Cemetery of the Week #142: Chinko-ji Temple cemetery

The gate to Rokudo-san

Chinko-ji Temple cemetery
aka Rokudo-san cemetery
aka Rokudochinnoji cemetery
595 Komatsu-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto 605-0811, Japan
Telephone: +81 75 343 6555
Founded: 836 AD
Size: a fraction of an acre
Number of interments: hard to say, since Japanese are cremated and their ashes interred beneath their headstones marked with only their family names
Gates are open: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The buildings open only occasionally. Check with the Tourist Information Center downtown for opening hours if you want to see the paintings of Hell and the Spirit World.
Admission: free
Important to know: The mosquitos in June were fierce, even in the heat of the afternoon. You may want to invest in insect repellent before you visit.

The city of Kyoto was founded in 794. For centuries, it served as the capital of Japan, until the emperor moved his court to Tokyo in 1869. It’s been called the City of Ten Thousand Shrines, but may only have as many as 2000 of them, 1600 of which are Buddhist temples along with 400 shrines dedicated to Shinto, the native religion.

Kyoto’s largest festival of the year takes place in August, when the city observes the Bon Festival, the Japanese celebration of ancestral spirits.

Rhoads_Kyoto_3400The book Introducing Kyoto by Herbert E. Pluschow reports “The Bon Festival begins on August 8 with a visit to Chinko-ji Temple. The location of Chinko-ji (also called Rokudo-san) marks one of the largest grave areas that existed since Heian times. Formerly, it extended from Kiyomizu-dera Temple all the way downhill to Rokuharamitsu-ji Temple and as far north as Chion-in.” Kyoto, a Cultural Guide, adds, “This area was known as ‘the land of the dead,’ a place where the bodies of those who died without family were often abandoned.”

So perhaps there were no monuments to move, no graves to disturb. The area is suburban now, full of houses. Of the massive graveyard, only a fragment remains at Chinko-ji.

The small Buddhist temple of Chinko-ji (also known as Rokudo-san) stands in the Higashiyama neighborhood, just south of Kyoto’s Gion neighborhood. The temple dates to the 9th century. As far as I can tell, the graveyard does not date that far back.

The plaque at the gate says, “A Rinzai-sect temple of the Kenniji school, founded in 836, and commonly known as Rokudo-san. Kyōto’s Bon Festival, Buddhist observance honoring the spirits of ancestors, begins with the tolling of the temple bell. The area is called ‘Rokudo-no-tsujii,’ or ‘the place where this world and the other world meet.’ Reference to this belief appears in Konjaku Monogatari, Tales of Times Now Past. The well behind the Main Hall was believed to have been used by Ono no Takamura (802–852) to commute between the two worlds.”

In fact, the temple still has a statue of Chinese scholar Ono no Takamura, a calligrapher and poet who served Emperor Saga in the early part of the ninth century. Takamura was so eloquent in his descriptions of Hell that it was believed he was an emissary from Enma, the King of Hell. Legend holds that at night Takamura would climb into the well at Rokudo Chinkoji, descend to the underworld, and help Enma judge the dead. In the morning, he’d climb back out, then go serve the Emperor.

Chinko-ji remains a place to pray for “the souls of commoners.” Rokudo-san, the temple’s popular name, refers to the roads to the six Buddhist realms to which a soul may go: 1) Jigoku (Hell), 2) Gaki (the land of the hungry spirits), 3) Chikushou (the land of the beasts), 4) Shura (the land of fighting), 5) Ningen (the land of humans, or our world), and 6) Tenjo (Heaven). Rokudo no Tsuji (the intersection of this world and the next ones, where the six roads begin) is believed to be in the small open square inside the tori gate from the street.

Japanese Buddhists believe that the souls of the dead inhabit mountains, which were Paradise. The bottoms of valleys were Hell. The mountain above Chinko-ji is called Mt. Amida, the Buddha of eternal light who rules Paradise. Some souls were so weighed down that they couldn’t climb uphill and were condemned to roam the earth, causing suffering. The Bon Festival addresses itself to these unhappy souls, which are welcomed back to earth at temples considered gates of Hell.

The welcoming bell is inside this building.

The welcoming bell is inside this building.

At Chinko-ji, people welcome their ancestors back by ringing the temple’s bell, called “Mukae-gane” or the welcoming bell. Unlike most temple bells in Japan, where you draw the clapper back to strike the bell, this one requires you to push the clapper forward. Legend says that the bell can be heard in every corner of hell and was once heard as far as China.

The building housing the bell stands on the right side of the temple complex. Just past in stands a hall with a statue of Enma and his emmisaries.

Straight ahead from the gate, on the north side, stands the main hall of the temple, which houses a statue of the Buddha Yakushi, who has the ability to rescue the suffering from Hell.

Some of the Jizo

Some of the Jizo

The well that Takamura used to visit Hell still exists behind one of the temple buildings, but it was closed the afternoon when I visited. During Bon, people used to buy pine branches from the temple and lower them down into the well, so that the souls of the dead could grab on.

