TRANQUILITY IN DOWNTOWN TOKYO
Being one of the most crowded areas in Tokyo, Shibuya is mostly known for its legendary Shibuya Crossing (that reminds me of Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift), Hachiko statue outside Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station and tall buildings with flashy LED lighting.
Nonetheless, despite the crowds, finding tranquility and peace of mind in Shibuya area is much easier than you thought. Meiji Shrine is the closest getaway to stay away from crowds a little while. From Shibuya Station, take a JR Yamanote Line to Harajuku Station, which is only 1 stop, and walk a few minutes from Harajuku Station.
Meiji Shrine is a Shinto shrine built in 1920 as a dedication to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, located in the inner side of Yoyogi Park near the iris garden that the they loved to visit during their lives.
The shrine was destroyed in 1945 during the World War II and rebuilt with donations from various sources all over the country in 1958.
Once we found the Torii gates made of 1500-year-old cypress wood among the greens, I knew I was in the right place. Hustling and bustling in the city seemed to be a distant memory, replaced by the 247-acre garden offering tranquility and some fresh air.
Bear in mind that tranquility doesn’t make Meiji Shrine off-the-beaten path place at all, since it holds many religious ceremonies and festivals. Also, there are many traditional Shinto wedding ceremonies taking place at the memorial hall.
EMPEROR MEIJI AND EMPRESS SHOKEN: HIGHLY RESPECTED ROYAL COUPLES
Emperor Meiji was known for Meiji Restoration (1867 – 1912), when Japan transformed into a modern country, opening itself to the outside world, catching up with the western knowledge and technology, and industrial period started to rise. It also marked the end of feudalism by Tokugawa Shogunate after 250 years of ruling.
On the other hand, Empress Shoken involved in numerous royal visits, meetings and was active in charity funds, including the Japanese Red Cross society. She donated ¥100,000 (now worth ¥3.5 billion) to International Red Cross in Geneva in 1912, inspiring the establishment of Empress Shoken Fund in the same year. The fund supports disaster preparedness, healthcare, sanitation, and social welfare activities in developing countries.
More than 100 years after the royal couple’s passing, they are still highly respected nationwide. Every year, the ceremony of Emperor Meiji’s birthday is held on November 3. The commemoration of Empress Shoken is on April 11, which is the anniversary of her death, to remember her virtues.
Before passing the 12-meter Otorii or Grand Shrine Gate, the largest gate at Meiji Shrine, there’s a giant rack stacked with sake barrels that are probably the only colourful property on site.
Meiji Jingu Nationwide Sake Brewers Association and other sake brewers from different parts of Japan make sake offerings to honor the soul of the royal couple, as well as a gratitude to Emperor Meiji who encouraged the growth of industrialization during Meiji Period.
Another dedication to Emperor Meiji is French wine barrels situated across the sake barrels, donated by notable wineries of Bourgogne in France initiated by Yasuhiko Sata, the House of Burgundy Representative in Tokyo. Drinking wine was part of the Emperor’s ways to embrace and promote western culture, although he didn’t leave traditional values and spirit behind.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO AT THE MAIN SHRINE
Forget about red, gold and other vibrant colours like any other temples once you arrived at the main shrine. In fact, it tends to have a “low profile” look with earth colour domination, mostly dark chestnut brown. Having passed all the gates, we dragged ourselves to the most sacred place in Shibuya area.
Since we only targeted our visit on the main shrine to save our time (and free of charge), let me share what you mainly can do at the main shrine area besides walking along the large square.
1. DOING SHINTO RITUALS
For those who are non-Shinto believers, doing omairi, the basic rituals for entering the shrine, is a stepping stone to feel more “local”. Simultaneously, it’s a sign of respect to a religion you’re probably not familiar with.
Omairi basically includes bowing slightly before passing all the gates, temizu or self-cleansing ritual at the communal basin by washing mouth and hands with a wooden scoop and the prayer to kami (gods) by dropping a coin as an offering, pulling the rope to ring a bell and clapping hands twice.
I noticed that some visitors are interested in doing temizu, especially the step by step guide is stated very clearly on the board right before the basin itself. Apart from that, they do the prayer part by dropping coins and clapping hands twice mainly for gaining more experience and fun.
2. HUNTING AMULETS AND CHARMS AT THE SOUVENIR SHOP
Suppose souvenir hunting is one of the main goals of your visit, no worries. There are lovely and cute design charms, amulets, key chains at the souvenir shop. The price range starts from ¥ 300 ($ 3) to over ¥ 1000 ($ 9), depending on material, size and design. There are some modest amulets that cost ¥ 100 (S 1), too, but I think I found it not that attractive.
It is tempting to have some of them, but I try not to spend too much on them since we would visit more temples in our next journey and they usually sell similar stuffs.
3. MAKE A WISH AND A DONATION
There are several ways to make a wish and donation at the temple. One of them is to donate for a roof reparation. Write your name and wishes on a sheet of copper and pay ¥ 3000 ($ 27).
If ¥ 3000 seems too much, get an ema votive tablet for ¥ 500 and write your prayer, wishes and gratitude on it. After that, hang it on the “tree” that looks more like a hanging rack rather than an actual tree. The priests will present your wishes to the gods in the morning ceremony the day after.
Alternatively, you can write your prayer and wishes in a piece of paper and put it in the envelope provided inside the organizer on the table. Then, you can drop it inside wooden container on the left side behind the table. FYI, the paper and the envelope are free of charge.
4. ATTENDING A SHINTO WEDDING PROCESSION
Meiji Shrine is a popular place for a Shinto traditional wedding ceremony that usually takes place at Meiji Memorial Hall, followed by blessings outside the hall when family members march behind the couple and the priests. It doesn’t happen everyday, though, but if you’re lucky enough, you will find it.
To be honest, it’s the best activity of all because there’s no way that I will have that chance to see that in my hometown. It doesn’t take a genius to love watching happy couple with beautiful traditional costume and head piece (for the bride).
We hunted the couple and their troops with our camera until they returned to their car in the other end of the shrine.
OTHER PLACES OF INTEREST OTHER THAN THE SHRINE
If you have all the time in the world, the inner garden of Yoyogi Park has something else to offer apart from the main shrine. Jingū Naien or the iris garden, Treasure House and Treasure Museum Annex entrance fee is ¥ 500 ($ 5) each. When that’s not enough, you may want to visit the outer garden, where Meiji Memorial Art Gallery and Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium are located.
In our case, we skipped those places and headed to Asakusa for our next destination.