The weather in Tokyo this winter has been more than agreeable—sunny and warm—perfect for an odd stroll around the city. It has been over a year since I got to catch up with one of my good Japanese friends, so we decided to meet up and do a little walking around Shibuya / Setagaya areas. We chose to stay away from all the hustle and bustle, and take on a route along the quiet streets of Shimokitazawa and Sangenjaya instead.
Shimokitazawa (下北沢), or “Shimokita” as the locals like to call it, is a short ride from the boisterous touristy Shibuya station via the Keio Inokashira line. Full of narrow streets packed with the indie second hand shops and fashion outlets, quirky cafés, bars, art scene, and music venues, Shimokita has that Harajuku feel, albeit less crowded and noisy. Its architectural essence feels organic, tangled by the chaotic interweaving of the narrowing streets, boasting its eclectic storefronts and its notorious laid-back vibe.
Sangenjaya (三軒茶屋), on the other hand, located in Setagaya, is a 30 min walk from Shimokitazawa on the south end of Tokyo. In history Sangenjaya is known as the quiet rest stop frequented by the travelling countryside folk before entering the old Tokyo city, thus earning its name, lit. translated as “three tea houses”. Locals also began to call it “Sancha” for short, meaning “three teas”. It is a tightly knit old Tokyo neighbourhood community, filled with old-style traditional wooden houses, small cafés, restaurants, and peculiar old shops nestled along the narrow quiet tree lined streets.
We began our day around noon over a delicious spread of Japanese pancakes at a small café minutes away from the Shimokitazawa station. Shortly after strolling among the small shops in the area, we decided to start our pilgrimage towards Sangenjaya. It was an exceptionally sunny and warm day for January, so we were eager to start our walk.
This is when my travelling companion suggested we start in the direction of the nearby Shinto shrine, the Kitazawa Hachiman Jinja (北澤八幡神社). It is a quaint hillside Shinto shrine, about a ten minute walk from the station, nestled among the towering trees and narrow winding roads. Beautifully adorned in brightly coloured carvings, the temple emanated warmth and tranquility.
Built more than 500 years ago in the Bunmei era (文明, 1469~86) putting the area under divine protection, the shrine consists of the main hall building, and a number of adorned miniature side shrines along its grounds.
As we approached the main building and made our prayers, my companion suddenly took out a small notebook and proceeded in the direction of a small tucked away building, where she rang the bell. As the grounds keeper opened the door, she asked for a “goshuin” and promptly handed over the notebook. At this point my curiosity took over, and I began to ask as to what exactly was going on here. What I didn’t know, is that I just stumbled upon one of the Japan’s best kept secrets.
Goshuin (御朱印: 御 (go or o, honorific syllable added at the beginning of certain words); 朱 (shu, red/orange ink: vermilion colour often seen at Shinto shrines); 印 (in, stamp)), “the honourable red stamp”, is a seal stamp received by worshippers visiting the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples around Japan. The shuin are created by stamping the unique shrine or temple seal and then writing a messages around that seal using an expert calligraphy technique in black ink. These seal stamps are traditionally made by the 神主 (kannushi, Shinto priest) or the Buddhist monks, and usually cost about ¥300.
These stamps are collected in a small specialty book called goshuin-cho (御朱印帳), which can also be purchased from the shrines and temples themselves. The paper in the book is folded in accordion style, allowing you to open all the pages at once to reveal the gorgeous calligraphy design compositions.
Honestly speaking, I think it is a genius idea for a very personal keepsake from Japan. It is something that can only be acquired through one's travels to these shrines, which also makes it an amazing souvenir to bring home for that someone special.
Excited about the prospect of getting more goshuin stamps, we decided to plan our walk so that we hit the next temples or shrines on our way to Sangenjaya. Avoiding the main streets and the traffic, we continued to walk deeper and deeper into the neighbourhood, taking in the sites of the old and the new Tokyo residential architecture.
In mere minutes we hit the next temple: Ensen-ji (円泉寺), located right in between the two stations. It is a beautiful quiet temple featuring the many iconic Buddhist temple treasures.
Dating back to the late Nambokucho period (南北朝時代, Nanbokucho jidai, also known as the Northern and Southern Courts period, from 1336 through 1392), this temple was designated as No.51 of the Eighty-eight Holy Places of Tamagawa (the 88 temples along the Tama river).
Leaving the temple we began to close in on the Sangenjaya area. The streets got narrower. The houses got older and denser. The small iconic food shops began to appear around every corner. The streets began to fill with clamour.
Walking through the main central shopping area jammed with small eclectic shops, we finally came across our last and final Buddhist temple spot for the day: Saisho-ji (最勝寺).
Built in the beginning of the 19th century, the Saisho-ji consists of very spacious grounds featuring the main building, a narrow street of closely built adjacent buildings as well as a small cemetery, located just minutes away from the Sangenjaya station.
On the way back to the Sangenjaya station, we came across this miniature train line that reminded me of the streetcars back home. Tucked away from the main street, it is only 5 km long, and boasts some of the most colourful two-cart trains I have ever seen: mint green, sky blue, bright yellow, and magenta to name a few.
Shimokitazawa and Sangenjaya are some of the oldest neighbourhoods around Tokyo. They are not too far away from each other, so choosing to commute by foot between them on a pleasant sunny day can open up a whole new side of Tokyo not available on the tourist map destinations!