All of my previous trips to Tokyo always included a visit to Asakusa Shrine 浅草神社. In fact I love the Asakusa 浅草 area and all the rich history and culture embroiled in the little streets. It’ll be really cool to stay in one of the many little ryokans found in Asakusa 浅草. Especially so since the oldest (and still active! ) geisha district is located there as well! So if you are heading to Tokyo do pay a little visit to Asakusa 浅草 .
On his particular trip with my girlfriends however, we decided to forgo Asakusa Shrine 浅草神社 to visit Meiji Shrine 明治神宮 instead. Asakusa Shrine 浅草神社 was having it’s annual Sanja Matsuri 三社祭 and while it would be fantastic to watch the processions and celebrations, it would also be very crowded and I don’t handle crowds very well.
Here is a video of my visit to Asakusa Shrine 浅草神社 during my last Tokyo trip in 2008 for your reference.
Meiji Shrine 明治神宮 is located in Harajuku 原宿, just behind the Harajuku JR station 原宿駅. Unlike Asakusa Shrine 浅草神社 which is very lively and filled with festival spirit with many stalls of food and gifts lining the exterior compound, Meiji Shrine 明治神宮 is rather serene, spiritual and zen-like. It was such a pleasurable walk through the forest as you hear the rustling of leaves whenever a slight breeze passes by.
Meiji Shrine 明治神宮 is a shrine of very significant value to the Japanese public. So much so that President Barrack Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Meiji Shrine 明治神宮 in February to show their respect to the Japanese culture and history.
The whole 175 acres of forest that surrounds Meiji Shrine 明治神宮 is made up of 120,000 evergreen trees of 365 different species donated by the Japanese public during its construction. The atmosphere is cool and definitely a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the Harajuku 原宿 area just on the outskirts.
A wall full of sake casks donated to the shrine! These kazaridaru (empty decoration barrels) seen near shrines have a lot of significance to the rituals and customs of Shinto 神道.
Sake is seen as the way for people and gods to connect. Sake in olden japanese texts is written as miki – God Wine. During Shinto rites and festivals, devotees will sip a prayerful cup of sake and be unified with God. Sake breweries will donate sake to the shrines in return for blessings and prosperity of the brewers. The custom is for the shrines to get sake from the local breweries in their district. But Meiji Shrine 明治神宮 is one of the 2 shrines in Japan that is in charge of the welfare of all the sake breweries in Japan (about 1800 companies) and would accept sake nationwide. Since shinto beliefs do not advocate wastage, the shrines will only ask and accept enough sake to cover their festival. Many sake companies that donate to Meiji Shine 明治神宮 will then donate empty casks of sake to be used as symbol of their contribution.
Since we are on the topic of sake and rituals, it might interest you to know that rice wine highly regulated in Japan and a license is require to brew… which is why you don’t have people setting up their own home sake brews. When a festival calls for celebration such as a wedding, new shop opening or New Year parties, a kagamibiraki ritual will be seen. The VIPs of the even will each carry a mallet and smash open the wooden lid of a brand new sake barrel! Sake will then be served to all their guests.
On the opposite side you’ll see kegs of wine. Which I believe were probably donated so that they could enjoy blessings as well.
The Meiji Jingu Garden is famous for their fields of more than 100 types of irises (Empress Shoken’s favorite flower) when they bloom sometime during June, you will see many artists from all over the world coming to the gardens to paint their impression of the beauty they see. We were in Tokyo a little early to catch those blooms.
Here I am at the gravel path entrance to the start of the Meiji Shrine 明治神宮 area. Behind me is the O-torii… the largest torii 鳥居 (traditional arched gateway) in the whole of Japan… standing at 12m tall! The whole structure is made of ancient cypress tree and wrapping my arms around the base of one of the pillars, I could only hug about 1/3 of the width!
Before proceeding to the main shrine building, at Temizusha 手水舎 water house (purification station), we had to rinse our hands and mouth with the water provided from the stone basin. This is a symbolic act of clearing your mind and soul of impurity before you enter the main temple grounds. You should not touch the dipper with your lips directly.
I’ll continue my journey at Meiji Shrine 明治神宮 in the next post.