April 9, 2020

Backyard Tourism Vol. 5

This installment of Backyard Tourism traces the roots of the devastating Great Fire of Meireki to a small temple compound in Tokyo's Sugamo area.

An Edo period (1603–1868) artist's rendition of the Great Fire of Meireki

As I sit down to write this article in early April 2020, Tokyo is on the verge of a city-wide lockdown due to the coronavirus. While we have yet to go completely over the proverbial falls here in Japan, a drastic intervention is looking more and more like a necessity. Though there are indeed many constitutional challenges that prevent the government from decreeing a draconian shelter-in-place mandate, the pressure to do something is burgeoning. It remains to be seen what course Japan will take to combat the global pandemic however one thing I can confidently say for sure is that my opportunities to travel are now all but eradicated for the foreseeable future.

Alas, just because I am going to be grounded for the next few weeks (or even months), doesn’t mean that I am excused from providing readers with consistent content. After all, there will come a time when these dark days pass and we can all go back to enjoying Japan. Moreover, with people all over the globe on the brink of losing their minds due to self-imposed quarantines, a little escapism is certainly called for here. Though I’m powerless in the face of a menacing specter like the coronavirus, it is my hope that my writing can help some of you get through this a bit easier.

On that note, this week I’d like to cover an entirely different type of disaster that has plagued Japan over the years, namely fires. More specifically, we’re going to take a look at the legend surrounding the devastating Great Fire of Meireki. If you’ve never heard of this tragedy before, understand that this blaze was so massive that it claimed the majority of Edo (modern day Tokyo). Though historians have since been able to somewhat refute the likelihood of this fable, it’s an anecdote that really stuck out to me when I was studying Japanese history.

In short, the folklore surrounding the origins of the Great Fire of Meireki goes like this. During the mid 1600’s, there was a kimono that was allegedly cursed. All three of the young teenage adolescents who had owned the garment mysteriously perished of unknown causes. As if this weren’t already grim enough, know also that not one of the trio ever had the chance to don the accursed garment. Following the aftermath of the third girl’s final moments, the local residents sounded an urgent rallying call.

While modern day folks may be somewhat skeptical regarding the proposed solution (after all, there were often major fires in Edo), the grieving townspeople decided to incinerate the garment. The locals carted the kimono to the Honmyo-ji temple and beseeched the Buddhist priest to burn the infernal vestment. As you can probably guess, this did not end well. The cursed kimono quickly became engulfed in flames and continued to burn with a ferocious intensity. Unable to be contained, the flames soon spread to Honmyo-ji itself before leaping to the surrounding wooden buildings within the town.

All in all, the Great Fire of Meireki consumed a whopping 70 percent of the city’s infrastructure. The inferno burned so intensely that it took three days for the fire to burn itself out and yet an additional three days before relief efforts could launch. As if that weren’t enough, the Great Fire of Meireki also claimed the main keep of the largest fortification in the country, Edo castle. In fact, so great was this loss that the Tokugawa shogunate was never able to actually rebuild this part of the fortress. All in all, historical records indicate that over 100,000 residents of Edo lost their lives during this disastrous calamity.

By the way, if this is the first installment in this series you’re consuming, know that Backyard Tourism is fundamentally different from my other work. In short, what I am attempting to do with this collection of articles is to illustrate how the power of storytelling, coupled with a sense of place, can make any location across Japan come alive. My aim in doing so is to prove to all the ineffective aged men in the tourism industry that all you really need is an authentic narrative and judicious marketing.

Now, the implicit caveat here with Backyard Tourism is that I am not suggesting these locations are must visits. In fact, unless you’re going to be staying in Japan for quite some time, it would behoove you to invest the few days you have in more major allures. With that in mind, please read this, and any other article in the Backyard Tourism series, as trivia tidbits.

Getting to the Site of the Great Fire of Meireki

Following the Great Fire of Meireki, much of Edo was rebuilt. Sadly, the city (now called Tokyo) was again leveled during the early 1920’s by the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake. What’s more, Tokyo was once again ravaged by the fire bombings of Tokyo during World War II. Can’t this poor city catch a break? I mean, one of the reasons why Kyoto holds more tangible culture than Tokyo is that the area was not decimated time and time again and therefore, much of its historical legacy remains intact.

Anyway, in the present day, understand that the temple of Honmyo-ji, where the Great Fire of Meireki allegedly began, has been rebuilt. You’ll find it close to the area of Sugamo, a location that has also been featured in a previous installment of Backyard Tourism. To get there, all you’ll need to do is take either the Yamanote line or the Mita line to Sugamo Station. Refer to Hyperida or a similar service as always to calculate the best route for you.

Once you’re in Sugamo, know that you can find Honmyo-ji at the far end of a rather tranquil graveyard. Here’s a Google Map for your reference. Note that the cemetery is actually quite picturesque during spring when the cherry blossoms are at their zenith. In fact, more so than the rather nondescript temple of Honmyo-ji itself, this is a real reason to make the trek.

The Site of the Great Fire of Meireki Today

As blunt as this sounds, there’s really nothing outstanding about the reconstructed Honmyo-ji. Basically, it’s your run-of-the-mill modern temple. As much as I like hidden gems, there’s just very little redeeming qualities about this one. Should you opt to visit Honmyo-ji, be sure to check out back for the monument pictured above. The structure is dedicated to the sorrowful souls who lost their lives in the Great Fire of Meireki. Unsurprisingly, there’s documentation in English to accompany the sad stele.

Attractions Near the Site of the Great Fire of Meireki

As mentioned, Honmyo-ji, the origin of the Great Fire of Meireki, is actually quite close to Sugamo. I’ve already penned a lengthy article on the area so in the interest of brevity, please refer to this link. When you are in the vicinity, consider visiting a lovely Japanese garden named Rikugi-en. I highly recommend you hoof it over there if you’re in Sugamo as it’s often hailed as Tokyo’s best traditional garden.

Until next time travelers…