St Nicholas of Japan

Have just returned from just over a week in Tokyo, a combination of business and pleasure on a number of fronts. I had intended to find the Cathedral in Tokyo built by St Nicholas of Japan but I was not ready for the blessing of being able to easily visit the grave of this great missionary Saint. (well, we’ll get to easily in a minute).

I have to admit that I did not know a great deal about this Saint prior to coming to Japan. Well, I knew the basics; a Russian priest who came to Japan and did much missionary work and eventually became the Archbishop.

One morning free I thought to grab the laptop and see if the relics or grave of this Saint are located in Japan. The only reference I found was a photo of a grave at the bottom right hand corner of Fortunately the caption of the photo referenced Yanaka Cemetery which lead to more googling and a plan of action. My friend was happy to come with me to check it out.

Yanaka Cemetery is located just nearby Nippori Station, and Japanese public transport being as fantastic as it is getting there was a no brainer. Even though it was in Japanese a diagram near the station exit made finding the cemetery quite simple.

That’s where the “easy” part of the trip ended. We wandered around the cemetery for an hour or so without much joy. There were moments of near jubilation as we saw a rare Christian symbol on a grave amongst the local Japanese graves but still we searched for no avail.

The cemetery is in many ways an icon of Japan, as my friend calls it “the land of contrasts”. There are moments of intense serenity and beauty but you can turn the corner and very quickly be on top of train tracks or be assaulted by a vending machine. Even the local cats seemed lost and wanted directions from the cab drivers sleeping between shifts.

After some more hopeless wandering my friend asked one of the groundskeepers where “St Nicholas” or “Archbishop Nicholas” is buried. My Japanese is limited to ordering food and saying hello and thank-you, but I felt we were making progress when our new found friend started walking and pointing and saying “Nikolai, Nikolai”. Should have guessed the English translation was not the preferred use.

The kind man steered us through a maze of graves and finally we came across a neatly fenced area with a handful of graves at the edge of the property. We stayed there for a while prayerfully and I locked the GPS location in my phone for a later visit.

Later on that evening I did my homework a little more deeply about the life of Saint Nicholas of Japan. While my original summation was correct it was very shallow. For over a year now I had been either hearing or proclaiming myself the prayer at Matins which commemorates him amongst others:

. . . the Hierarchs Innocent of Moscow, Nicholas of Japan, John of Shanghai and San Francisco, Nectarius of Pentapolis, Jonah of Manchuria . . .

Now it was time to learn more.

Nicholas came to Japan as a Hieromonk after a request from the Russian Consul in Japan. He encountered extreme difficulty early on with acceptance by the Japanese as someone coming in from the outside. Following in the footsteps of the great missionary Saints Cyril and Methodius, he took to learning the language, culture and translating the scripture into the local language. A meeting with the future Saint Innocent of Alaska encouraged him in the local focus of his efforts.

A few days later I returned to the cemetery to spend a longer period in quiet prayer at the grave of St Nicholas. In a time where evangelism is extremely important, both at home and away, the life of this humble hierarch serves as a great example for us all. I encourage you to read the life of this Saint, who for his efforts bringing Orthodoxy to Japan, is commemorated as “Equal to the Apostles”.

Troparion (Tone 4)
O holy Saint Nicholas, the Enlightener of Japan,
You share the dignity and the throne of the Apostles:
You are a wise and faithful servant of Christ,
A temple chosen by the Divine Spirit,
A vessel overflowing with the love of Christ.
O hierarch equal to the Apostles,
Pray to the life-creating Trinity
For all your flock and for the whole world.

For those who happen to be in Tokyo and have the opportunity to visit this site, I have provided the map co-ordinates in an embedded google map below, hopefully it will shorten your journey to Saint Nicholas.