When you ask someone about where to go sightseeing in Tokyo, they will tell you the Sensoji shrine in Asakusa. That’s what everyone told me, so I went.
It was crowded and touristy and surrounded by a legion of ready souvenir stands whose square footage outweighed the shrine five to one. Maybe it’s so touristy because when you ask someone about where to go sightseeing in Japan, they will tell you the Sensoji shrine in Asakusa. Always.
Well, not always, because I won’t. I’ll direct you somewhere with fewer people, more trees, and a lot more room to breath.
The Meiji shrine in Harajuku.
The Meiji shrine is devoted to the deified spirits of the Emperor and Empress Meiji. The Emperor is the guy Tom Cruise handed that sword to at the end of Last Samurai. In the past, the emperor and his wife were considered living gods by the Shinto religion, so when they died they became Shinto kamis. (Kami can be translated as god, deity, divinity, or spirit. There’s quite a difference between the western idea of gods and spirits and the Japanese one.) Regardless, you will hear them being referred to as gods when you go.
Japan has many shrines and temples. Shrine are Shinto and temples are Buddhist.
Emperor Meiji is revered for favoring modernization instead of the seclusion policy formerly governing Japanese foreign relations. But he wanted to modernize Japan, not westernize it. He was unwilling to sacrifice its ancient traditions. Basically, he made Japan what it is today.
He was also a nature lover, and trees were transplanted from all over Japan–and a few other countries–to create an artificial forest in his shrine. The forest has since grown to be indistinguishable from a natural one. It even has it’s own small wildlife population. (It is still in the middle of Harajuku though, so you won’t get mauled by any bears.) But if you have been staying in Tokyo for any length of time and forget what trees look like, the Meiji shrine is a little oasis of nature within Tokyo’s concrete jungle. And after a few days in a micro-sized hotel room–or apartment–it is a much needed breath of fresh air.
The shrine is free but if you want to take a walk in the garden/forest it will cost 500 yen. The best time is in spring when the irises are in bloom. Summer might be good too, because the shrine is cooler than the surrounding area. You can also see Kiyomasa’s well if you stroll through the garden, but it’s just a wet hole in the ground and not really worth paying for. The Emperor’s private fishing pond can be found there though, which will make you jeaulous. It’s good to be the king.
Or you can just follow the main path that leads past a wall of sacred sake offered to the Emperor’s kami. Across from that is wine, a lot from France. There was a crow cawing on top of the sake when I went, displeased with all the thirsty tourists. (And no, you cannot drink the sacred brew.)
The path ends in the shrine courtyard, where three massive trees stand. One is for hanging ema on. Ema are blocks of wood with prayers written on the back, which the priests pray over and offer to the couples’ kami every day.
The other two trees connected by the sacred rope are for couples to offer prayer to so they will get along. The Empress has a presence in the shrine equal to her husband. She did a lot for women’s rights in Japan, and prayers go to both the Emperor and her as well. According to history, they were a great couple.
Off to the side of the main shrine is a box where you can buy one of twenty Waka poems written by them. Waka is a type of Japanese poem similar to haiku, but to a different meter. There are translations in English if you’re interested in hearing some of their wisdom.
You’re not supposed to take pictures of the inner shrine, so I refrained. You can’t really see very far into it anyway, so I wasn’t too worried about it. The courtyard itself was stunning enough with those three beautiful trees standing over it.
Though the Meiji shrine should be at the top of any Tokyo sightseeing list, it’s sadly overshadowed by older shrines like Sensoji. While it certainly isn’t “locals only,” it is a much better and much more peaceful shrine than any of the ones I’ve visited in Tokyo. If you happen to be in the area, it’s worth the trip.