2-32-2 Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Telephone: 03-3401-3652 Founded: 1872 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.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
c/o Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
1-2 Nakajimama-cho, Naka-ku, Hirosima City 730-0811, Japan
Telephone: +81-82-241-4004 Established: 1952 Number of interments: 70,000 or more Admission: The park is free to visitors. Admission to the museum is 50 yen for adults, 30 yen for children under 18. Museum hours: 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (or until 7 p.m. in August). Admission ends 30 minutes before closing time. Closed: December 29 to January 1.
The Genbaku Domu — the Atomic Dome — caps the ruins of the Industrial Promotion Hall on the shore of the Ota-gawa River: Ground Zero on August 6, 1945, when the Enola Gay dropped the world’s first atomic weapon. The bomb exploded, as hot as the surface of the sun, leveling tens of thousands of buildings instantly. The rubbish was set afire by the burning winds. Only the Industrial Promotion Hall, at the eye of the storm, survived amidst the devastation.
Behind the Atomic Dome, the entry to the Peace Museum winds through a darkened hallway. Photographs in window frames recorded the surrounding destruction. Here and there buildings huddled amidst the rubble, windows gaping and roofs ripped away. In the black-and-white photos, Hiroshima glowed the color of ashes.
In another room, little cases display articles of clothing, still stained with blood 60-some years later. In clipped BBC English, the narrative tape assures that the Germans, Russians, British, Italians, and Japanese had all been developing atomic weapons. Whoever won the race and produced the first nuclear bomb felt they had to drop it before the others could. The narration carefully deflected blame from America.
Hiroshima had been chosen as a target specifically because it was an industrial city with a large population that had escaped the firebombing inflicted on the rest of Japan. Any damage Hiroshima received on August 6, 1945 could be attributed solely to the atom bomb.
On that day, children had been released from school to create fire lanes through town in case America dropped conventional bombs. After the daily American fly-over at 7 a.m., the all-clear siren sounded. Everyone who could be outside was, leading to the staggering loss of life: 140,000 the first day.
Winds generated by the bomb fanned a firestorm that leveled 75% of the buildings between the mountains and the sea. Museum cases held a pair of broken eyeglasses or a dented metal water bottle: sole mementos of children who vanished that day. One of the cases contained fingernail clippings and dried strips of skin, all that a woman had been able to save of her husband.
Outside the museum, the Peace Memorial Park holds a jumble of monuments. A polished granite cenotaph in the shape of a bomb recorded the names of the victims. Millions of paper cranes, folded out of bright origami paper, lay in heaps around it. Nearby stood a statue of Kannon, bodhisattva of mercy. The most shocking sculpture captured an almost fishlike creature, fallen on one side, supported in midair at the shoulder and hip. Its limbs had been reduced to sticks, its features and flesh chiseled away. It looked like nothing so much as a charred corpse.
The simplest monument is a grave. In the center of the park, a grassy mound rises like the barrows on Salisbury Plain. This tumulus holds such victims as could be recovered, pried out of collapsed buildings or hauled, bloated, from the contaminated river.
A plaque said that the barrow contained the ashes of the 70,000 victims. In keeping with Buddhist tradition, they had all been cremated. The mound of ashes stood twelve feet high.
Nearby, a huge deep bell tolls. In Japan, temple bells are upended cups of bronze. They have no clappers. Instead, a baton — sometimes big as a tree trunk — is suspended outside the bell. Anyone can pull the striker back and let it swing forward to sound the bell. In this case, every peal said a prayer for the repose of the dead.
This Saturday, August 6, the city of Hiroshima will hold a Peace Memorial Ceremony with speeches, the laying of wreathes at monuments in the Peace Park, and a moment of silence at 8:15 a.m., the time when the bomb was dropped. More information is here.
