Cemeteries in Japan

The aesthetic appeal of an unusual attraction

By Elena Lisina    - 3 min read

Cultures differ in how they deal with the passing of friends and family, certainly in the manner of burial and the aesthetic of cemeteries. Japan's method is certainly very different from my own country in many ways.

In Japan, the deceased are cremated and their ashes are placed inside stone gravestones dedicated to the family. Modern gravestones feature vertical columns made from black or grey stone with only names written on them.

Japanese cemeteries are neat and clean
Japanese cemeteries are neat and clean

At the base of a gravestone you will find vases for flowers and an incense stand. People who visit graves will bring fresh flowers and water to pour a gravestone as part of a religious ritual. Some food items are left that were favourites of the deceased. You may find that some graves are decorated with a Buddhist statue or, more sadly, a jizo statue if the grave belongs to that of a child.

Cemeteries are usually located near a temple or a shrine. I was told that Japanese people don’t hold to a single religion and will attend both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines depending on the occasion. In this case, cemeteries are conducted as Buddhist ceremonies.

Graves are often located on temple grounds
Graves are often located on temple grounds

Old gravestones look like a vase or a lantern, but the wealthy and those of the higher social classes would often build stone pagodas. Every now and then you will come across some very old graves covered in green moss, particularly in the countryside. Old gravestones are often a natural rock with carved names or simply carved into a rock wall. You can see some good examples of these in Matsushima and Yamadera.

Carved in rocks
Carved in rocks

Cemeteries in Japan are clean and neat, and don’t have any bright colours. Narrow wooden planks called sotoba are placed near gravestones. They have engraved names, prayers and dates of death. Each anniversary a new sotoba is added. You will often seen beautiful sakura bent over graves.

Beautiful sakura trees grow among graves
Beautiful sakura trees grow among graves

Cemeteries are not your usual tourist destination but for many people, their aesthetics offer a private attraction. Situated by impressive temples and shrines, visiting a cemetery in Japan is often an unintentional part of any temple or shrine visit. Some are quite famous, like the graves of the 47 ronin in Sengakuji Temple in Tokyo, the expansive Kurodani in Kyoto or the historical Kitayama in Sendai.

Please remember that while open to visitors, cemeteries are for the deceased and their families first so proper respect for the location must be shown.

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Elena Lisina

Elena Lisina @shiroi.tenshi

I love Japan very much! I like small towns of Japan where I can watch people doing their business and talk to them carefully. They're always friendly. I like Japanese gardens where I can just sit or walk and take my time. Also I like Shinto Jinja as being there I feel in peace. I like to watch sunsets and then to dine in some small local places. I like to soak into onsen after a long day of wandering. I like Japanese crafts very much as all items are made with great taste and skill. Nihon wo daisuki desuyo! My photos from Japan I also place here: https://gurushots.com/f10384/photos Matane!

Join the discussion

Sleiman Azizi a week ago
One of my workplaces for a while was across from a cemetery in Shinjuku. Very interesting vibe....
Elena Lisina Author a week ago
Japanese people talk aloud with their dead relatives as if they hear. It's very different from my country.
Kim B a week ago
Interesting article! I used to live near Aoyama Cemetery in Tokyo for a while. It was really
Beautiful and one of my favorite spots to see the seasons changing. There are sakura trees on the grounds so it was particularly beautiful in the spring.
Elena Lisina Author a week ago
I also like cemeteries in Japan. In our country they look messy with a lot of bright lastic flowers and metal fences. Not beautiful at all...