complex

It’s the middle of August right now and that means I have family from back home visiting (not that I can really refer to the United States by that moniker anymore). Seeing as I have to escort them around while they’re in town, I’m fresh out of new destinations to cover for the moment. Still, rather than take yet another week off of writing, I want to take a crack at a type of article that I’ve been wanting to try for a real minute now. You see, I’m of the belief that just about anywhere in Japan can be attractive to foreign tourists if those in charge simply craft their messaging well. To prove this, I’m going to highlight a number of rarely explored areas in and around Tokyo to show how they too can be appealing to overseas visitors if marketed right.

Now, those who follow me closely are already well aware of this but one of my major pet peeves is how poor many of the prefectures in Japan are at telling their amazing tales. Frankly put, this country is nothing short of a treasure trove for storytellers and crazed history buffs like myself. Alas, so much of it gets utterly lost in the process of translocalization for non-Japanese audiences. What’s more, there’s an unfathomable amount of juicy morsels strewn about the nation that are all but entirely neglected. I mean, how is it that more people aren’t aware that the only surviving bits of Edo castle are in Saitama Prefecture?!?! Honestly, it saddens me to witness just how much of Japan’s tourism potential goes to waste.

So, on that note, I’d like to welcome you to the first installment of what will hopefully be an ongoing series. For now, I’m going to tentatively title it Backyard Tourism.” In each installment, I’ll be delving into non-touristy pockets of Tokyo that often get written off as potential points of interest. To kick things off, I’m going to be taking a look at the areas around Meguro. Truth be told, though I live only a mere few minutes’ walk away from this section of Tokyo, it was only recently that I uncovered its significance myself. Suffice to say, if even I was unaware of this region’s history, then you can bet your downward-dog-posing ass that many others aren’t either.

Getting to the Meguro Area

The train station sign for Meguro, the closest JR station to Ryusen-ji

Before jumping into the hidden past of Meguro and its surroundings, let’s first cover some logistics so that you, the reader, can visit too. Unlike many of the far flung locations that I cover on this blog, reaching this area of Tokyo is mere child’s play. All you need to do is make your way over to the JR Meguro Station via the ever-popular Yamanote Line. From there, it’s just a short fifteen minutes away on foot. Feeling a bit lazy? Rather than hoof it, you can also take a train to Fudomae Station via the Meguro Line. This will cut your walking time down by around 70% or so and is suggested for those who aren’t accustomed to longer strolls like myself.

As always, refer to a service like Hyperdia to help calculate the best route for you. Still, seeing as Meguro is a major station on the Yamanote Line, you’ll likely need no help navigating. After all, unlike with routes in the countryside, central Tokyo has trains coming every few minutes…

The Buddhist Statue with Black Eyes

The entrance to Meguro’s Ryusen-ji temple complex that houses a statue of Fudo Myoo with black eyes

As anyone who can read basic kanji can probably tell you, the name for the Meguro area is made up of the characters for “eye” and “black.” You’d think that upon seeing a denomination like that, one would be prompted to explore its origins. Until only a few weeks ago though, I had actually never given it a second thought. Then, when out for a walk one day, I stumbled upon a rather large temple complex known as Ryusen-ji. Puzzled to find something of its size so close to my home, I started to do a bit of digging. Suffice to say, what I found blew me away. In fact, my discoveries were actually what inspired me to do this entire “Backyard Tourism” series to begin with.

So, what makes Ryusen-ji so alluring? Well, candidly put, the temple houses an important statue of the Immovable King, Fudo Myoo. This masterpiece has a pair of jet black eyes and was one of five of its kind, all with different colored eyes. These were placed at strategic points on the outskirts of Edo (modern day Tokyo). At the urging of a well known Buddhist abbot, Tokugawa Ieyasu commissioned to have these effigies carved to protect his fledgling new capital. Over time, many places such as Meguro developed titles that were associated with the statues located within. For example, Mejiro is named for the white-eyed Fudo Myoo. Though most modern residents are completely oblivious, almost all of Tokyo’s place names belie hidden histories like this.

