The Meiji Shrine: An Oasis of Zen in the Center of Bustling Tokyo
Japan is a unique country, one that is both very modern and also very traditional. In the heart of Tokyo, there is a shrine dedicated to one of the most important Japanese Emperors and his wife. This Shinto Shrine is one of the most popular in Japan, and is an oasis of Zen, set in a vast forest at the heart of the hectic metropolis of Tokyo.
The History of the Meiji Shrine
Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) is a pivotal figure in modern Japanese history. His reign saw the modernization of the country and its defeat in both China and Russia. After the Emperor’s death in 1912, the Japanese Diet passed a law that ordered the building of a Shinto Shrine in his memory. The Emperor and his wife, the Empress Shōken, often would visit a small garden in Tokyo and this was selected as the site of the new shrine. Work began on the new shrine in 1915 and it was built by volunteers from youth groups and civic associations. The building was opened in 1920 but work continued on the grounds until 1927.
Painting of Emperor Meiji and his family (Kasai, Torajirō /Public domain)
This shrine was supported by the government and was used by the Japanese militarists for propaganda purposes during WWII. During this conflict the original shrine complex was destroyed by an American air raid. After the war, the Japanese public contributed funds to the reconstruction of the shrine. This was an indication of the esteem that they had for Emperor Meiji and his wife. Since its opening in 1958, the shrine has been visited by countless foreign dignitaries, including American presidents. During the New Year holidays, many Japanese people visit the shrine as part of the custom of Hatsumōde. However, the actual remains of the Emperor and his wife are not buried here but in Kyoto.
What to See?
The Meiji Shrine is located in a forest that is over 150 acres, and it has many walkways and some gardens. Entry to the shrine is by means of a Tori gateway, which is in a classical Shinto style. This is to mark the boundary between the sacred and the profane, and it is painted red and black. The shrine is made out of traditional materials, including copper and cypress wood, and it can be accessed by steps. It is built in the Japanese style known as the nagare-zukuri style. The shrine and other buildings are all built in an asymmetrical style, and it has a distinctive gabled roof that overhangs the front of the building and forms a portico.
Tourists exploring the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo (coward_lion / Adobe Stock)
The Naien is the inner precinct, where the shrine to the Emperor and his Empress is located. There is a large courtyard here that is formed by the shrine and some other buildings. There are many offerings, including barrels of Sake, to be seen here. There are also prayers written on paper / wooden tablets attached to a wall in the inner precinct and there are even desks where people can write their own prayers.
There is also the museum that holds many artifacts associated with the Emperor Meiji and his reign. It is built in the style known as Azekurazukuri and is a simple, minimalist wooden construction, with a gabled roof. The Gaien is the outer precinct and this includes a gallery filled with murals of the Imperial couple and there is a large public space here. There are a number of sports facilities nearby, including the Tokyo Olympic stadium.
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Wishing / prayer wooden tablets at Meiji Shrine, Tokyo (thaifairs / Adobe Stock)
What to Do?
The shrine is easy to access by public transport, and there is a subway nearby. The shrine opens at first light and closes in the evening. This attraction is always busy, and there is a lot to do. There are a number of holidays and festivals celebrated at the shrine every year. The most important of these are the Autumn Flower Festival and the New Year Festival. There are often displays of traditional Japanese culture, including horse archery near the shrine. There is no admittance to the shrine and its grounds. It is possible to take part in Shinto activities but visitors should act in a respectful manner. There is plenty of accommodation near the Meiji Shrine, but they can be very expensive.
Women in traditional Japanese dress during a festival at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo (gilad / Adobe Stock)
Top image: The Meiji Shrine, Tokyo. Source: beeboys / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
Matsui, T. (1996). Meiji Shrine: an early old-growth forest creation in Tokyo. Restoration & Management Notes, 14(1), 46-52 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/43440323?seq=1>
Susumu, S., & Murphy, R. E. (2009). State Shinto in the Lives of the People: The Establishment of Emperor Worship, Modern Nationalism, and Shrine Shinto in Late Meiji. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 93-124 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/30233855>
Fridell, W. M. (1975). The Establishment of Shrine Shinto in Meiji Japan. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 137-168 https://www.jstor.org/stable/30234430