Yanaka Cemetery – seasonal serenity

I remember well the first time I visited Yanaka Cemetery. It was 25 years ago and I was in Tokyo on a business trip, planning to stay over for the weekend to catch up with my graduate school roommate who was then living in Yanaka.  Following her instructions, I got off the train at Nippori and walked through the cemetery to reach her home.

It was a crisp November evening. The main road through the cemetery is a kind of right-of-way for people using Nippori station, so I had plenty of companions as I walked (not that I’ve ever sensed ghosts or spirits in Japanese cemeteries anyway). In fact, what struck me as I walked was the serenity. Streetlamps provided enough–but not too much–light and, occasionally, leaves from the cherry trees lining the road wafted gently to the ground, redolent of the blossoms that had doubtless dropped from these trees six or seven months earlier. It was enchanting!

When I mentioned to my friend how much I had enjoyed the stroll, she pointed out that the grave of Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913), the last of the Tokugawa shoguns, was at Yanaka Cemetery, and that her husband’s family grave was nearby (her husband’s forebears had been retainers to the Tokugawa). The next day we visited the cemetery again so she could show me Yoshinobu’s final resting place and we could pay our respects to her husband’s family.  It was also nice to see the cemetery in daylight.

To this day, autumn remains my favorite time to visit Yanaka Cemetery.

The cemetery was begun by Tenno-ji, a Buddhist temple dating back to 1274. During the Meiji Restoration, when the government required that Buddhism be separated from Shintoism in order to emphasize Shinto’s close connections to the Imperial House, the cemetery was separated from the temple and, in 1874, became a public cemetery with no formal religious affiliation.

Tenno-ji still exists, albeit on smaller premises between the cemetery and the JR tracks. It is one of the stops on the Yanaka Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage that is a popular new year’s activity. The cherry-tree lane that I had strolled that first night was originally built as the approach to the temple.

There are about 7,000 graves in the cemetery, many of them family graves containing the ashes a number of family members. This is not unusual for Japan.

Among the graves are those of many famous Japanese besides Yoshinobu, including politicians, industrialists, educators and literati, particularly of the last 150 years. There is a signboard identifying about 70 of the most famous and showing where to find their graves. Without calling on Wikipedia, I could only identify a few of the most famous, such as Shibusawa Eiichi (1840-1931), the industrialist regarded as the father of Japanese capitalism, and Nicholas Kasatkin (1836-1912), the Russian Orthodox missionary for whom Tokyo’s Holy Resurrection Cathedral is popularly called Nikolai-do. Shibusawa features in one of my early travel pieces, while Nicholas of Japan is mentioned in one of my more recent works.

One unusual feature of the cemetery is its take-gaki or bamboo fences.  Several different styles of take-gaki are in use around the cemetery and another signboard near the cemetery office helpfully identifies their locations. At each site, a small sign explains the style of take-gaki you are looking at. Studying these is practically its own history lesson.

At various points in the history of Tenno-ji and the cemetery, there was a 5-storied pagoda standing on the premises as well. The pagoda was originally built in 1644, burned down in 1771, was rebuilt in 1791 and then burned down again in July 1957 in a spectacular double-suicide arson. Thus, today the remnants of the pagoda are nothing more than a fence around the original five foundation stones and a signboard (with grainy photos) detailing its most recent demise. Considering its troubled history, perhaps it is no wonder that the pagoda has not been rebuilt.

Finally, this being Japan, the cemetery would not be complete without its cats. Somehow stray cats find cemeteries easy places to live their lives of quiet contemplation, loved and fed by locals. Yanaka Cemetery apparently has a catch-neuter-release program for these cats, as a population control measure, but otherwise leaves the animals to enjoy their lives. Additionally, signs around the cemetery discourage people who no longer want to be pet owners from discarding their erstwhile pets here.

There is much to recommend the Yanaka neighborhood and I’m sure I’ll be writing more  about it in the future!

© 2017 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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2 thoughts on “Yanaka Cemetery – seasonal serenity

  1. TonyJ2 says:

    A visited the Yanaka Cemetery and the neighbourhood after catching the local Taito 100 yen bus from Ueno, not really knowing where I was going. A great place to check out.


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