Travels: Going to the Meiji Shinto Shrine
By Skywing Knights // February 13, 2022
I hope this week has been treating you well. Today I wanted to share with you a bit about one of my favorite places in Japan. And also some parts of an experience I had there about… oh wow, eight years ago! Why? Just because it’s such a good memory! AND because if you get the chance to go to Tokyo, you have to stop by this gem!
One of my favorite places to go in Japan is the Meiji Shinto Shrine or “Meiji Jingu” (明治神宮) in Harajuku (原宿). It’s a very famous site in downtown Tokyo. And while Harajuku deserves multiple posts all by itself, today, I want to focus on the Meiji Shrine. The Shrine is the largest Shinto Shrine in Tokyo and was formally dedicated in 1920. Unfortunately, the original building was lost to air raids during World War II. But the Japanese have since reconstructed the Shrine. Since its construction, it has become one of the primary attractions of Tokyo. This is due to its size and the significance of the era of change brought about during Emperor Meiji’s reign.
The History Behind the Meiji Shinto Shrine
The Shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji (明治天皇) and his wife, the Empress Shoken (昭憲皇太后). Both of them were laid to rest near Kyoto, but lived during the end of the Edo Period (江戸時代), the period of isolation, and the beginning of the Meiji Era (明治時代) (named after Emperor Meiji). During Emperor Meiji’s life, Japan was confronted by the west with the arrival of Commodore Perry from the United States. The Commodore not so subtly told Japan to end its period of isolation. The goal was to get Japan to allow for trade with western countries to resume. At the time, Japan’s primary government was overseen by the Shoganate, or Bakufu (幕府). And… they were not the most popular with the people of Japan. As such, there was a desire to overthrow the Shoganate in favor of a new ruling power.
To accomplish this, members of the Satsuma-Chōshū Alliance (薩摩長州同盟) rallied around the Emperor Kōmei (孝明天皇), Emperor Meiji’s father. They claimed the Emperor should once again lead Japan, which eventually lead to the Boshin War (戊辰戦争). Slightly after the beginning of the war, Emperor Kōmei would pass away. With his passing, his son, the Emperor Meiji, succeeded him. The result of the war was the Meiji Restoration (明治維新) which marked the end of the Tokugawa Shoganate’s (徳川幕府) reign. And with the coming of the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s doors were once again opened to outsiders for trade.
Significant, but Calm
Needless to say, the era in which Emperor Meiji lived had a very significant impact on Japan. And though he did not have very much to do with the actual overthrow of the Shoganate, he became a symbol of the era of change and has been held in respect since. As such, the building was built for the purpose of enshrining the souls of Emperor Meiji and his wife and is still in use today. At the Meiji Shinto Shrine, many ceremonies and events occur such as weddings, baby blessings, funerals, Hatsumode (初詣) or First Year’s Prayers and Shrine Visits, and the Dezuiri (手数入り), which is when the event in which the Grand Sumo Champion enters the ceremony ring of the shrine.
And yet, despite all of this, the Meiji Shinto Shrine remains a calm in a sea of hustle and bustle. Needless to say, it’s worth checking out.
Recalling all of the times I’ve been to the shrine, one memory that I’m quite fond of was when I was able to spend a day there with two lovely Sister Missionaries from my church on their free day in the early spring of 2014.
Going With the Sisters
While living in Japan, I often went to church at a Japanese-speaking ward or congregation. The Sister Missionaries however, were both from the States, so we spoke together often in English. Missionaries get one free day a week to get done whatever they need to do. They may also take in sites if they are accompanied by a member of our church if they wish to do so. Because of this and because we were super close to Tokyo, the two Sisters asked if I could join them on their day off to visit the Meiji Shinto Shrine in Harajuku.
I ended up taking the train down to Harajuku Station (原宿駅) and met the Sisters outside of the entrance to the Meiji Shrine. After taking some pictures at the impressively tall torii gates (鳥居), we began our walk down the path to the main building of the shrine. One of the cool things to see was the Imperial Family’s crest on the torii gates, which is unique in that they are only seen at Imperial Shrines. Interestingly, the Imperial Family is believed to be descendants of Amatarasu (天照大御神), the sun goddess. This has made the family irrevocably intertwined with the Shinto religion.
Barrels of Sake and Purification
On the walk, we passed by loads of Sake (酒), or rice wine, barrels on the side of the road. So… why were there dozens upon dozens of Sake barrels there? At the beginning of the year, sake companies each donate a barrel of sake to notable shrines. This is done in the hopes of receiving good luck, prosperity, and fortune in the coming year. In many ways, it’s a cultural expectation too. So if you were to look closely, you could see even brands like Kirin and Asahi had given barrels. Quite a site!
