Japan: Aoyama Reien- Tokyo's only Foreigners' Cemetery

What? 
A green, peaceful cemetery (Japan's first public one) in the heart of Tokyo.

Why visit? 
Aoyama Cemetery ticks many boxes:

It's got:
Cherry blossoms.
Peace and quiet.
Beautiful graves.
And a bunch of dead gaijin.  

What's not to like?

Where? 
Amazingly, this hyper-tranquil spot is walking distance from both the world's busiest train station (Shinjuku) and the world's busiest pedestrian crossing (Shibuya). Map. 


AOYAMA CEMETERY (青山霊園 Aoyama reien in Japanese) is an oasis of green in the urban desert that is contemporary Tokyo. Sure, there are other parks but Aoyama manages to combine tranquility, history and hanami (cherry blossom picnics) in one handy package.

As you walk towards the cemetery you leave behind the crowds of Harajuku, Shinjuku and Shibuya and enter a world where most residents, even those not buried six-feet deep, exude a peaceful calm. It's a great way to escape the urban frenzy. 


On the way to the cemetery you'll notice that the convenience stores are suddenly replaced by shops selling granite grave stones and other funereal paraphernalia. A fun place to go shopping with your nan. 
Take your pick. Group discounts available. 
A large number of cherry trees lines the cemetery's main thoroughfare- in season (early April) it's a great (although slightly unconventional) location for that great Japanese tradition: the cherry blossom picnic. The pictures here were taken just at the tail-end of the blossom season. 
There is a large variety of graves, the oldest dating back to the 19th century, the most recent ones to last month! 
But quiet and peaceful as it may be,  Aoyama is intrinsically linked to modern, über-technological Japan.

One of the reasons I've always been fascinated by Japan is that, for most of the 21st century, it was really the only nation that was developed and modern, but not Western. While most Westerners are quick to conclude that an Asian country is 'Westernized' when they see a bottle of Coke and some iPhones, Japan is the living proof that Western 'civilization' does not have the exclusive right to modernity. (Need an example? How about the infamous Japanese toilet?) 


But Japan's modernization wasn't an accident. After the Meiji restoration of 1868, Japan's rulers realized that 'If you can't beat them, join them' and decided that modernization was the only way to keep power-grabbing Western colonial powers at a distance.

And so the government consciously sought to bring in foreign technology and know-how. In the days before the Internet, this didn't mean so much technical resources as well as human resources. A small army of foreign experts, Americans and Europeans, was brought in to help transform the Japanese economy.

Unfortunately the foreign experts didn't always last long. Some of them went native, marrying Japanese, some of them brought their own families. But eventually they kicked the bamboo bucket. Sending them back in a coffin was not an option, and Aoyama, being Japan's first public (as opposed to religious) cemetery, created a little corner for these expired expats.
Call me morbid, but reading their gravestones is fascinating, providing small insights in what it must have been like to give up a life at home for an uncertain existence in a strange and foreign land (as is the case now, generous expatriate packages with free housing and other fringe benefits offered attractive monetary compensation not unlike that offered to contemporary expats working the sizzling oil fields of Saudi Arabia).
There are Americans, Canadians, Brits, Dutchies, Germans, a smattering of French and Swedes, as well as poor little Florence, who died at sea on the way to the promised land, barely ten months old.  
Poor little Florence never even made it to Japan...
Ten years ago these graves were under threat of removal, as the annual dues for the graves' upkeep was not being paid for many plots- not surprising when many descendants left Japan and aren't around to pay their yens. Fortunately, initiatives were taken to preserve this bit of history and a plaque now marks the site and honours the men and women who dedicated their lives to Japan's modernization. 

Getting there:
Easy enough. Ride the Ginza line to Gaienmae Station, and from there it's a 5min stroll. You could also walk to or from Harajuku, which is what I did. 

This being Japan, there are drink vending machines and clean toilets (watch that bottom spray!) at the cemetery's administrative building. 

Useful links:
AroundTokyo.net has some good pictures, as well as a good map and directions. 
Official leaflet and map.
Foreign Advisors in Meiji Japan on Wikipedia

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