Meiji Jingū, 明治神宮, or Meiji Shrine is Tokyo‘s largest and most famous Shinto shrine. The shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken to honor their incredible lives and the way they opened Japan to the rest of the world during the Meiji Restoration. If it weren’t for their actions, we may not be able to visit Japan as we do now, so I knew I wanted to visit their shrine and pay my respects as soon as I arrived in Japan.
Famous for its massive torii gates, large display of sake barrels, and as Japan’s most popular place to celebrate the first shrine visit of the New Year when the shrine receives up to 3 million visitors in the first 2-3 days of the year, called Hatsumode, Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Japan is a beautiful place to spend a few hours learning about Japanese culture and history.
Meiji Jingu Shrine
Location: Tokyo, Japan near Harajuku Station
Address: 1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho,
Shibuya City, Tokyo 151-8557,
Nearest Train Stop: Harajuku Station
Hours: Sunrise to Sunset,
special hours around New Years Day
Admission Fee: No fee
Dress Code: Respectful dress recommended
Meiji Shrine was one of our very first stops on our tour of Japan. To access it, we simply took the JR train from the station near our hotel and hopped off at Harajuku station, which is directly next to the shrine entrance. The temple is undergoing minor construction and improvements in order to prepare for its 100 year anniversary next year, and to accommodate the influx of visitors for the 2020 Olympic Games next year, but the improvements didn’t impact our visit at all.
The first thing most visitors to Meiji Shrine see is the giant wooden torii gates that everyone must pass under to enter the shrine. It is considered respectful to walk on the sides of the path, and avoid walking down the middle as the Emperor or Empress would be the ones to walk there. The next major thing visitors notice as they continue down the long winding path of the shrine is the massive sake barrel displays, or kazaridaru, made of straw sake barrels, called komodaru, lining the path. There is usually one barrel from each of Japan’s nearly 1,000 sake distilleries, meaning there’s a lot of sake barrels to admire. These distilleries typically donate one bottle or barrel of sake to each major shrine around Japan to show their dedication and apprecaition, and to support local festivals the shrines help put on throughout the year. The barrels on display however, are empty.
Sadly, the shrine was devastated during the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II, but was rebuilt in nearly the exact same manner shortly thereafter, as a testament to the strength, dignity, and the determination of the Japanese people to preserve their heritage and rebuild after the war.
Since I had no idea how to properly visit a Japanese shrine (I went here the very first day I was in Japan), I stood around near the entrance watching what other people did to learn the proper etiquette. There were a few signs posted in English, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, but they didn’t give very detailed examples, and it seemed like Japanese people were doing a lot more than what was written on the signs, so I wanted to follow their lead.
After about 15 minutes of me standing around watching other people, a shrine maiden, called miko in Japanese, came up and asked me if I spoke Japanese. I told her I did, but not very well, and she offered to show me around and teach me how to properly visit a sacred place like this since she could tell I was trying my best to be respectful, and it was one of my favorite experiences during my entire time in Japan.
I learned so much from her, and I’m so thankful she took time out of her day to help me out, because that’s not normally the job of shrine maidens. I’ll be writing a guide to properly visiting a Japanese shrine to share everything she taught me, but just know that it’s a very enjoyable process that’s well worth learning.
During my visit, I was able to observe (from a respectful distance) a wedding procession that was going on, and it was just stunning. Of course, I didn’t want to be disrespectful to the couple so I didn’t take any photos, but it is a very popular spot for people to be married, so if you visit, chances are you’ll catch a glimpse of a traditional Shinto wedding. Their wedding attire was very elaborate and unlike anything we have in the states, and while I could only understand parts of what they were saying, I could tell it was a beautiful ceremony. I wasn’t the only one watching, there were a handful of Japanese people and some foreign visitors, and no one seemed to mind, so I don’t think it was abnormal to do, as the weddings take place in the middle of public spaces at the shrine.
One of the most common things to do at Meiji Shrine, is to buy wooden wishing tablets, called ema or 絵馬, and write one’s wish or something one is very thankful for on it. People wished for everything from good grades, finding love, the ability to conceive a child, relief from broken hearts, praying for forgiveness for a suicide attempt, and everything in between. It’s very cathartic to let out your deepest wish, or something you’d like to have healed, and know that the shrine’s priests and priestesses will individually pray for each and every wish to come true and for the person to feel unburdened. Reading people’s wishes brought me to tears, and many other people cried quietly writing their wishes, or reading the wishes of others, and praying for them, as it’s very emotional to learn what others are struggling with so candidly, and as long as you’re not being disruptive, it’s completely okay to show emotion in this place. Below are some of the most beautiful wishes I found. I asked a shrine worker if it was okay to photograph these, and they said yes, since they’re anonymous.
The shape and stamp of each shrine’s ema are different and reflect the season, location, or history of the shrine. We visited around 30 different shrines during our six weeks in Japan, and nowhere else did I see such heartfelt and sincere wishes written. The atmosphere of Meiji Shrine was also very different to the other shrines we visited, and although it is difficult to describe, I just felt so at peace here, as though I was meant to visit this place, and I was in the right place at the right time, a feeling I’ve only ever felt on the day I met my husband, and the day we were married.
The temple is surrounded by more than 100,000 beautiful trees on 175 acres, consisting of more than 360 different species, all of which were donated by people from all across Japan to honor the Emperor and Empress. This serene landscape makes visitors feel as though they’ve been transported out of bustling Tokyo and into the middle of a beautiful, mysterious forest. While I was here, I couldn’t hear road noise, or any sounds of the city, which made my visit even more tranquil. It’s important to note that when visiting a shrine such as this one, it’s considered disrespectful to eat or drink anything inside the shrine grounds, so if you plan to visit for awhile, be sure to eat beforehand. The walk from Harajuku station to the heart of the temple takes approximately 15 minutes.
Meiji Shrine was one of my favorite places in all of Japan, and I hope that if you visit Tokyo, you’ll take the time to stop here and spend some time learning about Japan’s most famous and beloved emperor, and Japanese shrine culture. Such shrines serve as memorials for people beloved by Japan, and visiting them is a special privilege, so be sure not to be disruptive, take photos of things that are marked as “no pictures”, or to draw attention to yourself. Always remember that when we visit new places, we are their guests and should behave appropriately and not inconvenience those around us.
Until next time!
See More by Annie Fairfax
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