CREEPY CORNER: Every Cemetery Should Have a Playground -- My Trip to Yanaka Cemetery

Cemetery enthusiasts, this post's for you.
Publish date:
May 7, 2015
travel, creepy corner, japan, spring break, graveyard, Cemetaries

It was recently Golden Week in Japan. For those of you not in the know, Golden Week is like a nation wide spring break for Japan.

Because there are so many national holidays so close together, the country decided to just go ahead and make the whole week a celebratory period for students and workers to take time off.

Now since I don't work for a Japanese company, I didn't really get to take time off to luxuriate in the spring weather. There were definitely times over the week where I was that curmudgeon hunched at my computer, bitterly scrolling through Facebook posts of expat pals gallivanting around sunny, springtime Japan. Nice seaside ice cream cone, I'm gonna go eat my hard boiled egg and (not) like it.

So finally I snapped. Regardless of looming deadlines, I decided that if I didn't take at least ONE day off to be a Golden Week goon, my crankiness would overcome me and I'd have to rename Creepy Corner, Cranky Corner. Nobody wants that.

So I took a shower to wash off the grumpy, changed into something other than my Pajama Jeans (I regret nothing), and grabbed my husband for a jaunt to, where else? A cemetery.

We made a trip to the district of Yanaka on the outskirts of Tokyo. When I say "Tokyo," most often people think of the throngs of people rushing through busy metropolitan streets flanked by a jungle of neon lights and commerce. But Yanaka is like a tiny town that time forgot. A tiny town with a huge cemetery.

While the streets of Yanaka — with its cozy one-table restaurants and local run shops that sell everything from candy to traditional paints — are quaint and even a little cramped, the cemetery is sprawling.

In fact the cemetery at Yanaka is "one of Tokyo's biggest and oldest cemeteries", home to about 7,000 graves and covering an area of 100,000 square meters (almost 25 acres).

Among other things, it is the final resting place to the last Shogun of the Tokugawa bakufu (feudal government). In a symbolic way, the cemetery holds the grave to "the last samurai" (not Tom Cruise). After the Tokugawa Shogunate abdicated on January 1, 1868, the feudal system of samurai control ended.

Of the cemeteries I've visited so far in Japan, this was by far the most historically relevant.

Leaving the train station and entering the narrow roads of Yanaka, the cemetery spread out almost everywhere we looked. Cracked, cement paths bisected each section of the cemetery, old grave markers stood gray and crumbling mixed in with shiny new headstones.

It was obvious which graves were being fastidiously maintained by the cemetery workers that we kept running into (early May is for grave cleaning), and which graves had been left to be ravaged by time.

Some gravestones were striking in their size; giant flat stones that towered over me with dozens of lines of inscription. In the shade of one of those giants might be a modest foot-high marker, stating only the family name and a date. In places, weeds had overgrown the little graves and tree roots fought to take over the plot.

I can't be sure, but it seemed that in certain sections the wealthy were buried alongside the not-so-wealthy. The dead get along so well.

Leaving a small side-section, we turned onto a busy road that cut through the main stretch of the cemetery. Tourists with backpacks, Golden Week vacationers, bicyclists, and locals in their cars all shared this thoroughfare — the living and the dead going about their business side by side. Despite moving aside for the occasional car, it felt like we had stepped back in time.

Stopping to check a map, we decided to make our way to the Tokugawa family's section of the cemetery. Turning onto one of the paved paths that sliced through the plots, we quickly found ourselves by surrounded on all sides by the graves of some of Japan's most notable people, many from the early to mid 1800s, and some going back as far as the late 1700s.

One such historic grave was Ōhara Shigetomi's grave. I'm not quite up to speed on my Japanese history, but this is what the English sign by his gravestone said:

What was really impressive was the size of his gravestone.

Tall, wide, truly "monumental," it was impossible for me to get the whole thing in one picture.

One thing that is impossible NOT to mention about the Yanaka Cemetery is the playground. After this visit, I'm of the opinion that every cemetery should consider installing a playground.

Stuck in the middle of a dense section of the cemetery, the brightly colored playground had swings, slides, monkey bars, and picnic tables. As I ran toward the swings (because how often do you get to kick your heels up on a cemetery swingset?) I heard giggles just over my shoulder.

I wish I could say that THERE WAS NO ONE THERE WHEN I TURNED AROUND, but instead I saw two women, huddled on a bench over a bento supper, while a little girl dug in the sand nearby. From what I could tell it was prettiest little "family picnic at the cemetery" picture I'd ever seen. I wish I could have taken a picture of them, but that I didn't want to be that creepy gaijin.

But I did get a picture of this:

Maybe one of my most favorite Creepy Corner moments ever. I'm swinging! In a cemetery! Weeeee!

After cemetery playtime, we continued on our way to the Tokugawa clan's graves. The deeper we got into the oldest parts of the cemetery, the grander the graves seemed to get.

These graves were on a elevated, gated plateau:

I couldn't quite figure out the exact significance of the people whose ashes were held there, but from what I could tell they were significant people of Japanese governmental history. Leaders, founders, people with more money than me.

If nothing else, the gravesite had such an air of importance. Graves at the end of a large, long open space, flanked by gravestones hiding like guards in the foliage. Just standing at the gate, you couldn't help but feel like you should bow or prostrate yourself or something.

After leaving this site, we were almost at the Tokugawa graves.

One last thing I have to mention before we get to the Tokugawas, are the cats. Yanaka is famous for feral cats, and Yanaka Cemetery is CRAZY with them.

Every other grave had a cat lounging on it. Some were friendly like this one:

Some were a little more reticent.

But as an unapologetic crazy cat lady, I was in Heaven or wherever the Great Kitten in the Sky deems us humans go after death (holy crap, is it Yanaka?). And fellow cat lovers, don't worry, not only were the cats well cared for (there are literally cemetery workers whose main job it is to care for the cats), but the cemetery and the district has a Trap-Neuter-Return program in place for the community cats of Yanaka.

So let's just take stock of Yanaka Cemetery for a second.

1) Giant historic cemetery

2) Playground

3) Cats

They may as well rename it the "Louise Hung Lives Here Cemetery" and be done with it.

Renaming the cemetery aside, we finally found the Tokugawa section, and the grave of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, "the last shogun of the Edo period."

Considering that the Tokugawa clan was the last ruling family of shogunate (generally speaking, the ruling samurai of Japan), the grave of Tokugawa Yoshinobu is very simple. No grand monuments, only a elegant, tidy, fenced-in area.

Apparently, Yoshinobu could have been enshrined near the shogun funerary temples, but instead, in keeping with his humble deference to the emperor, he was buried in a modest grave in Yanaka. Yoshinobu died November 21, 1913.

As much as I don't know about Japanese history, being this close to the remains of a family that in many ways defined Japan was a humbling experience. Japan's history gained a little more color and texture for me that day in Yanaka.

Walking out of Yanaka, with the sun setting and the old-fashioned street lanterns one by one starting to glow, I couldn't help but smile at what a perfect day a cemetery can yield. If it's true that every cemetery has a "personality" or a character of its own, Yanaka is no exception. It's bright, even cheery, with a distinct pride in its past.

Apologies if you were hoping for scary Creepy Corner this week. With the sun shining, the cemetery cats meowing, and the graves stretching far and wide at Yanaka, I couldn't help but indulge in a Not So Creepy Corner.

Cemetery enthusiasts, this post was for you. If you ever make it over to Japan, put Yanaka at the top of your list.