There’s something familiar about visiting a cemetery, no matter what culture, city, or country you’re from. The quiet. The trees. The stone memorials that mark the final resting place of the departed. The people that you see tend to be of the greying set. Water taps, buckets, and brooms can be found on occasion. And so it was, when I walked into Zoshigaya Cemetery this morning.

Zoshigaya is a large cemetery, and has some notable internments, the most famous being the Japanese novelist Nastume Soseki and international writer Lafcadio Hearn (known in Japan by his Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo). Unfortunately, due to the meandering way I explore cemeteries, I did not find either of their graves.

There’s a kind of uniformity to most Japanese cemeteries, primarily with the writing on stone. There are few images, statues, or other kinds of imagery within. Nearly every grave has a large stone monument (often a rectangular pillar, but sometimes it can be a boulder or stone slab…I even saw some large round stones) that has the family name on it, and in front of that there is a place to burn incense, one or two flower holders, and below everything is a chamber or crypt to hold the ashes. Depending on the size of the gravesite, there might be other elements, like a boulder that holds water, or a small Buddhist statue, or one or more stone lanterns. Many of the graves have a number of long, flat wooden slats called sotōba, or sometimes just tōba. According to my research, this is the Japanese version of stupa, which of course originally comes from India. These sotōba have writing on them, in the past it was in Sanskrit, but I think it is more common now to see them in Japanese. The written portion is kaimyou, or the posthumous Buddhist name you are given when you die (and that your bereaving family has to pay a lot of money for). The sotōba may also have 5 sections carved into the sides, although I think this depends on the region of Japan you live in. In any event, many graves have these wooden slats, some being quite new, others in need of replacing.

Although I had a nice wander around the cemetery, a good chunk of it was under renovation (re-doing the pathways) so I decided to have a quick lunch at Ikebukuro Station before heading out to do more cemetery exploring.


Quality of Monuments: The cemetery itself and all of the monuments have been kept in good condition over the years. I guess the popularity of high quality granite means that it will become more and more difficult to find the ‘wabi-sabi’ aesthetic of faded stone monuments. There are a few minor Buddhist statues but generally speaking you’ll be seeing a lot of the same kind of monument, with variations on the stone and style.

Cemetery Grounds: Fairly large. It’s more like a park – there are roads to drive through it (for cemetery business of course) and I saw a few people cycling and walking their dogs there. Some really old, large, beautiful trees are on the grounds. The are stone pathways for the main sections, but smaller paths are dirt only, which can get a bit muddy when it’s been raining.

Wonderful twisty tree

Visitors: I think I may have been the only tourist there this morning, most of the people seem to be locals using it as a park (running, going for a walk), or people come to pay respects and/or clean the family grave.

Photographer Notes: Not much to say here. There wasn’t a lot that inspired me to photograph. The trees were the most interesting to me but of course I did not bring a wide angle lens with me today.



Cemetery: 雑司ヶ谷霊園 Zōshigaya Reien

Inaugurated: 1874

Location: I took the train/subway to Higashi Ikebukuro station and got out of exit 5. If you turn left after exiting the station there will be a small road almost immediately to your left. Take that and follow it till you hit the edge of the cemetery (less than a minute walk). Although there are gates along the edge of the cemetery, none of them were open, so if you take a right and follow the cemetery you will eventually get to the main entrance (which is where the toilets are too, if you are looking)*

*Note: I couldn’t understand why there were was always a taxi in front of the toilets until I realised that this is one place where the taxi drivers can go.

Hours: Management hours (thanks google translate!) are from 9:00 to 16:30. The cemetery itself seems to be open 24 hours.