Yanaka cemetery, Tokyo, Japan

I love to photograph cemeteries.  I’ve been to some of the most famous cemeteries in the world and have spent hours wandering around, enjoying the solitude, beauty, and reflection that comes from being there.  It will come as no surprise to those who know me that my first photography excursion when visiting Tokyo recently was to Yanaka Cemetery.

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I was struck by the beautiful, simplistic adornment of the grave markers.  There was no uniformity; it appeared that each family plot was decorated in a style of the choosing of the owners.

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The one thing that tied everything together, though, were the flowers adorning most graves.  Fresh, artfully arranged flowers.

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The only bit of English I saw in the entire cemetery

I noticed another consistency throughout the cemetery.  These planks of wood were everywhere – in groups of several or only one or two together.  I assumed they were family names, but as it turns out, they are much more interesting.

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I found out a little about the significance of these markers from an online user:

My ojiichan (grandfather) passed away recently so this is all fresh in my mind: when a Japanese person passes away, they are given a new Buddhist name, distinct from their regular name, by the Buddhist priest who is handling the funeral and memorial services. The new Buddhist name is what is written in stylized Japanese on those wooden planks, called “sotoba” – and I believe the other side of the plank has a mantra written on it as someone else mentioned.
posted by illenion at 8:40 PM on February 4, 2010

Another user said this:

Here is some more information in Japanese on sotoba/touba/stupa:
http://www.tctv.ne.jp/tobifudo/newmon/tatemono/toba.html

It looks like the first five bonji characters are the five elements: space, wind, fire, water, and earth.

Next there is a bonji seed (shyushi) syllable. It looks like on has taraaku and a few have kiriiku, these are the last two bonji syllables listed on this page.

Then there is the honorific name (kaimyo). The only one I can read is the upper left one, which looks different than the others. The first character of 経日 means sutra, so it might not be the honorific name, but the name of a sutra which might follows in small characters.

After that there is the death anniversary (kaiki). On the lower left one it looks like it says segaki.

Finally there is the chief mourner’s name. I can see “Okumura Family”, the same characters that are on the grave.

This is very interesting. I never knew anything about this. Hopefully somebody who is more knowledge or who can read Japanese will write more.
posted by derforsher at 8:53 AM on February 5, 2010

All of that is probably more than you’ve ever wanted to know about Japanese cemeteries but I hope you’ve at least enjoyed the photos.  If you want to see more, you can do so via this link.

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