Meiji Jingu Shrine, A Guide To Tokyo’s Oasis

by Jacob Harris
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Tokyo is the perfect example of a hustling and bustling city. Everywhere you go, you will be surrounded by a wall of noise and people. Amid the city’s cacophony, however, you will find an oasis of peace and tranquillity in Meiji Jingu.

The Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine surrounded by a dense forest located in the middle of Shinjuku and Shibuya. It is named after Japan’s first “modern” emperor, Emperor Meiji, and his Empress Consort, Shoken. It is just a one-minute walk from the Harajuku Station on the JR Yamanote Line.

Join me as I take a stroll through this popular tourist spot.

Upon Entering

The first thing we will see as we approach the Meiji Jingu is its 40-foot torii gates. The Japanese believe that torii gates symbolize the shift from the earthly world to the sacred world, which is why Shinto shrines use these as gates. Bow once as you enter the gates to pay your respects to the shrine you will be visiting.

If you have a Japanese map, shrines are depicted with small torii icons to mark their locations.

Meiji History

As we step through the torii gates, let’s go back in time and peek into the past of this important shrine.

Emperor Meiji was born in 1852 and ascended to the throne in 1867. Before his reign, Japan was an isolated country whose domains were ruled not by the emperor but by feudal shoguns and daimyos. Due to economic, political, and social upheavals, the feudal era ended and the emperor was once again given the power to rule over the country.

The emperor’s reign is known as the Meiji era (enlightened rule). It is considered as the start of Japan’s shift towards modernization. This era ushered in many changes for the country including:

  • Japan opened its ports to other countries once again.
  • The foundation for the current Japanese government was laid out.
  • Emperor Meiji changed the name of the capital from Edo (Bay Entrance) to Tokyo (Eastern Capital).

Emperor Meiji passed away in 1912.

The shrine to honor the Emperor and his Empress was completed in 1920. Jingu is a special term that the Emperor had allowed only for special shrines that enshrine ancestral gods or emperors. Thus, the Japanese considered it a fitting name for one dedicated to the Emperor.

Air raids over Tokyo during World War II destroyed the original buildings but these were rebuilt by October 1958.

Main Shrine Grounds

Continuing with our walk, beyond the torii gates is a cedar-lined path toward the main shrine grounds. The noise from the city fades into the background as we move forward. Barrels of sake (rice wine) in special cases can be seen in certain spots. These sake barrels were presented to the shrine and used for special occasions.

Passing through two more torii gates and we finally reach the main shrine grounds.

The first stop is Temizuya, where people perform water ablutions. To perform the correct procedure, follow these steps:

  • Rinse the left hand using the ladle;
  • Rinse the right hand;
  • Cup some water from the ladle with the left hand and use this to rinse your mouth;
  • Rinse the left hand again; and,
  • Rinse the dipper.

The following etiquette is pretty simple. Don’t let your lips touch the dipper. The Temizuya is not a wishing well; don’t throw coins in it.

Beyond the cleansing area is the Outer Haiden. This is where ordinary visitors can offer prayers to the gods.

To offer a prayer you can do the following:

  • Lightly toss some coins into the offertory box;
  • Bow two times;
  • Clap your hands two times;
  • Pray or make a wish;
  • Bow once.

Beyond the Outer Haiden is the Inner Haiden where the priests offer their prayers and the Honden where divinities are usually enshrined. If you are wondering where the Emperor was buried, The Meiji Jingu does not contain the graves of the Emperor and the Empress. These can be found in Fushimi-Momoyama in Kyoto.

Places To Visit

After offering prayers, let’s explore the other areas of the shrine.

To the south, we can find one of the most beautiful parts of the shrine: the Inner Garden. The Inner Garden used to be the house of a feudal lord. The Emperor converted this into an iris garden for his Empress. Today, 150 species of irises bloom in the garden in late July. There is also a pond, a small river, and a small well located in the garden.

The well is called Kiyomasa’s Well. It is named after the military commander who had the well dug. The Emperor and the Empress were said to have visited it often. People are curious about it because it is believed to be one of the “power spots” in Japan. A power spot is said to be an area imbued with high spiritual energy.

To the north of the shrine is the Treasure Museum, which showcases personal belongings of the Emperor and Empress. This building has an annex that has temporary exhibitions.

Next to the museum is the Shiseikan Dojo where classes and lectures on various martial arts such as Aikido, Judo, Kendo (Japanese swordsmanship using bamboo swords) and Kyudo (Japanese archery) are conducted.

