Meiji Jingu, or Meiji Shrine in English, is a serene temple in the middle of Tokyo, dedicated to one of Japan’s former emperors – so who was Meiji and why was he so important?
Alright, so we need to rewind for a bit of context. To the 17th century for starters. In 1603, the Tokugawa clan seized control of Japan, placing it under feudal rule. While there were still emperors, they were purely ceremonial, with no practical power during this time, known as the Edo Period. Instead, a Tokugawa shōgun served as head of the government. During this time, Japan was isolated from the rest of the world – foreigners could not enter, nor could the Japanese leave. The punishment if you did? Death.
This lasted for about 260 years, until the middle of the 19th century. Around that time, a group of people known as shishi, ‘men of high purpose’ (including many samurai warriors), began to rebel against the shōgunate rule. In 1868, the Boshin War (also known as the Japanese Revolution) broke out, a civil war between those who supported the Tokugawa, and those who wanted an imperial restoration. The last Tokugawa shōgun had already resigned in 1867, and the Emperor had declared the restoration of his full powers on 3rd January 1868. However, it took until May 1869 to defeat the last of the shōgun armies, and fully end the war.
Who was Meiji?
First things first, the word ‘Jingu’ means shrine, but ‘Meiji’ was a person. To be specific, that same Emperor of Japan who was restored to full power. Well, technically, ‘Meiji’ means ‘enlightened rule’, and was the name given to the era of his reign. While he was alive, he would have been simply ‘The Emperor’, and only after death ‘Emperor Meiji’. His personal name, Mutsuhito, is never used in official context.
Emperor Meiji was born in 1852, and succeeded his father to become the 122nd Emperor in 1867 – at just fifteen years old! He married his wife, Empress Shōken, in 1869, a year after the restoration. He is considered the first Emperor of modern Japan.
During his rule, the country was at last opened up to foreign trade with the rest of the world, particularly the USA. He renamed Edo as ‘Tokyo‘ in 1868, meaning ‘eastern capital’. It had been the seat of the shōgunate, while the imperial capital was Kyoto, but Tokyo replaced it as the official capital in 1889. The Meiji Era was a period of huge political, social, and economic revolution, catching Japan up to the Western superpowers. He did not achieve this single-handedly though – indeed, while the country had a symbolic parliament, it was effectively ruled by an oligarchy, the former nobility. It is unclear just how influential Meiji actually was. But nevertheless, by the time of his death in 1912, Japan had soared to the forefront of the world stage, as the booming, modern, wealthy nation we see today.
Building the Shrine
So because the Meiji Era was one of the most important, transformative periods of Japanese history, the people wanted to honour the Emperor after his death. How? But turning him and his wife into deities. And yes, that is as fancy as it sounds! Japan’s main religion is Shinto (though Buddhism is also practiced), a faith that believes humans are fundamentally good, but evil spirits can cause bad things to happen. Most Shinto shrines are built in dedication to kami, sacred spirits which can take many forms and concepts. Humans become kami after they die, and are revered by their families – the most important are enshrined as deities.
So, this means the Meiji Jingu shrine is a place to worship the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken. Their actual burial site is not here though, instead in Fushimi-momoyama, south of Kyoto. Work on the shrine began in 1915, and was completed in 1920, although the gardens took a few years longer to finish. The architect Itō Chūta designed the complex, in a traditional Shinto shrine style, using cypress wood and copper for the roofs. They also planted the surrounding forest at the same time, containing hundreds of evergreen species donated from around the country. The shrine soon became popular among Tokyo locals, to pay respect to their former Emperor, and take part in traditional Shinto rituals.
World War Two Bombings
Unfortunately, the Meiji Jingu shrine we see in Tokyo today is not the original. During World War Two, Japan invaded and occupied many territories around Asia. They were mostly at war with the USA, and American planes carried out many air raids on Tokyo. These continued for several years, but the worst was in March 1945. Bombs destroyed 16 square miles of central Tokyo, killing thousands. The Meiji Jingu shrine was amongst the buildings destroyed. Japan eventually surrendered in August that year.
