Postcard From: Meiji Shrine

The huge torii gate at the entrance to the Meiji Shrine. Torii mark the entrance to sacred spaces.
The huge torii gate at the entrance to the Meiji Shrine. Torii mark the entrance to sacred spaces. The gold chrysanthemums are the emblem of the Japanese royal family.

One of my favorite places to visit in Tokyo on my first visit to Japan as a college student was the Meiji Shrine (Meiji-jingu). Located in the heart of noisy, bustling and busy Tokyo, Meiji-jingu was an oasis of quiet and calm. It seemed almost incredulous to me at the time that such a beautiful, peaceful place could exist inside of Tokyo.

There’s an almost instantaneous hush when you enter the shrine grounds. After passing under the giant torii gate at the entrance, you follow a long, wide, shaded path to reach the main shrine complex, passing a large display of sake casks. Sake is closely associated with the Shinto religion and used in rituals and festivals, and the (empty) casks on display indicate the breweries from around Japan who have made donations of sake to the Meiji Shrine.

Sake breweries from around Japan send a cask to Meiji Shrine each year for blessings and good luck in the coming year.
Casks from the breweries who donated sake for the shrine’s rituals and festivals. The casks are made of aromatic wood with hand-painted rice straw covers showing the breweries’ logos.
Purification fountain. Water is poured into your left hand; the water is sipped and swished around in the mouth and then spit out. Then both hands are splashed with water.
Most visitors stop at Meiji-jingu’s purification fountain before entering the shrine complex. Water is poured from the dipper over your left hand, then your right; some water is then poured into your left hand and sipped, swished around in the mouth and then spit out on the ground. Any remaining water in the dipper is poured on the ground.
Entrance to the main shrine complex
A second, smaller torii marks the entrance to the main shrine complex.
Inside the main shrine complex
The main shrine contains several buildings
One of the inner shrine buildings contains a museum with artifacts from Emperor Meiji and the Empress.
One of the inner shrine buildings contains a museum with artifacts from Emperor Meiji and the Empress.

The shrine is located on 170 acres in the Shibuya District of Tokyo, just a short walk from Harajuku Station on the Yamanote Line. The location for the shrine was a site of an iris garden that Emperor Meiji (1867-1912) and his wife often visited. Emperor Meiji died in 1912, and building of the shrine began in 1915 as a national project, with completion and dedication in 1920 (the Emperor’s and Empress’s graves are not at the shrine; they are buried south of Kyoto). The shrine was completely destroyed during the fire bombings of World War II, but was rebuilt in 1958, again using Japanese cypress and copper.

Meiji-jingu is a popular site for traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies. The day the girls and I visited Meiji-jingu last year just happened to be a national holiday, and we were able to observe six ceremonies in different stages, from the bride being dressed to the wedding procession to the formal photographs at the end.

Finishing touches are applied to a bride's formal kimono for her wedding ceremony. We visited on a Saturday and several weddings were being held at the Shrine.
Finishing touches are applied to a bride’s formal kimono (uchikake) for her wedding ceremony. The white hood (wataboshi) is worn to represent humility and modesty, and hide the “horns of jealousy.”
A wedding procession through the shrine
A Shinto priest and two shrine maidens (mika) lead a wedding procession through the shrine. The bride’s left hand is held by her mother in the procession; her father follows behind the groom. The groom is wearing a formal wedding hakama.
Family and guests follow behind the bride and groom.
Family and guests, many in formal attire,  follow behind the bride and groom. A second priest carries the large red umbrella (wagasa) over the bride and groom.

After visiting Meiji-jingu, we headed back to Harajuku Station and crossed over to Takeshita Dori, the main shopping street in Harajuku. Harajuku has been called the “most fashion conscious place on the planet.” The area around Harajuku station is the place to be on Sunday afternoons if you want to check out the latest looks and fantastic cosplay outfits. Takeshita Dori is also the place to try crepes – there are several shops along the street, and they offer a huge variety of flavors and fillings. The girls and I saw a few fashion plates while we were there, but since it was a holiday the crowd was mostly families and teens out for a day of shopping.