Unlike most of the musicians who hosted us on my husband Mason’s first solo tour of Japan, I considered Mayuko a friend, instead of a business acquaintance. I looked forward to staying in Yokohama as if she offered sanctuary rather than crash space. Mayuko spoke relatively fluent English; the difficulty of communicating in Japan — even with people I knew — hit me harder than expected. I obsessed about being an ignorant foreigner, blundering through a culture I could not comprehend. I worried about offending our hosts by accident. At Mayuko’s, I thought I could relax.
When we arrived at Mayuko’s tiny apartment, she immediately took me under her wing. She gauged the effects of culture shock and jet lag, then drew me a Japanese bath. All I needed was to sleep well, she said. Tomorrow would be my first day as a tourist in Japan: a day without business meetings, shows, or any reason to carry around Mason’s guitar. Things would be better in the morning.
Mayuko wanted to show us a bit of “Old Japan,” the Japan of samurai movies. She even convinced her boyfriend Hiroshi to take the day off from work to accompany us. After a breakfast of sliced green apples, yogurt, and huge croissants, Mayuko and Hiroshi took us by train to Kamakura. Kamakura had been the capital of Japan from 1185 A.D. until the shogun government fell in 1333. Now its Buddhist shrines drew pilgrims from around the world. Mayuko was surprised we hadn’t heard of it.
Although Hiroshi had grown up in Kamakura, he’d avoided the shrines. Mayuko said he had been a “bad boy.” With a smile, I wondered what that meant; Hiroshi was the most introspective Japanese I’d met. He hardly spoke, even in Japanese.
A short walk from the train station brought us to the Hasedera, or Hase Temple. The English tickets Mayuko bought for us explained that the “temple” was actually a collection of shrines. It had been established in 736 A.D. as a sacred place for the bodhisattva Kannon. I knew from high school Comparative Religions class that a bodhisattva was an enlightened being who vowed not to enter Paradise until all other creatures reach enlightenment. Even though Buddhism defines life as suffering, bodhisattvas work to ease human misery. What a wonderful introduction to religion in Japan.
Just inside the temple gate, Mayuko demonstrated the ritual washing of hands. She dipped water out of a black stone basin with a bamboo ladle and trickled it first over one hand, then the other. Distracted by the water’s chill, I didn’t see how she dried her hands. I shook the water from my fingers, then wiped them on my jeans. So much for ritual purification. I felt every inch a gaijin.
A broad stone staircase led us up the hill. At the first landing clustered statues with no roof over their heads. “This shrine,” Mayuko said, “belongs to Jizo.” In answer to our puzzled expressions, she typed the name into her electronic translator. It defined him as the bald guardian of children and travelers.
In the shade of a flowering tree, a large bronze figure sat on a lotus throne. He had beautiful verdigris. He clasped a slim staff in his right hand; a bronze orb rested in his left. The folds of his robe were as measured and graceful as a Greek statue’s. Large earlobes hung to his shoulders, more Indian in my mind than Japanese. The statue’s smooth chubby face seemed childlike. Someone had tied a scarlet bib under his chin and pulled a matching knit cap down over the dome of his round head. Rather than affronting the statue’s dignity, the garb seemed lovingly offered. Jizo looked all the more serene for his indifference to the handmade gifts.
At the base of his throne thronged foot-high Jizos, each standing on its own lotus blossom. Many statuettes wore red cloth capes, some faded to pink by the elements. One wore a mantle of white fabric so unwrinkled it must have just been put on. Others had necklaces of flowers or beads. One Jizo had a little yellow ceramic dog at his feet. “These are Mizuko Jizo,” Mayuko said, “the Thousand Jizo.”
Struggling to put the concept into English, Mayuko said, “If I have a child — ” she placed her hand on her belly “– and I kill my baby, I come to here and name a statue. Then I come each year to pray. You understand?” I understood she meant having an abortion. It seemed right to have a ritual to commemorate the sacrifice, but I wasn’t sure if a yearly pilgrimage seemed morbid. Did women return every year for the rest of their lives?
