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(Friday Night History) #36 (S2E3): The Fox Iroha of Okarimiya

A word to the wise before today's episode: don't cut class, kids. We cool? Cool.

So the story starts here, and it goes like this.

One day when I lived in Sendai, I was cutting class, as I often did that semester. The only thing that really counted for my grade was term papers and final exams, and most of what I was in class was bored. So why stay bottled up on campus when there was a city to wander, one I was falling in love with and which was helping me start ot figure myself out. But I didn't cut all my classes, and the cafeteria had good food, so I was heading to campus via a detour, in the Miyamachi district.

Miyamachi is called that-- "Shrine town"-- because it was the monzenmachi of Sendai Tosho-gu shrine. Monzenmachi-- town-before-the-gates-- is the term for a town around a major shrine or temple. These towns' people and commercial activities tended to necessarily center that institution in the Edo period. Consequently, the rules that governed life and political administration elsewhere didn't apply in those neighborhoods and those towns.

The Lower Gateway of Sendai Tōshō-gū. (source, PD)

Now, you might've heard of Tōshō-gū, down in Nikkō, Tochigi Prefecture. Tōshō-gū enshrines the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu, first shogun and founder of the Tokugawa dynasty of shoguns. Sendai Tōshō-gū is a branch of that shrine, established in April 1654 by Date Tadamune, 2nd generation daimyo of Sendai. Tadamune was the son and heir of Masamune.

Now if you've been a listener for awhile you'll know that the Date clan was a tozama daimyo family. This means it was not hereditary vassal to the Tokugawa shogun, but an outsider, excluded from full participation in the Tokugawa system. So, it was incumbent on a tozama daimyo to find ways of further affirming their loyalty, because especially at the outset of the period, the Shogunate had a habit of confiscating the lands of problem daimyo of any kind.

And so Tadamune, one of the wealthiest men in Japan, spared no expense in the construction of Sendai Tōshō-gū. As a major monzenmachi of the area, the neighborhood would go on to become one of a handful that enjoyed special privileges during the Edo period because of the presence of a major shrine or temple. In the case of Miyamachi, that privilege was brewing sake. Sendai Tōshō-gū remains a major shrine, and one that is a significant tourist draw for the city. But this episode is only tangentially about the shrine-- rather, it's about something that happened where the shrine used to be.

When the shrine was under construction, the goshintai, the vessel that housed the divine essence to be enshrined in the finished shrine, was placed in a temporary building nearby called the Okarimiya-- the Temporary Shrine. The Okarimiya was in Sendai's Kakyōin neighborhood, which lies south along a straight line from the shrine's planned permanent site. Check out the map in the blogpost for reference. Kakyōin is now immediately to the west of the Tohoku Shinkansen rail line, just north of Sendai Station.

Now, sure, this goshintai was moved, but that wasn't the end of the story for that spot, which kept the name of Okarimiya.

See, then things got weird.

The thing is, once the Okarimiya was vacated, the land was left in its wild state. One account says "the cryptomeria grew thick, and it was an incredible place, dark even in the daytime. Naturally, it became a favored dwelling of foxes, and travelers tended to avoid it."

And it was on that site in the northeast corner of Kakyōin where it met the border of Miyamachi, that there stood a stone.

It was big and round and the locals called it the Kitsuneishi (fox stone) of Okarimiya. Those who passed it and didn't know to keep a respectful distance were in trouble indeed, especially if they were foolish enough to pee on it. If they did, a hapless traveler might find themselves suddenly disoriented and lost, or deposited in a muddy field, or worse. Moved by this state of affairs, the locals moved the stone to an even more out of the way place, and thought that would solve the problem.

They didn't get rid of the fox, though. Bear in mind, we're not talking about a flesh and blood fox, we're talking about a supernatural fox, a shapeshifter-- presumably in this case, a nogitsune, a wild fox. And sure enough, where the stone had been, there were reports of a shapeshifting fox the locals called Iroha.

