Tokyo: Meiji Shrine

Travelling in Tokyo, it’s easy to feel sympathy for the Grinch: all the NOISE NOISE NOISE NOISE will drive you mad! Ads blaring on every corner, pachinko parlors ringing every other block, political activists driving around town shouting over bullhorn, motorcycle engines revving all hours of the night. In the depths of Shinjuku or Shibuya, it’s easy to think that you’ll never have a quiet moment again, but as loud as Tokyo can be—like a toddler on amphetamines—there are also pockets of quiet sprinkled about the city. One of the biggest and most lovely is Meiji Shrine, an important cultural and religious site set on 175 acres of hushed forest in the heart of the city.

As we crossed Jingu Bridge to Meiji Shrine, Harajuku created a thick curtain of noise behind us: traffic thrumming, tourists chattering, fashionistas tittering; ahead, a huge brown torii rose above the trees, marking the boundary between the sacred and the profane. The noise of the city dimished with each step, lowering to a buzz after a few hundred feet then dropping away to reveal the tapestry of bird calls and raven cries. The scuffing of feet across the gravel became cacophonous, the quiet chatter of visitors easily discernable. We took the customary photos of the sake barrels a few hundred meters past the entrance, then continued on the path, so wide two trucks could have passed one another without a thought of pulling to the side.

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke, used under CC BY-NC-SA, cropped and color-corrected

Untitled” by Jason Gerecke, used under CC BY-NC-SA, cropped and color-corrected

The shrine is deep within a manmade forest, the path winding through acres of trees. The air was thick with leafy humidity, the deep shadow beneath the canopy chilly. The scent was lush and earthy and mossy, greener than the scrubbed, grassy scent of Yoyogi Park and wholly different from the shit-smelling corridors of Kabukicho. I’ve heard that some of these trees were already hundreds of years old when they were transplanted to create the Meiji Shrine forest. Although I don’t know whether that’s true, some of the trees do look to carry hundreds of years of girth, smelling hundreds of years like the western Oregon forests.

We followed the path until even my sense of direction wafted away. Moments after this last reminder of the city evaporated, the shrine appeared, all dark weathered Cyprus and green copper eaves. The pebbled path changed to perfectly uniform paving stones as we approached the giant gate with its heavy door swung open.

We purified ourselves in the freezing water of the temizuya water pavilion and proceeded into the shrine proper. I found myself making a beeline for the altar, a 5 yen piece burning a hole in my pocket, but I found myself blocked by a wedding procession. Despite spending a year in Tokyo in 2003, I’d never seen a Shinto wedding procession before, their traditional and religious importance eclipsed by the glamour of Christian-style weddings. The priest led the way with the bride and groom a respectful distance behind him, the iconic red parasol shading them. The bride was lovely in white shiromuku gown and hood, the groom strapping in his hakama trousers and haori overcoat. Behind them, family and friends form an immense line of easily a hundred.

The a traditional wedding being a relatively rare sight, everyone, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, threw out all pretense of civility and snapped pictures of the couple and the wedding party. I slipped by and let Jason take the photos; even with Japanese tourists taking pictures, I didn’t feel right taking part. I wandered closer to the shrine’s main building, rubbing the 5 yen piece in my pocket, and spied another wedding party deeper inside the shrine grounds before I was got up the steps to the altar to offer my respects to Emperor Meiji.

I bowed, tossed my coin into the offering box, clapped, and bowed my head. To say that I prayed isn’t quite right, but I did offer a few moments of respectful silence before the dead emperor. I helped Jeremy offer his 100 yen (no good vibes for the emperor, but I’m sure the priests wouldn’t complain) by walking him through the process of bowing, clapping, and praying. He took his final bow, and we walked down from the altar just in time to see another wedding process through. (Clearly this was an auspicious day for weddings!)

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke, used under CC BY-NC-SA

Untitled” by Jason Gerecke, used under CC BY-NC-SA

We walked down toward the stalls selling charms and fortunes. I was running up against the end of my Tokyo money, so opted to buy an “omigokoro” poem rather than an omikuji fortune. Omigokoro are poems written by Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken in the waka style of poetry. Although the haiku (the first part of a waka poem) is better known in the West, the waka is more traditional and has a more serious connotation.

あらし吹く世にも動くな人ごころ
いはほに根ざす松のごとくに

The hearts of those who move through this world of howling storms
Are like a tall pine  with roots deep in the earth

As we headed out the back gate, we got turned around and almost bumbled into a private area (more weddings, perhaps?). The din inside the shrine is nothing like that of the city, but compared with the forest, the shrine had begun to seem loud. We slipped out, the sounds of the shrine dropping away and the strong earthy scent rising as we were enfolded in the arms of the trees. Only the sound of our own feet and quiet conversation could be heard.

After about 15 minutes, we could just see the lights of the city peeking through the leaves, and the hum of traffic began to tickle to our ears. Soon we were back in Harajuku, teenagers laughing and cars zooming and ads blaring. The pachinko parlors rang, and somewhere down the street a nationalistic jackass shouted through a bullhorn about the dangers of foreigners to a crowd that ignored him. We merged with the city and its life, raising our voices to be heard over the clamor, darkness quickly gathering.

Address: 1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya, Tokyo 151-8557, Japan

Get There: Arrive in Harajuku Station (Yamanote line) and leave by either exit. Turn right and continue down the sidewalk until you reach the southern end of the station. Take a right across the small bridge into the forest, through the torii. Follow the path until you arrive at the shrine.

Price: Free, although there are a paid-admission gallery, garden, and “treasure museum” for 500 yen (~$5 USD) each.

Tips:

  • Although I plan to write a full post about shrine etiquette, the big three are: keep your voice down, follow the lead of the Japanese at the temizuya water pavilion, and no photos while there’s a roof over your head. (UPDATE: Post written! Check it out!)
  • Bring a 5 or 50 yen piece (the ones with the holes in the middle) to throw in the coffer. Although any denomination is acceptable, these are considered the luckiest.
  • When you arrive at the altar, throw your coin in the collection box, bow twice, clap your hands twice, press your hands in front of you, maintain a moment of silence (making a wish or prayer if you choose), then bow again before stepping down.

Based on my diary entries from November 9, 2013.

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