Hiroshi lit a candle and bowed briefly. I pondered the significance of that. Hiroshi and Mayuko weren’t married. They lived in an apartment owned by his mother. Mayuko appeared to be somewhere in her late 30s; Hiroshi was younger. I had no idea how long they had been together. Was he honoring Jizo? Atoning for something? I didn’t dare speculate.
As we continued up the hill, Hiroshi said shyly, “I pray for you safe journey.”
“Thank you,” Mason and I said. Hiroshi bowed his head and smiled.
Farther up the hill, old-fashioned plaster and wood buildings gathered around a plaza. I’d never seen anything like them in my life. The buildings shrank as they ascended. Each story had its own canted roof, tiled in gray slate. Small golden ornaments capped the eaves. Stern-faced guardians stared out from every corner.
A steady stream of people climbed the temple steps to pose for photographs. An American tour group chattered about the holy places they’d visited. Japanese children chased each other. The plaza had a picnic area with chairs and tables overlooking the bay. Old women sat placidly, watching surfers bob in the distant waves. Yokohama lay out of sight beyond the rocky hills to the north. Mayuko plucked at my sleeve and led us into the shrine for which the temple complex was named.
The Hasedera Kannon is called eleven-faced. Above eyes half-lidded in meditation, Kannon wore a crown with ten additional faces. My guidebooks interpreted this differently: either the faces depicted the stages of enlightenment or — the story I prefer — Kannon watched in every direction so he could help people in need.
Yes, he. One of the mysteries of Kannon, the “Goddess of Mercy,” is his gender. My entrance ticket used the masculine pronoun. The Insight Guide to Japan says, “He only looks feminine.” Though his jeweled and gilded dress swells at the bosom, he is considered without gender. Is that the true state of enlightenment?
Kannon’s statue towered above us, over nine meters tall. Drifting through the skylights, the soft natural light made the tarnished gold leaf on the statue’s surface glow. Kannon held a slim wooden staff in his huge fleshy right hand and a golden vase of twining lotus flowers in his left. A rosary of tiger’s eye beads had been looped around his left elbow, falling two meters to his knees.
I wondered if Kannon was related to Quan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Compassion. I couldn’t ask if the goddess was an import. The room felt cool and sacred, as if the atmosphere were differently composed than the steamy, bustling plaza outside. I’d gotten a similar feeling amidst the ruins at Delphi and in a kiva in New Mexico: something holy was present. I wondered if I’d ever felt that in a Christian church.
Both Hiroshi and Mayuko prayed before Kannon’s altar. It never occurred to me that they might be religious. However, the seriousness with which they visited each shrine seemed more than respectful. If only I could frame one simple question that, when answered, would clarify everything they showed us. I wanted desperately to understand what this meant to them.
Mason, the most confirmed atheist I know, also put his hands together. I added my own plea for understanding.
Signs in English, the first I’d seen, said, “No Photo.” Hiroshi explained, “The god is too powerful.” I took that to mean Kannon’s aura would overexpose the film. That would be something to see, I thought, photographic evidence of divinity. I wasn’t tempted to break the taboo to experiment.
Mason whispered, “I bet there are postcards in the gift shop.” To my delight, there were not. As much as I would have liked something to remember the beautiful goddess by, I was pleased that if the temple said “No Photo,” they meant it.
Two silent women waited behind a glass case lined with prayer beads. The price tags of the crystal beads, flawless as dewdrops, listed a lot of zeroes. We quickly moved along.
Out in the plaza, I took snapshots of Mason, Mayuko, and Hiroshi on the temple steps. When the photos were developed, they came back with a strange overexposure above the temple roof. Maybe it was some weird reflection from the overcast sky — or perhaps the evidence of divinity I’d been seeking.
We left the crowded plaza. Behind the temple buildings, we found a little graveyard cut into the hillside. Mayuko and Hiroshi knew of my fascination with cemeteries. They knew I’d put together a book of graveyard photographs called Death’s Garden. “Could I go in?” I asked.
Mayuko and Hiroshi exchanged a long glance. If they’d said no, I would have respected that. Instead, they shrugged. No one else entered the cemetery while we visited.