Finally, we can ramble through the 175-acre forest surrounding the shrine. The forest is home to about 120,000 trees of varied species, some of which were donated by other countries. The designers wanted to create a landscape that would eventually mimic a natural Japanese forest.

Local festivals and events

The Meiji Jingu holds many local events and rituals. Let’s check out some of the most famous ones:

  • Saitansai – this is the first and earliest ceremony done during January 1. Many Japanese visit shrines during the first three days of the year. This ritual is called Hatsumode. Meiji Jingu attracts more than 3 million Hatsumode visitors each year.
  •  Kigensai – the National Foundation Day festival conducted on February 11 each year celebrates the founding of Japan as a nation. Portable shrines are paraded while a brass band plays a tune in honor of the gods. Shinto priests recite prayers and offer food to the gods while shrine maidens perform a sacred dance.
  • Shoken-Kotaigo-Sai – celebrated on April 11 to commemorate the virtues of Empress Shoken.
  • Haru-no-Taisai – the Grand Spring Festival is celebrated on May 2-3. Some of the events are ceremonial dances and music, Noh (traditional Japanese theater), and Kyudo.
  • Meiji-Tenno-Sai – celebrates Emperor Meiji’s virtues on July 30th.
  • Aki-no-Taisai – the Grand Fall Festival celebrated on November 1-3 draws a bigger crowd than the Spring Festival because this event also coincides with Emperor Meiji’s birthday and the Cultural Day national holiday on November 3. In addition to Shinto rituals, Yabusame (traditional horseback archery) and other martial arts are performed.

Meiji Jingu is also a popular venue for Shinto-style weddings, which are usually held in the Meiji Kinenkan (Memorial Hall). Such weddings start with a procession of family and friends in the courtyard. At the head of the procession are the bride, dressed in a white formal kimono with a hood, and the groom, donned in a formal black robe. The couple is blessed by a Shinto priest and then the festivities begin.

The shrine also has stalls where visitors can buy charms, amulets, ema (wooden tablets where you can write wishes), and other souvenirs. The ema can be hung on one of the hooks under huge camphor trees.

The best souvenir for a shrine visit, though, is a goshuincho (honorable stamp/seal book). A goshuincho is a booklet that contains the names of shrines in Japan. The pages are stamped with a date as proof of a visit. Meiji Jingu has a special goshuincho that can be stamped near the Kaguraden (hall for sacred music and dance).

Places to visit nearby

Do you still have some energy left? How about we explore some nearby places for more fun activities?

Yoyogi Park is right next to Meiji Jingu’s forest. This park contains the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which was built for the 1964 Olympics. In this park, people have picnics or barbecue parties, jog or bicycle, or listen to live concerts or watch sports games in the outdoor stage and stadium. It has a pond, a bird sanctuary, different gardens, and an observation deck. Amp up the people watching on Sundays. You will be able to enjoy the Tokyo Rockabilly Club dancers performing their routines.

Next stop is Harajuku. Fashion, food, fun. These words describe Harajuku to a T. From anime cosplayers to gothic Lolita girls, from grunge to eclectic fashionistas, all types of clothing can be seen and bought in Harajuku. There are also lots of café choices, from the usual maid café to the unique owl café and hedgehog café. After shopping and eating, get a purikura as a cute souvenir.

Before leaving, don’t forget to stop by the Daiso Store in Takeshita Street. It’s the largest Daiso in Japan and it contains hundreds of cute, practical, and unusual knick-knacks, most of which are just 108 yen each. Go crazy buying souvenirs for you, your family, and friends.

After the psychedelic and noisy streets of Harajuku, why not spend some quiet minutes at the Ota Memorial Museum nearby? This museum showcases many ukiyo-e artworks of Ota Seizo.

On your way back to the JR Yamanote line, pop in quickly at the LaForet Harajuku for some window shopping. This shopping complex has a lot of fashion boutiques. Special events are held at the top floor of the complex so check out the schedule to see if something interesting is ongoing.

At Day’s End

Your feet probably hurt by now. Time to go back to your hotel, relax, put up your feet, and sip some tea while thinking back on these pieces of info:

  • Meiji Jingu is open from sunrise to sunset. Since the time for sunrise and sunset changes each month, the opening hours change as well.
  • Admission into the Shrine grounds is free but some areas require fees: 500 yen for the Inner Garden and 500 yen for the Treasure Museum and Annex. 
  • To get to Meiji Jingu, take the JR Yamanote line to the Harajuku Station. Walk to the torii gates.

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