There is something about moss in the rain, the green is so luminescent, the air that surrounds it is practically breathing, that it makes one forget the frenetic pace of life in the concrete and steel cities of Japan. So it was as I made my way to Nikko,about two and half hours north of Tokyo, surrounded by the lush forests full of tall cypress trees that lay testament to the years of historical events that took place in this region.

After visiting Tokugawa Ieyasu’s tomb in what is the highlight of this World Heritage city, I made way along the main road, heading west. With more time and transport of some kind, this road would lead me to the waterfalls that Nikko is famous for. However, as I only had a few hours before heading back to Tokyo, I knew that I wanted to find this cemetery. And sure enough, I caught sight of it, with the old stones playing host to effervescent shades of green.

There is a main path up to the cemetery that goes through a large wooden gate, and it is flanked on both sides by smaller shrines and statues. The cemetery is old, having been established in the 17th century, and I felt like I was walking into the past as the twigs and pine needles crunched under my feet, (mostly) keeping me out of the squishy mud. There is a large hall of some kind after the gate, but it was closed. To the left and back of the hall was the cemetery. The lower section contained a variety of old, worn stones, in various shapes and sizes, as well as statues of different people (monks?). In some cases the stone was so worn just a faint outline of the statue remained. It was interesting to be among so many old stones and statues like these, as they are not easily found in modern Japan. My shoes got completely soaked and muddy as I stood in the rain photographing these fascinating monuments, but I didn’t care. Although the rain was a major inconvenience, I was thankful for it, because I couldn’t imagine visiting this site in dry, sunny weather. The weathered old stones, the moss, and the rain combined to created an incredibly atmospheric environment in this silent glade, with nothing but me and the trees to witness them.

The upper level of the cemetery contained the huge stone slabs of the people buried here. There are 24 gravestones, five for the retainers of the 3rd Tokugawa Iemitsu shogun, and 19 for other vassals who were loyal to the Tokugawa shogunate. They all died on April 20, 1651, by hara-kiri. This ran counter to my interpretation of what self-immolation meant (I always thought it was death by self-inflicted fire), but according to dictionary.com it means “voluntary sacrifice or denial of oneself, as for an ideal or another person.” This ties in nicely with what I found next. According to Lafacadio Hearn in “Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation” (1904),

...by the sixteenth century junshi had certainly become an honoured custom among the samurai. Loyal retainers esteemed it a duty to kill themselves after the death of their lord, in order to attend upon him during his ghostly journey. A thousand years of Buddhist teaching had not therefore sufficed to eradicate all primitive notions of sacrificial duty, the practice continued into the time of the Tokugawa shogunate, when Ieyasu made laws to check it. These laws were rigidly applied, — the entire family of the suicide being held responsible for a case of junshi : yet the custom cannot be said to have become extinct until considerably after the beginning of the era of Meiji.

Since Ieyasu died in 1616 and Iemitsu in 1651 it’s clear that it took a while to stop this practice. I suppose the story of the 47 ronin is a clear successor to this type of practice. Surely, those masterless samurai would have known what kind of end they would have for avenging their master’s death. In any event, I’ve never seen so many large uniform stones all in one place before, other than perhaps Stonehenge. Each stone had a single line of characters running down it’s length, the simplicity and minimalism very powerful. There was another cemetery section behind the large hall, but the stones were slightly different and not quite as engaging as the other two sections of the cemetery.

This is by far my favourite cemetery in Japan, even surpassing the stunning Okunoin at Koyasan (note: that’s a big claim. I may have to revisit Okunoin to reassess). It’s not very big, but the stones and statues are each so interesting that they pack of a lot of interest in a very small place.

 

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Quality of Monuments: A nice variety of old and weathered stones and statues, covered in different kinds of moss. They both show their resilience to time passing, but are not immune to its passage either, a perfect wabi sabi aesthetic. However, I saw these monuments in the rain, which is when I am guessing that they are at their best. The wet makes them glisten and bring out the details that might otherwise be lost on a dry day.
Cemetery Grounds: The grounds are in an open area of a forest, the ground can be quite muddy and spongy when wet. There are stone stairs to the upper level of the cemetery, but its easy enough to climb up the slight slopes as well. I noticed what was probably deer scat all around, although did not see any wildlife while I was there.
Visitors: None. This place, while listed on the maps, is not part of the major tourist trail so I imagine visitors would be light on the ground at any time.

 

Photographer Notes: A slightly rainy day (or just after the rain) would be the best time to photograph this place, not that its easy to control the weather! It would still be worth visiting at any time. With the trees and overcast weather the light levels were a little low, but of course it also made whatever colour was there (mostly the green moss) stand out.

 

DETAILS

Cemetery: Cemetery of Self-Immolation

Inaugurated: 1651

Location: Coming from the train station, get off at bus stop 10 and walk west a bit. It will be on your right. If you are coming from the main World Heritage Sites, it’s about a 10-20 minute walk (depending on what other things catch your eye on the way there). Conversely, this is part of a recommended walking trail in town that you can do too.

Hours: Always open.