I think most people know that the Tokugawa Shogunate ruled Japan for close to 300 years, starting with Ieyasu Tokugawa in 1600. The shogun after Ieyasu was his son Hidetada, who was in turn followed by his son, Iemitsu. After Iemitsu there were twelve more shoguns until the final one in 1868. So, my question to you is … who was the last shogun? When did he die and where was he buried?
Did you say Yoshinobu Tokugawa, he died in 1913 and that he was buried in Yanaka cemetery? Yes? Then you gave three correct answers! Yanaka cemetery still exists today and you can visit it in Tokyo’s Taito ward, which is right next to Nippori station on the Yamanote line.
For many of us, including me, the best part about visiting Yanaka is that you can still see Yoshinobu`s grave. His burial mound is rather small, built of blocks that look a lot like cobblestone. I’ve heard some people call it a pot-shaped, but I’m not sure if that is suitable description. Unfortunately, you can only view it from behind a gate. The plot is quite large, so you can see some more graves - family members, including his wife Mikako and some children (mortality rates in those days were quite high unfortunately) and companions. If you have a love of Japanese history, it is a remarkable place to visit as it is the final link between medieval and modern Japan.
Yanaka cemetery isn't only about Japan's last shogun though, it has a lot more. So many important historical figures are in Yanaka cemetery. There are actors and actresses, sumo wrestlers, prime ministers, mayors of Tokyo, poets, writers, painters, saints (a Russian one!), educators and politicians. You can find a good many of these people by getting a map, which has seventy-five important graves marked on it, from the administration building. The problem is that even though the names are numbered and in English, the gravestones are written in Japanese which might be problematic for many people. Yoshinobu`s grave though is easy to find as the way to it is marked in both Japanese and English.
When should you visit Yanaka? I highly recommend either spring or autumn. The central road through it is called, "Sakura-dori" (or Cherry blossom road), as there are many cherry blossom trees along it which make for an amazing sight during spring’s cherry blossom season. In autumn, you can enjoy the cemetery’s magnificent ginkgo trees.
You could compare Yanaka to Aoyama and Zoshigaya cemeteries. Some areas are in a very natural state. In some areas there are neglected graves. It is a great experience and a very pleasant place to walk through. And while walking, look around and you'll even be able to get some pictures of Tokyo Skytree popping up over the trees. It makes for some great pictures, especially if you walk around to get some impressive tombstones in the foreground.
If you are looking for something to do in Tokyo or enjoy a bit of its history, then a stroll through Yanaka cemetery might be just what you need, especially in spring or autumn! You can see its (Japanese) website here.
How to get to Yanaka cemetery
Yanaka cemetery is so easy to get to. It is on the west side of Nippori station, which is on the Yamanote line. Leave via the West exit and you`ll find the steps leading up to the cemetery nearby. Here is a Google map to help you:
The administration building is open from 8:30 am to 5:15 pm and can be contacted on 03-3821-4456. Yanaka cemetery itself is open 24 hours a day.
If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy:
History Museum - learn a little of the Japan's automobile world
Inkoshira park – one of Tokyo’s most popular parks
Musashi Imperial Graveyard – see the burial place of two Japanese emperors
Rainbow Bridge – an amazing walk that has some great views of the city
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building - has a great observatory that is completely FREE!