To get to Meiji-jinju, we left behind the crowded city streets, crossed over a bridge spanning the railway line, and walked onto a wide gravel path leading into a wooded oasis. Even the telephone booth at the entrance exuded an aura of calm:
More striking, of course, is the O-Torii, a nearly 40-foot-high gate that looms at the entrance. According to one of my guide books, it was constructed from 1,500-year old cypress trees. It’s a fitting entry into Japan’s most important Shinto shrine. Emperor Meiji, in whose memory the shrine was built, is credited with modernizing the country. Originally built in 1929, eight years after his passing, the shrine was destroyed by air raids in 1945. The 1958 reconstruction follows the original design. Amazingly, the forest it sits in was created by planting 100,000 trees donated from throughout Japan and the world.
We were lucky and didn’t have to jostle with large crowds during our visit. Liam was free to run ahead and back, ahead and back, while Wil and I strolled along behind him. It wasn’t long before we came to a large display of sake barrels. The barrels are given as an offering each year by sake brewers to show respect for the souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. The barrels were stacked on top of each other, their labels forming a colorful, rather cheerful, collage wall.
Farther on, after passing the entrance to several gardens, we turned and walked under another massive, wooden, torii (gate) and approached the shrine’s outer courtyard. The shrine is a popular spot for weddings, and we passed a beaming bride in her kimono posing for photographs. We also passed a booth selling charms. Later, I bought a charm for ‘soundness of mind and body.’ Wil purchased one for wisdom.
We entered the courtyard quietly and respectfully. It’s a beautiful, large, paved space, lined by the shrine buildings, which are made of cypress and feature copper roofs that have softened into green. The main shrine building, which lines one end of the square, is closed to the public, but you can approach it along a long open counter that allows you to see inside. (There’s no photography allowed.) The faithful approach, put coins in an offertory box, bow twice, clap their hands twice, and bow again.
We were very fortunate in our timing, because soon after we entered the courtyard, a bridal parade began. (Our second bride spotting!) The tourists and visitors parted to allow the bridal party to process through the courtyard. The young couple walked formally through the courtyard, flanked by priests and family, but their happiness felt palpable. (Or maybe it’s just that I love weddings and was so excited to get to see the happy couple on their special day.)
We lingered a while longer. It’s the first Shinto shrine we’ve ever been to and we weren’t in any rush to hurry off. It reminded me a bit of visiting cathedrals in Europe, where the large spaces encouraged quiet reflection, calming tourists into maintaining a hushed demeanor. Just outside the courtyard, we found one of the Temizuya (fonts). The fonts are used for purifying and to pay respect. You rinse your left hand, then your right, then pour water into your left hand and rinse your mouth. Finally, you rinse your left hand and rinse the dipper. We observed but did not participate. (Perhaps another time…) Afterward, we followed a road through the woods to lead us back out into the crowds of shoppers. (The path provided our smallest adventurer a wide open runway to do some sprints.)
The shrine is adjacent to Yoyogi Park, Tokyo’s largest park. The park was once an imperial army training ground. It also housed athletes for the 1964 Olympics and still has a couple of the stadiums. Again, we missed out by not visiting on a Sunday, when it is reputed to be filled with colorful, young characters, but we still enjoyed strolling through its grassy expanse and admiring its fountains.
The best part, though, was the half-hour we spent watching a street performer in the park. The young man had a paper canvas he spray painted landscapes onto, layering through the paper by using a knife to cut portions of his picture out, constantly altering its appearance in imaginative ways. Just in case that wasn’t interesting enough, he did this while wearing a stereo that he used to DJ techno music for himself. For good measure, he also threw in a few slick dance moves. It was time well spent.