Sakura Blossoms – Aoyama Reien Cemetery
Exhilaration sweeps most Japanese when the essence of spring begins to take shape. Hanami (flower viewing) is eagerly anticipated. The word blossom (hana of hanami) is synonymous with the cherry. Aoyama Reien is one of the countless cherry-viewing spots to be found.
Aoyama Reien, located on the west side of Central Tokyo, is one of the first of its kind in park style cemeteries. It is also the largest scale cemetery within Tokyo’s 23 wards. On its vast premises can be found a wide variety of trees – cherries included. This graveyard has its fair share of prominent scientists, politicians, authors and other influential people: Toshimichi Okubo, Koyo Ozaki, Doppo Kunikida, Shinpei Goto, Maresuke Nogi, Shibasaburo Kitasato, Tsuyoshi Inukai, Mokichi Saito, Shigeru Yoshida, and Naoya Shiga just to name a few.
When spring has set in, crowds of people pack in under radiant tunnels of blossoming canopies. But Aoyama Reien isn’t quite cut out for holding a typical flower viewing party – there is really no space for one. Though the regular hanami experience (gathering with your buddies, eating, and drinking) is lots of fun, at Reien you’ll more likely spend your viewing time in quiet, meditative admiration of the backdrop of dancing petals. This is no less enjoyable than the former, more common way.
Take a breath of scented spring wind (harukaze); of cherry petals shaken off to flutter in downward dance. The dignified Roppongi Hills Building peaking out above reminds you that you are still in Central Tokyo.
To make the hearts of the Japanese go wild, the cherry is like no other. What drives this passion amid mild north wind and increasing warmth of spring sunshine? Spring in Japan is a time of new beginnings. New school terms start and new business fiscal years begin. At the same time, spring is a time of separation from friends and familiar surroundings. Memories of the cherry go hand in hand with memories of graduation as well as entrance ceremonies.
The cherry flower itself is beautiful – pretty and dainty, yet at the same time a brilliant spectacle. Let’s take a look at a few lines from a novel by Motojiro Kaiji, and his reaction to this phenomenon.
“Bodies lay buried under the cherry tree. This must be true. For why else would such unbelievably magnificent blooms blossom like that? Disbelief for their beauty has had me restless these last few days. But alas, I’ve come to a point where I can say I understand: bodies lay buried under the cherry. This, I can believe.”
The History of Aoyama
Aoyama is introduced as a posh, sophisticated neighborhood for adults. Its everyday scenery contains numerous brand shops, open terrace cafes, and cool models walking down the street. But Aoyama is not just about what’s new. There is a multitude of historic sites to see in this historically fascinating town. Aoyama began to take shape in the time of Ieyasu Tokugawa. One day, Tadanori Aoyama, a senior follower of Ieyasu, accompanied Ieyasu while hunting with a falcon. Ieyasu looked out to the west toward present day Aoyama, faced Tadanori and said, “Take your horse and ride. Whatever area you encompass will be yours.” Tadanori rode his horse till its death and received the massive area he encircled. This is said to be the story of Aoyama’s beginning.
In 1904, the trolley (municipal electric way or shiden) developed and increasingly made its way into the area. It ran from Miyakezaka to Aoyama 4 chome or block 4 (around Gaienmae). For almost seventy years after, until 1968, the trolley served as the feet of everyday people.
Ginza Line, Japan’s oldest subway line, opened in 1938, and ran from Omotesando to Shibuya. In 1939, its entire route opened. In 1945, and the end of WWII, Akasaka and Aoyama suffered 98.3% damage; the most extensive damage in the entire country. Air raids left most buildings a scorched wreck, the entire Akasaka/Aoyama area was reduced to a scarred field of ashes and rubble. 1964 was a turning point for Aoyama. The 1964 Olympics were underway and the area was rebuilt and reborn. This brought a chance for new growth: Aoyama Dori, then just 22m wide, was extended to its present width of 40m in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. The street experienced a sudden boom in traffic as the years passed.
Oh, right, back to Aoyama Reien. To arrive at Nezu Institute of Fine Arts takes no more than 10 minutes leisurely paced walk from the cemetery. On display at Nezu Institute of Fine Arts is a collection of national treasures gathered by Kaichiro Nezu, founder of Tobu Tetsudo (Tobu Railways). Most commonly seen in this collection are traditional materials for preparing the tea ceremony, and Buddhist religious items. The facility was once Mr. Nezu’s residency. There you will find a vast Japanese garden, dotted with teahouses. Take in the air of culture, while taking some time to relax.
From Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, pass by Cafe Yoku Moku, and COMME des GARCONS Bldg. heading toward Omotesando Intersection. Nireke Dori (Miyuki Dori) is a peaceful walk lined with and enveloped in greenery. This street is always the topic of conversation. With its fashionable, high-class boutiques, fashion lovers just can’t take their minds off of it. Here, PRADA certainly stands out. With its futuristic architecture, glass wall on every side, it bustles inside – the likes of a busy beehive. This building boasts designs from Swiss architectural firm, Hertzog & De Meuron – 7 floors above and 2 in the basement. The atmosphere in the front plaza offers relaxation to visitors with benches and soothing greenery of plants all around. Nireke Dori is a place you can enjoy, even if haven’t come to shop.
Enter the side street from Omotesando. There stands Zenkoji Temple. Zenkoji is a separate temple from Shinshu Zenkoji. It is a convent of the Jodoshu sect of Buddhism. The temple was originally built in 1601 in Yanaka, but due to a fire the temple was then moved to present-day Aoyama. The scenery of the ancient Zenkoji at Aoyama was included in the Edo Meisho Zue (Edo’s Famous Places), an Edo guidebook published around 1834. Although now locked in by high buildings, this temple, in the city center, still sends out a tranquil atmosphere beyond its gates.
Kotto Dori runs from the front of Kinokuniya (on Highway 246, Aoyama Dori) past Obararyu Kaikan Hall to Roppongi Dori. The street is lined with antique shops on either side. They carry everything from china to glassware, paintings, and tea ware. In recent years, brand shops have come to line the street as well. Numerous unique shops can also be found on the side streets of Roppongi Dori.
In the mid 50’s this street came to be a place known for its antiques. The fact that Nezu Institute of Fine Arts is close by is said to be one of the main reasons for this. Little by little, antique shops gathered in the area to make it the street it is today. Window-shopping is equally enjoyable as is getting hooked on buying.