Cryptic Pilgrimage: Japanese Traveler Kajipon Seeing the World One Grave at a TimePeople Culture Society History
Since he was 19, Kajipon Marco Zangetsu has been traveling the world visiting the graves of famous people. His travels have taken him to all corners of Japan and the globe, from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica. He has been to 101 countries in all, but after so many years of travelling—he is now 53 years old—he is a little fuzzy about exactly how many graves he has visited. “To be honest, I’m too busy to keep an accurate count,” he confesses. “At last check it was 2,520, but that was two years ago.” Kajipon says that maybe one day, if he ever puts out his back, counting them all up will give him something to do while he’s laid out at home. For now, though, he just wants to keep traveling and visiting as many graves as possible.
Kajipon calls his pilgrimages his “life’s work,” raising the question of where this passion came from.
A pilgrimage of Thanks
It all started in August 1987 in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, then still known by its Soviet-era name of Leningrad, at the grave of novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. “I was still a student at the time and I wanted to express my gratitude to the writer, whose works had helped guide me through my difficult teenage years,” he explains. Placing his hand on the grave and murmuring the word spasibo (thank you), he says he felt a tremendous rush through his whole body. “It was as if I’d been struck by lightning.”
As a young man, Kajipon says he fought constantly with his alcoholic father and decided to leave home during his junior year in high school to escape the turmoil. During those difficult years, he found solace in reading—in particular, Crime and Punishment and other works by Dostoevsky provided what he describes as “salvation.” From his third year in high school, he became a self-described “arts junkie,” devouring literature, music, and paintings. Much of the time, he admits, this was driven by unrequited crushes: a young woman hoping to go to art school, a student at music college, a librarian.
None of these one-sided love affairs ever went anywhere, but Kajipon’s world expanded as he immersed himself in reading, listening to music, and finding out as much as he could about artists’ lives, in a desperate attempt to impress the latest object of his affections. He found solace along the way. “Beethoven had one unhappy love affair after another until he died at the age of 56,” he explains. “But he poured his suffering into his compositions.” He notes that Vincent van Gogh, too, was unlucky in love, his disappointments inspiring the artist to paint masterpieces like Sunflowers. “It’s not the end of the world if someone turns you down. Many works of genius have been created from a broken heart.”
In the same cemetery as Dostoevsky, he came across the graves of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Modest Mussorgsky, two of Russia’s greatest composers. As Kajipon left the cemetery, he was gripped by an overwhelming urge to visit more artists in their final resting places to say thanks in person. “Bach, Shakespeare, Goethe,” he exclaims. “There were so many. There was no time to lose.”
He wanted to walk in the footsteps of the artists who had given him succor in times of difficulty, to find out more about their lives and to thank them for the consolation he had found in their works. In Japan, he earned money as a truck driver before setting out on a pilgrimage around the country and farther afield. Gradually, the scale of his ambitions widened, and he started visiting the resting places of just about anyone who had made an important contribution to human history or the arts. “The growth of the Internet helped,” he says. “I started a website, and this led to offers from people who wanted me to write an article or come give a talk.” Eventually, he was able to make a living out of his pilgrimages, although he stresses his motivation remains unchanged. “If that side of things ever dries up, I’m happy to go back to driving a truck, or whatever it takes.”
Hospitality to Travelers
It is a common custom in Japan for people to visit the graves of their ancestors, a practice known as haka-mairi. Individuals also often pay their respects at the grave of a mentor or important figure in their lives, especially on the anniversary of that person’s death. However, Kajipon stresses that it is not enough just to turn up and gaze at the tombstone. “That’s meaningless,” he declares. The important thing, he says, is to express gratitude. “I try to also visit the places where the person was born or grew up if they are nearby. I want to walk in their footsteps, see the places that were important in their lives.” The ideal journey is one that lets him trace the person’s life right up to its end, the grave, although he admits that his limited finances keep him from doing this for every person. “I have to pick and choose,” he admits, and sometimes the final resting place is the only spot he can visit. However, he says he tries to make it to each tomb at least twice. “I don’t think you can really call a one-off visit haka-mairi.”
Not all destinations are formal graves. When he visited Antarctica, Kajipon stood on the deck of a ship and joined his hands in prayer while facing the direction of explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated last camp. He did the same in the Arctic, paying his respects in the direction of the place where Roald Amundsen disappeared.
