The history of Kunitachi has its origin in the time when people began to live around Yabo Tenmangu. A lot of ancient stone artifacts and potteries were found and ancient tombs and shell mounds remain there. Geologically Kunitachi is bordered on the south by Fuchu and on the north by Kokubunji. There was an ancient provincial government office in the Fuchu area. In Kokubunji, there is a ruin of a temple, which is one of the temples constructed by the request of Emperor Shomu in 741. From the names of the cities Fuchu and Kokubunji; “fu” meaning the center of politics and “ji” a temple, we can easily assume that people have started to live in the area, Musashi no Kuni, from a long time ago and Kunitachi has been one of the main regions.
Yabo Tenmangu is a venerable Shinto shrine dedicated to SUGAWARA Michizane . In about five minutes’ walk from JR Yaho station, you come to see a big shrine gate. Yabo Tenmangu is the oldest among three well-known shrines, Yushima, Kameido, and Yabo Tenmangu. Soon after SUGAWARA Michizane (the god of wisdom) was exiled to Dazaifu, his third son SUGAWARA Michitake was said to be also exiled and lived in Yabo . When his father died, he enshrined a wooden figure of his father in Tenjinjima near Fuchu city in 903, and that is the origin of Yabo Tenmangu, according to the Tenmangu. The ancestors of Michitake began to use a family name Tsunotono. In the Kamakura period, Saburoutamemori Tsunotono, who was a disciple of Honen (a founder of Jodo-shu), entered the priesthood and became the priest of Yabo Tenmangu. The shrine building was later moved to the present location.
You may wonder why the son of SUGAWARA Michizane had to be sent to Yabo. That might be because the east part of Japan, where Yabo is located, then was less advanced compared to the western part. Among relatively insignificant regions of the east Japan, Musashi no Kuni was fairly developed and Yabo was the center there.
Yabo Tenmangu is a precious historical shrine as is described above. The long history of the shrine, more than one thousand years, creates the serene and divine atmosphere around the area, contrasting the bustling of towns in the north of Kunitachi city. There are some festivals hold throughout a year and many people come to join them. For example, about one hundred thousand people pay a visit to the shrine on a new year’s day, after listening to seventy seven times of taiko drumming in a row at midnight. Every year in Kunitachi city, Yabo Tenmangu’s taiko sound signals the beginning of a new year. People walk into the shrine to pray for the peace of the new year. It’s a nice place to stroll around seasonally. You may run into some sweet bantams, which use the shrine as their home. The solemn building of the shrine never fails to captivate your heart.
Yabo was part of Fuchu until the beginning of the Edo period and agricultural area for people to live in. There were only few affluent farmers who owned the lands and the rest were mostly peasants who worked for them. Now we introduce some seasonal practices and festivals held at home. They have been handed down to generations in Yabo and are all vital parts of the life in Yabo.
- 1. Cocoon ball decoration on tree
- 2. Making diamond shaped mochi
- 3. Boy's day
- 4. Summer/Fall festivals
- 5. Full moon night festival
- 6. Okagarabi
- 7. Making Shimenawa
1. Cocoon ball decoration on tree (on January 10)
There were many small farmers who couldn’t make a living by farming only, so many of them bred silkworms to compensate for the shortage of income. Just after the new year’s day, people made cocoon tree with small dumplings that look like cocoon balls, and prayed for the success of silk harvesting. SAEKI Yasuko, a member of a local group “Record of life and people in Kunitachi” says that children were quite happy to help their parents to make lots of dumplings because they believed their wishes would come true if they ate the boiled dumplings. Dumpling tree was cut off from such as bamboo leaved oak, ring-cupped oak, or konara ork. Many of the trees grow along the Tama River. They were also used to build a fence which protect house from strong wind. The Cocoon ball decoration practice was very significant event for farmers as a wish for good harvest.
When dumplings were made, children took them to Dondo bonfire, roasted them in the fire, and savored them. Dondo bonfire continues to take place in shrines and temples all over Japan. People bring new year’s decoration there and have the shrines and temples burn them to ash with praying. Dondo bonfire in Yabo originates in the belief of protection of the community. People believed that the height of the ashes from the burning fire would forecast the new year’s harvest. Some people let their body brush the ashes believing it would keep them young. Eating roasted dumplings was believed to ensure the health for a year. Many houses nowadays have azuki porridge on around January 15. Dondo bonfire is an event to end ko-shogatu period, a couple of days around January 15.
2. Making diamond shaped mochi (on March 3)
It’s a special day for girls. When a baby girl is born, the mother’s side of the family usually sends Hina dolls to the girl for wishing happiness and good health. Some rich families used to have gorgeous hina dolls and ornaments, and decorated them in the main room. Diamond shaped mochi in three colors, clams, Shiro-zake (sake), and special meals were offered before the decorations and the family members celebrated the day. It was also the day for a married woman to visit her parent’s house and spend a relaxing time together with her own family.
3. Boy’s day (on May 5)
Farmers start to plant rice in around May in Yaho. On the boy’s day, samurai dolls are decorated and colorful carp banners are set up in the sky. Families and parents wish boy’s health and a good life. Rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves are made and put before the dolls. The family members eat them later. It’s an even just before the start of a busy season to breed silkworms and plant rice.
