Every day I walk to school past the Noda Mountain Cemetery. It is very large and very old. And on my way back at night, I pass it again. The cemetery is set in, or has become, a very old forest. Along one edge is a four-lane highway. Concrete apartment blocks and an industrial area are just beyond. Modern Japan hugs its edges, and yet the forest looms with an indomitable presence, the tree tops far taller than the three story apartment blocks. None shall encroach. It is Fangorn holding its ground.
I asked my friend if it would be considered rude if I walked through it to take a look, not knowing Japanese customs around cemeteries. I have no personal connections with it and didn’t wish to offend anyone who does. He felt it was fine.
So I went.
The contrast between the cemetery and the highway is pretty strong. The cars whizz by on the new asphalt, each going somewhere to do something, the fast and regular pace of modern Japan, day and night in a constant stream, speeding scooters, rumbling trucks, cars with single drivers. At night, the overhead lights tower brightly from the median, letter T’s with spotlight at each end shining down, a glowing spine down the living highway. There is a turn off to the cemetery, but the asphalt there is patched with moss.
It is noticeably darker the moment you cross the street under the shade of the thick, evergreen branches. At the entrance, though set perhaps 50 ft. from the highway, you still feel the rush of air and the roar of traffic at your back. There is a slight feeling that you should look over your shoulder to make sure you’re not about to be hit.
The entrance is at the bottom of the mountain, the trees and grave climb sharply up into moss and murk. While there is a car-wide road climbing the hillside, the graves to each side seem huddled closely together in pathless, impenetrable numbers interwoven with what could be footpaths, but could also just be borders between plots.
Walking in through the gate and up the road, the sound of the traffic softens, fades and soon becomes imperceptible, the trees a shadow of silence descending with each step up the hill.
There is no one else here. No cars parked at the entrance. In every direction are gravestones short and tall, squat and thin, simple and ornate, old and older interspersed among the trees. There is very little low growth, so I can see quite a distance between the trunks, almost to haze. There is no grid, no apparent pattern to the location of the plots. They are spread out like the trees. It is a maze.
The graves mostly very old, eroded and mossy in the dense, damp forest. Some plots seem abandoned centuries earlier and have nearly grown fully into the mountainside. Others are well-maintained. Some plots mix collapsed stones and new stones, old families with recent deaths. Many lean towards toppling, settling with the ground sighing down the mountainside towards the highway. Many have fallen over. Others stand with perfect posture, at a sleepy attention. The forest floor is a thick carpet of pine needles, leaves, branches and more moss. And it is very, very quiet. Time gets a bit funny and I’m unsure if it has stopped or sped along while I haven’t noticed. I begin to wonder if I haven’t walked past this part already, in an unwitting circle, but the upwards slope helps orient.
It seems remarkable that none of the older stones are maintained. If one topples over, it is left like that. Perhaps this is simple neglect, the family concerned has either died or has moved; but perhaps letting nature take its course with the gravestones, as with the trees, is the intention. The grave dies as the person died, renewed as part of the soil from which the forest springs.
I come across a newer grave with a can of beer set on top. I imagine a drinking buddy has come to sit with a lost friend, remember, connect, celebrate, perhaps argue or have a last word. In the silence I feel as if I can hear their conversation, laughter, grunts and exclamations, then tears over the loss of each other, one on either side of death.
I move deeper and higher into the cemetery, walking between the plots, my feet wet crunching, the only sound, trying hard not to disturb anything. I come across groups of stone steps, settled at odd angles. I walk upwards, each pause a little eternity, and I look around to see another world.
I find a sign with a bear on it. It looks like a warning. They are perhaps attracted by food offerings left at the graves. At that moment, seeing a bear in the distance would feel almost holy, and I worry that my instinct to survive wouldn’t kick in quickly enough.
Nearing the top of the cemetery, I come across larger plots set on mounds with stone fences and gates. Clearly these are important graves.
Farther up I come across a remarkable plot. A large level field on a shoulder of the mountain is surrounded by a stone fence. There is a tall stone gate at the front, open and wide, and yet utterly intimidating in its simplicity. At the back of the plot, through the gate, is a tall stone set in front of a mound. I don’t dare enter.
As I stand there, I begin to feel the horrible inaccessibility of death. The stone is there, beyond the gate. I can see it, could walk to it easily, and yet I cannot walk to it. It seems so accessible, and yet it is just a cold stone. What would it matter if I stood next to it, put my hand on it? Would the Haka Lord answer?
The stone is mute.
I wonder what it is that any of us need to overcome sorrow and loss; perhaps it’s easiest if we never love in the first place, though that is a kind of death in itself.
Heavy thoughts dissipate as rain begins, the patter in the evergreens announces it before the first drops come down. I look up, close my eyes and wait for them. The first is shockingly cold in the damp Kanazawa winter, and wakes me right up. The second seals the moment. The third brings out my umbrella.
I walk down the mountain, back into the maze of graves, now loud with rain. I stop often and look at the vistas through the trees, now speckled and wet in the dim late-afternoon light. The peacefulness is soothing.
Past the highway roar that nearly erases the quiet memory of the cemetery, my thoughts still unsettled and wandering, I find a side road towards home with few cars if any passing by. At an intersection, the wind picks up and the electrical wires above sing out a strange note, half-whistle, half-howl. I look up and the noise continues, a varying pitch that sings like a voice. But I stop and listen, and it goes on for some time.
"I'll come back and talk," I find myself addressing the wires before turning to continue on my way, "I promise."