Aoyama Cemetery: The complete photo guide

Aoyama cemetery cherry blossom road
Cherry Blossom Road in the middle of Aoyama Cemetery.

Aoyama Cemetery is my favorite place for photography in Tokyo. Many people are surprised by that. But you need to look at it objectively. There is so much to enjoy. It has cherry blossoms and history. The grave architecture is mesmerizing. You can enjoy a simple walk in its morning quiet. Even bird spotting is possible. It is the closest place to heaven.

A Brief History of Aoyama Cemetery

The Aoyama family once owned the land, hence the name. In 1874, a Shinto funerary cemetery was built there. It became public and was named Aoyama Reien (Aoyama Cemetery) two years later. Currently, about 130,000 people rest there.

It’s a great place to learn about Japanese history

For the history lover, the cemetery offers a lot. When it opened in the 1870s, Japan was still reconnecting with the world. There were massive changes in the country. Old political and social systems disintegrated. The emperor replaced the shogun. A new generation of politicians, doctors, diplomats, teachers, and military leaders was needed. They rose to meet the challenges. Many of them now rest in Aoyama.

So, while Japan had the people, it lacked the knowledge to put them on equal terms with the West. For that, it went overseas and found those who did. The Japanese government invited them to come. Some of them got married and lived here for many years. Those who died in Tokyo will be in the foreigner section.

A few have brief information inscribed on tombstones.  Then there are those with plaques. These are for people who greatly impacted Tokyo or Japan. They give detailed explanations in English and Japanese of the person’s life. Examples of these are Thomas Baty, Toshimichi Okubo, and former PM Tomosaburo Kato. There are others, of course. You can learn about their history.

Of course, not all plaques have English. That is unfortunate. And they don’t appear on any map, so you will probably run into them by chance. For detailed information, consult the administration office.

people under Aoyama Cemetery large cherry blossom tree
Beautiful cherry blossoms cover the grounds in spring.

Aoyama Cemetery has a link to Wikipedia!

Some plaques have a QR code on them. If your phone can read it, you’ll get taken to their Wiki entry. I don’t know who came up with this idea, but kudos to them!

Who lies there?

There are many historical graves and monuments throughout Aoyama Cemetery.  Some of them are:

  • Baty, Thomas (a.k.a. Irene Clyde) – an English lawyer who worked for the Japanese government from 1916 to 1954. He was also one of the first transgender activists.
  • Hachiko, the dog is next to his master, Hidesaburo Ueno.  But, his fur was stuffed and placed on display at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno.
  • Miyata, Teru – NHK announcer and politician.  He might have died thirty years ago, but his grave still receives fresh flowers.
  • Nogi, Maresuke – an army general and one of the heroes from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.
  • Okubo, Toshimichi – a samurai/statesman who helped overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate.  He went on to become a leading member of the Meiji Restoration.
  • Verbek, Guido – a Dutch political advisor, educator, and missionary.
  • a memorial dedicated to the Imperial Japanese Navy ships Unebi and Chishima. Both were lost under tragic circumstances.
mary holbrook grave with flowers
Mary Holbrook's grave in the foreigner's section.

Photography at Aoyama Cemetery

If you are into cemetery pictures, this is one of the best places in Tokyo. The architecture is fantastic. What can I tell you about it? There are huge monoliths, lanterns, and mound-shaped crypts. You can also find Shinto torii (gates at shrines) and Buddhist architecture and icons. Some even have Christian crosses. And a few have a bust of the person or persons interred. A little time spent walking around can yield some excellent gravestone photography.

In the cemetery are graves of military people. You can recognize some of them by the huge artillery shells next to them. I’ve seen rounds as large as 15 cm.

And then there are the cherry blossoms. Aoyama Cemetery is one of the best spots for them in Tokyo. So many of the trees are around the grounds. The best place is the road that runs through the middle. Over some parts, the flowers are so thick they almost form tunnels. In other areas, older trees spread their huge branches over graves. They are wonderful. 

Photo spots near Aoyama Cemetery

  • (A walk around) Harajuku and Omotesando
  • Icho Namiki Avenue at Meiji Jingu Gaien
  • Meiji Shrine
  • National Art Center
  • Nogi Shrine
  • Roppongi (and Roppongi Hills).
Japanese warship stone block memorial
Memorial for the IJN Unbei and Unebi and Chishima.

Photographic problems at Aoyama Cemetery?

  • There are a lot of trees. That means you will have to deal with many shadows. But, you can also use them to create mood in your photographs. Creative use of a flash can yield some great results.
  • Cherry Blossom Road cuts through the middle of the cemetery. It is lined with the trees. In spring, the flowers form a tunnel over it. Be very careful if you walk out into the middle to take photos. There will be many cars and you don’t want to end up a road statistic.

Where is Aoyama Cemetery?

Address: 2 Chome-32-2 Minamiaoyama, Minato City, Tokyo

It’s only a short subway ride from Shibuya. Here is a map:

Closest train/subway stations:

  • Gaienmae (Metro Ginza Line)
  • Nogizaka (Metro Chiyoda Line)

Walking in the cemetery 

The cemetery is 263 564 m², which makes it quite large. If you need some quiet time, this might be the place for you. I’ve never seen it crowded. Most people visit graves, walk dogs, or jog. And others like me take pictures.

Aoyama is a typical old cemetery like Yanaka and Zoshigaya. The graves are in rough rows. But, when viewed as a whole, the grounds resemble a jigsaw puzzle. Did the designers have a plan? I don’t think so.

Yes, the land of the cemetery is clearly defined. And yes, there are blocks of graves. But there seems to be a lack of a plan. You might be walking along a path in some areas and suddenly come to a dead end. There are twists and turns that sometimes don’t make sense. Some people like it and others don’t. I am with the former group and enjoy it a lot.

There are many trees, and skyscrapers of Tokyo pop up over them here and there. The view is fantastic. And you’ll find cherry blossoms in spring. When they bloom, it becomes a lovely place. But, no matter the season (even in mid-winter), it is a great place to walk and think. Quiet and serene. It’s the perfect place to get away from the crowds of nearby Shibuya and Harajuku.

Christian grave icon with cherry blossoms behind
Many Christian grave icons are in the cemetery.

When is the best time to visit Aoyama Cemetery?

Spring is always my answer. That is when the cherry blossoms bloom! The cemetery is one of the best hanami spots in the city. Click here to see pics from the 2024 season.

The other seasons are also terrific. But they aren’t on the same level as spring, of course. Still, you’ll find they have something to offer.

As for a time, afternoon sunsets can bring some good results. The early evening skies over the cemetery can be spectacular. It is my favorite time to shoot there.

How long would you spend there?

In this case, it is up to you. If your target is to get a few snapshots of Hachiko’s grave, your visit might be over soon. But if you wanted to photograph cherry blossoms in spring? Or, take some pictures of the tomb architecture? In that case, a visit might last several hours. The time spent there depends on the purpose.

Is a free English map of the cemetery available?

Yes, please ask at the administration office.

Wrapping up

Aoyama Cemetery offers many great opportunities for photographers in every season. The history, nature, and views on hand are incredible. You could spend hours and hours there and not be able to get enough. This place should be on the bucket list for any Japanese graveyard lover.

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