FFC: Serenity amongst the Shinjuku Tombstones

This is the second week for Amanda Friendly Friday Challenge: Searching for Serenity

To tell the truth, I haven’t been feeling serene lately and I wasn’t sure I’d have something interesting to say. Looking through the responses though, I saw a common appreciation of Japanese zen and places of reflection. It reminded me of a trip years ago, when I found an unexpected oasis of calm in the middle of Tokyo’s busy financial district.

We were in the west side of Shinjuku, an area dominated by glass skyscrapers and wide avenues typical of New York City rather than compact Tokyo. It was a cold wet day and we were on a pilgrimage to the Toto museum which displayed the company’s latest in high-tech toilets. After walking through a maze of underground and above ground passage-ways, we were disappointed to learn that Toto had moved the showroom to another location.

It didn’t matter. From the twenty-sixth floor of the building where Toto used to be, we were consoled with a marvelous view of the area.

Laid out before us was the Shinjuku district, a wide expanse of glass towers and mid-century buildings which looked very different from the view on ground. A little beyond the business area and across a major highway, we could see clusters of residential neighborhoods. Nestled amongst the apartment blocks, was something that looked like an old, fenced in cemetery. It looked unusual and after visually mapping out a walking route, we set out to explore.

The cemetery was a serene and quiet haven, surrounded by modern buildings and shielded from the noise of traffic. What looked like family plots were laid out in a rough grid connected by crooked stone walkways.  

A typical Japanese grave (haka) consists of a monument with a place for flowers, incense and water and a chamber for storing cremated remains.  Beside or behind the tombstones were tall wooden stakes (sotobas) inscribed with the  posthumous names of the dead.

It is an old Japanese belief that saying a person’s real name after death, will summon their spirit. To avoid accidentally doing this, new names are assigned posthumously and written on the stakes. The stakes are installed shortly after death and refreshed during memorial services (which explained their different states of repair.)

Sotobas - Name stakes at burial site

The family plots  seemed very old.  It was hard to tell from the inscriptions but the stones were worn smooth with age and moss. It felt like they’d been around for a long time. Like they’d quietly watched the old Tokyo fade, change and re-build around them.

Tokyo, visited in January 2016

21 Comments

  1. It’s true that the Japanese seem to intrinsically know how to create serenity – you have well-captured the calmness in the sea of madness that is Tokyo. I would have loved to have seen your show of high-tech toilets – I actually did sketches of the controls when I was in Japan!

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    1. I remember my first encounter with one of these toilets in a public restroom. I was in a panic because I didn’t know how to flush. I saw a red button & was about to use it when I looked closer and saw that it was an emergency panic button. Although I was panicky, I didn’t think it was that kind of emergency that they meant! 🤣

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  2. There’s something extra special about finding such oases of calm in a busy modern city, and the Japanese know better than most how to create a serene atmosphere I think. I love the contrast of old and new, tradition and modern. I hope your own serenity will return 😘

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    1. I know what you mean!
      I’ve been watching Rick Stein’s Long Weekends travel series where he visits nearby (to him) European cities. It’s just the type of vacation I’d like – to go somewhere off the beaten track, with no agenda & wandering around to look-see and eat 🙂

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  3. Fancy going looking for toilets and finding serenity! Lol.
    It seems many of the older Japanese traditions exude serenity through every fibre of their being. And the contrast between that ancient connection and the ultra modern metropolis is stark.
    I recall seeing an old cemetery like this in the middle of Tokyo – near the old sky tower looking similarly old. How fascinating is the tradition of not saying someone’s name and assigning a new name. Who chooses the new name?

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    1. I’m not sure who chooses it. I suppose it must be family that does this.

      I always imagine that these cemeteries existed in the old Tokyo, before it was built up. There must be a strong sense of tradition for them to not disinter the plots & move them aside for new construction.

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