Koukokuji Buddhist Temple
Inside the columbarium, thousands of colorful, high-tech Buddhas guard the ashes of the dead.
Located in a quiet corner of Shinjuku in Tokyo, this cozy temple includes a columbarium filled with colorful, digitized Buddhas and two of the world’s oldest ginkgo trees.
The outside of the octagonal Ruriden columbarium mimics a traditional Buddhist burial building with heavy wooden doors and curving eaves, which belies its digital innards. It’s home to 2,046 small altars, each with a drawer holding the ashes of the deceased atop which seems to float a crystal Buddha.
People can use a smart card, which grants access to the building and lights up the deceased’s corresponding statue, to visit their lost loved ones. Clutches of flowers are left, but there are no incense sticks or memorial plaques here.
The dead’s ashes are stored for 33 years before they’re buried below the structure. Traditionally, funeral arrangements are left to the family of the deceased, but an increasingly popular trend in Japan is for the aging to prepare their own funerals and graves before they die.
Kōkokuji is a lovely temple in its own right, so be sure to walk past the outer buildings through the tori gates and into the temple proper. To the left of the main shrine is a temple bell and small cemetery. To the right is a not-quite-as-small cemetery; it is in this area where you encounter the gigantic old ginkgo trees. The ginkgo trees are estimated to be at least 300 years old and none the worse for wear, despite having survived the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and air raids in 1945. They still shelter a collection of tombs as they have for decades. Each tree proudly wears a small plaque hung around its thick, gnarled trunk proclaiming its estimated age.
Know Before You Go
The Kōkoku-ji Buddhist Temple is an easy 10-minute walk from the West exit of Ushigome-Yangicho Station on the Oedo Line at 2-20 Haramachi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0053.
The doors to the columbarium are usually open, but you need a smart card to activate the Buddhas. There will be a caretaker around, just ask and they will happily help. The caretaker will swipe their smart card, bow to the ancestors within, and then the multitude of will Buddhas begin their performance. Plan to spend at least fifteen minutes inside because as the LED warms up, the colors begin to change, at points creating landscapes and other designs. You can discern which Buddhas are in use when they light up white.
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