One of Japan’s most famous Shinto shrines, Meiji Jingū was built after the deaths of Emperor Meiji and his wife, the Empress Shoken, and they were enshrined here on the 1st November 1920.
The shrine was a colossal effort on the part of the Japanese people, to commemorate an Emperor who brought Japan into the 20th Century, re-opened the country to the outside world, transformed the society from feudal to capitalist, and abolished the samurai class. 100,000 trees were donated from all over the country, and volunteers worked to plant them and create the 700,000m2 forest which surrounds the shrine buildings. These days the trees number closer to 170,000.
During World War II most of the shrine’s buildings were destroyed in air raids, but were rebuilt in 1958 in the same style, using the same materials (mostly cypress and copper) as before.
Meiji Jingū is constantly in use. Ceremonies, ceremonial dances, martial arts training, weddings and festivals all take place here, and visitors attend in their thousands to pray, fill out ema (prayer boards), or simply take a walk. If you’re up at the crack of dawn and can be there when it opens at sunrise, you’ll get to witness the shrine in quiet, peaceful morning rituals and ceremonies, before it’s flooded with tourists.
On arrival at the main entrance (there are other ways in, but I honestly recommend the main entrance), you pass under the giant Torii made from cypress trees which were believed to be 1,700 years old when they were imported from Taiwan to make these gates. If you arrive during peak times there is usually a traffic officer out on the street at Jingū Bridge to ensure you cross the road safely.
Pause to bow at the Torii. It’s a sign of respect, not one of religious observance. Once through, follow the long, wide path through the forest and enjoy the stroll. It’s a gentle walk which will take you past the entrance to the Treasure Museum Annex, restaurants, and bathroom facilities on your right (the heated toilet seats on cold, cold days are much appreciated!), and the Imperial Gardens on your left.
The Treasure Museum Annex houses exhibitions, and sits among shops, restaurants, and facilities. The main Treasure Museum is a further 15-20 minutes’ walk up beyond the shrine itself, and houses relics once belonging to the Emperor and Empress, along with other items from their household.
The Imperial Gardens are the only part of the shrine complex which existed before the deaths of the Emperor and Empress. Emperor Meiji designed an iris garden for Empress Shoken, and it is beautiful all year round, showcasing Japan’s four very distinct seasons.
Just after the Treasure Museum Annex, there is another Torii on your left. Follow this path to the shrine itself, and to the entrance to the Imperial Gardens.
You’ll find the chōzuya (also called a temizuya) on entering the main shrine grounds. This is a font, where visitors purify themselves before approaching the shrine itself. If you wish to do this, the procedure is: Take up a dipper by the handle in your right hand, and hold it beneath the flow of water. Tip this water over your left hand, then swap the dipper to your left hand and use it to tip water over your right hand. Switch hands again and use the dipper to pour water into your left hand, but this time sip the water from your hand and rinse your mouth. Spit the water out – don’t swallow it. Then use the dipper to rinse your left hand once more. Rinse the dipper out, and hold it upright so that remaining water exits down the handle. Once it is empty, return the dipper to the rest. It seems a complicated procedure, but give it a go, and don’t be afraid to get it a little bit wrong: other visitors will appreciate your efforts.
Approaching the main shrine buildings you’ll notice more bowing and some clapping taking place. This is to show respect to the kami and to get their attention. Some people say prayers here, others simply come to pay their respects. If you’d like to enter the shrine and make a wish, this procedure is much simpler: Step toward the railing or donation box and bow twice, then clap your hands twice. If you pause here to make a wish, drop a coin into the donation box. If not, simply bow once more and you’re done.
Locals and tourists alike are welcome to write out an ema (prayer board) and hang it around the huge cypress tree. These wishes or expressions of gratitude are collected by the priests and burned so that the wishes can be carried to the kami. You might instead like to write a kiganbun, a letter to the kami, and drop it in the box provided. It’s customary to include a cash donation with such letters.
Once you’re done, don’t forget to stop off at the nagadono juyosho (the amulet office) and buy yourself a good luck charm and, if you’re collecting them, get your large stamp too. Many culturally important attractions around Japan have these red rubber stamps available, and children in particular enjoy filling books with the stamps from school day trips around the country.
Meiji Jingū is a place I’d recommend every visitor to Tōkyō go at least once. It’s peaceful, the gardens and forest are stunning, and it’s a thoroughly relaxing way to spend as much or as little time as you like. Allow at least an hour, but in reality you’re more likely to need three or four.
There are very simple photography rules within the shrine. Essentially if you’re standing beneath a roof, taking photographs isn’t allowed. Walk, don’t jog, and the shrine itself is a no smoking, no eating area. There are vending machines and seating by the Treasure Museum Annex if you would like a rest and a drink.
Visiting Meiji Jingū:
Take the Chiyoda or Fukutoshin Tokyo Metro Lines to Meijijingumae Station, or the JR Yamanote Line to JR Harajuku Station. Meiji Shrine is 5 minutes’ walk and is clearly signposted.
Admission: Entry to the main shrine is free, and opens at sunrise, closing at sunset. Homotsuden (Treasure Museum and Annex) is 500円. Gyoen (Imperial Gardens) is 500円.