There are hundreds of Shrines to see in Tokyo, and deciding which ones to see can be tough. I often feel like I'm missing out if I don't make it to every big item on the "must-see" list. The Meiji Shrine was one of those locations you see on every list, and I thought I'd be remiss not to see it.
It was an easy journey to get the shrine. Just a hop, skip and a jump from the Harajuku train station. It was lightly raining when I got off the metro, so I was glad to have my little travel umbrella with me but under the canopy of trees, you barely needed it.
Yoyogi Park Pathway
I had gotten up super early in the morning, so my walk to the temple was met with absolute silence as there was no one else on the pathway but myself. It was the most peaceful walk through a beautiful forest; it felt like I was miles away from the city despite being inside the heart of it. Over 100,000 trees, made up of 365 different species from various regions throughout Japan, surround the shrine. Coffee in hand, it was a most relaxing stroll to start off the morning.
The Meiji Shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and the Empress Shoken. Compared to other shrines throughout the city, this one is rather new, being built in 1920, after the death of the emperor and empress. Although it was destroyed during the air raids of WWII, it was quickly rebuilt in the same style as the original after donation efforts from the region.
Meiji is one of Japan's most visited shrines and welcomes more than three million visitors during their New Years celebrations alone. Throughout the year, the shrine is one of the most popular places for wedding ceremonies, and I was even lucky enough to see two couples and their families on their way inside. The ceremonies are private and not open to the public, but if you're quick, you can usually see them as they arrive.
After a short walk through the forest, you arrive at the large torii gates inviting you into the shrine complex. The torii gate is over 40 feet tall and made from a 1,500-year-old cypress tree. There is something so magnificent yet simple about this design and gives the entire place a sense of magnitude.
Before entering the temple, and the sacred grounds, you take a moment to cleanse yourself at the water station. Here you can purify your hands and mouth from the gilded dragon fountain.
The main area is a made up of various sacred buildings, each one serving a particular purpose. The "Naien" is the name for the inner part of the complex. There is also the "Gaien" which is the outer area compromised of the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery, the National sports stadium and the Meiji Memorial Hall
Inside the Naien, visitors can make offerings at the main hall, buy good luck charms blessed by the priests or write out a wish on a wooden ema to hang on the wall with all the others.
During the spring and summer, the temple gardens are a sought after destination and require a separate entrance fee. Since it was the fall and there wasn't much to see I skipped out on this option but during the summer the inner garden is home to a beautiful set of blooming iris flowers which draw people from all over Japan.
At the north end of the compound is the Treasure House which displays the personal belongings of the Emperor and Empress, including the royal carriage which the Emperor rode in to attend the first day of the shrine's construction. There is also a small museum on site which regularly houses temporary exhibitions.
Overall, this shrine is not as impressive or flashy as some of the more colourful and ostentatious temples we saw during our travels in Japan. But there was something about it's restrained and unpretentious design that made it feel a part of the natural surroundings. Like something that grew out of the forest, not built within it.
At first, I remember feeling let down and not as impressed with it as with other temples, but the more time I spent in it's quiet, reflective environs, the more and more I grew to appreciate its austerity.
As I left the shrine, to walk back towards the main street, I took a moment to observe the artistically painted stack a sake barrels that adorned the pathway near the shrine. Although they look like real sake barrels, they are not full of wine. They are "kazaridaru" which means "decoration barrel". Despite being physically empty, they are full of cultural significance. The characters used to write the word "sake" are the same as the characters used to write "God". Therefore, to drink sake was to feel closer to the gods.
The sake manufacturers and the Meiji shrine maintain a symbiotic relationship where the priests pray for the good fortunes of the companies and in turn, the manufacturers donate sake to the shrine to use during their ceremonies and festivals. Looking at each barrel and guessing at the significance of their drawings is a fun game to play as you're passing by.
Opposite the sake are barrels of wine that serve the same purpose. But don't look as cute.
All in all, the Meiji shrine is a worthwhile jaunt from Harajuku or Yoyogi park if you're in the area, and is the perfect place to visit for a moment of quiet reflection. Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds!