Rising To Heaven: Japan’s High-Rise, High-Tech Solution To A Shortage Of Cemetery Spaces
Forbes Report, Compiled by Noor Majid
It’s expensive to die in Japan. To buy a grave in or near Japan’s crowded cities can run from 3 million yen (about $27,000) to as high as 8 million yen. With one in five Japanese now more than 70 years old, demand is on the rise for a final resting place. This fact has led to a boom in high-tech, high-rise condominiums for the dead, that offer both convenience and lower costs for the living left behind.
One issue is the long distances and cost to visit a grave site. “The family grave is in Shiga Prefecture,” says Akira Suenaga, 48, who lives about 300km away in Tokyo. “It costs 84,000 yen for the three of us to go visit. That’s not even including a hotel, if we stay the night. We are thinking of moving the grave to Tokyo.”
Akira is among the many Japanese considering Tokyo’s high-tech columbariums, which are priced at roughly one-third the cost of conventional burial grounds and can be built in the middle of cities. Japanese families typically visit the graves of their loved ones at least once a year, which can be costly and inconvenient if the grave is far away. With an urban columbarium, a visit is just a subway ride away and can even be done on the way home from work.
High-rise columbariums first started appearing in Japan’s metro areas about a decade ago. But to meet rising demand, developers are resorting to high-tech solutions in new columbariums to pack more urns into less space. In 2017, Japanese firm Takuto announced plans to build a new columbarium near Tokyo Bay that will be able to store up to 100,000 urns. Takuto calls the new facility an “IT cemetery.” The bereaved will able to virtually visit their relatives via smartphones or computers and read Buddhist chants out loud to them with the push of a button.
Columbarium Kuramae Ryoen, which had its grand opening in the Asakusa area of Tokyo in 2017, is only five minutes from a subway station. Urns are stored in a mini-shrine that can house up to eight urns. A robotic arm retrieves a loved one’s urn and conveys it to a private booth where the families can pay their respects. Inside the six-storied building are shrines, waiting rooms and cubicle-like spaces for paying respect in private.
Kuramae Ryoen, which is managed by a 550-year-old Buddhist temple, offers two plans: a basic offering for 850,000 yen (not including a 12,000 yen annual maintenance fee), which provides families of the deceased a private viewing booth, and a deluxe plan for 980,000 yen, which includes a fancier dark-wood booth with a lounge.
Perhaps the most impressive columbarium in Tokyo is inside a temple built in 2014. The Byakurenge-do (white lotus hall) is a five-minute walk from Shinjuku station, one of the world’s busiest mass transit stations. Designed by renowned Japanese architect Kiyoshi Sey Takeyama, the temple is built to resemble a lotus, a classic Buddhist symbol, with a white concrete exterior that rises up six floors.
Its columbarium was designed to hold up to 7,000 souls. The temple also includes a concert hall and a meditation center. “We have a lot of people who are moving their family graves to our facilities,” says Byakurenge-do priest Tassho Okamura. “It’s much easier to visit them here and some office workers do stop by on their way home.”