One of Tokyo’s most famous cemeteries is Aoyama Reien, located near Roppongi/Harajuku, is known for many things: it’s large, it has a lot of flowering cherry trees in spring, and it was the first cemetery where foreigners could be laid torest. I entered the cemetery from some back way. Actually, I suppose any way is fine, all I am saying is that I didn’t go through the main gate and thus did not have a map. That said, there are maps all over the cemetery, although of course they don’t go into details of who is buried where.
So I did what I always do, wander. Aoyama cemetery is very large and while most of it sits on top of a (flat) hill, there is a significant section that is on the slope, so there can be a bit of stair climbing up and down if you do end up exploring the entire cemetery. I saw a cluster of crosses in the distance, and was pretty sure that that would be the foreign section, which is what. A lot of what you read on the internet says that the foreign section is quite big, but actually it’s just a drop in the bucket (one small subsection) compared to the cemetery as a whole. That said, after two days of wandering through rectangular pillars in a language I could not read, it was nice to come across the familiar – in multiple languages of course – English, French, and German were the main ones. Some of the stones were very stark and plain – literally, a large rectangular block with basic information chiseled into it. Others had more information, and sometimes details of who the person was and what their role was in Japan. The foreigners section is as old as the cemetery itself (1872) and many of the graves were threatened with removal (due to non-payment of fees…who did they expect would still be around to pay them?) After a public outcry (many of the deceased laid to rest here were the foreign experts that helped modernize Japan in the Meiji era) the mayor of Tokyo gave them a special historic designation to preserve them. That said, although this is not the only area that seems to be untended, it is the most prominent one, as so many of the graves are in the same area. So the broken monuments, overgrown grass, twigs and leaves seem more here than in the one-offs in other parts of the cemetery.
I then drifted aimlessly throughout the cemetery, following whatever seemed to catch my eye. The cemetery is big – a major road cuts right through it, and smaller, minor ones do too. It felt sometimes strange to be wandering through such an idyllic place and then have to remember to look to cross the road so as not to be hit by speeding cyclists, gardeners in their trucks, or taxi drivers on their way to the loo. I then remember that Japan’s most famous dog, Hachiko, is buried here with his master, and with a little help from the internet I was able to find the gravesite. His owner, Ueno sensei, has the usual rectangular pillar that is common in most Japanese cemeteries. Hachiko’s own memorial is off to the side, right at the front of plot, and people leave little mementos for him there. The entire plot is surrounded by a bamboo fence, which is not that common in cemeteries here, so it made it a bit easier to find.
At this point my back was killing me from all the walking I was doing (a herniated disc will do that to you!) so I decided to call it a day.
Quality of Monuments: Most of the monuments are standard as per Japanese cemeteries, although I found that Aoyama had a greater (albeit still small) variety of statues and other imagery here. The foreigner’s cemetery provided a gentle contrast, although many of those stones were also written in Japanese. Christian symbols are not just for the foreigners though, as I came across crosses inscribed on various headstones around the cemetery, and indeed one section seemed to be the (Japanese) Christian section.
Cemetery Grounds: Very extensive. It can easily take a half day (or longer) to explore everything. The great thing about this cemetery is that it has maps at regular intervals so that you can reorient yourself should you get lost, and, even more importantly, benches. Benches everywhere. I never had to worry about when I might be able to sit down (to ease my back) because each major section had some benches (usually near the water supply). As reader(s) (?) of this site will know, this is an issue near and dear to my heart. The grounds are well kept and there were gardeners working on maintaining various sections, and I saw another work go through section by section, clearing away dead vegetation and empty/broken cans that get left behind for the deceased.
Number of Visitors: A few people, but not many (this was a weekday afternoon however). Some seem to use it as a park, and there were a few other tourists there as well. I did come across a couple of homeless people using it as a place to crash, but it was not intrusive.
Photographer Notes: There are some interesting monuments and slightly overgrown areas here, and a mix of old and new monuments. Bringing (or using) filters might help to bring out some of the details lost in the harsh light of the sun (never a good time to be photographing, to be sure).
Cemetery: 青山霊園 Aoyama reien
Inaugurated: 1872, first municipal cemetery in Tokyo
Location: Minato ward. Closest stations are Gaien-mae (Ginza line) and Nogizaka (Chiyoda line)
Hours: open 24 hours a day