Tag Archives: Japanese cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #142: Rokudo 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:

The temple’s official webpage

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

The Google map for the temple

A video of the temple at O-Bon:

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/


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!

My Dream Round-the-World Itinerary

Exterior of the Lincoln Tomb, postcard postmarked 1909

Exterior of the Lincoln Tomb, postcard postmarked 1909

Usually when I travel, it’s a case of finding a graveyard wherever I’ll be. When my parents decided they wanted to show my daughter Niagara Falls this summer, I did some research to find out what cemeteries I could visit in the area. I did the same last summer when they took us to Stratford, Canada’s Shakespeare Festival. When my family visited Wm. and Leslie up in Seattle, I knew I wanted to see Jimi Hendrix’s grave in Renton. When the World Horror Convention was scheduled for New Orleans this year, I had a wealth of cemeteries from which to choose. Unfortunately, the weather limited me to only two.

There are so many graves and graveyards in the world that I’m never going to run out of places I want to go. In fact, my must-see list grows twice as fast as it shrinks.

Sometimes I play a little game with myself: what if I won a round-the-world trip? If I only had 10 stops, what would I see?

The list fluctuates. Some things are constants, but there are so many choices that something always has to be knocked off to make room. As of today, this moment, these are the 10 graves and graveyards on my Bucket List:

"Where the Famous Scout Rests Forever"

“Where the Famous Scout Rests Forever”

Stop 1 – Lookout Mountain, Colorado
One of the first postcards I added to my collection was the grave of Buffalo Bill in the moonlight. The card reads, “Buffalo Bill sleeps forever on the utmost point of Lookout Mountain. Overlooking the plains where he fought the Indians and killed the buffalo, his eternal watch goes on undisturbed by Summer’s throng or Winter’s solitude.” Col. Williamm F. Cody is buried near his wife and foster son Johnny Baker. Apparently, the gravesite is a short drive from Denver.

Stop 2 – Springfield, Illinois
I’ve been to the graves of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Garfield, but I’ve never been to Lincoln’s tomb. His monument dominates Oak Ridge Cemetery, but I’m sure the garden cemetery – founded in 1856 – is lovely in a lush, Midwestern way. The cemetery offers an audio tour, which I would love to check out.

A vintage postcard of Martin Luther King Jr.'s grave

A vintage postcard of Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave

Stop 3 – Atlanta, Georgia
I haven’t done nearly enough travel around the American South. It’s a gap in my cemetery education. Sometimes, when I’ve not daydreaming about traveling around the world, I think about renting a car and driving around this unfamiliar part of the country. My first stop would be The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where I could pay my respects at the graves of Martin Luther Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

Stop 4 – Moscow
From Atlanta, my trip would really take off. I’ve never been to Russia, so I don’t really know what I’m in for, but I have always wanted to see Lenin’s tomb in Red Square. I read Lenin’s Embalmers for Morbid Curiosity and that cemented my desire to see the man – or what’s left of him – for myself. (I’ll review the book on Cemetery Travel tomorrow.)

Giza pyramids001Stop 5 – Cairo
Another gaping hole in my cemetery education is that I’ve never seen the pyramids at Giza. I started to research a trip in 2011, right before the protests. All my life, I’ve wanted to see the last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World, among the largest tombs in the world (although, strangely enough, the largest tomb is in Japan – that will have to be another trip). My worry is that religious extremists of one flavor or another will decide that these enormous “heathen” tombs must be destroyed and I will miss my change. Of everything on this list, the pyramids of Giza are my tomb priority.

Stop 6 – Jerusalem
In terms of my education, I must also make a stop in Jerusalem to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The holiest Christian site in the world, it is believed to include the place of the crucifixion and the tomb of Joseph of Aramathea, which Jesus was temporarily buried, as well as the burial place of Adam the first man, and the cave Queen Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, found the True Cross. It will be worth standing in a long, long line to see all of that.

