ICHINOSEKI, Iwate Pref. – Hashime Sato, a 60-year-old resident of the city of Ichinoseki, climbed up a hill with her son in her hometown on a sunny day in late November to pay respects to her late husband, Sadao, whose ashes are contained in a “grave” but without a monumentlike gravestone typically found in a cemetery.
Sadao passed away in late September at age 67 and his body was cremated. The ashes were interred in early November under a “urajiroyoraku” (Menziesia multiflora) shrub, a type of azalea he cherished, in a wooded area in the Iwate Prefecture city, which has a population of around 125,000.
Sato said she has already visited his resting place many times. “I like this place very much,” she said. When her husband was alive, the couple used to go hiking together often, she said.
They came to know about the tree burial site, which was publicized in various media several years ago and they decided that is where their graves should be. “I feel refreshed when I visit this place,” Hashime said.
The Satos have been among a growing number of people opting — for various reasons — for rather unorthodox sites to rest in peace.
The tree burial cemetery in Ichinoseki was the brainchild of local Buddhist priest Genpo Chisaka. The cremains are placed about 30 cm deep in the ground in a circled space about 2 meters in diameter on a hill. Above them is planted a tree, instead of a gravestone.
A tree of choice can be selected from among several kinds that fit the ecosystem of the hill, according to Chisaka.
He said that if a deceased has no one else in the family to care for a grave, his temple, Chishoin, will care for it.
The hill — a 27,000-sq.-meter estate in the city — was bought around 1998 by the officially registered religious corporation that runs the temple.
Chisaka said one of the reasons he came up with the idea was he wanted to see more fully grown, well-maintained trees, not just wild bushes, but he felt money would be needed for such a project.
The priest eventually hit on the idea of building a cemetery on the estate. His plan was to sell lots to raise funds for planting trees.
The hill meanwhile had to be cleared of underbrush so people could access it. The wild bushes have been replaced by neatly maintained shrubs that stand above graves.
Each grave for ashes is located by the temple and marked with a wooden plate with the name of the departed or of those who have reserved plots. Chisaka said the estate can hold the cremains of around 3,000 people.
About 1,400 people have already purchased plots, roughly half from the Tokyo area, including Kanagawa and Chiba prefectures, a level of demand far stronger than Chisaka expected.
The city is about 450 km north of Tokyo.
A single plot requires a ¥500,000 down payment and an annual service cost of ¥8,000 — much cheaper than a conventional grave that requires purchases of both plot and gravestone, the temple said.
Motivations for buying tree burial plots vary, with some simply liking nature or the low cost, while others have no children to care for their family graves, according to Chisaka.
Family relations also appear to be a factor for some people, he said.
Parents sometimes do not want to bother their sons with taking care of their graves, while there are other people who bought plots because they do not want to be in the same grave as their stepmothers, he said.
Other locations, including Tokyo and Chiba, Kanagawa and Yamaguchi prefectures, also offer such burials.
Yokohama started a cemetery called Memorial Green last March in a park in Totsuka Ward that also accommodates a baseball field.
The cemetery offers three types of burial sites, including the tree option. There, people can select from among three fully grown trees already planted and have their ashes buried beneath it.
“We got requests from people for such a cemetery,” said Takao Oki, an official of the city’s cemetery and funeral facilities division. It has apparently proven to be a popular service, with reservations for couples outstripping available spots nine to one in 2007, Oki said.
Besides these cemeteries that attract ecology-minded people, some undertakers are going high-tech.
Sokeikai, which manages funerals and cemeteries, recently introduced an automated vault in its new cemetery facility near JR Chiba Station. The facility can house 3,000 cinerary urns.
In the vault, a visitor does not have to look for a grave. Insert an assigned magnetic card, then the urn of the deceased will be brought to a solemnly decorated semiprivate booth.
One of the reasons Sokeikai decided to build the facility is to make it easier for people to visit graves, as many graves are in rural areas or in people’s hometowns hundreds of kilometers away.
Like the tree-burial cemetery at Chishoin, its priest will take care of the grave even if no one else can do so.
A chamber for storing an urn goes for about ¥500,000 to ¥600,000, and the annual maintenance fee is ¥10,000, compared with the at least ¥2 million needed for those who opt for the conventional set of a stone and plot in Chiba, according to Kazuhira Misono, executive director of the religious corporation.
Misono said many people favor the automated vault rather than locker-style burial chambers because the latter offer little privacy.
Over the one-year period from November 2006, about 1,200 people visited Sokeikai’s showroom for the automated vault, Misono said.
About 10 years ago, several companies, including Koyo Automatic Machine Co., started offering automated vaults in Japan. Koyo, based in Yokohama, is a builder of automated warehouses and bicycle parking systems.