Searching for Lafcadio Hearn

March 23, 2016 Tokyo

It is no great achievement, but it took me two trips to arrive at the Irish author Lafcadio Hearn’s tomb.

I had read that the first writer who popularized Japanese culture with English speaking audiences was buried within walking distance from the hotel. The guidebook told me that the grave was in Zōshigaya cemetery at the inner side of the circular railway that embraces the city by its services. On the map only a distance of a few kilometers away.

But getting there meant crossing an enormous cluster of railroads plus commercial centers, built on top of them. So the first day was “derailed” by trying to find a passage, above or underground, from West Ikebukuro to the Eastside. Trying to find a level crossing I wandered into a labyrinth of low cost dwellings only to end up in Mejito, just one stop South along the circular line but not nearer the graveyard.

With fresh energy the next day I decided to attack the heart of the Gordian Knot, where the map promised two passages above the railway station. Every time I tried to orient myself towards the Eastern exit gates I found myself ending up in front of automated ticket barriers. Folding the map I went up to the roof of the building to survey the site. I now realized there were only connecting service passages over and between the tracks, no separate bridges connecting West to East Ikebukuro.

I then dived deep into the megastores and their perennial glitter. Near an elevator I found an old gentleman seeming to bow forever to passing customers without being recognized by them. He did not speak English, but I made clear to him anyway that I wanted to get out of this and to the East. To my surprise he left his post and preceded me downstairs till after two turns we all of a sudden entered an underground main street, full of thousands of pedestrians. I tried to judge where the East would be, went, but found myself South. Nevertheless I issued triumphantly form the Seiko monster’s den in the end.

There was a broad avenue styled like the Champs Elysées leading East. But I preferred to go by parks rather than thoroughfares. So I walked a while towards a park which according to signs on the map could be filled with shrines. But in reality they looked like belonging to a closed and little frequented world, like unused funeral parlors. Then I followed a small side street taking me to another park-like cemetery. It was not mine, but a few incense burning women were there to ask for the way. Yet, they showed no recognition to Zōshigaya as a name and quickly continued with their incenses.

The vendor of the incense proved more alert. He produced a map and with a red pencil drew a line. This indicated a narrow road to the deep south, not east. But in this way it was possible to cross another railway and arrive at the northern gate of the cemetery of Lafcadio Hearn. At least after one hour it looked like I had succeeded.

A small obstacle presented itself. The cemetery showed an unending array of tombs, each of them numbered by a three digit system. But no English at all. By chance I found a listing of graves recognizably belonging to Japanese writers. The graveyard proved to be a literary resting place. But without any obvious sign of Lafcadio.

I decided to comb the whole park systematically, and in so doing spotted a few tombs with crosses and the names of nuns. I also found the tomb of a Russian philosopher with a German name.

Halfway it occurred to me that on entering I had seen a sign pointing to administration. I now went there and as always obtained a new map, every grave indicated by number. No English. People were busy arranging burials. My query: Lafcadio Hearn? only raised eyebrows.

Going out again none the wiser, I met a possibly “educated gentleman” with a similar map in hand and puzzling over it. He did not speak English but politely and decidedly escorted me to the innermost part of the administration’s building. There a lady came forward and with a red pencil without hesitation indicated grave number 1.1.8 (on the left side of the main path) as Lafcadio Hearn’s.

Once arrived there approximately I found no indications in English, which I was expecting to see, Hearn having been Irish, his mother Greek. For good measure I went up and down the side paths 1.1.7 and 1.1.9. too, but saw nothing specific.

Then I remembered (however vaguely) once having seen an old photo of the tomb with a young cryptomeria tree. And indeed I now spotted a kind of cypres or Japanese cedar, that could have grown from it, only overshadowing three tombs. Some nandina domestica, the heavenly bamboo, and classical border-plants marked the sides of the small precinct.

I did not know much about Hearn, but it was conceivable that he would have been buried alongside (for instance) wife and child. I felt tired. I decided to anyhow make this his grave, and settled down in contemplation.

After a while an ivory faced Japanese man with a white beard falling on his classical scholars clothing passed by. I called out to him: “Lafcadio Hearn”? He nodded and said: “Koizumi Yakumo”. Hearn’s Japanese name.

I pointed out to the scholar the three tombstones and the cryptomeria and the two other flanking trees. He folded three fingers together and said: “Nice”.

I felt moved and could have embraced him.