TWA Taj001Stop 7 – Agra, India
I guess it goes without saying that I need to see the “world’s most famous burial building,” according to Tom Weil’s The Cemetery Book. The Taj Mahal, an immense white marble mausoleum, was built by order of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife. I’ve read that there are other Mughal tombs in the area, just as lovely if not as world-famous. I look forward to comparing them.

Stop 8 – Xian, China
Twice now I’ve seen some of the Terracotta Warriors on tour in San Francisco. I would love to explore the burial place of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. UNESCO calls the site “one of the most fabulous archaeological reserves in the world.” Along with the Taj Mahal, the excavation of the Terracotta Warriors makes modern lists of the Eight Wonders of the World. It also makes my list for grandest tombs in the world.

Yokohama001Stop 9 – Yokohama, Japan
Switching gears to something more modest, I’d like to visit the Foreign Cemetery in Yokohama. Like the Protestant Cemetery in Rome and the English Cemetery in Florence, the Foreign Cemetery was the only burial ground set aside for non-Japanese in the days when the country was barely opened – and still openly hostile – to foreigners. Many of the oldest gravestones were destroyed by the Kanto Earthquake in 1923, but an estimated 3000 gravestones still remain. I’d like to compare the Foreign Cemetery with the Japanese cemeteries I’ve visited in Tokyo.

Photo of Father Damien's grave taken from Kalaupapa and the Legacy of Father Damien

Photo of Father Damien’s grave taken from Kalaupapa and the Legacy of Father Damien

Stop 10 – Kalaupapa National Historical Park, Molokai
The final stop of my world tour would be to pay my respects at the grave of Father Damien, a Belgian priest who served the internees at the leper colony on Molokai. Father Damien eventually contracted leprosy himself and died among his charges. His body was eventually returned to Belgium, but his right hand was returned to Hawaii and buried in his original grave. Damien became as saint in 2009.

So there you have it. Of course, this version of my imaginary itinerary doesn’t visit the D-Day graveyards of France or Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. It lacks a stop at Elvis’s grave at Graceland and an exploration of the Museo des Momias in Guanajuato. Oh, there are just so many places I want to see!

Colma, Before the Graveyards

Colma, CA (Images of America)Colma, CA by Michael Smookler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only thing that keeps this book from getting 5 stars is that it isn’t longer. I have several books on the cemeteries of Colma, California, so it’s nice to have one about the city’s history prior to its 17 graveyards. Smookler does a good job of giving a sense of what life was like there, before the living were replaced by the dead.

For those who don’t know, Colma, California was a sleepy little farming town south of San Francisco.  When the big city real estate interests decided they wanted to develop the land in the peninsular city that had been devoted to graveyards, they passed a series of laws outlawing burial in the city, which slowly strangled the cemeteries of their income.  Eventually, all the bodies were removed from San Francisco and the grave monuments were smashed up to provide breakwaters at Ocean Beach, the Marina, the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, and other construction projects around town.

As if that isn’t morbid enough, Colma absorbed all the pioneers who were unearthed.  Now the dead outnumber the living in Colma more than 100,000 to 1.

Smookler’s book illustrates the farming village before and after the change.  Irish immigrants grew potatoes, Itallians grew flowers, there were blacksmiths and horse ranchers and pig farmers.  Then the Archbishop of San Francisco, seeing the writing on the wall, purchased a large tract of land for a cemetery. The Catholics were followed by the owners of Laurel Hill Cemetery, several Jewish congregations, the Odd Fellows, the Masons, and ethnic groups from the Chinese, the Japanese, the Serbians, and the Italians, all of whom purchased land so they could remain together after death.

Colma remains a fascinating place to this day.  Smookler’s book reveals the town beyond the graveyard walls, shaped by local employment opportunities and the proximity of its quiet residents.  I found the book entirely fascinating.

You can order your own copy from Amazon: Colma (Images of America) (Arcadia Publishing))

Other books I’ve reviewed that relate to Colma:

City of Souls: San Francisco’s Necropolis at Colma

Forgotten Faces: A Window into Our Immigrant Past

Permanent Californians: An Illustrated Guide to the Cemeteries of California

Cypress Lawn: Guardian of California’s Heritage

Pillars of the Past: At Rest at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park