2-32-2 Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Size: 64 acres
Number of interments: difficult to estimate, since Japanese are cremated and their ashes are buried inurned beneath the family monument.
Open: 24 hours
Cherry blossom-time is a national holiday in Japan, with news reporters following the progression of spring throughout the country. The delicate pink cherry blossoms are adored for their fragrance and fragility. One of the most peaceful places to contemplate the brevity of spring is the Aoyama Cemetery, called Aoyama Reien or more familiarly Aoyama Bochi, just slightly west of central Tokyo.
Not far from the Shibuya business district and within sight of Roppongidori’s high-rises, Aoyama Cemetery is Tokyo’s largest cemetery and one of the few park-style cemeteries in Japan. In fact, it was Tokyo’s first municipal cemetery, owned and overseen by the city and not affiliated with a particular temple or shrine.
The Aoyama area is named for Tadanori Aoyama, who was given the land by the Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa in the early 1600s. The Ginza line, Tokyo’s oldest subway, opened there in 1938. At the end of World War II, Allied firebombing leveled 98% of the area. It languished until the area was rebuilt for the 1964 Olympics. Now it is filled with posh shops and nightclubs.
The graveyard fills the crest of a huge hill. The outer part of it is quite steep. Stone steps lead between terraced grave plots. It is one of the few places in Tokyo with so many trees. When I visited in mid-March several years ago, marvelous bushes bloomed. Their small, star-shaped flowers were waxy yellow, white, or deep pink. The scent was a combination of jasmine and orange blossoms.
Traditionally, Japanese graves rise a step or two above ground level. Often a low fence encircles the plot. Generally, the fences in Aoyama Cemetery are made of the same stone as the monuments inside, but some graves have living fences, either low hedges or woven from green bamboo. A number of plots have Torii gates. Inside nearly every fence stands a stone lantern with crescent moon cutouts on its side.
All grave plots have a family crest. My favorite was a half-daisy that floated on a watery S-curve. Hard to describe, but cool. One crest had two crossed lines that were fletched like arrows. Another was a spiral of three birds.
A fair number of graves had fresh flowers on them. The Lonely Planet guidebook talked about the three levels of ikebana, the art of flower arrangement. Classical bouquets incorporate Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. Most vases we saw held more than three varieties of flowers—we saw pink tulips, orange marigolds, white and red anemones, lots of yellow flowers. There were some pinnacles of flower arrangement in this graveyard.
The Lonely Planet guidebook calls Aoyama’s real estate “very expensive.” Perhaps that is why greed nearly overcame the Japanese reverence for the dead, which usually prevents them from uprooting graves and building apartments on the land. In 2005, many graves in the foreign section of the graveyard were tagged with notices warning that if the rent was not paid, the dead would be evicted. In 2007, the “gaijin bochi” was granted special status, recognizing the historical importance of the people buried there.
Many of the foreigners in Aoyama Reien had come to Japan to serve the Meiji Emperor in the second half of the 19th century. Italian Edoardo Chiossone designed Japan’s paper money and postage stamps, as well as sketching the Emperor’s official portrait. American agricultural advisor Edwin Dun brought the cultivation of hops to Japan and laid the foundation for Sapporo Brewing Company. Charles Dickinson West, an Irish engineer, brought steam-engine mechanics to Japan. Dutch missionary Guido Verbeck translated the Bible into Japanese.
Joseph Heco, the first naturalized Japanese American, published the first Japanese-language newspaper in the U.S. (Because of his American citizenship, he was buried in Aoyama Cemetery with the foreigners.)
Of the Japanese buried in Aoyama Reien, Nogi Maresuke, a general during the Russo-Japanese War, committed seppuku in order to follow his emperor into death. Okubo Toshimichi, one of the main proponents of modernizing Japan, was assassinated by conservatives who disagreed. Olympic gold medalist Nishi Takeichi commanded a tank at Iwo Jima and died on the island. Yoshida Shigeru served as the last Prime Minister of the Japanese Empire, which he disbanded in 1946.
The most famous grave in Aoyama Cemetery belongs to Hachiko, an Akita who always met his master at Shibuya Station. After Professor Eisaburo Ueno suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died, the dog continued to wait at the station to meet his train for nine more years. Hachiko’s hide was stuffed and is on display at the National Science Museum of Japan, but his ashes lie beside his beloved master’s. The memory of his faithfulness is kept alive by the statue of Hachiko, which remains a popular meeting spot outside Shibuya Station.
Cherry Blossom Graveyard Mystery Tour: Friday, March 30, 2012 at 2 p.m.
News story about the possible eviction of the foreigners
The Foreign Section Trust’s map of threatened graves
Spectacular cherry blossom photos
Cemetery of the Week #7: Zoshigaya Reien in Tokyo