Funny enough, when I went with the sisters, I took a picture for the two of them in front of the barrels and they were then stopped by a foreign tourist passing by, who asked if they should be taking pictures in front of alcohol. (Members of our church don’t drink!) Surprised that the man recognized who they were, it led to an interesting conversation about what the Sisters were doing at the Shrine. It turned out that the gentleman knew who they were and was pulling their leg. Overall, it was a delightfully fun experience and conversation.
Proceeding to the main area of the Shrine, we took part in the custom of stopping at the purification Temizuya (手水舎), sometimes called a Chōzuya, before entering. To do this, you wash your left hand and then your right. Then drink water you pour into your right hand (and if you want, you can spit it out, that’s ok if you don’t feel comfortable drinking it). Finally, you wash your right hand again so as to enter into the Shrine being ‘clean’.
Right before entering the Shrine as well, there is a wonderful torii gate that’s a great spot to take pictures in front of. So of course, we had to take one together too! After the gate, there’s a small shop where you can by Omamori (お守り), or charms/amulets. I’ve always loved these. They’re small, light, beautifully made, and a little smaller than a bank or credit card normally. Additionally, each one offers a different type of protection or good luck. Some options include protection against evil, luck in romance, and even good luck in passing an exam or traffic safety. There’s a whole bunch! (I should go back and get one for luck in romance!! ^^; )
Typically, they range in price anywhere from 300 yen to 1000 yen (or $3-$10 USD). They make for wonderful omiyage (お土産), or souvenirs, to take home with you. Many Japanese people will use them to decorate their homes, their key chains, wallets, purses, etc. The reason for this is that you are only supposed to receive that protection they offer as long as they’re with you. (Though to be fair, they do ‘expire’, so you’re always supposed to go back for new ones. And hey, I’m not complaining!) 😉
The Courtyard of the Main Shrine
Past the little shop and within the center of the Shrine, the layout is almost bare. The exception is the Ema (絵馬), a place where wishes could be written on wooden blocks, Omikuji (御神籤) which are fortune telling slips, and two camphor trees supporting a large Shimenawa (標縄) meant to represent the Emperor Meiji and his wife. These particular trees are popular places for couples to meet. But it’s also a popular spot for those who are single to pray for a good match. Families may also pray for a safe and happy home.
While some may not understand why there is a lack of elaborateness, the minimalist nature and atmosphere I find allows for a state of serenity to fill the space and this has been true even since the first time I visited the Shrine. (And that was in the middle of the winter for the first time all the way back in 2013.) As such, you can observe this as you walk up to the main structure, which contains the offering hall.
Pictures are allowed in the main area of the central part of the shrine, photos are not allowed at the offering hall. It is here that many sacred ceremonies are performed. Additionally, people can go up and pray after tossing coins into an offering box. Often, I would see people throw in a few coins, bow, clap twice, and then pray quietly in their mind.
Praying as a Foreigner/Gaikokujin (外国人)
And even if you don’t practice Shintoism, it’s okay to do this and you’re welcome to do so. I’m not a Shintoist, but I will pray to my Heavenly Father as they do when I go. I do so to show respect to those gracious enough to allow me to visit one of their sacred places. As I do, I express my gratitude in my prayers for the beautiful world and culture I am blessed to experience while in Japan. I find it to be a wonderful experience and a way to draw closer to others.
When I went with the Sisters, going to the main area of the Shrine was the culmination of our visit and afterwards we departed with smiles. It was a relatively short visit and there is much more that can be done including walking more of the grounds and visiting a small museum detailing the legacy of the Empress. But even this short visit meant a lot to me as I was able to appreciate a peaceful shrine and the surrounding park in the heart of Japan’s capital with the Sisters.
Appreciating the Shrine
I’ve long since said that, to me, the Meiji Shinto Shrine reminds me a lot of New York City’s central park with a solemnity to it and a Japanese aesthetic. It’s quiet and away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city. While inside, you can easily forget you’re in the middle of an urban environment. But that said, it always makes me feel that much more connected to Japan than I had been before. I attribute this to being able to stop and pause and take in the beauty of the Shrine and its surroundings cared for by the Japanese people. And that’s especially possible when I’m able to go in quiet, thoughtful manners like I was able to do with the Sisters where I could take in all the peaceful tranquility the space has to offer.
For that reason, going with the Sisters (as well as my first visit there in the January snow!) remains a great memory to me.
Add It To Your List!
So if you’re heading to Tokyo, make sure to put this near the top of your list of ‘must visits’! It’s a wonderfully enjoyable place to go as it’s one of the best places to gain exposure to Japanese Heritage and Culture as well as gain a higher respect and understanding of the Japanese and their religion of Shintoism. Because of that, I can’t recommend it enough. And considering you’ll likely be inundated with a lot of noise, loud sites, and sensations in Tokyo, the Meiji Shinto Shrine is a good place to slow down, disconnect, and recharge while enjoying some of the peace and serenity to be found in Japan.
So add it to your list. 😉
You can find more information about the Meiji Shinto Shrine at the Shrine’s website here.
Till next time,