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Soul-stice Strolls: Exploring Autumn Wonders in Yanaka Cemetery

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2023.10.12 (Thu)

By Dan Lewis, inbound tourism adviser and consultant, long-term Japan resident & outdoor activity enthusiast.

As the air turns crisp and the leaves don their autumnal hues, there's no better time to embark on a walk through Tokyo's Yanaka Cemetery. Steeped in history and surrounded by the towering skyline, this public cemetery exudes an enchanting spirit, evoking a timeless connection to the past in the heart of modern-day Tokyo.

The Yanaka Cemetery's history is intertwined with Kan'eiji and Tennoji cemeteries, once sacred grounds of Tennoji Temple. After the Ueno War's devastation, Kan'eiji Temple transformed into Ueno Onshi Park, while Tennoji Temple's precincts became Yanaka Cemetery. In 1874, the Tokyo Prefectural Government took charge, designating it a public cemetery, etching its place in history. This expanse, once the sacred precincts of Kan’eiji Temple, now Tennoji Temple, held an allure during the Edo period known as the 'Three Riches of Edo,' drawing crowds to its lotteries. Even today, the flower vendors along the central parkway are affectionately referred to as 'teahouses' in honor of their historical counterparts.

This expansive resting place holds the remains of luminaries and historical figures, including Eiichi Shibusawa, the eminent economist featured on Japan's 10,000-yen bill (slated for revision in 2024). With its lush greenery and a view of the iconic Sky Tree, the cemetery earned acclaim in the 2015 Michelin Green Guide, seamlessly blending historical allure with natural splendor.

Sakura-dori Street, celebrated for its breathtaking display of cherry blossoms in spring, transforms into an equally enchanting spectacle during autumn. As you wander along this picturesque avenue, it leads you through the heart of the cemetery, revealing remnants of Tennoji Temple's Five-storied Pagoda—a poignant testament to the rich tapestry of bygone eras, now adorned in the warm, earthy hues of fall.

Stroll down the side streets to uncover the resting places of revered historical figures, including Yoshinobu Tokugawa, the final Tokugawa Shogun of Japan. Tennoji Temple itself houses the majestic "Tenno-ji Daibutsu," a Buddha statue cast in 1690, and the guardian deity Bishamonten.

Beyond the cemetery's bounds lie a tapestry of temples, local shops, and the Asakura Museum of Sculpture, offering a deeper dive into Tokyo's cultural landscape.

Conclude your journey at Yanaka Ginza Shopping Street, a time-honored haven exuding a warm welcome. Savor delectable Japanese sweets and snacks, a fitting finale to an enriching exploration of Yanaka Cemetery's evocative past.

Leaving Yanaka Cemetery, the autumnal aura lingers, leaving you with a deeper connection to Tokyo's history, wrapped in the cozy embrace of fall leaves and timeless echoes of the past.

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