Tag Archives: Tokyo cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #52: Aoyama Reien

Lovely Aoyama Cemetery

Aoyama Reien
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.

Useful links:
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

Cemetery of the Week #7: Zoshigaya Reien

Family grave in Zoshigaya

Zoshigaya Reien
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:

Beautiful photos

Visitor information

Wonderful blog post of a salaryman with a family grave in Zoshigaya

Cemetery of the Week #52: Aoyama Reien, also in Tokyo

Thanks to all my Japanese friends who encouraged me to visit this beautiful place. My thoughts are with you this week.