On day five of our Tokyo trip, Reva and I decided to split up for an afternoon of solo adventuring. She headed to an onsen (natural hot spring baths), and I went off to Meiji shrine. Most onsens do not allow people with tattoos to bathe due to fear of gangsters, so it wasn’t much of an option for me. So after a wonderful tea ceremony and an accidental pork-broth ramen lunch we went our separate ways.
Meiji shrine (or Meiji-jingu) is located near Shibuya, one of the busiest areas of Tokyo. The shrine is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, who oversaw the modernization of Japan and its rise as a world power. There is an era named after him, so he’s a big deal. The shrine itself is Shinto and honors the spirits of Meiji and his wife. Shinto is the religion many Japanese people practiced before Buddhism arrived.
I walked to the shrine from the famously crowded Shibuya crossing; arriving at the forested oasis was a nice change of pace. The entrance to the grounds is a massive Torii gate. I was struck by the great size and simplicity of the gate. The main posts are made from a single tree trunk, and the upper cross beams bear very little ornamentation. For me, this grand entrance filled me with reverence for the natural world and humility. I lowered my head to walk under these great trees hundreds of years older than all of us.
The shrine is a very popular destination for tourists and locals alike, who come to pay their respects. But, the main path to the shrine is so wide that it creates the illusion that you are almost alone. The wide paths and huge gates create an emptiness and spaciousness. They give the place a feeling of power.
Along the side of the main road was a wall of sake barrels. Every year, most of the sake makers of Japan donate barrels to the shrine. This shows their respect for the emperor, but also seems to be a prayer for continued good fortune in business . I noticed at all of the temples and shrines that we went to that many people freely donated coins to the many collection boxes. I got the feeling that these donations were also prayers for fortune and wealth for the family. It’s a beautiful practice, to donate money. For me, this shows a kind of trust that what you give will eventually come back to you. This is karma.
I wandered the grounds of the shrine, feeling impressed by the architecture and the beauty of the park itself. I tried to remain respectful of the people praying and the intention of the place to honor the past emperor. On the way back out, I paid a few yen for entrance to the inner gardens. This was even more rewarding than the shrine itself, because it was a chance to be more immersed in the forest with fewer people around. There were also lots of lovely gardens, a tea house, and a pond. I allowed myself to get lost on the trails, following signs to things I hadn’t yet seen, until I arrived back at the main pond.
I saw an older Japanese couple feeding birds out of their hands. The birds were very beautiful, and reminded me of some kind of chickadee. I am used to seeing people feed pigeons, which doesn’t interest me much, but this was such an interesting bird! I couldn’t help but stand and watch for a few minutes. Seeing me, the elderly gentleman called me over and gave me a peanut to offer to the birds! I placed it in my palm and, sure enough, a bird flew right to me and alighted on my thumb to grab the nut. It was a really special moment to feel the tiny feet wrap around my finger, and I thanked the kind couple profusely. They spoke a little English and told me that the bird was called a yamagara in Japanese. (It’s a varied tit in English). That one special moment really made my day, and I’m so grateful to get a chance to connect and share kindness with strangers.