Harajuku Station, with its distinctive cupola and European style
Looking down on Harajuku Station from the Meiji Shrine overpass. A N’EX express train from Narita Airport speeds through the station on its way to its next stop. Harajuku Station is known for its distinctive cupola and European style.
Takeshita Street is always crowded, but it's safe and loads of fun to visit.
Takeshita Street is always busy (the day of this picture it was more crowded than usual because it was a holiday), but it’s safe and loads of fun to visit. At McDonalds you can try a Teriyaki McBurger and a yogurt shake, both unique to Japan (and tasty).
Daiso is Japan's Dollar Store - everything there is just 100 yen, or about 90 cents when we visited. It is "kawaii" (cute) central in Japan.
Daiso is Japan’s ‘dollar store’ – everything there costs just 100 yen. That meant everything was 90 cents the day we visited due to the exchange rate.
Harajuku is famous for its crepes. Pancakes are also very popular, and there is a cat cafe, where you can pet and look at cats while you drink your coffee.
Harajuku is famous for its filled crepes – the photo shows just a few of the choices Angel Heart Crepes offers, from sweet to savory. Pancakes are also very popular, and there is also a cat cafe, where you can enjoy the company of cats while you drink your coffee.

Meiji-jingu still remains the quiet, unhurried place it was when I first visited 45 years ago. It provides a beautiful, peaceful contrast to Tokyo’s (and Harajuku’s) busy pace, and is definitely worth a visit if you’re in Tokyo.

Postcard From: Fushimi Inari-Taisha

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Although I made many, many trips to Kyoto during my college overseas study tour and during our two navy tours in Japan, I had not only never visited the Fushimi Inari-Taisha, it had never even appeared on my radar of places to see in Kyoto. It wasn’t until I got active on Pinterest, and pictures of the vermillion tunnels of torii gates kept appearing over and over that I became more curious, and decided that on our 2015 visit to the city I would not miss visiting this shrine.

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Torii gate at the entrance to Fushimi Inari-Taisha
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Fox statue guarding the entrance to the shrine. Smaller fox statues can be found throughout the shrine.

Fushimi Inari-Taisha is the head shrine of the Shinto kami Inari, god of prosperity, worldly success and industry, and of fertility, rice, sake and tea. Inari is also the patron of merchants and businessmen. The thousands of torii gates (in Japanese, torii literally means ‘bird perch’) located in the shrine were each donated by businesses as offerings to Inari. Statues and images of foxes can also be seen throughout the shrine as fox (kitsune) are considered to be messengers to the gods. They are often seen with a key in their mouth, indicating their mythical role as keeper of the rice granary.

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The main shrine. Visitors are lined up to make offerings.
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Main shrine roof detail and lanterns.

The girls and I set out for the shrine on our last morning in Kyoto. Located on the south side of the city, on the side of Mt. Inari, it was easy to find, only a short trip by train from Kyoto station.

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Torii are engraved with the name of the business that made the donation.
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A smaller shrine area located midway through the grounds.
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Fox ema left at one of the smaller shrine areas. The ema cost around 300 yen ($3) – the purchaser draws on a face, then writes a prayer request on the back (for examination success, sports win, good job, etc.)

After entering the shrine, we hiked through the vermillion tunnels for well over an hour, weaving our way up and over hills and through the forest. The immense number of torii massed together is almost overwhelming, and yet the tunnels beckon you to walk through and follow their turns and twists to see where they lead. Just when you start to feel like you could get lost, there you are back at a familiar spot. And, throughout the shrine are located smaller shrines and rest areas where you can sit and have a snack, or write your prayer request on the back of a fox ema (small wooden plaques). Unfortunately, because we needed to leave in order to to catch our train back to Tokyo, we missed hiking through the last great tunnel located at the back of the shrine.

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WenYu enjoys some hot, freshly made takoyaki.
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YaYu enjoys a skewer of grilled pork – she said it was the most delicious thing she ate in Japan!

The shrine is a popular destination for Japanese tourists, and as is typical at many shrines, when you leave you enter a street of souvenir shops and food stalls. We stood in line to enjoy some Japanese street food: a version of takoyaki (round pancakes with octopus and herbs) and some skewers of grilled pork.

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In the Shinto religion, torii mark the transition between sacred and profane space. Walking through the tunnels does indeed give a sense of the divine, of being in a very special place.

I can’t believe it took me so long to visit this beautiful shrine, but it was definitely worth the wait. Fushimi Inari-Taisha is a fascinating combination of energy, beauty, and mystery (I would love to walk through the tunnels at dusk!), and has earned a permanent place on my must-visit list whenever I next visit Kyoto.