Exploring beautiful Aoyama Cemetery Through the Lens

Aoyama Cemetery road covered with cherry blossoms
Aoyama Cemetery's famous Cherry Blossom Road.

People often ask me about my favorite places in Tokyo. I always tell them about Aoyama Cemetery, which has everything. You can do photography, learn local history, or enjoy a walk there. For photographers, 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. Two years later, it became public and was named Aoyama Reien (Aoyama Cemetery). Currently, about 130,000 people lie there.

Japanese graves surrounded by cherry blossoms with Tokyo Tower and skyscrapers in distance
Tokyo Tower is easily visible from the cemetery.

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 men was. They rose to meet the challenges. Many of them now rest in Aoyama.

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

A few have brief information inscribed on tombstones. Some people who had a considerable impact on Tokyo or Japan have plaques next to them. They give rather 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. They teach a lot of history.

Of course, not all plaques have English.  That is most 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.

Mary Holbrook and Benjamin Chappell grave with fresh flowers
A grave of Christian missionaries to Japan in the Edo period.

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 rewards.

In the cemetery are graves of military people. You can recognize them by the huge artillery shells next to them. Some of the rounds might be 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).

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.

Aoyama Cemetery’s details

See the cemetery’s opening hours and location on the official website.

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 to go 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.

Japanese warship memorial
A memorial to IJN warships Unebi and Chishima.

Who lies there?

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

  • 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 a Russo-Japanese war hero.
  • 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.

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 2023 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

No matter the season, Aoyama Cemetery offers many great opportunities for photographers. 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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