A Must-Visit in Japan: Meiji Jingu

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The second must-see spot in Japan on my list is Meiji Jingu. If you skip this shrine you're missing out on a beautiful day in Harajuku!

The second must-see spot in Japan on my list is Meiji Jingu. If you skip this shrine you’re missing out on a beautiful day in Harajuku!

Meiji Jingu holds the next spot on my series of must-visits in Japan. Just a half hour away from TUJ’s Shirokane Takanawa Station is the Shinto shrine, Meiji Jingu, in Shibuya, Tokyo (明治神宮: Meiji refers to Emperor Meiji’s period of rule, and Jingu is a word for shrine). The shrine and grounds, which opened in 1920, are dedicated to the Emperor and his Empress, and the forest surrounding the gorgeous shrine contains 100,000 tress donated by Japanese all over the country — a fact that really surprised me. It’s amazing to enter the lush forest in the middle of its concrete surroundings, a place that literally grew from the kindness of people who wanted to pay their respects by creating a magical, natural environment that could be taken care of for decades. The Shinto religion holds traditional beliefs in the precious connection between humans and nature, and this shrine is a perfect example of the balance that humans have made efforts to uphold. Meiji Jingu consists of several buildings — sanctuaries, halls, a kitchen and others — and is a place where many people come to embark on an invigorating run through the grounds, wander with their friends or partners to admire the forest, or visit the shrine buildings to pay respects and wish for a happy future.

Walking toward the main buildings on a beautiful, brisk day in Shibuya.

Walking toward the main buildings on a beautiful, brisk day in Shibuya.

This is a Torii, or shrine archway, under which you bow when you pass through to pay respect.

This is a torii, or shrine archway, under which you bow when you pass through to pay respect.

When I went to the shrine with some friends, I was clueless as to how to act when entering or leaving: when and where to bow, how to maneuver rinsing my hands at the temizuya, and what to do once we walked up the steps to the main buildings. There are a few signs in English and Japanese within the shrine that brief you on what to do, but the shrine’s website also gives you tips ahead of time. You can make a small bow underneath the torii — the various archways around the shrine grounds, like in the photo above — and once you reach the temizuya, which is a little area to conduct a purifying ritual before you walk into the main shrine, there is a specific way to rinse your hands and mouth. Then you can make an offering at the shrine after bowing twice, clapping your hands twice, and bowing again. After entering the main area you can explore a little, visit the small gift shops and look at the ema — notes that you and others can write up to make wishes for the future, which then get sent to the gods.

Path and Ema

Besides the shrine buildings themselves, you can also see along some of the paths throughout the area gifts that were given to the shrine — namely wine and sake. From the descriptions next to the enormous containers, visitors learn of the great respect that the Japanese have had for their former Emperor, and of the steps Emperor Meiji made in introducing and easing the blend between traditional Japanese culture and Western culture in Japan.

What looks like nearly 200 barrels of sake are stacked here along one of the paths on the shrine grounds. These barrels were donated by Japanese sake brewers.

What looks like nearly 200 barrels of sake are stacked here, wrapped in straw, along one of the paths on the shrine grounds. These barrels were donated by Japanese sake brewers.

Barrels of wine from the wineries of Bourgogne in France.

Barrels of wine from the wineries of Bourgogne in France.

Visiting Meiji Jingu is well worth a few hours of your free time on the weekend; it is a beautiful shrine with much to see and discover about the history of Japan and Shinto beliefs. It’s also a great place to get lost in nature for awhile — Tokyo is a crowded bustling area but the shrine offers a small escape from the cold, gray, concrete buildings of the city. If you decide to drag your friends along with you to check out Harajuku’s consumerist explosion on Takeshita Dori, take a break from fashion to embrace the green warmth of the Meiji shrine and say a prayer for your emptying pockets — you’ll want to save your money for visiting the many more culturally rich spots that await you in Japan: the traditional, the modern, the old and the new!

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