Buckets and ladles for washing the monuments lined a wooden shelf near the entrance. “Is grave-washing only done at ritual times, like the Bon festival?” I asked Mayuko, simply because her English came easier than Hiroshi’s. She didn’t know. I wondered if her father was alive. Did she have relatives for whom she performed the ritual cleansing? When she didn’t offer the information, I restrained myself from prying.
The graves lay very close together. Only paving stones separated one from the next. The placement would truly have been cheek by jowl, except for the long Buddhist tradition of cremation. Since we didn’t see stone urns, I guessed the ashes must have been placed under the blocks. Interment must be a major procedure.
“Are these the graves of monks?” I asked. “How does one arrange to be buried on temple grounds?” I merely voiced my questions, not expecting answers. Mostly, I was thinking aloud. I’d already learned in Japan that if I didn’t address a question to someone by name, they didn’t realize I was speaking to them. Questions not directed to a specific person went unanswered.
The simplest — probably the oldest — gravestones stood upright, engraved with kanji. Other monuments reminded me of family altars. These had several levels of base stones, usually a low riser, topped by a second riser double the height of the first. Above these rose two large blocks of darker stone. Each block was smaller in dimension than the one below, so that the monuments were roughly pyramid-shaped. At the very top stood an upright stone engraved with kanji or simple round medallions like the badges of samurai. Five stones, five levels. I considered the significance of the number five.
Because he had explained about not taking photos of Kannon, I asked Hiroshi if I could photograph the cemetery. He thought it would be okay.
Graves in the Hasedera Cemetery
Many graves had a pair of vases of either brown earthenware or stainless steel. These held bouquets composed of flowers of three different heights. I interpreted that as symbolizing the underworld, earth, and heaven. The flowers varied from white daisies to purple asters, with marigolds or lemon yellow poppies or huge sunny chrysanthemums mixed in. Is there a Japanese language of flowers, like the Victorians used? To the Victorians, marigolds symbolized grief and despair. Mexicans think their spicy scent is the perfume of death.
Behind several of the graves stood long wooden blades, notched at the top like stylized flames. “What are those?” Mason asked.
Mayuko became flustered. In a polite Japanese way, she snapped, “You ask so many questions: ‘What’s this and what’s this and what’s that?’ ”
I caught Mason’s hand. We hadn’t meant to upset her, but she had been such a good guide so far, telling us as much as she could about the shrines and their rituals. She’d made us eager to learn more. How to apologize for asking too many questions? I know so little about Japanese culture, religion, burial practices, belief in the afterlife…. The variety of my ignorance staggered me. I decided to try to hold my tongue and be content with whatever Mayuko told us.
After an uncomfortable silence, Mayuko relented. She said that she couldn’t read the wooden markers. It was an old style of writing. She thought they recorded the “after-death name.”
The sky cleared for the first time in our trip. How nice to see blue sky, even watery blue sky. Unfortunately, the clearing sky warmed the already humid day. Beneath my black cotton jacket I wore a red T-shirt. The color might have been wildly inappropriate. Who knew? Mayuko wore an oversized white sweatshirt over baggy black jeans. Hiroshi wore blue jeans and a navy and brown plaid shirt. In fact, most Japanese we saw wore dark, conservative colors. Without knowing if red was a sacred color — and without permission to ask — I decided I’d better keep my jacket on.
Changing the subject, Mayuko said that nearby stood a “very sacred place.” It looked like a simple cave burrowed into the stone hillside. Inside the grotto stood stone sculptures of more gods than I could count, gods of “fools and drunks, safe traveling, and keeping love.” Statues flickered in the darkness, illuminated only by white tapers on which prayers had been written with black marker. The twilight made it difficult to see. Water dripped from the ceiling. An uneven path led around a shallow dark pool.
Mayuko asked, “Do you want to pray for something?”
