Most people who come to Tokyo visit Asakusa (浅草); it is a hotspot for tourists which boasts wonderful sites, including the famous Senso-ji Temple (浅草寺). Then there’s popular Ueno (上野) – a magnet for culture, with its museums, history, and park. But have you ever heard of Ryusen (竜泉)?
It is often overshadowed by its more famous neighbors. Yet, with some of Tokyo’s best local shrines and home to some of Japan’s best authors, Ryusen truly is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered!
Ryusen is located in Taito ward (台東区), between Asakusa and Ueno, and accessible via Minowa Station (三ノ輪駅) on the Hibiya line (日比谷線). Walking south down Kokusai Dori (国際通り), you immediately enter a world familiar to one of Japan’s best known Meiji (明治) authors – Ichiyo Higuchi (樋口一葉), a fighter for women’s rights and the only woman to appear on a current Japanese bank note (5000 yen note).
Born in 1872, Higuchi moved from Tokyo to Yoshiwara (吉川; now part of Ryusen) when she was a teenager. Needing to support her family, she started writing stories about the people and places she encountered in Ryusen – a stark contrast to the middle-class environment she had been used to.
Her books mention shrines and locations in the area, and a statue of her can be seen at the small Senzoku Inari Shrine (千束稲荷神社), left of the Kokusai Dori. Higuchi focused one of her most famous stories around this shrine, and even today, the Senzoku retains the authentic Meiji atmosphere described in her novel.
Higuchi died when she was very young (24), but her impact on Japanese literature was enormous. She adopted a classical Japanese style of writing, in contrast to other authors of the period and, despite personal hardships, was a very strong and determined woman. Her shy, insightful personality allowed her to create wonderfully reflective characters with strengths and flaws.
Specializing in short stories about everyday people, from children to merchants to prostitutes, Higuchi focused her stories on the relationships between men and women, adults and children, the rich and the poor. Her main characters were usually women (again, rare in Japanese novels), who found themselves in conflict with the requirements of Meiji society.
While happy endings were rare, her novels did open a window into the joys and sufferings of the common people. Her famous books, “The Thirteenth Night (十三夜)” and “Child’s Play (Takekurabe; たけくらべ)”, are well worth a read.
You can check out Higuchi’s books on Amazon Japan (English versions are available).
The Ichiyo Memorial Museum, dedicated to Higuchi’s life, can be found to the left of Kokusai Dori. Located at the actual address where she wrote her book Child’s Play, the museum is a modern, well-designed building, containing many of her manuscripts and memorabilia, such as her writing equipment, diary notes, and clothing.
The entrance fee to the museum is only 300 yen, and there are three floors to explore. The majority of displays are in Japanese, but the staff can provide you with a one-page outline of Higuchi’s life in English. Sadly, it does not cover the actual exhibits on display.
Each floor examines an aspect of her life, from her birth and family history to the mentor who guided her, and the novels she wrote. Walking through this modern structure, surrounded by the memorabilia of this great woman, is inspiring, so please don’t let the disappointing lack of English signage spoil your enjoyment.
Less than a minute from the Ichiyo Memorial Museum, heading east, is an interesting temple that Higuchi would have been very familiar with – the Tobi-Fudo Temple. The temple was founded in 1530 by a Buddhist priest, St. Shozan (正山), who visited Ryusen after coming back from a pilgrimage to Mount Ohmine (大峯山) in Nara (奈良).
Legend says that St. Shozan had a dream about a dragon and, the next day, made a sculpture of it in the form of the Fudo God (不動尊). He founded the Ryusen temple and enshrined the sculpture within, giving the temple its name – Fudo.
A short time later, the head of the newly created Ryusen Fudo took the sculpture with him on a pilgrimage back to Mount Ohmine. One night, the statue disappeared and flew back to Ryusen to answer the prayers of the people. After that, the temple was renamed the Tobi (flying) Fudo Temple, and nowadays people come to pray for safe journeys – especially airplane flights.
The temple is also a popular place for visitors following the Shitaya Seven Deities of Good Fortune Trail (下谷七福神). The Tobi-Fudo Temple houses the only native Japanese deity, Ebisu (恵比寿). The small temple has a wonderfully homely feel about it. You can explore the hall and there is a little garden with a series of small Buddha statues. The temple retains much of the past, and you can easily imagine Higuchi coming here to pray.
Another interesting building located close by is the illustrious Otori-jinja. Located on Kokusai Dori, Otori-jinja is one of the most famous shrines in the area, and a place Higuchi would have attended regularly.