In some cases, civil war or other tragedies have kept him from revisiting graves. In 1994 he visited Syria to fulfill his dream of seeing the ancient ruins at Palmyra and the grave of John the Baptist in Damascus. He recalls the trip with fondness. “The people I met were so welcoming and friendly,” he recounts, something he attributes to the Islamic prescription to be hospitable and to help travelers. “I didn’t know a word of Arabic and couldn’t even read the route numbers on the buses,” he says. “I had to keep stopping people and asking for directions.” When he finally arrived at the ruins, he was moved to tears by their beauty. Later, to escape the sweltering heat he went for a cooling swim in the Euphrates River. Back at his hotel, he was surprised to find a group of locals gathered around a television in the lobby watching the famous Japanese soccer anime Captain Tsubasa.
Syria has since collapsed into chaos as a result of its prolonged civil war, and in 2015 large parts of the ancient city of Palmyra were destroyed by extremists aligned to Daesh, the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
“I really hope that peace returns soon and that life in the country will get back to normal,” Kajipon says, remembering the happy children and smiling faces of the people he met on that earlier visit.
Some gravesites are easier to get to than others. “You don’t have to head for the poles or trek through the jungle to experience drama and adventure,” declares Kajipon. “There’s all kinds to be had in the regular world.”
He recalls beings laid out with acute back pain on his way home from visiting Paul Gauguin’s grave in Tahiti. “There are only a few direct flights to Tahiti from Japan, and the island of Hiva Oa where Gauguin is buried is a further six and a half hours away by propeller plane,” he says. Even a small incident can throw an itinerary into disarray. In Kajipon’s case an Air Tahiti strike forced him to return to Japan via Los Angeles, and it was during this leg of the journey that his back went out, forcing him to spend weeks in bed recovering. However, he says it was a small price to pay for such a unique experience. “The first thing people say to each other when they meet in front of the grave is, ‘Are you crazy?’ There’s an immediate sense of comradeship.”
There were other tribulations. In France, where he was visiting Vincent Van Gogh’s grave at Auvers-sur-Oise, thieves broke into his rental car and stole all his belongings. A friendly local took him to the police station, and while Kajipon filed his report, the middle-aged officer who was helping him. cheerfully announced, “Hey, I know how to write some Japanese,” and proudly wrote the kanji for “Atlantic Ocean” on the police station whiteboard. “I’d paid for the car two months in advance, but now I had no international license. There was nothing for it but to return to Japan and apply for a new one. I felt totally deflated, but there was nothing to do but laugh,” he recalls. “When I left the station, the police officer handed me a note he had written in Japanese that said ’Have a good trip!’ It brought a tear to my eye.”
At the start of a one-month journey around Europe, he bought a bust of Ludwig van Beethoven in a Belgian antiques shop, and faithfully carried it with him as he traversed the continent, only to drop it at the airport in London at the end of his trip. Undaunted, he collected the pieces and repaired the figure with superglue when he got home.
The year 2020 marked 250 years since the birth of the great composer, one of the artists for whom Kajipon feels a special admiration. “During Beethoven’s lifetime, Vienna was subject to quite severe limitations on freedom, partly as a response to the French Revolution. In the choral movement of his ninth symphony, he composed a wonderful hymn of brotherhood and equality, conveying the message that all of us, nobility and commoners alike, all share in the same universal human dignity.”
Beethoven’s gravestone in Vienna is shaped like a metronome: the artist was one of the first major composers to put this new invention to use. “He was apparently delighted with it, because it allowed him to keep tempo even after he started to lose his hearing.” Next to Beethoven lies the grave of Franz Schubert. “If I could, I would like to be buried there between them.”
Hitchhiking to the Russian Border
The grave of Nicolaus Copernicus lies in the Polish town of Frombork, not far from the Russian border. After paying his respects at the final resting place of the great astronomer, Kajipon set out for the grave of the philosopher Immanuel Kant in the Russian enclave city of Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg), part of a narrow isthmus of Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania.
“Kant was one of the first people to call for an international organization like the United Nations we have today, for the sake of world peace,” Kajipon explains. “I wanted to thank him for his insight and compassion for humankind.” The only way to get there, locals told him, was by a cross-border bus departing just twice a day. Aiming to catch the morning coach, he found a place to stay and was up waiting at the bus stop at 6:30 the next morning. After waiting in vain for two hours, he decided to ask the police for help, but wound up in a Polish army barracks. Fortunately, the soldiers were friendly and treated him to hot tea and donuts.
He also got a warm welcome at border control. He explained that before arriving in Poland, he had visited the site of the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, where Sugihara Chiune issued Japanese transit visas to thousands of Jews fleeing the Holocaust, and had also visited the grave of Józef Piłsudski, considered the founding father of modern Poland. “I showed the border officers some of the photos I had taken, and they seemed quite impressed,” he recounts. “They stopped a car heading for Russia and persuaded the people to give me a lift. Thanks to that, I got to meet a nice older lady and her daughter and managed to get to Kant’s grave.”
