Peace of a graveyard, a gambling disposition & a double suicide arson
The cemetary of Yanaka (谷中霊園 / やなかれいえん) (previously: 谷中墓地 / やなかぼち) is well-known among domestic and overseas’ tourists alike. First of all for its gorgeous, old cherry trees and the splendour of the cherry blossom season (late March/early April). Nevertheless, this part of the Taitō ward (台東区 / たいとうく) has its very particular charm and is worth more than just a visit at any time of the year. On the one hand it’s one of the prettiest in Tōkyō, on the other hand it’s also very rich in history. The Yanaka quarter (谷中 / やなか) is also one of the best-kept “Shitamachi” (下町 / したまち) – as the old downtowns of Tōkyō are called. It was here where artists of a colours took up their residence already during the late Edo period and the early Meiji period (second half of the 19th century. And the fact that Yanaka is still providing a bit of this charming period of time, may be one of the reasons why it is so popular with domestic tourists as well as those coming from abroad.
Cemetaries may not be the prime object for a tourist’s interest. And that may also be for the best, since one shouldn’t exaggerate his/her interest for them – after all, graves are, especially in Japan, a very personal place and play a decidedly important role in a family’s life and history. And as such they should be respected. Nevertheless, the wide paths and streets, lined with old cherry trees, that lead through the cemetary, are an invitation to a stroll.
The temple we are about to take a closer look at, the Tennō-ji (天王寺 / てんのうじ), can be easily reached via the north exit of Nippori station (日暮里駅 / にっぽりえき) – it’s just brief walk away, crossing the cemetary in southern direction. Or you take the more direct south exit of Nippori station, leading to the temple’s grounds directly.
The Tennō-ji, which dates back to the year 1274, saw its greatest prosperity during the Edo period (1603 to 1868), when it was one of the three most important temples of the old Edo (today: Tōkyō) – and one of the largest as well. Everything we can see today – as pretty as it may be – represents just a tenth of the temple’s previous extent. But that may also just prove that “less can be more”.
In the early years of the Tokugawa shōguns, in 1643, an impressive five-storied pagoda was built (some sources mention the year 1644) – with a total height of almost 35 metres (at that time) the tallest of its kind in the Kantō region (just to give you some comparison: the slightly older but nontheless gorgeous pagoda of the Honmon-ji (本門寺 / ほんもんじ) in Ikegami (池上 / いけがみ) in the southern Ōta ward (大田区 / おおたく), is just roughly 30 metres tall, while the five-storied pagoda of the Sensō-ji (浅草寺 / せんそうじ) in Asakusa (浅草 / あさくさ) has a height of whopping 48 metres).
In 1772 the pagoda burnt down (also here, some sources mention the year 1771) and was re-built in 1791. The wooden structure was renovated in 1884 and handed over the city of Taitō in 1908. It became a very popular spot and also the landmark of Yanaka, until, on 6th of July 1957, it was consumed by flames in a very dramatic event, which made it to the history books as the “double suicide arson”. Two lovers (presumably a young seamstress and a married man) committed suicide together – their boddies were found in the ruins of the pagoda, charred beyond recongnition. The public showed little sympathy for the couple, as people couldn’t forgive them the destruction of a much beloved cultural asset.
Originally, there was no plan to re-built the pagoda. However, in 2007 some older blueprints of the pagode were found that brought up the idea of its reconstruction. Nevertheless, only the foundation stones of the pagoda can be seen today.
Many may not know that: Also in the old days in Japan, religious institutions found ways to the money of their followers, and they weren’t too picky about the methods. As one of most important temples of its time, in 1700 the Tennō-ji was granted the rights to hold lotteries. These lotteries became more and more popular and finally led to such an amount of agitation that this form of “licence to print money” was withdrawn again in 1842.
One of the remaining witnesses of the “golden age” of the Tennō-ji is the larger-than-life copper statue of buddha, which you will see on the left hand side when entering the temple’s grounds. This remarkable statue was created in 1690 and initially placed at the right side of the main hall of the temple. In 1874 it was moved for the first time, and again in 1993 when it was renovated and moved to its present location, now “residing” on a ferroconcrete foundation. Five years later a carnel house was established in this foundation.
In any case, this buddha statue is known for its huge popularity during the Edo- and Meiji period and was, in loving respect, called “Tennō-ji Daibutsu” (天王寺大仏 / てんおうじだいぶつ).
Naturally, it’s a legitimate notion, to walk in the steps of an eventful past while being in a neighbourhood that is practically soaked in history. Since Yanaka was so popular among the noted artist of its time, it comes as no surprise that also some of the popular Japanese writers’ and fine artists’ graves can be found in Yanaka’s cemetary.
However, it is the end of one of the most crucial ages of Japanese history, the so-called “Edo period” (江戸時代 / えどじだい) that is “documented in stone” here. This era (1603 to 1868), when the shōguns of the Tokugawa (徳川 / とくがわ)-clan held the military and political power over the whole country, came to an end with the 15th (hence, the last) ruling head of the Tokugawa family, with Tokugawa Yoshinobu (徳川慶喜 / とくがわよしのぶ) (1837-1913). This last shōgun had, unsuccessfully, tried to carefully reform the aging (and ailing) shogunate. Neverthless, in 1868 he had to surrender to the troups of the emperor. With him a form of military goverment that may be unique to Japan came to an end that had lasted from the Kamakura period (1193 to 1333), to the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573) and finally the Edo period. Through all these centuries the emperor’s functions were mostly limited to representative ones – with a very brief period of exception (1333 to 1336) when the Go-Daigo emperor (後醍醐天皇 / ごだいごてんのう) had made his own son, Prince Morinaga, shōgun.
Nevertheless, there was obviously some sort of reconciliation between the emperor and the last Tokugawa shōgun, because in 1902 Yoshinobu was granted the rank of a prince. And in 1908 the “Order of the Rising Sun” (旭日章 / きょくじつしょう) was bestowed upon him. Anyway, the grave of the last shōgun ever of Japan can be found in the southeastern part the cemetary of Yanaka. It surprises more by its modesty – especially if one compares it with the grand gravesites of the early shōgunes in Nikkō.
And should your mind have enough of legendary grounds and history after all that, why don’t you take a leisurely stroll through the streets and alleys of Yanaka.
While you are planning to see this part of Tōkyō, why don’t you also have a look at the following:
Ueno Kōen / Yanaka Sakura (Engl./dt.)
– Cherry Blossoms
Nezu Jinja (根津神社) (Engl./dt.)
– 2000 Jahre Geschichte
– 2000 years of history
Azaleen / Azalea-Festival (つつじ祭) (Engl./dt.)
– Nezu Jinja im Rausch der Farben
– Nezu Jinja’s Blaze of Colours