Olympians in 1964 remember Meiji Jingu as their neighborhood forest. The shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji was a wooded area next to their Olympic Village in Tokyo, where athletes like Peter Snell would maintain their condition with a run.
I was fortunate to enjoy a walking tour of Meiji Jingu (aka Meiji Shrine) through my university alumni group on a beautiful autumn Saturday morning recently. We were led on the tour by a Shinto priest at Meiji Jingu, Taisuke Kadosaki, who provided a wonderful description of the shrine’s history and customs as we ambulated through what is often called the lungs of Tokyo.
Here are a few of the fun facts gained on the tour:
- Omotesando: a street akin to the Champs-Élysées in Paris or 5th Avenue in New York, Omotesando leads up to Meiji Jingu, and literally means “the entrance of the path to the shrine.”
- 80,000 Shinto Shrines in Japan: Most shrines in Japan are over a thousand years old. Meiji Jingu is yet to turn 100.
- Kami: Shinto shrines are places to pay respects to “kami,” translated as a mixture of such words as spirit, angel, or deity of nature, things or people. There are kami for the wind, for rice, for rivers and for emperors. For example, famed anime character Totoro is a tree kami. The kami at the heart of Meiji Jingu is Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912.
- Not Quite Nature’s Handiwork: In 1916, work was begun for a shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji after his death. Over 100,000 trees from all over Japan were transplanted in a desolate part of Tokyo called Yoyogi. In other words, the woods inside Meiji Jingu – a symbol of Japan’s love for nature – is completely man made.
- Sake and Rice: On the shady peaceful dirt path through the woods on the way to the shrine halls, you see barrels of sake on your right and casks of wine on your left. Sake is made from rice, a staple of Japan, and was granted from the sun kami, Amaterasu at the beginning of time. Rice and rice wine are two key offerings to “kami”. The casks of wine represent the modern era Emperor Meiji helped usher into Japan.
- Red Wine: In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Emperor Meiji opened up Japan to the West with treaties, Western clothes, and wine. In fact, when his doctor informed the Emperor that he had diabetes and should diminish his sake intake, the good doctor recommended red wine in its place. Once the wineries of Burgundy in France heard about that, they sent bottles of their best red wine to Emperor Meiji every December.
- A Most Popular Place After New Year’s Day: In 1920, Meiji Jingu welcomed 500,000 people when it opened. Every year, 10 million people visit Meiji Jingu, the first 3 million in the first three days of the year coming to make wishes for the new year.
- 100th Birthday: In 2020, Meiji Jingu will have its 100th birthday. It is currently going through a renovation, the most apparent part is the re-plating of the copper rooves of the shrine’s halls. What most people will remember are light green rooves, the product of copper oxidating over decades. The very day of our tour, the roof of the main hall was uncovered, displaying a bright and shiny copper finish.
- Put Your Name on Meiji Jingu for 3,000 Yen: If you want to help finance the renovation of Meiji Shrine, you can donate JPY3,000 for a copper plate that will adorn the roof of one of the halls of the shrine. On one side of the plate, you can write your wish for the future and your name.
One of the wonderful insights shared by Kadosaki-san on the tour was about the Japanese, and whether they are religious or not.
“Many Japanese will say, ‘I’m not religious’. But in reality,” Kadosaki-san told us, “our daily lives are very close to Shinto.” He then cited several examples:
- Children dressed up for Shichi-Go-San and new-born babies are brought to shrines to celebrate their growth and health
- Cars are brought to shrines to be blessed.
- Weddings are held at shrines. In fact, eighteen wedding ceremonies were scheduled the day of my tour.
Kadosaki-san also explained that from the moment the sun rises, people are sweeping the shrine grounds, cleaning floors, and wiping rails and handles. Washing the hands and rinsing the mouth inside the shrine grounds is also a custom. If you assume Japan is a culture of cleanliness, it’s possible this culture emerged from the practices and beliefs of the shrine.
If you’re in Japan, or planning a trip, you may want to visit peaceful and rejuvenating Meiji Shrine, or one of the other 80,000 shrines in Japan.
For a more detailed explanation of Kadosaki-san’s description of Shintoism and Meiji Jingu, click here.