The shrine is best known for its November festival – Tori-No-Ichi (酉の市), where thousands of kumade (熊手) rakes are sold for good luck. It was a spectacular event during Higuchi’s time, and nothing has changed. Tori-No-Ichi is something that must be seen to be believed. During the festival, the shrine and surrounding streets are packed with people and sellers. The noise is deafening and the excitement palpitating. When a rake is sold, shopkeepers and customers clap and chant to bring luck to the item. People queue, sometimes for more than an hour, to ring one of the shrine bells. During the festival, the shrine operates all night long and, be it day or night, the buzz of the market atmosphere is intense, giving visitors an unforgettable experience of classic “Edo” (江戸).
Such sights inspired Higuchi, sparking her ideas about the characters she could use in her books. Outside of festival season, the Otori-jinja is still an amazing place. This large, beautiful shrine has an impressive entrance, several toriis and a “lucky” okame / otafuku (お多福) face to pray to. Okame (symbolizing long life and otafuku, meaning “a lot of good fortune”) is a historic Japanese character. Always smiling, she is said to bring good fortune – especially to the man she marries. In traditional theater, she portrays the “ideal”; homely, full of merriment (fat cheeks), and reminding people of the beauty within. The statue of her face is a perfect fit for this tori-no-ichi shrine, combining luck and fortune in one Edo package.
Behind the Otori-jinja is a sadder part of Ryusen history. Here you enter the Yoshiwara, an area famous in Edo times for prostitution. Higuchi was well aware of this sad reality and wrote about the characters associated with the area in many of her books.
The beautiful Yoshiwara Shrine, located near Taito Hospital (台東病院), mentioned in her novels still stands, and is well worth a visit. An active shrine, it is a place where people go to pray for safety and protection from disease. Historically, it was one of the few shrines that would allow prostitutes onto its grounds.
The goddess of women is said to grant wishes here, and many women come to have their prayers answered. An interesting juxtaposition, the shrine captures the spirit of joy and hardship contained in Higuchi’s stories, and would have played an important role in her world. The shrine also enshrines the Benzaiten (弁財天) deity (based on the Indian Goddess of Mercy), which, like Ebisu in the Tobi-Fudo temple, forms part of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune Trail.
Yet Higuchi is not the only writer synonymous with Ryusen and Taito-ku. The award-winning writer, Shotaro Ikenami, was also born here. Born in 1923, Ikenami’s work reflected a modern style, yet its contents focused on a far older period of history to that of Higuchi’s Meiji Tokyo. His most famous works revolved around the history of the Sanada family (真田一族), a Japanese warrior clan established in the 16th century. The family played a vital role in the ancient Takeda wars (川中島の戦い), producing many famous generals. Ikenami’s book, Sakuran (錯乱; Confusion), about the Sanadas, won him the Naoki Award (直木賞) for popular literature.
“The Master Assassin: Tales of Murder from the Shogun’s City” (殺しの四人), is one of Ikenami’s more famous books, but it was his novel “Sanada Taiheiki” (真田太平記), that made him a household name. Celebrating the exploits of the Sanada family, Ueda (上田) and the war, the story has everything you could ask for – struggle against unbeatable odds, honor, bravery, battle scenes, intrigue and a little romance. Easier to read than other historical stories, such as Heike Monogatari (平家物語), the novel soon became a hit. The Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原の戦い), fought at Ueda castle (上田城), is part of Japanese mythology, and the NHK TV series Sanada Maru (真田丸) is based on this history.
You can check out Ikenami’s books on Amazon Japan (Japanese versions only).
You can see a beautiful dedication to Ikenami Shotaro, at his Memorial Museum, located in nearby Nishi Asakusa (西浅草). Housed within the Asakusa Lifelong Learning Centre / Library (台東区立図書館), it contains many of his manuscripts, writing material, pipes, and pictures.
Ikenami was a lover of cats and food, and he liked to visit many small restaurants to sample their local delicacies. The best part of this museum is that it is free. Unfortunately, like the Ichiyo Memorial Museum, there is nothing in English, so you can need to use your imagination if you can’t speak Japanese.
So there you have it – the streets of Ryusen revealed. The memories of Higuchi and Ikenami are still here. Each road, each lane, and each building holds some treasure. Relatively untouched by tourists and glitz, full of authentic atmosphere and culture, Ryusen is a gem worth exploring. Through stories, myths and shrines, it exposes a past – a past few tourists or locals ever see.
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