On the western side of the shrine, a plastic roof shelters a large statue of Jizo, the Buddhist guardian of travelers, children, and the dead. He’s surrounded by 200 smaller Jizo.

Behind the Jizo shrine stands the pocket graveyard. I didn’t open the gate and walk in, even though my family was alone at the temple when we visited. It didn’t feel respectful and I could see as much as I needed from the gate.

The graveyard with sotoba

The graveyard with sotoba

However, as I stopped to pay my respects to Jizo and take some photos, the sotōba – the wooden blades marked with the posthumous names of the dead – rattled like chattering teeth in a sudden breath of wind.

I was glad when other people came into the temple grounds with us.

Useful links:

A great blog post with photos of the temple at O-Bon and the tale of “ghost-raising sweets”

A photo tour of the temple

A Japanese page for the temple, with a map

A photo and more information about the Welcoming Bell

A haiku about the Welcoming Bell

A video of the temple at O-Bon:


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Weekly Photo Challenge: Contrasts

I know I just used this photo the other night on the Yokohama Cemetery of the Week, but I wanted to talk a little more about it.

I know I just used this photo the other night on the Yokohama Cemetery of the Week, but I wanted to talk a little more about it.

One of the goals of my trip to Japan was to visit the Foreigners’ Cemetery in Yokohama. Because I wasn’t sure what the status of the wifi would be in our air b’n’b apartment,  I did my research beforehand.  I discovered that the cemetery was only open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons between noon and 4.  Since we would only be in Japan across one weekend, that was when we’d have to make the trip.

My husband Mason is a firm believer in doing the one thing you really want to do on vacation on the very first day possible.  By that logic, we should have gone on Saturday, but we absolutely needed to do laundry. And they predicted rain. And my legs ached from a bad fall in Kyoto the day before.

So we put the trip off until Sunday — and woke to rain.  One of my sources said the cemetery would be closed in bad weather, but I hoped a gentle rain wouldn’t be considered bad enough.

I lost that gamble.

All that way to Japan, then the walk to the station in Tokyo, then the train ride to Yokohama, and the hike up the hill to the graveyard: only to find the cemetery paths blocked with chains.

I would have cried, but since none of the cemetery volunteers were in evidence, that wouldn’t have done me much good.  Instead, we visited the Tin Toy Museum nearby, which was highly entertaining, and went to a waffle restaurant for lunch.

The cemetery never opened, so we shot what photos we could over the fence.

I really like the photo above, since it shows the variety of monuments in the cemetery.  There’s the old mossy green tablet stone, more modern granite monuments (several of which look like books), and the tall upright Japanese square column.  I suspect the Westerners received full-body burials with a service performed by a Christian or Jewish authority, while the Japanese were cremated and their ashes interred beneath their monuments by Buddhist priests.

Maybe contrast isn’t the word I want so much as spectrum.  I love the cross-cultural spectrum of the Americans, English, Scots, French, Germans, Russians, and Japanese all lying together on the same hillside — and that only includes the languages I read on stones I could see from outside from the walls.

Despite the viciously hungry mosquitoes, the cemetery visit gave me a sense of peace.  The cemetery was an oasis away from the frenetic neighborhood where we were staying in Tokyo.  I’m disappointed I didn’t get to walk the paths, but without insect repellent, the trip would have been curtailed anyway.

I’ll go back some day — on the first possible day of my trip — but I’ll go back armed with bug spray.


This post was inspired by the WordPress Photo Challenge of the Week: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/contrasts/

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Cemetery of the Week #141: Yokohama Foreigners Cemetery

The cemetery holds a mixture of Western-style and Japanese monuments.

The cemetery holds a mixture of Western-style and Japanese monuments.

Yokohama Foreigners’ Cemetery
aka Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery
aka Yokohama Gaijin Bochi
096, Yamate-cho, Naka-ku, Yokohama, Kanagawa 231-0862, Japan
Telephone: +81 045 622 1311
Founded: 1854
Size: 4.5 acres
Number of interments: around 5000
Open: Weekends and national holidays between March and December, from noon to 4 p.m.
Admission: A donation of at least 200 yen is requested to aid restoration of the cemetery.
Important to know: Bad weather may close the cemetery. It was closed due to rain the day I visited. Also note that the mosquitos are fierce. You may want to invest in repellent before you visit.

The main gate of the cemetery. The building visible on the right holds the museum

The main gate of the cemetery. The building visible on the right holds the museum

Prior to 1853, Japan was a country withdrawn from the world. That isolation ended when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with four black-sailed ships. They delivered a letter from President Millard Fillmore demanding that the shogun government open Japanese ports to American vessels.

Perry returned the following year with seven warships to check the response. Aboard the USS Mississippi, 24-year-old marine Robert Williams fell to his death. Perry requested land that overlooked the sea for a place to bury him. The shogunate offered the grounds of Zotokuin temple. Williams was buried there briefly, before his remains were moved to Gyokusenji Temple in Shimoda.

