yanaka yanesen

Yanaka Reien – Oasis of calm and beauty in the centre of Tokyo

Visiting cemeteries has become a staple of traveling as they are the embodiment of traditional culture. From Père Lachaise and Montparnasse in Paris to La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, you can find often true emotions and unspoiled culture that is worth visiting. A cemetery that is often not listed in the world’s best cemeteries rankings is the Yanaka Cemetery in Tokyo.

With 100.000 square meters, enormous trees and graves that are hundreds of years old, it is actually one of the most magnificent graveyards in Japan and is comparable in size to the major parks/gardens in Tokyo such as Rikugi-en and Koishikawa Korakuen. The ca. 7000 graves with beautiful flowers, plants and trees with nature running wild here and there make for a large number of picturesque views. In particular in spring, with the alley of cherry trees, and in autumn with many colourful trees including many gingkos.

Historically, this cemetery was part of the Tennoji temple, but became independent as part of the nationalistic policy in the Meiji period (1868-1912) to separate Buddhism and Shinto. The idea behind this policy of separation was to elevate Shinto above Buddhism and make the perception clear that Shinto and Buddhism were 2 separate religions. As a result of this policy, the cemetery was taken from the temple and established as a public cemetery in 1874.

Graveyards in Tokyo are generally small, with this one in Yanaka being one of the exceptions. Other large cemeteries can be found in Aoyama and Zōshigaya. In total there are 8 large graveyards administered by the Tokyo metropolitan government, most of them located outside of the core city centre such as in Yabashira, 10 times as large as Yanaka, but around 45 minutes by train from Tokyo station.

tokugawa grave
Grave of Tokugawa Shinobu.

What makes Yanaka Cemetery interesting is not only the scenery, but also the special graves you can find here. From a foreign perspective, most of the names of the famous people who found here their final resting place do not ring a bell. The Japanese wikipedia page lists about 100 graves of well known people (with their own page on the Japanese wikipedia). Out of these, there are six that require your special attention.

The most famous tomb is the one of the last Shogun, Tokugawa Shinobu. He was the 15th and final Shogun, ending the Edo period (1603-1868). After he succumbed to the Meiji Emperor in 1867, he went on to live for another 45 year. In a break of tradition, he did not receive a Buddhist burial, but a Shinto one, which is extremely rare. Unfortunately, you cannot enter his grave, but you can see the mounded tomb from behind the metal bars.

Cat on grave

Other other notable people are: Former Prime Minister, Ichiro Hatoyama (1883–1959), and prominent Japanese painter, Taikan Yokoyama (1868–1958).

The final three I want to introduce you are graves that have been registered as cultural heritage:

  • Sakusuke Obana (1829-1901): Government official. Served as the first governor of Ogasawara (Bonin) Island after the Japanese re-colonization during the Meiji regime. He has a simple grave with a monumental pillar stone. Well preserved.
  • Yosai Kikuchi (1788-1878): a Japanese painter most famous for his monochrome portraits of historical figures. His grave has a large memorial stone with engraved text.
  • Shigetomi Ohara (1801-1879): Court noble, active in the movement to restore the monarchy. Has a grave with flashy Imperial Shinto stele.

Apart from the graves, the area is rather well known for its many cats, playing and sleeping along the graves. It usually does not take long before you see one sleeping on one of the tomb stones. Several people seem to be caring for the stray cats that live here.

Close-up of sleeping cat on one of the graves

Finding your way around the cemetery

It gets most interesting if you get of the main road. Spots you cannot miss are (see map at the bottom of this article):

  • Tokugawa Shinobu grave: the most well-known resident.
  • 3 graves that are registered as a cultural heritage: Sakusuke Obana, Yosai Kikuchi, Shigetomi Ohara.
  • Sakura lane: (see full article) the main road lined with cherry trees, of course most recommended to visit during spring when they are in bloom.
  • Hanaju florist: a flowershop located just outside the cemetery (since 1870). A cultural asset since 2012. Very traditional shop.

There are some more spots to explore, but they are less interesting in my opinion. There used to be a beautiful Five-Storied Pagoda that was the symbol of the cemetery, but a double suicide burned the place down in 1957. You can still see the foundation stones of this pagoda, which is not really that special. You also have a police station on the cemetery grounds, which is a bit odd to say the least, as well as a small playground for children.

A typical grave, you see them names of the people engraved at the side.

Japanese Cemetery basics

In Japan, graves are usually part of Buddhist temples and located on their temple grounds. In this respect, Yanaka Reien is an exception, connected to the nationalist policy in the late 19th century to separate Buddhism and Shinto.

Family graves are the rule. They feature usually one large stone monument with the name of the family written top to bottom, or left to right, ending in 家 (family) and/or 之墓 (grave of). There is generally a space for flowers, incense, and water in front of the monument, and a chamber/crypt underneath for the ashes. If you want to find out the actual name(s) of whose grave it is, these are usually engraved at the front or at the sides. If you see an engraving in red, it means that this person is still alive! This happens when a married person dies before his or her spouse, with the outliving spouse already being featured on the stone. The engraving of 2 names is apparently cheaper (!). The red ink is removed when the couple is back together in the grave.

You often also find wooden boards behind grave. These are called sotoba and are related to various memorial services that are held after death.

There are no specific rules you have to take into account when visiting a graveyard in Japan (except if you want to go all the way and go and clean the gravestone).

In practice

Address: 7-5-24 Yanaka, Taito, Tokyo 110-0001

Closest station: Nippori Station – 5 minutes walk (Yamanote line, Jōban Line, Keihin-Tohoku Line, Keisei main line and Nippori-Toneri Liner)

Opening hours: Mon-Sun, 8:30-17:15 (access to the grounds also outside of these hours)

Web: https://www.tokyo-park.or.jp/reien/park/index073.html (Japanese only).

When to best visit? In spring when the cherry trees are blooming or in autumn. However, this place has the same charm throughout the year. It does not get too crowded, so it is ok to visit this during the weekend.

Special days: On the equinox days in spring and autumn (around 20 March and 23 September), as well as during the Obon holidays (13-15 August), the cemetary is full of people cleaning up the family grave.

Why visit? Old atmosphere, beautiful characteristic graves and cats doing their thing. Peace, quiet and nature in a bustling city.

Places to visit or things to do in the area? Right in the Yanesen area, very close to Yanaka Ginza and Kayaba coffee.

Name in Japanese: 谷中霊園


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