13/07/2021

Tokyo’s Historical Site: Meiji Shrine

Escape the busy modern city and take a stroll at Japan's most visited shrine. Meiji Jingu Shrine offers a traditional scene that is over 100 years old. The sanctuary offers the aura, history and culture of an old era; come see how it’s preserved to this day.


Table of Contents

  1. The Art and History behind Meiji Shrine
  2. Experience Meiji Jingu
  3. Important Facts about Meiji Jingu Shrine
  4. To end with

The Art and History behind Meiji Shrine

Leave your worries behind for a while and take a visit to the shrine that will relax and inspire you. Together with the spellbinding beauty of the foliage surrounding the historical site, your visit to the shrine will make you shocked that you are still in Tokyo as all traces of city life and buildings seem to be completely hidden from view.

Meiji Jingu, or Meiji Shrine was established in 1920, but World War II desolated some parts of the shrine and was finally reconstructed in 1958. The shrine is widely known as being dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken who took the lead for Japan's modernization and Westernization after a long period of isolationism for the country.

※ Meiji Jingu, "Establishment of Meiji Jingu"

Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken

So who was Emperor Meiji? Emperor Meiji was Japan's 122nd emperor - for reference, his great-great-grandson and the current emperor of Japan, Naruhito, is the 126th - and he reigned during a time when Japan was going through great change. Japan came out of a long period of isolationism and was on the brink of modernizing when Emperor Meiji ascended the throne. The era name was changed to Meiji and the town of Edo was renamed Tokyo, thus ending the previous Edo Period. Emperor Meiji was vital in establishing friendships with other countries when Japan was in a novel situation and new to the world. Japan heavily westernized under his guidance - from government structure to clothing to weaponry to technology and so on. Hence, modern Japan was born.

His consort Empress Shoken was very active in societal issues. Not only was she part of founding the Red Cross Society in Japan, her donation fund to the International Committee of the Red Cross was named after her - The Empress Shoken fund - that is still used for world affairs, specifically international welfare activities to this day. She was also very active in humanitarian efforts within Japan as well, all a part of her compassionate legacy.

However, Meiji Shrine is not where Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken are buried. Rather, the ancient religion of Japan of Shinto holds the belief that “Kami” are divine spirits and often dedicate shrines to them as places of worship. The souls of Emperor Meiji and the Empress Shoken are the Kami enshrined at Meiji Jingu.

Experience Meiji Jingu

Below are the things you can see and do at Meiji Shrine today:

Sanctuary

On the way to the main sanctuary, you will pass under some large Torii gates, which signify entering a holy place. You will also pass some large sake and wine barrels which are both a symbol of honoring the traditional and modernization, as well as the relationship with France. Before entering a shrine - any Shinto shrine - there is a ritual purification which allows the visitors to cleanse themselves using water.

The main sanctuary is the most sacred building, and the Kami are enshrined within. You can climb the steps and pray to the Kami after making an offering. Please note that no photos are allowed once you climb the steps. While there are many tourists who are not necessarily religious, please note that there are just as many people here to actually pray and thus shouldn’t be disturbed.

Many rituals happen here at the sanctuary, for anyone from children to adults. During such rituals, you may see the procession of Shinto priests dressed in white. There are also times that traditional Shinto wedding processions are being held. Again, please do not get in the way of processions to take photos, but you can observe the procession from the side. 

※ Meiji Jingu, "Sanctuary"

Kigansai

One ritual you could take part in is Kigansai or a private Shinto ceremony. You can choose to pray about your health, protection against calamities, etc. and a Shinto priest will read out your prayers and sacred dances will be performed for the participants. You don’t have to be of the Shinto faith but must be dressed appropriately. It costs 5,000 yen to be able to experience Kigansai.

※ Meiji Jingu, "Kigansai (private rite)"

Write Ema

Another thing you can do is to write wishes on ema, a small wooden tablet. At any shrine, you will often see many ema hanging on a stand. At Meiji Jingu, there’s a special location in front of the sacred camphor tree. Due to the large number of tourists, you can see wishes written in many different languages from around the world. You can buy an ema for 500 yen, fill it out with your wish, and then hang it on the rack. The priests offer the ema to the kami before burning them in a special sacred fire ritual (though this part is usually not observed by the public). You can also buy omamori - protective charms - for a variety of specific situations, including academic luck, transportation safety, etc.

※ Meiji Jingu, "Precinct map"

Meiji Jingu Museum

Experience the very new Meiji Jingu Museum that can be found on the way to the main sanctuary when coming from the Harajuku Gate. It opened in 2019, and the classy design of the museum is thanks to well-known architect Kuma Kengo. What you can see inside the museum are the possessions of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. It’s also close to the restaurant that can be found on the grounds.

There is an admission fee at the museum - 1,000 yen for adults and 900 yen for high school students and younger.

※ Meiji Jingu, "Meiji Jingu Museum"

Inner Garden

The reason the shrine was built in this particular location is because it’s where the emperor and empress often visited to see the irises. And lucky for us, we can still see the irises too! A simple tip for you is to go in the month of June so you can see them in beautiful bloom. But there’s also many other things to enjoy in the gardens including colorful Japanese maple in late autumn and azalea in spring. You might also want to get power and good fortune from Kiyomasa’s well, a 400 year old “power spot” from which locals often hope to receive positive vibes for their life.

The garden costs a fee of 500 yen to enter, but it’s well worth the visit.

※ Meiji Jingu, "Garden"

Important Facts about Meiji Jingu Shrine

Meiji Shrine has a lot of unique traits and a fascinating history.

For example, in 2020, it just celebrated its 100 year anniversary since its formation. Although 100 years seems impressive - and it is - it’s still relatively new in Japanese history when some of the oldest shrines are thought to be at least 1000 years old.

Another interesting fact is that the trees surrounding the shrine were not naturally growing in this location - the entire forest is man-made although it really doesn’t seem like walking through it in the present day. But it does explain why there’s a forest in the middle of Tokyo.

And perhaps another super interesting fact is that many people - and by many, we mean MILLIONS - come to Meiji Jingu for Hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the year) making it one of the most popular and visited shrines in Japan. About 3 million people visit the shrine in just the first 3 days of January to pray for good luck in the new year. 

Fees and Access

Meiji Shrine is free to visit, except for the few locations that we mentioned like the Inner Garden and the museum or if you plan to write an ema, buy souvenirs or pay to attend a ritual. If you will pray at the main shrine, you should have a few coins on you to offer before praying. The amount does not matter.

To get to Meiji Shrine, the nearby train stations are the most convenient. Harajuku Station (Omotesando Exit) on the Yamanote Line as well as Tokyo Metro Fukutoshin and Chiyoda Line's Meiji-jingumae Station are very close to the Harajuku Gate from which most visitors enter. You can get to the gate in a two-minute walk.

To end with

Meiji Jingu is one of the most popular destinations that you must go to when traveling in Japan, especially in Tokyo. Have a leisurely walk to a treasure found in the center of the megalopolis capital of Japan. Be lost in the vast forest and shrine that commemorates the Meiji Emperor and Empress and appreciate the marriage of tradition and modernization.

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