It took a long time for Japan to pick up the pieces after the war, and rebuild their capital. There’s a lot more to their wartime story, but we’re just focussing on the shrine here! Japan asked the public to donate funds to rebuild it, which they gladly did. The new shrine, the one that stands today, was completed in 1958, closely resembling the original.
Meiji Jingu continues to be one of the most popular shrines in the country today. It is especially busy on New Year’s Day, when up to 3 million people attend for hatsumōde, the first prayers of the year. It’s also popular on 3rd November, which was Meiji’s birthday. Weddings may take place here throughout the year too. In 2020, the shrine will commemorate its 100th anniversary, so there have been recent renovation works in advance of the celebrations.
To find Meiji Jingu, you’ll have to walk through a peaceful evergreen forest – a stark contrast to the busier districts of Tokyo! – next to Yoyogi Park. The entrance to the shrine area is through a massive torii gate, made from Japanese cypress. This marks your passage into a sacred place, and there’s another when you reach the main complex. On the path leading to the shrine, you will see two huge displays, one of sake barrels, the other casks of burgundy wine. These are all donations to the shrine, the sake from local brewers, and the wine from France, as the Emperor was very fond of burgundy wine!
The main shrine buildings are built around a central courtyard. You’ll notice the clean, simple design, with wooden buildings topped with copper roofs. Everything is brown and white in colour, not the bright, lucky vermillion found at other shrines. It is built in the nagare-zukuri style, traditional for many Shinto sites. This central area is where people come to pray and worship. Look out for the ema, small wooden plaques that people write their prayers on, and hang up near the shrine for the kami to see.
Just north of the main courtyard, is the Treasure House (Homotsuden), added a year after the shrine was complete. This one is concrete, and so it survived the war bombings! Here, you can see some of Meiji’s personal belongings, to get a little insight on the sort of person he was. There’s a horse-drawn carriage, similar to those used in Europe at the time. Although, Meiji and his wife only ever used it once! Also, check out the portrait gallery of Japan’s former emperors.
The Inner Garden
While the shrine buildings are the main reason for most people to visit, make sure to spend some time wandering the forest as well. In particular, the Inner Garden is a beautiful, serene area to explore. It actually existed long before the shrine itself, as Lord Kiyomasa Kato built it in the early Edo Period (1603-1868). You can now see Kiyomasa’s Well inside, dug by him and named in remembrance of him. During the Meiji Era, the gardens fell under the control of the government. The Emperor and Empress were frequent visitors there, including to the well, which is now believed to be a spiritual power spot.
The Inner Garden is especially popular in June, when the collection of 1,500 iris flowers come into bloom. The display is said to have been designed by Meiji himself, for his wife. Also, you can wander through the lawns, sit by Nan-Chi pond, and see the quaint tea house set in the hillside. The gardens are full of maple trees, and an azalea garden, with trees over a century old. The area is not large (83,000 square metres), but is a pleasant addition to a visit to Meiji Jingu.
Entry: Free (500 yen each for Treasure House & Inner Garden)
Opening hours: Daily, sunrise to sunset – check website for exact times each month! Inner Garden is open daily from 9.00-16.30.
Meiji Jingu is located next to Yoyogi Park, very close to the Harajuku region of Tokyo. You can easily visit all of these in the same day! The easiest way to get there is by taking the JR Metro, to Harajuku or Yoyogi station. From there, you have to walk the path through the forest, there is no option for parking any closer, if driving. The shrine itself has limited facilities, but you’re in the middle of the city, so it’s easy to find whatever you need close by.
When visiting, remember that this is a place of worship and behave accordingly. Bowing as you approach the shrine is appreciated, but not required. You should be quiet and calm, and only eat, drink and smoke in designated areas. Photography is allowed outside, but not inside the buildings.
Have you visited Meiji Jingu before? Leave a comment about your experience!