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.
Meiji Jingu Shrine is one of Japan’s most spiritual destinations, with its dense forest providing an atmosphere that feels out-of-this-world. Located in the middle of Shinjuku and Shibuya, this shrine was named after Emperor Meiji and his Empress Consort, Shoken – two figures who were instrumental in modernizing Japan at the turn of the century.
Leave the hustle and bustle of Tokyo behind as you step into a world filled with rich history, spirituality, and beautiful scenery. In this article, I’ll tell you all about what to see, do, and enjoy when visiting Tokyo’s most beloved shrine.
The History Of Meiji Jingu Shrine
As we step through those large torii gates, let’s go back in time to quickly learn the history and significance of this great shrine.
The man who is honored at this shrine was Emperor Meiji, born in 1852 and ascended to the throne in 1867. He was the last ruler of feudal Japan. Before his reign, Japan was an isolated country whose domains were ruled not by the emperor, but by shoguns and daimyos. However, due to social upheaval that caused economic and political turmoil throughout feudal Japan; Emperor Meiji was given the opportunity to seize and rule over the entire country.
The Emperor’s reign is referred to as the Meiji Era, or ‘Enlightened Rule‘. It is considered the start of Japan’s shift toward modernization. Familiar with the movie The Last Samurai? Well if you didn’t know, the Emperor in that movie was in fact Meiji, and the historic events and battles that played out with Tom Cruise were known as the Boshin War. The Shogunate was defeated and the samurai class expelled and dissolved, giving Meiji and the imperial family complete power over Japan.
Immediately after the war, Emperor Meiji put an end to Japan’s isolationist policies, opening up its ports to other countries, which gave Japan an international platform. The foundation of the current Japanese government was laid out, mirroring that of similar modern monarchies like the United Kingdom at the time. The capital of Japan was also renamed from Edo to Tokyo.
Emperor Meiji passed away in 1912, and Meiji Jingu Shrine wasn’t completed until 1920. The term ‘jingu’ was a special term that the Emperor had allowed for special shrines that enshrined ancestral gods or emperors, thus the Japanese considered it a fitting name for a Shrine dedicated to the emperor.
During World War II, much like the entirety of Tokyo, Meiji Jingu Shrine was destroyed during the fire bombings. All of the original structures were burned down but were rebuilt in 1958. Today, the shrine is a popular tourist spot, being next to Harajuku, Shinjuku, and Yoyogi Park. Many weddings are hosted here, including the wedding of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.
Upon Entering Meiji Jingu Shrine
Torii gates are typically seen at Shinto shrines as a sign of the transition from our world to the sacred. When you enter through their entrances, bow once in respect for the spirit that lives there. The first thing we will see when approaching Meiji Jingu is its 40-foot tall torii gates, so be sure to bow respectfully before making your way inside!
A little cool fact here is if you have a Japanese map, shrines are depicted with small torii icons to mark their locations.
Assuming you entered from Harajuku, you’ll be walking down a wide cedar-lined path. There are a few stone bridges, which make for great pictures if the sun isn’t behind the trees. After about 5 minutes of walking, you’ll see the infamous Sake barrels.
Meiji Jingu Sake Barrels
Meiji Shrine’s sake barrels are enormous, and they’re a colorful sight to behold. They stand at around six meters tall and have a diameter of about three meters. As a traditional drink, sake is served almost everywhere in Japan. The association between the shrine and sake lies in the belief that drinking sake makes you closer to the gods.
The original barrels were made in 1919 and were presented as a gift when the shrine was completed the following year. To keep this tradition alive, sake brewers come together every year to offer their craft to the gods. The sake is used for sacred ceremonies and festivals, and the empty barrels placed outside resulting in this beautiful display of over 100 sake barrels.
Like at most Shinto shrines, there is a water fountain outside the gate of the shrine. This is known as a temizuya. Temizuya is the name given to a small water fountain where Japanese people traditionally washed their hands and mouth. This practice was used before meals, after visiting the restroom, or before entering shrines. The custom of Temizuya originated from Shintoism’s emphasis on cleanliness and purification through ritual washing in order to enter sacred spaces such as shrines or temples.
The word “Temizu” means “to cleanse one’s hands and mouth.” It has been practiced in Japan for over 1,000 years to ward off evil spirits and disease.
If you are wanting to perform and experience this sacred piece of Japanese culture, follow these steps:
- Rinse the left hand using the ladle;
- Cup some water from the ladle with the left hand and use this to drink;
- Rinse the left hand again; and,
- Rinse the dipper.
The following etiquette is pretty simple. You can use this bit of advice at any shrine in Japan. Just remember; don’t let your lips touch the dipper. The Temizuya is not a wishing well either; don’t try to throw coins in it.
The Outer Haiden
Beyond the temizuya and the gate is the Outer Haiden. This where visitors can offer their 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.