Mason dodged the question by saying, “Loren might.” Mayuko bought me a tiny arch-shaped wooden plaque, an ema, painted with a small gold Buddha. She directed me to write my name and wish on the back. She and Hiroshi turned away to give me a moment. I placed the plaque among hundreds of others on the floor. Ema were tucked into niches in the walls, even slipped between the electrical cables bolted to the ceiling.
I wondered if once a year there was a ceremonial cleansing of the cave, when all the wooden prayer plaques were burned. How else could the cave be emptied for next year’s prayers? The conflagration would be something to see.
As we left Hasedera, we passed a cat sunning herself on a rock in a little Zen garden. Fascinated Japanese crowded around her. She ignored them. Hiroshi bent down to take her photograph. Why, I wondered, did a sleeping house cat attract so much attention? Here was yet another inexplicable cultural moment, one more thing that I didn’t have the references to understand.
Then again, there were things in my own country that I didn’t understand, even after a lifetime of study. How could I expect to grasp Japan in four days?
I finally recognized the pressure I’d put Mayuko under. I’d made her the spokesperson for 1300 years of Japanese history. No wonder she was overwhelmed.
I decided to try to let Japan just flow over me. Curiosity, I’d discovered, even well-intentioned curiosity, could be intrusive. I would have to watch and listen and try to save my questions for only the most important things. It might take a lifetime to understand all that I saw and heard on this trip — and that might be the most important Japanese lesson of all.
This essay originally appeared on Gothic.Net in January 2001. It was reprinted in Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel.
Toshima-ku, Minami Ikebukuro 4-25-1
Tokyo, Japan 171-0022
Telephone: 03 3971 6868 Established: 1874 Size: 25 acres Number of interments: Difficult to say, since Japanese are cremated and their urns are buried at family graves. Open: Dawn to dusk
Zoshi is an old Japanese word that used to mean odd jobs. The land now occupied by the Zoshigaya Cemetery was once an estate where the shogun kept his kennels and where his falconers lived. In 1874, the city of Tokyo claimed the land for a graveyard, one of four unaffiliated with a temple owned by the municipality. Public graveyards are a Meiji-era (concurrent with our Victorian Age) import from the West.
Zoshigaya Reien contains the graves of several famous Japanese: Natsume Soseki (one of Japan’s best-loved novelists), novelist and playwright Kyoka Izumi, poet and painter Yumeji Takehisa, and Nakahama “John” Manjiro (the first Japanese to visit the United States). Visitors can request a map from the cemetery’s caretaker that will point out these graves. They are marked only with the kanji of the family names, which will may difficult for most Western visitors to decipher.
Not marked on the map is Hideki Tojo, the Prime Minister of Japan who was hanged for war crimes after World War II. He is credited with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Also buried in Zoshigaya is Koizumi Yakumo, better known to Western readers as Lafcadio Hearn. In the last half of the 19th century, Harper’s Magazine sent Hearn to Japan. Although he soon parted ways with his editors, he loved the country and wrote book after book describing it to Western readers for the first time.
While his tales drift in and out of fashion in the West, he is still revered in Japan. His most famous work is Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, a collection of Japanese ghost tales comparable to the work of the Brothers Grimm. Those stories inspired Akira Kurosawa’s 1964 movie of the same name, which won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film.
Despite living in Japan for fourteen years, Hearn never became fluent in Japanese. In 1891, he married a samurai’s daughter, who told him the stories that sparked his imagination. In order to legally marry her, Hearn had to be adopted by her father. Later, he became a Japanese citizen and took his Japanese family’s name.
Most of the graves in Zoshigaya Reien are traditionally shaped, with a couple of low steps topped by an upright stone that gives the family name and often features the round family crest called komon. Many gravesites in Zoshigaya Cemetery have private gardens, hedged by small bushes or surrounded by low curbs. It’s a very peaceful place, not far from the bustle of Ikebukuro Station and a Seibu department that was once the largest self-contained store in the world.
More information about Zoshigaya Reien can be found here: Findagrave
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