"New Year's Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, Ōji," by Utagawa Hiroshige (source, PD)

The fox was called Iroha because the fox tended to take the form of a fashionable, beautiful woman, and her kimono and the lantern she carried both bore a design based on the hiragana いろは。 Take a look at the blogpost to see these characters. This was no longer just a matter of ill mannered travelers getting comeuppance, no. Now, with the stone gone, the fox had escalated things into actively fucking with people. That being said, the main source I've used for this, puns her name on the word "iro" as in "sexiness," so perhaps the "fucking with" has more than one meaning here.

That day in Miyamachi, I ultimately spent only a little time at Sendai Tosho-gu, instead opting to wander south, unclear on which way exactly to go, and wandered directly through the locations in this story. I still needed to get to campus, but aside from that, there wasn't anything pressing. So I wandered-- that also was the day that I saw Sengaku-in, the former betto or attached temple serving Sendai Tōshō-gū, where in the immediate aftermath of the Boshin War, Emperor Tōbu, who was the subject of Season 1's closing two-parter, resided prior to his being transported to confinement in Kyoto. It's a lovely neighborhood, and if you're able, I strongly recommend paying it a visit-- it preserves something of the air of an old monzenmachi even though much of it, like the rest of the city, has become a hybrid of old and new, so don't expect something that's a carbon-copy of the Edo period. Along the way, I did not see any foxes-- at least not any that I could discern-- but I did get lost, all the way until I reached the T-intersection with National Route 45, and had Sendai Municipal Higashi Rokubanchō Elementary to my left. The causeway carrying the rail line was in sight, and from there, I could find my way the rest of the way to campus.

The Taisho-era source I used for starters on this tale says that "the stone was moved to the grounds of Higashi-Rokubanchō's Jinjō Elementary School, but which stone it is remains unclear."

Jinjō Elementary had been on that site but only until 1876, when it moved to Kimachi-dori, elsewhere in the area. Its footprint is now taken up by-- you guessed it-- Higashi Rokubanchō Elementary.

A 300 year old Cherry Tree on the site of Higashi Rokubanchō Elementary. I wonder if Iroha used to sit under this tree, back in the day. (CC 4.0)

And the thing is, we do know where the stone is-- or at least, there's a stone that's said to be that stone. Check out the link in the blogpost to see a picture. It's a substantial, round stone, worn a bit with the weather and years, and it's at Higashi Rokubanchō Elementary School. It was to my left, when I came out of my span of disorientation, though it's behind a fence, so I didn't know it was there when I passed, that cool autumn day so many years ago.

We've been talking a lot about enshrinement or some sort of honoring or commemoration as a way of paying respect to a spirit and staying on their good side. I can't help but wonder if this is another case of that.

Fortunately, I found my way that day rather than get lost-- and for that, the fox Iroha has my gratitude. Maybe I'll find my way again.

Though if you think about it, isn't a part of me still wandering those Sendai streets?


  • Kimachidori Elementary School. https://www2.sendai-c.ed.jp/~kimachi/ Accessed 23 Sept. 2021.
  • Mihara Ryōkichi. Kyodoshi Sendai Mimibukuro. (Sendai: Hobundo, Showa 58 [1983]), p. 123.
  • Nishiyama Matsunosuke, Edo Culture. Translated by Gerald Groemer. (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1997), pp. 76-79
  • Sendai Shiritsu Higashi-Rokubanchō Shōgakkō https://www.sendai-c.ed.jp/~touroku/ Accessed 23 Sept. 2021.
  • Tomita Hiroshige 富田廣重. Horobiyuku Densetsu Kouhi wo sakunete dai 1 shu 滅び行く伝説口碑を索ねて. 第1 (Sendai: Tomita Bunko, Taisho 15 [1926]), pp. 4-5. https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/978319/8 Accessed 23 Sept. 2021.

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