CREEPY CORNER: A Visit to My Neighborhood Cemetery in Japan

Having been cranky, listless, and generally on edge for the past week, I can honestly say that visiting the cemetery did something good for my spirit.
Publish date:
March 12, 2015
creepy corner, community, japan, mourning, graveyard

Once in a while I feel like the name "Creepy Corner" is a misnomer.

It's true most of what I write about can make chills run down your spine in one way or another, (not going to lie, scared myself awake thinking about Gef the Talking Mongoose last night), but once in a while I feel like the title "Pleasantly Death-Related Corner" might be more appropriate.

This is one of those times. But let me back up for a second.

This week I really wanted to make it to the Oiwa-Inari Tamiya Shrine dedicated to the famous Japanese spirit, Oiwa. Remember Oiwa? She's the vengeful wife-ghost you do NOT want to mess with. Supposedly telling her story without asking permission at her shrine will cause her to come and get you. Guess who told her story? Guess who didn't ask permission?

So that was the plan. Explore the Yotsuya are area of Shinjuku, visit the Oiwa shrine, pay my respects, live to write another Creepy Corner. Like I always say, whether you completely believe it or not, sometimes it's better safe than sorry.

Well, I'll have to ask Oiwa for an extension on her mercy because I did not make it out. For the past week I've been coughing up what I can only characterize as "pure evil," and my brain, in the form of snot, has been seeping out of my head in a steady stream.

The thought of crowded trains and getting lost in Tokyo while all of my facial orifices seeped mucus, made the chunks rise in my throat. So I've tabled the Oiwa Shrine for now.

But then what to offer to you this week, Creepy Corneristas? Going down my "Creepy Corner To Do List," my neighborhood cemetery jumped out at me.

I needed to get out of the house, it was a sunny warmish day, and if nothing else I needed to go to the convenience store (right by the cemetery) to buy another box of tissues. It was time to pay a visit.

I'd been eyeing the cemetery from the day we moved here. High on a hill overlooking a side street, you can just catch a glimpse of a few stone graves and Japanese wooden memorial boards. From the street, the cemetery looks very small, sandwiched not only between a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine, but also surrounded by the shops, restaurants and apartment buildings of my neighborhood.

This is something I really love about Japan. The intersection of the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the connection to the past. I love that I can be walking through busy neighborhoods in Yokohama or Tokyo, the city honking and humming around me. When all of a sudden I turn a corner and there will be a temple, or shrine, or piece of history that has somehow been preserved despite progress or even war.

In this case, that connection to tradition and the past was the little cemetery in my neighborhood.

I'll be honest, I don't know much about it. Even with my husband in tow as my translator, he couldn't read or quite understand a lot of the writing in and around the cemetery due to the use of classical Japanese. I'm not even sure of the cemetery's name.

From what we could tell, the Buddhist temple on one side of the cemetery was Choenji Temple, and the Shinto shrine on the other side was the Sugiyama Shrine. We weren't sure of the name of the cemetery itself.

Normally not knowing the details would bother me, but this time something about it seemed okay. Maybe it was the fog that still enveloped my sick brain, or the stillness that blanketed the quiet cemetery, but something felt oddly right about taking the cemetery as it was. I wasn't there to be a "cemetery reporter," it felt more like I was a guest in someone's house. And a polite guest does not ask a million questions.

So with that in mind, I climbed the steps into the cemetery and just opened my eyes.

The word that keeps popping into my head is peace. The little cemetery on the hill felt so serene. At no time did I forget that the city and all its trappings roared just a few hundred feet from this quiet oasis, everywhere you looked modernity rose up on the horizon, but somehow it seemed further way. It was as if the highrises and apartment buildings couldn't reach this place.

Having been cranky, listless and generally on edge for the past week, I can honestly say that visiting the cemetery did something good for my spirit. What that means, I don't fully know.

Walking deeper into what really was a jungle of tall stone monuments and mouldering grave markers, I was struck by the clack-clack-clack of the wooden memorial boards, or sotoba, clattering in the wind. Probably a happy accident, but the wind clattering the sotoba seemed to serve as an aural reminder to the living, that we were in a place of the dead.

I should note that no body is actually interred in this cemetery. More than 99% of Japan is cremated, so most of the grave markers either encase the ashes of family members, or are simply a memorial to the deceased.

Most of the plots consist of a large marker that has the names of the entire family -- living and dead -- carved on it. The names of the living are painted red, with the red paint being removed when the person dies.

The sotoba (wooden memorial boards) also have the names of the deceased written in Sanskrit and Kanji with black ink. The tall boards are placed in racks behind the gravestones or next to them. From what I understand, the sotoba are placed at the time of death and replaced at subsequent intervals or memorial services.

Also on the grave markers are the dates of the deceased. We couldn't read all of the dates on the graves (due to decay or language), but the oldest graves we came across were from the late 1800s, or Meiji Period in Japan. For the purposes of this post, and out of respect for the dead, I tried not to show details of newer gravestones or plots, only ones dating back about 100 years. Even then, many are nearly illegible.

Following the stone walkway around the twisty-turny cemetery, I was amazed at how many plots could be squeezed into such a small property. If cemeteries reflect the cultures they lay to rest, this little Japanese cemetery is no exception.

Every piece of land was efficiently, yet gracefully utilized. Aside from some older grave markers that were crooked with age, nothing seemed haphazard. The cemetery was crowded but organized, and respectful of the individual's space.

Just like apartment living or tiny but charming 5-seater bars in Tokyo, the Japanese do remarkable things with very little space.

A part of me didn't want to leave the little cemetery on the hill. I've been to a lot of really remarkable cemeteries around the world, but few have filled me with such tranquility as this one tucked into my neighborhood, behind a 24-hour bento place and two hair salons.

As we wound our way out of the cemetery toward the front walkway, I noticed a new cup of what appeared to be sake placed on one of the older mid-20th century gravestones. Another grave had an "" mug placed between vases on the monument. Though we didn't see anyone else while we were wandering the cemetery, this evidence of the living was rather touching.

Walking out of the front entry, as if right on cue, a flock of young school children ran by -- a few staring at the "gaijin" and the "Japanese girl" in the red coat speaking English.

I really don't mean to wax so poetic, but with the first spray of cherry blossoms hanging over the entry, and the children running by, it really felt as if life was right there alongside death. And it was lovely.

So apologies, Creepy Corneristas, for not making to Yotsuya, but I think we lucked out. I'll eventually make it to Oiwa's shrine, but I'm not entirely sure I would have made it to the little cemetery on the hill had I not gotten sick, stressed, and grumpy.

Little did I know however, that hiding just behind my daily life, was a quiet place where both the living and the dead can find some peace.