Penn Alumni at Meji Jingu_25Nov_8
On a Penn Club Japan tour of Meiji Jingu.

 

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.

Penn Alumni at Meji Jingu_25Nov_4

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.

    Penn Alumni at Meji Jingu_25Nov_3
    Pointing to Amaterasu, the Sun kami.
  • 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.

Penn Alumni at Meji Jingu_25Nov_7

  • 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.
Penn Alumni at Meji Jingu_25Nov_5
My tiny bit of Meiji Jingu.

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.

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Olympic National Stadium design_Kengo Kuma
Images of Kengo Kuma’s National Stadium

When you walk through Meiji Shrine, a peaceful oasis of green in the middle of Tokyo, your pulse rate drops and you forget the hustle bustle of one of Asia’s most dynamic mega-cities. Its location next to the National Stadium for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the Olympic Village made the wooded park of Meiji Shrine a wonderful place for runners to train, a la middle distance double gold medalist, Peter Snell.

When images of the planned National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics were released, there was a mixture of groans and puzzlement. Globally renown architect, Zaha Hadid, presented a design of sleek modernity. Frankly, I thought it looked like a bicycle helmet, somewhat out of place in its surroundings.

National Stadium and Meiji Shrine_google maps
National Stadium and Meiji Shrine on Google Maps

Then suddenly, in July, 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scratched plans for the design of the new National Stadium planned for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It was revealed that the estimated cost of the stadium ballooned from JPY252 billion, from the original proposal of JPY130 billion, an approximate difference of USD1 billion. Scrapping Hadid’s design meant a massive delay, resulting in a particularly embarrassing broken promise. Plans to have the new national stadium host the 2019 Rugby World Cup also had to be scrapped, resulting in a move of the tournament to Yokohama.

TOCOG quickly put together another search for a stadium designer. And suddenly, Kuma Kengo, whose design was selected, was in the spotlight. Not only will the cost of the Kengo stadium be closer to the originally proposed estimate (JPY150 billion), the design of the stadium will more seamlessly blend into the environment.

Kuma has built a reputation for his use of wood, and plans to employ wood, particularly wood grown in all prefectures of Japan, to fashion a stadium that folds into the relatively green surroundings, as he explains in this Nippon.com interview:

Instead of the old-fashioned idea of putting up a huge monument, my idea is to create a stadium that people will remember as part of the Meiji Shrine outer gardens, the wooded area in which it’s located. And we’re planning to uncover the Shibuya River, which was put underground during the rapid-growth years, and have it flow at surface level through the stadium grounds. I believe that creating something sustainable for future generations, with the surrounding nature open to the public, is a more important considerations than the physical shape of the edifice, and so that’s what I’ve been focusing my efforts on.

Kuma was 10 years old when the 1964 Olympics came to Tokyo. He remembers witnessing the rapid growth of the post-war years, and being amazed in particular by the two complementary buildings of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, built for the aquatic and basketball events. According to the Nippon.com article, he remembers often visiting the First Gymnasium designed by legendary architect, Tange Kenzo. “The light shining down from the windows in the high ceiling made the water of the pool sparkle. I was captivated by this sublime sight, and that was what made me decide that I wanted to become an architect.”

 

Yusuhara Town Hall_Kengo Kuma
Yusuhara Town Hall

 

Over the years, Kengo has become known for his use of wood in his designs, in ways that recall times when wood was the primary construction material, layered, and exposed to the elements. Design website, Icon, describes Kengo’s work in detail:

Kuma’s approach is perhaps best illustrated by a series of buildings he has built in and around a small town called Yusuhara on Japan’s southern Shikoku island. The Yusuhara Town Hall (2006) sits under a roof and frame of Japanese cedar in a traditional structural arrangement, but one that gives off more than a hint of high-brutalism in the strong articulation of its thick beams and columns. The outside features a series of timber panels of various dimensions, alternating with glazed panels – a genuinely interesting take on the “barcode” facade.

Yuuhara hotel and market_Kengo Kuma
Yusuhara hotel and shops

A small hotel and market (2010) that Kuma built nearby is just as unconventional, with a curtain wall on the main facade made of straw bales and bamboo that can actually be opened out to allow light and ventilation through – a very odd combination of rustic material and hi-tech detailing. But the wooden bridge building (ICON 101) that Kuma built over a road to link a spa and hotel on the outskirts of the town is stranger still. Here is a version of traditional Japanese roof construction blown up to super-large scale, a series of single wooden elements all overlapping and stepping up towards the bridge itself. It is this radical re-imagining of a historic building material or method of construction that one sees time and time again in Kuma’s work.

I’m truly excited for the debut of Kengo Kuma’s national stadium. I feel it will not only be appreciated for its uniquely Japanese sensibilities, but will be a lasting legacy of the 2020 Games, a fitting complement to its green surroundings, particularly the peaceful Meiji Shrine.

“I want to go beyond the era of concrete,” Kuma, 62, said in this Japan Times interview. “What people want is soft, warm and humane architecture. We will show the model of a mature society in the stadium. That’s the way to live a happy life relying on limited natural resources from a small land.”

Kengo Kuma profile
Kengo Kuma