Aoyama Cemetery, Tokyo

Serious Stones in Aoyama Reien, Tokyo 

Aoyama Cemetery in central Tokyo from the Mori Building, Roppongi.

Aoyama Reien, or Blue Mountain Cemetery is in central Tokyo. “Reien” means “spiritual garden”. It is full of huge monuments to remember the dead, markers of tombs containing urns of ashes. Some of the headstones are small and carved, others are real rocks and seriously huge, monumental even.


A headstone is self-explanatory, it goes at the head. I suppose it would be a footstone if one revered the feet.  Headstones in Aoyama Reien have no heads though, there’s nobody there … no body … there. Almost 100% of the dead in Japan are cremated. So everything in here is a commemoration of an urn of ashes. There are ashes at the base of the headstone. It should be noted though that the ashes have been carefully placed in the urn, bones and ash from the feet first up to the head. When I was a gravedigger, we were careful not to walk on the graves, knowing that there were real remains underneath. Here it’s no problem walking on the ground in front of a stone. Desecration or disrespect would be walking on the actual stones, or climbing them.

Bigger “stones” now surround the cemetery, looking down on the smaller stones looking up at their distant lookalikes or wannabe real stones.

These are possibly wannabe stones overseeing  the graveyard, or I should say “headstone yard”. 


What’s it like up there? Down there?   




This egg-like stone is made of marble / granite ….  ?  No idea who would want a stone like this, the only one of its kind, a real standout. It is especially strange when we consider the reserved nature of Japanese people, marked by a general desire to conform to the group, not to differentiate or be annoyingly individual.  And look at the glass marker in the background!  Perhaps a reflection of the deceased’s life or work, he was possibly a glazier?




The cone warns walkers of this toppled stone. I hope anyone approaching from the other direction will be all right. I wonder how it happened, doubt if it was less than solid construction, not in Japan. Could have been one of Tokyo’s frequent earthquakes? I don’t think it’s meant to be like this, much too individual and taking up public space. And I am surely glad it’s not this stone!


Now, here’s the ultimate in individuality, perhaps Japanese people trying to show if  they can’t change and be a bit flamboyant in life, they can surely express themselves in death – no more worrying about what others think. I imagine this is a photo of the deceased couple, but the family must have had to wait to do this, they couldn’t both have demised together … unless … OK, let’s not go there, too lurid and over-imaginative. It’s not only Japan where such could easily be a possibility, I recall going to a double funeral in New Zealand, a public farewell, two boxes. I guess not much call for a double coffin. I wonder if they commingle loved ones’ ashes. Together in life, together in death!


The weather’s better down here! In the background the Ritz-Carlton Hotel almost lost in a pre-typhoon mist.



It’s sunnier out here … up here.    


Rooms with views to die for?  


Ancient and modern stones!


Serious stones here, they make me wonder how on earth they arrived – perhaps

dropped by helicopter but they look too ancient. Just materialised? Anything can happen in a headstone yard.



Ohm-y, thank you! 

“Whatever their religion’s got, I want it!”

Foreign Section in Aoyama Cemetery


No, not the governor of Tokyo laid to rest here. He just unveiled the plaque to commemorate all the foreigners who played leading roles in the modernisation of Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries. 


This is Captain Brinkley’s headstone. He lived for 40 years in Japan in the 19th century becoming foreign adviser to the new Meiji government. I hope that the lean to the right was intentional, a nod to his nearest and dearest. 



The cost of a plot the size of these (and below) would make most in here turn in their graves if there was anyone buried to turn.


A grave sweeper … quite happy actually. He told me it was a part-time job and really enjoyed it. I told him I had dug real graves. He said, “Shinjiraranai!”, incredible! Not something that’s happened much in Aoyama Cemetery!

A whisky lover for sure! Where else would a bottle of good whisky, or any whisky, last like this? Surely only in Japan, where people show respect for however someone wishes to commemorate their loved ones. In Scotland it would be gone in a day!



