When persimmon leaves and the tips of maples take on color, and chilly air rattles windows, composer Yoshinao Nakada’s haunting song “Chiisai Aki Mitsuketa” (“A Bit of Autumn Found”) floats through my mind. Having just learned that the song’s lyricist, talented poet Hachiro Sato (1903-74), rests in Zoshigaya Reien (cemetery), it seems the perfect season to pay respects, and explore the grounds of one of Tokyo’s largest boneyards.

From the Toden Arakawa streetcar line stop, Toden-Zoshigaya, the cemetery entrance is a five-minute walk. October’s breezes graze the upper branches of large zelkova trees that shade the grounds, and golden sunlight warms the stones as I make my way toward the cemetery’s administration office.

Outside the office, I pick up maps that include “addresses” of gravesites where people of note are buried. I also avail myself of a quick spray of bug repellant offered up free of charge. While I imagine October to be relatively mosquito-free, no one wants dengue fever bringing them back to a cemetery under involuntary circumstances.

Ducking inside, I meet office manager Ryoji Iwasaki, who helps me clear permissions with surviving family members to photograph graves for publication. Iwasaki’s co-worker, Yuji Yoshimine, helpfully produces copies of information about the cemetery’s history, which I peruse before heading out.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868), the land served as a training ground for the Shogun’s hunting hawks before being designated a cemetery. A falconry mews was located near a massive pine tree that, a short stroll later, I discover is still standing near the northwestern entrance. I head over to check out the pine; standing under it in the sharp autumn air, it is not hard to imagine hawks sinking talons into its branches.

Zoshigaya was obtained by Tokyo Prefecture and established as a burial ground in 1874. This move was necessitated in part by Japan’s short-lived ban on cremation (1873-75), decreed on the grounds that pyre smoke presented health risks and that the practice was disrespectful to the deceased. It’s also likely that the newly established Meiji government saw cremation as a Buddhist practice, and preferred to shift religious focus to the imperially connected religion of Shintoism. Nonetheless, sheer space logistics and a gradual understanding of the sanitary benefits of cremation saw the ban overturned.

Though nondenominational, Zoshigaya’s nearly 9,000 interred were predominantly Buddhist. Most gravesites across the 106,110-sq.-meter cemetery include boseki (tall tomb markers with the family name inscribed), and some feature sotoba (wooden grave tablets bearing the deceased’s afterlife name), small stone lanterns, pagodas, beautifully figured rocks or bonsai trees. The occasional Christian cross pops up, as well, such as those in an enclosure commemorating early members of the Society of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo.

Initially, I feel like a ghoulish tourist, checking my treasure map for graves of the famous. However, I soon see others pouring over similar guides, and carefully examining tombs to double-check the characters. Chatting with a few, I realize that Zoshigaya is full of postmortem paparazzi.

Using the miniscule notations on my map, I sleuth out the tombstone of Kafu Nagai, the pen name of writer Sokichi Nagai (1879-1959). Famous for his overtly sordid stories from the “wrong” side of the Sumida river, Nagai passionately embraced dissolution, and with an unwavering eye, brought the wabi (beauty found in poverty) of Tokyo’s demimonde to the page in a way that neither cheapened nor glossed over it. I recall seeing somewhere a photograph of Nagai’s corpse, surrounded by his desk, hibachi, and a basket of charcoal, his face turned toward the photographer on the tatami. His gravestone, with decomposing remnants of someone’s flowers drying on it, fills me with sadness; I’d rather think of his spirit cavorting in Shitamachi, somehow.

Next, I locate poet, painter and illustrator Takehisa Yumeji’s (1884-1934) resting place. What astonishes me is the visual aptness of the monument; the obsidian asymmetrical stone and its graceful calligraphy are reminiscent of the black design elements — the chignon, the lap-climbing cat, the exaggerated doleful eyes of bijin (beautiful women) — that anchor most of Yumeji’s romantically lyrical paintings. Of course, there are fresh flowers at his grave.