Staircases and Cross-Country Buses
One country Kajipon has visited several times is Spain. “I always make a point of visiting the Sagrada Familia to see how much progress has been made on the cathedral,” he says. He has paid his respects at most of the famous graves in the country, including those of architect Antoni Gaudí and painter Francisco Goya, and has also been to Santiago de Compostela, one of the three major places of Christian pilgrimages and the burial site of Saint James.
In Barcelona, Kajipon got lost looking for the grave of Joan Miró, located in a vast graveyard on Montjuïc hill. “The caretaker drew me a map, but it was a pretty rough-and-ready effort, and I ended up wandering for ages around this huge cemetery under the burning sun.” The map showed an escalator alongside the pathway, but none was to be found. Back at the office, Kajipon, parched from his endeavor, realized his mistake. “I had confused the Spanish for escalator, escalera mecánica, for the word for staircase. Since then, the sight of Miró’s pictures always makes me feel thirsty.”
In Britain, he has visited around 60 graves, including those of King Arthur, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Lawrence of Arabia. “I’ve pretty much covered the whole UK, from Dover to Loch Ness.”
He has also visited the United States several times, where he has paid his respects to around 260 famous people, including Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Edison, Billy the Kid, and Marilyn Monroe. In 2000, he traveled across the country by long-distance bus. “Thirty days of travel cost only around 37,000 yen in bus fare.” When he was tired, he would hop on an overnight bus and keep clean by rinsing his hair with bottled water and washing in the restrooms of fast-food restaurants. “I didn’t stay in a hotel once all the way from Los Angeles to New York,” he boasts.
Passing It On to the Next Generation
Until the age of 40, Kajipon traveled alone mostly. Since his marriage 18 years ago, though, he has started taking his family along. His son, now in fifth grade, is already a veteran traveler and grave-visitor, having crisscrossed Europe and the United States with Kajipon to visit the tombs of people like Walt Disney, Michael Jackson, and the Brothers Grimm.
In Australia, the family toured the country in a rental car, dodging the kangaroos that would dart onto the road. In Perth, they visited the grave of actor Heath Ledger, who died at 28 in 2008. “My son has joined me in visiting people’s graves almost since he learned to walk. He enjoys it a lot, I think.”
Researching the location of graves used to take a lot of time and effort—something that the Internet has made a lot easier. “There’s a fair bit of inaccurate information, so you have to be careful. Generally speaking, though, having access to things like Google maps and transportation timetables has made it much easier than it used to be.”
Kajipon says he tried to visit the most far-flung destinations while he was still relatively young and fit, including locations like Italy’s remote mountains and the Middle East. Now that he is older, his focus has shifted more toward Asia.
In 2019, he traveled to South Korea and Taiwan. In Seoul, he visited the grave of Asakawa Takumi, a Japanese researcher who pioneered the study of Korean ceramics and lived most of his life in Korea. In the south of the country, he paid his respects at the graves of the students who lost their lives in the Gwangju Uprising in 1980. In Taiwan, he visited the graves of singer Teresa Teng, independence hero Mona Rudao, and Hatta Yoichi, builder of the Wushantou Dam.
“Traveling in 101 countries has convinced me that people everywhere are more or less the same,” he reflects. “If you smile, people smile back at you. And most people are happy to help a traveler in trouble.” Kajipon says he sees the same emotions on people’s faces at gravesides everywhere: a sense of loss and respect for the deceased. “That’s why, even when countries are at each other’s throats, we should remember the things we all have in common and treat each other with respect.”
In 2020, Kajipon was planning his first major trip across China, but this had to be canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. “It would have been the first time back for me since I visited writer Lu Xun’s grave in Shanghai 30 years ago. I was looking forward to seeing how China has changed in the intervening years.”
With the impact of the pandemic making it difficult for him to travel to graves even within Japan, Kajipon has found himself spending a lot of his time updating his website, home to a vast treasure trove of information on his travels and the graves he has seen. He says he is looking forward to the day when he can set off on his international travels again.
“There are so many graves that I haven’t managed to visit yet. Picasso’s grave, for example, is on the grounds of the Château de Vauvenargues in the south of France. The château is still owned by the artist’s descendants, so you can’t get in unless you’re a friend of the family. I’ve been as far as the front gate twice, but haven’t made it inside yet. I’ve visited the house where he was born in Málaga and went to see Guernica in Madrid. I’d really love to express my gratitude to him by visiting his grave. So if any of your readers happens to know the Picasso family, please ask them to drop me a line.”
(Originally published in Japanese, based on an interview by Itakura Kimie of Nippon.com. Banner photo: Kajipon on his second visit to Dostoevsky’s grave in St. Petersburg in February 2005. All photos courtesy of Kajipon Marco Zangetsu.)