Tokyo's most revered Shinto Shrine04 January, 2011 by Chad
The Meiji Jingu (Shrine) is Tokyo’s largest and most significant Shinto shrine. It is here that many significant ceremonies and festivities are held year round. Meiji Jingu is also a rarely passed up tourist spot for first time travelers to the city, whom in their hurry often forget to stop to reflect upon its original purpose.
The original Meiji Jingu was built in dedication to the late Meiji Emperor and his wife Empress Shoken. One of Japan’s most celebrated leaders, the Meiji Emperor is famous for the Meiji Restoration, in which he dissolved the Tokugawa Shogunate to reclaim sovereignty of Japan. It was also the Meiji Emperor that moved Japan’s capital from Kyoto to Edo. Making him one of the most significant figures in Tokyo’s history.
Though the emperor and his wife’s tombs lie in their hometown of Kyoto, the shrine rests upon a garden that the couple often visited. The original Meiji Jingu was built over the course of many years and was completed in 1921. More than 100,000 trees were donated from people around Japan during its construction, which has grown to become the lush 700,000 square meter forest that you see surrounding the shrine today.
Unfortunately, the original Meiji Jingu was destroyed during World War 2 and the current shrine is a more modern reconstruction from 1958. However, it still serves as a reminder of Japan’s rich history and culture.
Visiting the Meiji Jingu
The Meiji Shrine forest is located in the heart of Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. The nearest stops to the main shrine are the JR Yoyogi Station and Tokyo Metro’s Kitasando Station. But most will use the main entrance that is conveniently located just beside the JR Harajuku Station.
Turning right at the exit of Harajuku Station should bring you to Jingu Bridge, which was famous for being a popular hangout spot among Japanese youths. The area gets its reputation as a youth paradise, from when Harajuku’s streets were closed off during weekends to make room for life musicians and bands. While a few of these Hokoten (Pedestrian Heavens) still exist, the Harajuku Hokoten was closed in 1995, taking with it any interesting things to see here.
These days, you’ll just find a scattered bunch of Visual Kei kids seeking attention from the tourists looking to find a glimpse of the rumored Harajuku youth culture. In more recent years, the bridge has also been taken over by lots of “Free Hugs” gaijin.
At the Meiji Jingu
At the entrance, there are multiple branching routes leading up the main shrine. Take the widest, most obvious path. There’s also a wooden tori gate here, you can’t miss it. If you see lots of other visitors, you’re on the right track.
From there it’s a long uphill walk up to the main shrine. Traditionally, you’re supposed to bow at each tori gate you pass by, both when entering the and leaving. Thankfully, there aren’t too many of them here.
About halfway up there’s a clearing on the right which leads to the Bunkakan (Culture Hall). The car park is here, along with a souvenir shop, cafe, wash rooms and the only place to find trash bins in the entire grounds. The second floor of the Bunkakan houses an annex of the Homotsuden Treasure Museum. More about that later.
Just past the Bunkakan are two displays are set up on either side of the main path. On one side, barrels of wine donated from France in honor of the emperor and on the other, gifts of sake from breweries around Japan.
The third tori gate marks the entrance of the main shrine area located in the center of the forest. Here you’ll find the Temizuya, which is a small hut to perform a cleansing ritual before entering the shrine. There are instructions are written in Japanese and English.
Opposite of the Temizuya is the Nagadono Juyosho or Amulet Office. Almost every established Shinto shrine in Japan (and Buddist temples from which the tradition was derived from) has one of these. You can purchase amulets (Omamori) issued by the shrine here. Different shrines have amulets for different purposes. More commercialized shrines like the Meiji Jingu have pretty fancy amulets, while smaller shrines often have simpler ones available.
You can get smaller charms for a token sum, or more impressive ones for more. Do the more expensive charms work better? Who knows. But proceeds go toward a good cause. The charms also make great meaningful gifts, provided the recipient appreciates this sort of thing. There are also Ofuda, which are large wooden boards with the shrine’s emblem for display at a alter at home. The smaller charms actually contain tiny Ofuda’s too.
The main courtyard is where many Shinto festivals take place. It’s also a popular place to hold a traditional Japanese wedding. In fact, the temple has a wedding planning division of its own. If you’re interesting in a Shinto styled wedding, the main office is located back downhill at the Bunkakan. Prices range from 380,000 yen (SGD$6000) for a simple ceremony, up to 1,480,000 yen (SGD$24,000) for a full wedding and banquet package with 40 guests. More information here.
The wooden boards called Ema are hung around a camphor tree here. You can purchase them from a counter adjacent to the tree. The boards themselves are not special, but are instead a representation of the patron’s donation to the shrine.Visitors write the wishes they hope for in exchange for their donation, or words of thanks (when repaying a spiritual debt) on the back of the tablet. Shinto shrines have adopted Ema in favor of receiving other gifts as a streamlined approach toward donations. Classic Japanese efficiency.
Then there’s Kiganbun (literally Prayer Text), which are letters written directly to the spirits. There are multiple spots around the shrine where letter paper, envelopes and writing material are provided for people to write their own Kiganbun. You’re supposed to seal a donation together with your letter in the envelope and drop it in one of the boxes provided. Unlike the Ema which are purchased at fixed prices, there is no suggested amount to include with your letter. While this may seem like a good opportunity to get rid of dreaded 1 yen coins, at least donate enough to cover the cost of the paper and envelope.
Contrary to popular belief, that’s not a magical or “wishing” tree. The Ema are hung around the tree because the Japanese consider all natural things to contain a Kami (spirit). In this respect, the tree itself is receiving the prayers.
The main shrine buildings are located at the end of the courtyard. As a general rule of thumb photography is not allowed any where there is a roof over your head at Meiji Jingu. This rule is not enforced directly but more signage has been put up over the years seeking the visitor’s cooperation.
As commercialized as the Meiji Jingu may be, it is still a place of worship. And even if you do not care much for the shrine itself, at least respect the people who come here for serious purposes. On a similar note, eating and smoking is not allowed anywhere in the entire grounds except at the designated area. Pets are forbidden too, as is jogging along any of the paths. Due to the scenic surroundings, it is easy to forget that one is on consecrated ground.
Finally, at the far end of the Meiji Jingu Park lies the Shiseikan Budojo (Martial Arts Hall) and more importantly the Homotsuden Treasure Museum.Personal items belonging to the Emperor and his wife are displayed here. Entry is an affordable 500 yen but do take note that the museum is only open on weekends and public holidays.Planning your holiday? We recommend visiting Agoda for a full list of hotels with early bird specials.