My Confusion, Misinformation and Misunderstanding….
What’s the Difference Between Yamanote and Shitamachi?
When I first came to Japan, I stayed for about 2 months in an area called Uguisudani. The area is a little valley beside the train tracks of the Yamanote Line. One of the exits lets out onto the low valley side; the other exit lets on the side of a big hill. The area is a maze of love hotels, brothels, and tiny restaurants that look left over from the WWII era. At the time there were yakuza-looking regulars in certain areas near the station. That said, there were also a few traditional wooden houses and people on the street and in the shops who noticed me coming and going more than a few times would start to tip their heads or bow to me. After a week or two they started greeting me when we passed on the street.
Every day as I came and went, I heard こんにちわ! kon’nichiwa! Hello! おはようございます！o-hayō gozaimasu! Good morning! Even though the area seemed so dirty and old, (and a little seedy), people were so friendly.
When I crossed the train tracks, which was also on the top of the hill, I was walking around Kan’eiji and coming face to face with the tombs of the Tokugawa shōguns. This area was also recognizably old. Old trees, old style buildings, old style toilets in the traditional restaurants and all of my friends seemed to think that it was cool that a foreigner who knew nothing of Japan and Japanese history loved the area and actually preferred it over areas like Roppongi and Shinjuku.
This was Shitamachi living. Apparently I loved shitamachi. The shitamachi was great.
According to the few resources online at the time and according to what my friends said, this neighborhood (this ward) was 下町 shitamachi (downtown), it’s traditional and friendly and it’s the real heart and soul of Tōkyō. (their words)
A few years later, I actually moved to Tōkyō and I wanted to stay in that same area, but a friend who helped me find a new place recommended Nakano. It turned out to be a good suggestion because I stayed there for many years and have nothing but love for the area. It was residential yet there were tiny restaurants and shops on every corner. It wasn’t much different from Uguisudani except that it was laid out on a bigger scale. I thought the big modern, rich areas were yamanote and the lively areas and residential areas were shitamachi. I was so wrong.
What do Yamanote and Shitamachi mean?
The meaning of the words are:
山ﾉ手 Yamanote (upper town)
下町 Shitamachi (lower town)
Japanese people often translate these as uptown and downtown. These renderings are OK if you understand the context, but in my opinion, these translations are so literal that they sound just like existing words in English.
In many US cities, “downtown” means the old town where all the big companies, tall buildings and government buildings are. “Uptown” refers more or less to the same area, but implies rich residences exist there. In New York, “Uptown” means “north Manhattan” and traditionally referred to where the elite lived, “Downtown” means “lower/southern Manhattan” and traditionally referred to that southern area which used to be the armpit of Manhattan… in the old days. Now anywhere you go in Manhattan is price-prohibitive. Even the former armpit has now become a center of arts, fashion, food, and finance – and it’s expensive.
In Tōkyō, 山手 yamanote (uptown) is made of two kanji, 山 yama (mountain/hill) and 手 te (hand/side). The Yamanote was originally the high areas where the samurai class and the feudal lords who maintained residences and “embassies” in Edo lived. 下町 shitamachi is made of two kanji 下 shita (down/low) and 町 (neighborhood). The shitamachi was originally the low, wet areas where the commoners and business districts were put in. The Yamanote was characterized by hills and greenery and large, spacious residences with stunning views of the cityscape. The Shitamachi was characterized by closely packed houses, lively shopping areas, rivers and canals and the view of the city was a skyline composed of other buildings, hills and far off mountains and the ever present walls surrounding the mansions of the feudal lords and Edo Castle.
In modern Tōkyō the terms are not applicable in the Edo Period sense. In modern Tōkyō, the terms are not applicable in the senses used from the Meiji Period until the Taishō Period. In the Shōwa Period, which was really, really long, the areas really began to blur and now, in the Heisei Era, the terms have very vague meanings. Yamanote = Rich or at least “non-Edo” areas, fashionable areas. Shitamachi = old, traditional “Edo.”