A real orchid and real wine! The painting on the stone is of lilies, the reflection at the right is a huge apartment block.


That’s the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to the right, don’t know what the hotel is on top of this stone.

Columbariums for humans and pets

I doubt very much if I could ever afford a headstone and a bit of ground here to commemorate my time in Tokyo after I’ve gone.  If I could ever be accepted it would be either in the Foreigners’ Section or here in the columbarium.  Look at the small number with kanji inscribed, surely there would be a space for my ashes there.  Not that I’m too keen on cremation as an ex-gravedigger, when we always regarded the local crematoriums as the competition.  

Columbarium, not exactly full of urns!   


And this one is for pets, mainly dogs, a few cats.

I spotted this Rolls Royce before I saw the “yakuza”, or gangster and his helper, both in immaculate suits, tending a grave stone, refreshing it,  rushing about cleaning the incense receptacles and the vases. Not the yakuza, his mate was doing the work. It was tricky trying not to be seen, something I really deemed wise to avoid.



This stone monument possibly to a builder in real life?  Or maybe the family couldn’t decide on one stone?  There’s a normal stone at the left. 


Headstone for a horse?  No big animal buried here, just the horse’s ashes.


You don’t drink wine? 

This is nice Australian white wine? Maybe too young, I mean you, not the wine. No worries, mate, I’ll have a swig for you.


There is a God, praise be!


Is that a still life there? Could be still life in a cemetery.

No lights among the real headstones. Oyasumi nasai. “Do not go gentle into that good night”.  Good night!


Goodbye and good luck from Aoyama Cemetery, central Tokyo – not a bad place to end up, leastways your ashes.



Head Stones!

Introduction to the Video, “Serious Stones”

I used to be a gravedigger a long time ago with my old school friend, James. It was in the university summer holidays, we mainly cut the grass in the country graveyards, real grass, we made neat grounds, and occasionally we dug real graves, real bodies going in. We used to joke that it was a dead-end job. Actually we loved it possibly because there were no deadlines!


I have an affinity for cemeteries, possibly reminding me of the days of resting weary limbs against ancient headstones.  

This is Aoyama Reien in central Tokyo, Aoyama is the area’s name, reien is a huge Cemetery, and most of the headstones are memorials and storage for urns of ashes, the Japanese preferring almost 100% to cremate. There is a foreign cemetery within this cemetery for the foreigners who helped modernise Japan in the 19th century and I’m sure there are a few real bodies in there.

Most cinerary remains or ashes are in urns placed under the headstone at the graves, some are in a columbarium of special boxes to house the loved one’s leftovers.   

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” 

The buildings behind the headstones are wanna-be headstones.  They’re in the nightlife area of Roppongi overlooking the dead centre of Tokyo.

This building used to have a school on the site with young life amid the dead centre or remains.  Now it’s a centre for the intellectually disabled. 

Mausoleum – a building preserving human remains

Niche –  a recessed space in a wall or columbarium used to place urns of created remains in. 

Columbarium –  1. Nesting boxes for pigeons   2.  Place for storage of cinerary urns.


Aoyama Reien, Tokyo


I lived in Tokyo for 20 years in the 1980s and ’90s, and went only a few times to Aoyama Reien, or cemetery, in the heart of Tokyo. The first time was in 1983, must have been the end of March because my partner and I went there on a cherry blossom picnic. It’s possible that we were too busy teaching during the week, then at weekends we were too occupied with escaping the thrum and thrill of Tokyo by taking a train into the countryside or to the coast over an hour away. In the 20 years since leaving Tokyo, I have been back many times for short visits, and have walked in the cemetery on several occasions each visit, partly because of staying in a comfortable hotel nearby. Returning to a foreign place you once lived and worked in can be like going home. For me Aoyama Reien is like a home within a home. 