After the port of Yokohama was opened to the West in 1859, Japanese nationalists killed Roman Mophet and Ivan Sokoloff, two Russian marines. Their grave, near the cemetery’s Meyer M. Lury Memorial Gate at the bottom of the bluff, is the oldest remaining in the cemetery. It was once a magnificent monument, according to the cemetery’s website, but only the pedestal remains.

View of the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery from the main gate

View of the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery from the main gate

The Japanese buried near the Zotokuin temple were removed in 1861. The Chinese buried there were removed in 1871. After it was damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the temple itself was relocated to the Heiraku neighborhood at the top of the bluff. Many of the cemetery records (although not all) were destroyed by the earthquake, so it’s not known exactly how many people are buried here. The surviving list, added to those buried since 1923, numbers about 5000 names. Almost 3000 tombstones remain standing.

One of the historically significant graves in the cemetery belongs to Charles Lennox Richardson, a British merchant who was killed by escorts of Lord Satsuma on the Tokaido Road on September 14, 1862. He and several Western friends, who had been sightseeing in Japan, refused to dismount and kneel when the Satsuma Daimyo rode by. The Japanese lord ordered his men to “chastise” the Westerners. Richardson was killed immediately, two of his friends were gravely wounded, and a third escaped to report what had happened.

Richardson’s death sparked the Anglo-Satsuma War. The British demanded that the Daimyo pay reparations and punish the murderers. When he refused, the British Royal Navy bombarded his castle and sank three of his steamships. Satsuma’s samurai climbed aboard the British ships and killed 13 sailors, but the Daimyo was impressed by Western weapons and agreed to pay the fine and execute his men.

In 1864, the cemetery was expanded from the area directly around the temple all the way to the top of the bluff. It was common in Japan for graves to be rented, but the shogunate waived that requirement and provided the land free of charge. After the Meiji government took power, its new Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote the American, British, Dutch, and Russian consulates in 1869, announcing that the gravesites would still be provided free of charge, but the consulates must bear the cost of the cemetery’s upkeep. These consulates formed the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery Foundation, which oversees the cemetery to this day.

In memory of Shigeno, the Japanese wife

In memory of Shigeno, the Japanese wife

Among the Westerners who changed the course of Japanese history buried in the cemetery are Edmund Morel, father of the Japanese railways; Scotsman John Diack, a railroad engineer; William Copeland, who brought beer to Japan with the Spring Valley Brewery; cartoonist Charles Wirgman; and John Reddie Black, an influential journalist. Eliza Scidmore, who brought the cherry trees to Washington DC, is also buried here.

Also in permanent residence are foreign employees of the Meiji government, missionaries, teachers, journalists, traders, ships’ crewmen, military men, bakers, photographers, botanists, and a man who revolutionized the sale of ice in Japan. The remaining gravestones record 40-some different nationalities, including as many as 120 Japanese wives of foreigners.

One of the photographs inside the cemetery's museum

One of the photographs inside the cemetery’s museum

The little museum near the upper gate has a panel exhibit of photographs explaining the history of the foreign community in Yokohama. The museum is open daily, even when the cemetery is closed because of the weather. I’ve read that there is a pamphlet with a self-guided tour of the cemetery available for 200 yen, but I wasn’t able to get one the day I visited.

The cemetery is easily reached from Tokyo’s Shibuya Station. Take the Tokyu Toyoko line to Motomachi Chukagai Station in Yokohama. Keep taking the escalators up through the station, exit through the station gate but don’t leave the building, and then keep taking escalators up through the mall until you reach the America-Yama Park. From there, bilingual signs will lead you up the hill to the Gaijin Bochi, the Foreigner’s Cemetery.

Useful links:

Official history of the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery

Visiting information

Financial Help Sought to Preserve the Cemetery

Essay about the Foreign Cemetery

Essay on the Anglo-Satsuma War, with a post-mortem photo of Charles Richardson

Information on the other foreign cemeteries of Yokohama

Other Japanese cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Aoyama Reien, Tokyo

Zoshigaya Reien, Tokyo

Hasedera Shrine, Kamakura


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Yokohama Foreigner’s Cemetery

Yokohama Foreigner's Cemetery

I’m just back from Japan today and the jet lag is hitting harder than I’d like. I’ll put this week’s Cemetery of the Week up tomorrow. Sorry for the delay!

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Upcoming Cemeteries of the Week

Yokohama001I’m closing in on 150 Cemeteries of the Week.  I still have a bunch of tourist destinations in mind, but I thought perhaps I’d open the subject up for discussion.  What would you like to see?

I’m including a poll, just to get a sense of whether these graveyards are as fascinating to you as they are to me.

If there’s something I absolutely must write about — but I’ve left it off my list — please feel free to write it in or leave a comment below.

Keep in mind that I am limited to those cemeteries that I can research, either through books or over the internet.  If I can’t find much information, I can’t write an informative post.  Also, I need to be able to find illustrations, either through photos I can borrow (with full credit, of course) or with vintage postcards or other ephemera.

The whole list of Cemeteries of the Week to date is here.


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