You ever have those times when no matter what plan you make the universe has other ideas? Well, it seems my summer of lazily watching netflix and contemplating reality has been superceeded by … more adventures. I guess I can’t complain.
I met two of the new teachers and decided to join them on an impromptu trip to the Meiji Jingu Shrine. I don’t think I would have sought out this particular site on my own, but it was certainly a pretty day.
Shinto is the only “religion” that can be considered wholly Japanese. Buddhism, Christianity and other religions are now practiced widely in Japan (albeit in a uniquely Japanese fashion), but they are all transplants. But try as I might, I could never find any definitive literature (in English) about Shinto, and this is because for nearly the entire history of the Japanese people, it hasn’t been anything remotely like an organized religion, but much more like a series of local beliefs and practices about nature and the spirit world.
Emperor Meiji changed all that in the late 1800s by creating a state mandated form of Shinto as a way to reclaim Japanese culture from foreign influences. While there is a reasonable amount of data about this version of Shinto, it is also known that it isn’t necessarily true to historical Shinto practices, since it was created as a political tool. The Meiji Jingu shrine was built after the Emperor’s death to commemorate his work in the Meiji Restoration and to honor the deified spirits of he and his wife, the Empress Shoken. It was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt again after the war.
For my personal tastes, I’m far more interested in visiting Shinto shrines that pre-date the Meiji reformation, but I’m not so much of a history snob that I would turn down a trip that someone else already planned on a day when I would otherwise just be watching TV.
We had a bit of an adventure getting there, since Google Maps doesn’t give very specific directions when it tells you to walk from say a train station to a bus stop, but we eventually found the right bus. I think we got off a couple stops too early, but we kept asking folks along the way for directions (including some nice ladies at a pony riding park) and eventually rounded the corner to see a tall torii gate leading to a deep, lush forest.
Soaking in the dark, shady greenery, we set off down the quiet path, alternating between taking pictures and admiring the view. We stalked butterflies and looked at spider webs along the trail toward the shrine. As we approached the main compound, we paused at the fountain outside the gates to wash our hands in the Shinto fashion with small bamboo dippers.
Upon entering, we were greeted by two giant trees with a rope adorned with the folded white paper blessings. We visited the main shrine where photos were not permitted, saw the prayer walls where visitors could hang up their written prayers which would be read aloud and burnt the next sunrise in offering to the gods, and generally ooohed and aaahed at the stunning surroundings. Sadly, the museums and the iris garden were both closed by the time we got there, but it was still a beautiful and peaceful walk in the woods, punctuated by the vast wooden torii and the gently sloping rooftops of the traditional architecture.
As I said, this particular shrine wasn’t on my personal list, but I’m happy that I went. I doubt I’ll go back this trip, but if I’m living here again in the future, I’ll probably put in the effort to go early enough to see the museums and gardens. I don’t know if I would recommend it to someone on a short visit to Tokyo (with so much else to do), but for expats, long term vacationers or anyone else who’s looking for a nice, green afternoon, it’s definitely a win.
Shibuya is an iconic part of Tokyo, nearly all of you have probably seen the busy multi-directional crosswalk in at least one movie. So, of course it was on my to-do list while living so close. It’s also the home of the Meiji Jingu Shrine, so I got to kill to sightseeing birds in one day.
On our way between the train and bus, we paused to take some photos of the crosswalk, and upon our return from the shrine, we took some more time to explore the areas restaurants and shops. We got approached by a couple of Mormon missionaries, which could have been awkward, but I subverted them into a much more pleasant conversation about family and sightseeing, and they directed us toward a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.
The sushi place turned out to be more expensive than we wanted, but right next door was a tiny little sliver of a ramen shop. These shops are tucked all over Japan, with their ordering machines, and single long bar for seating. Customers order their food from the vending machine where they pay and get a ticket. Then taking a seat at the bar, we turn over our tickets in return for heaping bowls of deliciousness. I finally got a chance to try the tonkostu broth ( a rich white broth made by boiling pork bones for hours and hours, recommended as the favorite by my students here).
Then we set off to explore the shops. Japan doesn’t have a lot of ground space so large shopping centers tend to be very narrow and very tall. Even when we stopped in my favorite boutique cosmetics store, Lush, we had to ascend a narrow winding staircase to see the second half of the tiny store. We also found a store called “Black Flame”. We expected something heavy metal or goth, but instead walked into the most intensely uncomfortable array of cultural appropriation and well intentioned racism. I really don’t know how else to put it. The (Japanese) sales rep was decked out in a full hip-hop array complete with a “fro” style hairdo under his backward facing cap.
Once you step away from the crosswalk, the side streets are narrow and the buildings are soaring, with tiny shops tucked in to every available space between the mega-famous brand stores and shopping centers. We found a store entirely dedicated to chocolates wrapped in messages. Literally, every chocolate was the same size and shape, but each was wrapped in a different message. I suspect one could easily spend days wandering around just a few city blocks there and still not see all there is to see. Needless to say, after a fairly long day of exploring the shrine, we didn’t have that much energy left for shopping, so after a couple hours, we called it a night and headed back home.
It was really nice to have an unexpected day out, especially one I didn’t have to plan or think about and got to share with fun people. Life keeps on reminding me to be flexible, to let go of my plans and intentions and to just enjoy what is in front of me.