This ancient cherry-tree filled graveyard is an oasis of nature and monumental stones in the middle of Tokyo. I find wonderful the combination of trees and stones, the numerous headstones, some huge and natural, others modern and fit for purpose with special incense holders. The “botchi” is surrounded by soaring apartment blocks,  low-rise office buildings, restaurants and busy streets. There used to be a school right where you’d think graves should be, the students able to look out on to the graves.  The graves are on three sides of the school, a walkway through the cemetery being the fourth side. The National Art Centre, a train station and a temple are nearby. Beyond those immediate surroundings, there is (avenue to ? off Shibuya Dori)  and many fine parks, themselves places of peaceful nature, similar to Aoyama Cemetery but without headstones, incense and crisscrossing pathways.  

Appropriately named Sakura Drive, the avenue through the middle of Aoyama Reien, sakura meaning cherry blossom, symbol of fleeting beauty. 


There are thousands of people buried here in this Père Lachaise of Tokyo, among them famous Japanese statesmen, scholars and writers. It also has a special section for foreigners, the only cemetery in Tokyo accommodating foreigners. Many of them came to Tokyo in the Meiji Era as foreign experts to help the government with its plans for modernisation. There are foreign missionaries here, engineers, translators, educators, journalists, even a dentist, all of them succumbing towards the end of the 19th century. They were lucky to be laid to rest in this peaceful place, so far from their native lands, near Tokyo’s hustle and bustle but secluded and guarded from it, preserved with dignity, their names, jobs, dates and other information in English. I often wish that I could read Japanese or could have a translator with me to feed my curiosity about many of the headstones. I can only stop at them and wonder about who they commemorate and what they say. 

Every cemetery has its own special atmosphere, be it big or small. Of course, most cemeteries have visitors to graves, but some have actual work being done as I’ve wandered, sometimes a grave being prepared, other times an artisan setting up a stone, or a group in black gathered round for the lowering of a box, or as in Aoyama Cemetery people placing incense or plastic flowers or tidying and cleaning a grave and headstone. In this cemetery I’ve often seen kind old women making a visit to feed the cemetery cats. And only in the likes of Aoyama Cemetery could the following have happened. It was an early summer visit to Tokyo in 2013. I spotted a huge black glossy car parked at the end of a side avenue. On investigation it turned out to be a Rolls Royce, and I suspected that could mean only one thing. Sure enough, as I meandered close by I saw two men, one of them older and immaculately dressed in a black suit. He had close cropped hair, and I’m sure that if I could have risked going closer I would have seen the statutory missing fingers, signalling that he was a “yakuza”, a gangster. The other man, certainly the driver of the Rolls, was running about getting things like water and incense for the yakuza, as he tended to the grave and tall headstone. I imagined he was visiting a close relative or a friend lost in  some nefarious goings on. I could not imagine what would have happened to me had they seen me as I took photos at the same time trying to be uninterested and inconspicuous, something difficult for a tall bearded foreigner in Japan to achieve. 


I must have visited Aoyama Cemetery half a dozen times before finding the Foreign Section by chance. It’s lucky to be here still. There was an attempt in 2005 to remove some of the graves because of unpaid annual fees but two years later it was given special protection. Some notable foreigners petitioned authorities and they were listened to possibly because they pointed out the need to preserve some unique history about Japan’s modernisation.


A plaque on the site recognises the men and women who contributed to Japan’s modernisation. [2]

No stone unturned … or unconsidered. All serious stones though.

Dylan Thomas wrote, “Death shall have no dominion”. Well, there are plenty of symbols and reminders of death in this cemetery, full of stones and ashes, surely a mighty memorial, a huge kingdom of death, a park of serious stones. 

Columbarium?  No, not a charnel house, no bones in here, just urns of ashes. Although Japanese funeral services do have a bone-picking ceremony.  

The remains of the bones of the feet and legs are placed in the cinerary urn first, then the head – wouldn’t want the body upside down. So unlike in the west where the bones are ground down afterwards, in Japan they are picked through in a ceremony called “kotsuage”.  Feet first, then legs, up through the body, as if it has walked into the urn.