4. Summer/Fall festivals, Shishimai (Lion dance) and Buddhist lantern festival (August 25 ～September 25)
People believed Tenjinsama (the deified spirit of Sugawara Michizane) had no relish for rough mannered festivals, so there isn’t any mikoshi portable shrine in Yabo Tenmangu. Instead there are smaller mikoshi in each local community. For a month starting on August 25, a couple of festivals are held in a row in hope of a rich harvest of rice and vegetables without any problems caused by heavy rain or strong wind. The shrine ritual Shishimukae starts ten days before the main festival, which takes place on September 25. Shishimai dance is a court music and dance performance to worship the shrine spirit and performed by local young farmers. They get together in the shrine every night and practice the dance. Buddhist lantern festival is also held in the main festival. All these festivals are carried out by farmers and they have a pleasant time before entering the busy farming season.
5. Full moon night festival (on September 15)
Otsukimi is a seasonal festival to enjoy watching the full moon. Yato farmers celebrate Jyugoya on September 15 and Jyusanya on October 13. It’s said that you should celebrate both of the days, or it won’t bring you any luck. Dumplings are made of rice flour, whichis milled with a rice mortar. This is how to make dumplings;
1. Pour some boiled water in the flour, knead and roll it into small balls.
2. Boil them in a steamer
3. Make fifteen dumplings on Jyugoya and thirteen on Jyusanya.
It will require some practice to put them together neatly like a pyramid. Also stick a wildflower in each dumpling. A bunch of harvested vegetables and fruits are placed beside the dumplings. They’re all for appreciating a good harvest.
6. Okagarabi (on November 3)
Okagarabi is a festival commemorates the day when the shrine pavilion was moved from Tenjinjima, the birth place of Tenmangu, to the present location. People collected discarded wood in the construction site of the new shrine pavilion and burned it together. Children of shrine parishioners of Yabo Tenmangu often helped collecting the wood.
7. Making Shimenawa (on December 20)
It’s an annual event takes place near the end of a year in preparation for a new year. People clean their houses thoroughly and place a new Shimenawa and other ornaments in a household altar. Tamakazari (new year ornament) is also arranged on the door at the entrance.
We had a glimpse of some annual events and festivals in Yaho area. Now take a look at how Yaho, the old and historical village of farmers, turned into Kunitachi, a modern town with universities. It was the end of the Edo era and Japan was about to go through dramatic changes in many aspects of our lives in the Meiji Restoration.
Since the late Meiji era, the number of office workers increased in many big cities across Japan. Their houses and offices were located separately and they wanted to buy a house in the suburb. After the first world war (1914–1918) in the Taisho era, big housing projects such as Denen-toshi and Gakuen-toshi were launched one after another in Tokyo.
The Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) gave spurs to the deconcentration of urban functions. Individual residences as well as universities that lost their buildings by the earthquake moved from the central area to the suburbs. One of the universities is Tokyo University of Commerse, which was founded in Kanda Hitotsubashi in 1920. The university lost most of the school buildings and had to move out-of-town. SANO Zensaku, the principal of the university, and TUTSUMI Yasujirou, a successful business person, were friends. TSUTSUMI chose Yabo and Hakonetochi Co., Ltd. launched a Gakuen-toshi project to construct a new town with universities and residents, and bought a wide farm land about 2,600,000 square meters along Koshu Road in the north part of Yabo. The vast wooded area called “Yama” by locals was altered gradually and drastically into an Utopian town.
“Yama” in Yabo was cleared and divided into land for sale in lots. The landscape was new and original with a 40 meter wide road running in the center and narrower ones extended in a radial fashion. The idyllic town with a university situated in the middle was born there. The boom of development, however, came to an end before long because of the sluggish economy. Many lots were left unsold and new houses were scattered across the town. The residents were mostly those who worked for the company Hakonetochi or the university. The project to create an urban city didn’t start off well and was saddled with a mountain of problems; unpaid land payment, unsold houses, and the delay of utility constructions. In addition, TSUTSUMI was very meticulous about his designed landscape. Cheap, easy made houses or buildings that didn’t fit in the scenery were prohibited to build there. It took a long time to develop the lifeline utilities, such as water supply and sewage systems, electrical and gas installation. But he didn’t give in. No factories were permitted to build, and entertainment and amusement business was strictly restricted. “Town of intelligence” was a unique, strong sale point.
After several years of struggle, some educational institutions such as a music high school (Tokyo University of Arts) and Tokyo University of Commerse were established or moved to Kunitachi, and finally the project of creating a brand new town of education got on a growth track. The civilians in the new town formed a neighborhood association Kunitachi-kai to promote friendships and supported the development of the town.
Kunitachi, now in JR Chuo line, used to be one of the stations in Koubu line. The name of the station Kunitachi was created by putting together the first letters of the neighboring station names, Kokubunji and Tachikawa. Some also say the name Kunitachi was to celebrate the birth of a sublime city.
After the world war second, national power was strengthened by the economic recovery and Kunitachi kept steadily growing into a prosperous town, as was originally planned. A big housing complex was also built. It became popular for young people to live in the suburb and commute to work in the middle of Tokyo.
After decades, we came to see a change again among new Kunitachi residents. They want to work and live in the same place and Kunitachi is the town that enables them to do so. The citizen can enjoy nature in the southern part of Kunitachi while getting the full benefits of convenience in the north part of the town.