Tragically, all of the original buildings of Ryusen-ji were lost in the calamitous and horrific fire bombings of Tokyo during World War II. The present day structures are all made from ferroconcrete but are nonetheless still beautiful to behold. The grounds themselves are tucked away from the surrounding residences and are nestled amongst a host of towering trees. This creates something like a peaceful and quiet oasis in the middle of the city which is a stark contrast to the rest of the endless urban sprawl nearby. Upon entering the temple precincts, visitors will come across a small waterfall with a pond. In the days of yesteryear, pilgrims would first cleanse themselves here in front of a stone etching of Fudo Myoo before continuing onward.

Now, if you’re a sucker for folktales and myths like myself, you should know that Ryusen-ji’s founding has an interesting backstory to it. Allegedly, the monk who established the temple threw his staff on the ground to decide where to erect the structure. According to the fable, fresh spring water emerged from the point where it landed so he decided to build the temple there. Supposedly, this spring in the legend is the one mentioned above.

The Meguro Area’s Rakan Temple

If you’re going to make the trek to Ryusen-ji, it would behoove you to also swing by another nearby hidden gem. Known as Gohyaku Rakan-ji, this quaint little temple in Meguro houses over 500 life-size wooden sculptures of the historical Buddha’s disciples. Each of these is unique and expresses different human emotions. While there are a large host of rakan figures spread across Japan, this particular set was created by a mere single craftsman. Known as Shoun Genkei, this early Edo period (1603–1868) sculptor vowed to create more than 500 of these Rakan statues. After ten long years of toil, he finally finished and built a temple to house his life’s work.

While the modern location of the temple now housing Shoun Genkei’s work is no longer the original site he created, visitors today can still marvel at his achievements. The spot can be a bit hard to find so refer to this Google Map link for directions. Note that all photography is sadly forbidden inside of Gohyaku Rakan-ji so instead you’ll need to take a peek at the above video. That said, know also that the current buildings at Gohyaku Rakan-ji have little to no traditional trappings and are therefore nothing to really write home about. The main allure here is the surviving 305 of Shoun Genkei’s creations.

Entry to Gohyaku Rakan-ji will cost you a mere 300 yen. Also, if you’re feeling hungry, there’s an adjacent cafe to the temple to enjoy. Here, you can refresh yourself with a beverage or alternatively enjoy some traditional Japanese fare.

Attractions Nearby in Meguro

The Togoshi Ginza area of Shinagawa Ward which is located near Meguro and Ryusen-ji

If you don’t mind walking a bit more, there’s actually a fair number of other things to see and do nearby the aforementioned temples. Here are some of my recommendations. As always, I’ve included Google Map links to make finding these a bit easier…

  • Togoshi Ginza
    I’ll admit that I am only beginning to explore this charming neighborhood but if you’re a fan of shops and street food, I can’t more highly recommend swinging by Togoshi Ginza. Not to be mistaken with THE GINZA, Togoshi Ginza (pictured above) is instead located around ten minutes or so away from Gotanda Station giving it a far more residential vibe. The area also has a nice onsen facility to unwind after a long day of exploring.
  • Hotel Gajoen
    Located near the JR Meguro Station, this old hotel is one of my all-time favorites. The facility is often described by many cultural connoisseurs as a “department store of ornamentation.” Allegedly, the design of Hotel Gajoen was inspired by the underwater palace of the dragon god. If you’re visiting during summer, be sure to check out the Wa-no-Akari exhibit. Since it started back in 2015, it’s been a real hit and always draws a crowd!
  • Parasitological Museum
    Looking to lose your lunch? Well, I have just the place for you! Known as the Meguro Parasitological Museum, this weird hall of ghastly critters is bound to turn even the most stoic adventurers green in the face. Rather than make you nauseous, I’ll direct the masochists out there to this article that I’ve authored in the past instead. Note that it’s probably not the thing you want to read right after eating. Just sayin’…

Lastly, before wrapping up, know that this area is basically “my hood.” If you’re in the vicinity, shoot me a message and I’ll see if I can’t find a few minutes in my busy schedule to meet up and say hi.

Until next time travellers…