Meiji-jingū, or Meiji Shrine, is Tokyo’s major Shinto shrine in the same manner as Sensō-ji is Tokyo’s major buddhist temple. Originally established in 1920, destroyed during the war and rebuilt in 1958. It is Japan’s most visited religious site (up to one million visitors a day at the start of the year) and hugely popular for weddings, almost every time I come here I saw a traditional wedding ceremony. It was built to commemorate Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) and his wife Empress Shōken (1849-1914).
On my first day in Tokyo, now many years ago, I visited Meiji-jingū and was awed by the huge torii gate and the forested approach towards the shrine. It felt as the true experience of Japan. I cannot forget though that after such an impressive entrance, I kind of expected a more grand shrine building. While the shrine itself is indeed rather big, you can only see the front of the shrine (outer haiden) from the shrine grounds. It is in particular the final gate (called the minami-jinmon or Southern Gate) that is very photogenic (see cover photo of the article at the top).
Shinto wedding at Meiji Shrine
The temple grounds are divided into the inner grounds (naien) and outer grounds (gaien). The inner grounds have the shrine buildings, garden and treasure museum. The outer grounds are not directly connected and can be found 800 meters to the east. They contain the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery, National Stadium and Meiji Memorial Hall. For a regular shrine visit, you only go to the inner grounds.
History and significance
Meiji-jingū is the shrine dedicated to the Meiji Emperor (reign 1868-1912). The emperor was enshrined here as a kami (a god) in 1920. The Meiji Emperor was very significant in Japan’s history, as Japan went during his reign from a feudal state to an industrialised nation. In all fairness, it was not really the emperor’s personal contribution (he was 15 at the time of enthronement when the modernisation of Japan started), but he was seen as the symbol of this change, and above all, he was the first normal emperor (based in Tokyo) after the long years of Tokugawa Shogunate when the emperor (in Kyoto) had no actual power.
Meiji Shrine before the war.
The shrine is still quite different from most other shrines you see in Japan as it is a shrine of high status linked to the Imperial Household (made clear due to the name jingū instead of jinja for other shrines, and the symbol of the Imperial House all over the shrine, see photo at the bottom of this article). Until the end of World War II, the state funded the shrine in order to encourage the practice to emphasize the Emperor as a divine being. A lot can be said about the significance of the shrine during the years leading up to and during World War II in its function to promote State Shinto. However, there is nowadays little controversy surrounding this shrine, unlike some other shrines in Tokyo.
On the day that the shrine was dedicated to the Meiji Emperor and his wife in 1920, part of the bridge below the shrine collapsed. A scandal ensued leading to the resignation of Tokyo’s mayor. A huge story back then.
Forest and Iris garden
Meiji-jingū is built on land owned by the Imperial Household. One of the reasons the site was chosen was because there was an iris flower garden that the Meiji Emperor designed himself in order to entertain the empress. Apart from the iris garden, the land was barren and so 120.000 trees (365 species) were systematically planted coming from all over Japan, Korea and Taiwan, as at that time Korea and Taiwan were also part of the Japanese Empire. A survey in 1970 learned there were 170.000 trees (247 species). The forest is an essential part of Meiji-jingū, imagine this shrine without the forest. It would not be the same awe-inspiring experience.
Next to this forest there is an inner garden (called Yoyogi Gyoen) at the south of the shrine, not to be confused with the inner grounds that are much bigger. This garden is much older than Meiji-jingū and started out as a clan garden in the Edo period (1603-1868). It was the garden of Daimyō Katō Kiyomasa of Kumamoto. In the Meiji period the garden became property of the Imperial Household and the garden was heavily redesigned. This inner garden contains a tea house, a fishing stand and the iris garden (most famous part of the garden). It is said that the Meiji Emperor designed himself not only the iris garden, but also the small paths and the fishing spot. Entrance to the inner garden costs JPY 500.
Together with Yoyogi Park, Meiji-jingū forms one of the largest green lungs of Tokyo, almost as big as the Imperial Gardens near Tokyo Station.
Sake and Wine barrels
One of the outstanding features at this shrine is the placement of barrels of sake and wine along the approach to the shrine. The colourful sake barrels are presented as gifts to the shrine by sake manufacturers. Sake is often used in Shinto rituals and plays an important role in many ceremonies. You see these kinds of barrels often at Shinto shrines. What you not see at other shrines, are barrels of wine. These wine barrels are placed opposite of the sake barrels and come from wine producers from Bourgogne in France. The Meiji Emperor is said to have loved his glass of wine and it is a superb example of how during the Meiji period (1868-1912) Western culture was embraced. The Meiji Emperor set the example by enjoying western food and wine.
The sake barrels on the approach to the shrine.
Things to watch out for when visiting
- 3 routes to get in: the most impressive and famous route to get into the shrine is from Harajuku, the path actually already starts at Omotesandō station.
- walk around the forest and the inner garden: there is much more nature than the main approach to the shrine, and these other areas are way more quiet.
- visit one of the museums: there is the Treasure Museum (Homotsuden) in the north and the Treasure Museum Annex (Bunkakan) in the south-east that have a quite large collections of items used by or connected to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.
Of course, it is a regular Shinto shrine as well where you can pray, do omikuji (fortune telling) and leave a message on one of the ema (wooden plaques) with your wish.
The Chrysanthemum is the symbol of the Imperial House of Japan.
“Low City, High City 1867-1923” by Edward Seidensticker (1983)
“Sacred Space in the Modern City: The Fractured Pasts of Meiji Shrine, 1912-1958” By Yoshiko Imaizumi (2013)
1-1 Yoyogikamizono-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Harajuku Station – 2 minutes walk (Yamanote Line)
Meiji-jingū-mae Station – 2 minutes walk (Chiyoda line, Fukutoshin line)
Shrine: from sunrise to sunset
The inner garden is open from 9:00-16:30 (until 16:00 November until February), in June 8:00-17:00
Inner Garden: JPY 500
Treasure Museum: JPY 500
When to best visit?
The iris flowers (inner garden) are blooming in June.
End of March – Early April: Spring festival with traditional music and dance.
End of October – Early November: Autumn festival (most important festival) with highlight on 3 November (birthday of the Meiji Emperor)
Avoid visiting the first three days of the year (hatsumōde) as a million people visit each day.
Why visit? Tokyo’s most important shrine, you will not find such Imperial shrine in Kyoto.
Name in Japanese: 明治神宮