At the risk of sounding morbid I’ve always had a fondness for graveyards. When I lived in London I found Margravine Cemetery as delightful as Hyde Park, and have strong memories of dragging my then girlfriend around the City in search of Postman’s Park, which pays tribute to people who lost their lives saving others. In Prague I loved the Old Jewish Cemetery and in Florence, the unusual graves at the San Miniato al Monte got me as excited as the Uffizi.
And Tokyo’s not just shops and offices for the living. There are also plenty of spots for those no longer with us to rest. And what better season to think about these places than Obon, when people traditionally go to their family homes to visit their relatives’ graves? It is a spiritual time of the year — the ancestors are supposed to come back from the world of the dead and enter the Buddhist shrine in the home.
If you are not able to go home to pay your respects to your ancestors at this time, how about taking a trip with us around Tokyo and a few of its notable graves instead?
A Grave Matter
Japanese people are almost always cremated and the grave is a depository for the remains. The graves tend to be family ones and as such, become drawing points for people to come and pay their respects. There is a place for flowers and incense, and visitors will often leave other offerings like drink cans.
Water is important. A cemetery will have many water buckets that you can fill up and then take to the grave to clean it. People put fresh flowers in pots of water in front of the grave, plus a cemetery will have brushes and other tools that you can use to scrub the stone.
Let’s now go and take a look at some famous graves.
Ekoin (Ryogoku): Nezumi Kozo
Right, our journey starts in the east and at one of the hearts of old Edo, Ryogoku. Ekoin is a serene temple a stone’s throw from the hoopla of the sumo for which Ryogoku is usually visited today. Head inside this temple to find the grave of a real Edo legend, Nezumi Kozo, aka Jirokichi Nakamura, the famed burglar who was so successful people nicknamed him a “rat” (nezumi) because nowhere was impenetrable to him.
A kind of Robin Hood figure said to have given his booty to the poor, he was eventually caught and executed, though his memory lives on in an endless line of Kabuki plays, books, TV dramas and films.
People still go to visit his final resting place in great numbers and chip away at his grave stone for good luck.
Seikoji (Ueno): Hokusai
Now we take the Chuo Line to Akihabara and then change up to Ueno. A short walk from the station we find a small temple, Seikoji, with an even tinier but peaceful cemetery tucked behind it. Here, housed in a little hut, is the grave of Hokusai, one the most famous of all ukiyo-e print artists. It’s kind of a surprisingly plain grave for such a master of color.
Yanaka Cemetery: Yoshinobu Tokugawa
Continuing north we get off at Nippori, actually just a station away from where the PingMag office is located. We could have filled this entire article with the tombs of warriors and overlords, but in the end we settled for just two. Here’s the first. In Yanaka you can find the grave of the last Shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, though it is gated off to the general public.
While it feels quite special compared to the other graves at Yanaka, it is perhaps impossible not to compare Japan’s final feudal ruler with the resting place of the first, Ieyasu, who was entombed with real pomp and circumstance in Nikko. (For a look at vibrant Nikko, take our digital desktop tour!) It reminds us just how far the Tokugawa dynasty fell. Now matter how powerful you or your family is, death comes for us all…
Jigenji (Nishi-Sugamo): Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Surrounded by other graveyards and other temples, Jigenji hosts the grave (on the left in the picture) of writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The author probably best known for the short story Rashomon — the inspiration for the Akira Kurosawa film — committed suicide at thirty-five, which along with his literary output, secured his cult legacy. His name lives on as the title of one of Japan’s major literary prizes. The surrounding Somei Cemetery is also very impressive and several other big names, such as novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (In Praise of Shadows, The Makioka Sisters), can be found nearby.
Myogyoji (Nishi-Sugamo): Oiwa
Nearby is Myogyoji. A mini island in the middle of this cemetery is home to the grave of Oiwa, the star of the most famous of all Japanese ghost stories, known as Yotsuya Kaidan. Oiwa’s spooky tale of revenge and murder has been adapted countless times into plays and films.
As well as warriors, we could have filled this entire article with writers. (No prizes for guessing which I would have personally preferred!) We restrained ourselves to only three. Two of them are in Zoshigaya, the cemetery close to the wonderfully rustic Arakawa streetcar line.
This is novelist Soseki Natsume. Along with Tanizaki, he is likely Japan’s most famous novelist, and author of enduring classics like Botchan and I Am a Cat.
And Lafcadio Hearn (Yakumo Koizumi), one of the first Japanophiles and who did so much to introduce English readers to Japanese culture. By getting a place here at Zoshigaya I guess he truly succeeded in going native!
Zoshigaya is also home to the grave of Seikichi Onibozu, an eighteenth century bandit.
Also in the cemetery you can find one of the three graves for wartime general Hideki Tojo and John Manjiro, who in contrast to Tojo helped open up relations between America and Japan… Actually there are lots and lots of famous people’s graves at Zoshigaya!
Shounji (Kanamecho): Shotaro Ishinomori
Shounji, a short distance from Ikebukuro, hosts the colorful grave of manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori. Many of his creations, such as Kamen Rider and Cyborg 009, decorate the tomb. How many can you identify?
Sainenji (Yotsuya): Hanzo Hattori
The ninja Hanzo Hattori has a suitably tucked-away final resting spot at a small temple near Yotsuya. You would never know it was there unless you were told. Just like a ninja!
Aoyama Cemetery: Hachiko
Sure, we all know that there’s a statue of Hachiko outside Shibuya Station but what about the loyal canine’s grave? Well, you can find it in Aoyama Cemetery, next to that of his master, Professor Ueno. However, the dog’s actual body was stuffed and is kept in a university.
Sengakuji (Shinagawa): Forty-Seven Ronin
We end in Shinagawa, where a walk up to Sengakuji rewards you with a small plateau and a view of Takanawa’s concrete jungle. Here are the graves of all Forty-Seven Ronin, the loyal heroes of probably Japan’s most famous tale of warrior chivalry.
Here’s our tip. The best route is actually not straight up from Sengakuji Station. Take the Katsurazaka road, which brings you out at another main road above Sengakuji. You can then take a tiny, seemingly impossibly meandering path down through the houses to arrive at Sengakuji from behind.