In the previous entry, I mentioned living in Nakano and thinking it was shitamachi because it was lively and residential. I was told by a friend’s Edo-kko grandfather, “No, Nakano is the new city, it’s yamanote. The urban center of Edo is shitamachi and all the rural areas are yamanote.” This definition is partly true, these days. At least culturally. Tokyoites think of the shitamachi as soulful and friendly and distinctly “Tokyo” in a traditional sense; the quintessential city-dweller in the old city. They think of yamanote areas as outside of the old urban center – areas that were country in the Edo Period but now make up major portions of the Tokyo Metropolis.
But if we look at the original definition from the Edo Period, it’s very different from this. The lowlands, wetlands and valleys were shitamachi. That would include Uguisudani and (parts of) Nakano. The yamanote would be something like Ueno, which literally looms over Uguisudani.
Confounding the issue is the fact that for most of the Edo Period, Uguisudani and Ueno were at the fringe of the city. Nakano was the boonies. Also adding to the confusion is the fact that the so-called Yamanote Line encircles areas that fell into both categories.
Making Real Sense Out of the Terminology….
Characteristics of Yamanote & Shitamachi
Just as the meanings are a little different now, the characteristics of Yamanote and Shitamachi have changed over time.
In my humble opinion, the best translations of these terms are as such:
山手 yamanote – the high city
下町shitamachi – the low city
In the Edo Period, this was a literal reference. Society was clearly segregated by caste. The castle and the daimyō residences were all put on the high ground. The commoners were relegated to the lowlands.
山手 THE HIGH CITY
The high city was characterized by large plots of land granted by the shōgun to his retainers. This land could be (and sometimes was) confiscated or redistributed at will. Yamanote neighborhoods had spacious villas, beautiful gardens and lush greenery. As Edo was a castle town born from the ashes of the Sengoku Era, the samurai residences of the high city were all walled in with imposing gates. The inner areas were cut off from the street and afforded a tranquil and soothing respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. This area was not only home to the daimyō, but also to the 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun, from the elite 重臣 jūshin senior retainers who had fairly large residences to the lowly 御賄組 o-makanai gumi (2-3 koku shitty-ass samurai peons) who lived in crappy barracks.
下町 THE LOW CITY
The low city was characterized by closed quarter living, narrow alleys, 長屋 nagaya (row apartments), and residential areas interspersed with shopkeepers and artisans. Streets were lined with shops and at the tops the hills you could see the greenery of the high city surrounding you. Being lowlands, the area was rich with waterways. There were canals and rivers everywhere; these provided fast transportation routes for goods. Because of the cramped living, the spaces were lively and there probably wasn’t much privacy. There were no gates around homes as was the norm in the high city.
OLD vs NEW
In modern Tōkyō, some of these characteristics persist. You tend to see more trees and houses in the areas that were traditionally yamanote. You tend to see bigger lots for old buildings. You tend to see government offices or major corporate real estate. You tend to see gardens and parks. In the traditionally shitamachi areas, you tend to find shop upon shop upon shop and businesses, but a lack of greenery. The rivers that typified the Edo Era shitamachi have mostly been filled in or covered up. It’s not a rule, but the area encircled by the Yamanote Line makes up much of center of Edo. In these areas, you can see this Yamanote/Shitamachi dichotomy much more clearly. Once you go out of that loop you’re in the outskirts of Edo and are looking at areas developed after westernization and industrialization.
One more note about the low city and its rivers. One thing you should remember when envisioning Edo – as opposed to Tōkyō – is that the low town was like a Japanese Venice. If you peruse old photos and paintings from the Edo Period right up to the Great Kantō Earthquake, you’ll notice an abundance of trees in the sightseeing spots (Yamanote) and an abundance of rivers and boats and bridges in the daily life scenes (usually Shitamachi).
Why are many Shitamachi areas in formerly Yamanote areas?
The Legacy of Sankin-kotai on Modern Tokyo.