The gravesite of Yakumo Koizumi (1850-1904), born Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, has a beautiful stone, but the cups that hold floral offerings are full of stagnant water. I empty them, and then decide to head to the nearest of three on-site florists to buy some blossoms for the author who so astutely explored, explicated and embraced his adopted home in Japan. His “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan” (1894) — in which he wrote, “None love life more than the Japanese; none fear death less” — flashes briefly through my mind. Though the Japan that Hearn romanticized has been, as he feared it would be, paved over by a juggernaut of industrial globalism, I find myself wishing he were still alive to write about it.

At florist Hanaya Akimoto, the tranquil interior of the 1874 establishment gives me a little Hearn moment. Three giant kettles wait to serve customers tea, there’s a snake-skin shamisen propped near a bucket of gladiolus, and large goldfish in a tank move like molten metal in the October light. In a well-oiled procedure, fifth-generation florist Noriko Akimoto sets me up with a bucket of water and several bouquets of flowers to offer. I gaze up at shelves lined with wooden buckets, each emblazoned with a family crest. “This is a very big cemetery,” Akimoto, 52, says, as though to explain.

I use the dipper to pour water over Hearn’s stone, filling the vases with two bunches of flowers, before heading next to what is arguably the cemetery’s most visited site. World-renown author Natsume Soseki’s (1867-1916) grave not only has flowers, but is surrounded by a lively group of second-year students from Rikkyo University on a sociology field trip. One enterprising 20-year-old, Kosuke Tonomura, offers to email me his research paper covering Zoshigaya Cemetery and its surrounds. I thank him in advance, and wave as the students move on.

Now alone again, I hear from behind Soseki’s grave the crying of what sounds exactly like a baby. As I should have guessed, it is a cat. I feel certain the author of “I Am a Cat” would have loved this creature, with his abbreviated moustache and luxurious yawn, who follows me for a bit as I stroll off.

Along the way, I keep seeing mysterious bags stacked full of massive flat stones. Then I come to a bamboo-fenced rest area guarded by, of all things, a wooden Pinocchio figure. It’s sheer happenstance that 62-year-old Goro Suzuki, professional gardener and grounds manager, wanders by with all the answers. Suzuki, who has tended most of the city’s famous gardens — he was at Koishikawa and Rikugien before his rotation brought him to Zoshigaya — admits to fashioning the Pinocchio from tree trimmings. “I put that figure up — a sort of Mr. Nobody — with a sign to warn people about giant hornets, but the sign blew away,” he says.

And the bags of rocks? “We got those from Aoyama Cemetery,” he explains. “Aoyama put in proper walkways, so we got their old pavers to solve some runoff problems here.” Chatting a while, I learn from Suzuki that the challenges of cemetery horticulture are vastly different from those in artistic gardens. “Here,” he says, pointing out a row of century-old zelkova trees, “one of our major jobs is keeping tree roots from burrowing into the bone boxes.” It’s obvious Suzuki misses classic gardening, but he seems dedicated to keeping the graves shaded in green.

At the far end of the cemetery, I find the memorial to Manjiro Nakahama (1827-98), who at age 14 set off to fish for bonito one day, and found the world. His boat shipwrecked on an island, where he survived for months before being rescued by William Whitfield, captain of the whaling ship John Howland. A strict isolation policy made returning to Japan impossible, so Nakahama remained aboard the ship as she sailed home to New Bedford, Massachusetts. There, Manjiro became the first Japanese citizen to reside for a lengthy period in the United States, where he studied English, math, navigation techniques, surveying and horseback riding. More than a decade later, yearning to see his mother again, he risked his life returning to Japan, where the penalty for illegal returnees was death. After navigating a small boat to Okinawa, he suffered numerous severe interrogations, but eventually proved a key figure and vital translator during the opening of Japan in the 1850s. I place flowers in honor of his bravery and open-mindedness.

As shadows lengthen, I finally locate Hachiro Sato’s (1903-73) tomb. An inscription on his grave reads, “Futari de miro to subete no mono wa utsukushiku miru” (“When seen by two, everything is beautiful”). As I pay my respects, I mull over that optimism. Could such company include the spirits of those departed? As leaves fall in the day’s final light, landing here and there on stones, I decide so.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.