Cherry blossom viewing is Japan’s national passion. When the flowers come into full bloom, the Japanese gather with family and friends, heading to the best viewing spots. Most sakura viewing venues tend to be very packed with food stalls and people having flower parties where they drink sake, dine on bento and hanami dango (tri-color sweet rice dumplings) under the trees. Nonetheless, in Tokyo, there are some places that you can avoid the crowd; among them is Yanaka Cemetery, one of the largest graveyards in the metropolis.
About the Cemetery
Yanaka Cemetery locates in Yanaka district of Taito ward. It boasts an area of more than 100 thousand square meters and hosts more than 7,000 graves. The large burial ground even has its own police station and a small playground.
Yanaka Cemetery was opened in 1874 as a result of Meiji government separation Buddhist from Shinto. The policy involved promoting Shinto funerals and making the cemeteries public. Many of the cemeteries were divested from Buddhist temples, as was the case with Yanaka Cemetery which used to be part of Tennoji Temple until 1872. It was commonly known as Yanaka Bochi (Yanaka Graveyard) in Japanese, but changed in 1935 to Yanaka Reien (Yanaka Cemetery).
The cemetery was the last resting place of many important figures, including Yoshinobu Tokugawa the 15th and the final Tokugawa shogun, who returned his power to Meiji Emperor in 1867, helped make the Meiji Restoration, and restore the power to the throne, a comparatively peaceful transition.
Cherry Blossom Viewing
To some, viewing cherry blossoms at a cemetery may seem somewhat bizarre. However, to the Japanese sakura symbolizes life and short-lived beauty. It is so fragile that it reaches its peak fast and disappears fast. It reminds us that every beginning has an end and that life is beautiful yet very short. Also, the Japanese mythology often associates cherry blossoms with death; one legend says that originally the flowers of the tree were white; after a body was buried beneath, the tree sucked up the blood and the petals turned pink. So taking a stroll in a cemetery while viewing cheery blossoms can be a magical time that is food for the soul.
The grounds of the cemetery have hundreds of Somei Yoshino cherry trees, the most common sakura variety in Japan, and is a very peaceful place to take a walk. The cherry trees along the avenue are some of the oldest, as the place was miraculously saved from the WWII fire bombings. The trees were even higher than the area’s buildings.
Last year when I visited the place, it was past peak period. Some of the trees still had absolutely beautiful blossoms, but thousands of the petals started falling like teardrops. The pink carpet covered the cemetery grounds and the street gave me a little feeling of melancholy and I became nostalgic about the past.
Where to Eat
Then I headed over to the shopping street to get some lunch. I carefully chose one ramen shop based on the recommendation from a local who lives just a few blocks away from the cemetery. It was a small shop consisting of one long counter which cradled no more than 12 guests. They served a bowl of tsukemen with dipping sauce seasoned with yuzu. It was savory sweet and refreshing with a hint of citrus favor; it was one of the best tsukemen I have ever tried.
What to buy
Yanaka is famous for wandering cats. On a clear day, you would see some at the cemetery. That’s the reason why the neighborhood hosts many cat themed cafés. Also, the popular souvenirs include cat shaped dessert or snack and maneki neko (the lucky beckoning cats) which are available in both traditional and hipster style.
Nearby Sightseeing Spots
Yanaka district has more than a hundred temples; one could spend a lifetime exploring all of them. As you explore the graveyard, it is a good idea to visit Tennoji Temple, the old small religious site for absolute tranquility. The large bronze located to the left of the entrance and an age-old cherry tree are a sight to behold.
Aside from taking a temple tour, be sure to drop by Yanaka Ginza Shopping Street, and enjoy an awesome combination of old and new business.
Also about 30 minutes on foot from the cemetery, you will reach Nezu Shrine, a scenic shrine that was established in 1705. The shrine features numerous torii gates and beautiful ponds with carp. The main building is styled after the famous Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, in what is called gongen or ishi-no-ma-zukuri style.
How to get there
Yanaka Cemetery is hiding off the beaten track, yet very easy to access. It is located within walking distance from Ueno Park. The easiest way to reach the cemetery is from Nippori Station on the JR Yamanote Line. Take the West exit and you will find the stone steps leading up to the cemetery just a few meters away.