After our travel-filled day in the air, our first full day in Tokyo was full of history, culture, and (of course) culture shock.
Matthew and I woke up (mostly) refreshed, but still groggy, and made our way down to the hotel breakfast. We were happily surprised to find out that there were two buffets: a western-style buffet with omelets, mini pancakes, and yogurt, and a Japanese-style buffet with miso soup, udon, and fish cakes. We got a splattering of western and eastern options, combining a bowl of miso soup and a bowl of rice with “hashed potatoes” (what the Japanese called hash browns).
After our extremely filling and delicious breakfast (which, in Japanese, translates to “morning rice”), we began our tour of Japan’s largest city. We met our tour guide, Kazumi-san (“san” is a respectful ending to a name), and set off to the Meiji Jinju Shrine.
Before we get to the shrine, a few quick notes on Japanese religious practices:
- Japanese people are both Shinto and Buddhist at the same time; these aren’t religions that are mutually exclusive in Japan. Even if people are not actively religious (which most aren’t), most families will have a mini shrine for both the Shinto religion and the Buddhist religion at their home.
- Because the Japanese, generally, are not actively religious, they don’t visit shrines/temples weekly like people who subscribe to western religions. Instead, they go when they feel they need to, such as holidays (especially January 1st) or to bless their children after they are born.
- To put it simply, Kazumi-san said, if something sad happens, you go to a Buddhist temple to pray, and if something happy happens, you go to a Shinto shrine to give thanks.
Back to the tour.
The Meiji Jinju Shrine is a Shinto shrine that was founded in 1920 and dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who united all of Japan, and his wife, Empress Shōken. The Shinto religion is a religion that worships nature; any natural phenomena can be anthropomorphized and worshiped as a deity. For example, there are Shinto shrines dedicated to the deity tsunami, deities of rain, etc. The Meiji Jinju Shrine is a bit of an anomaly, as it is dedicated to a real person, instead of a naturally occurring phenomenon. Kazumi-san explained that the Shinto religion also deifies humans if they are especially significant to the Shinto religion or the Japanese people, hence, the Meiji Jinju Shrine.
As we drove up to the shrine, we found that we had suddenly entered a vast and thick man-made forest. Kazumi-san explained that, when the Japanese government announced that this shrine was to be dedicated to Emperor Meiji, people from all over Japan donated local saplings to be planted, and so the forest surrounding the Meiji Jinju Shrine has an extremely wide variety of trees and plants.
As we walked through the forest towards the entrance of the shrine, Kazumi-san pulled us to the side of the main Tori gate (the pi-shaped gates found at Shinto shrines) to show us a huge collection of painted sake barrels. She explained that many rice farmers will come to this shrine to pray for good harvests, and to show their thanks to the Shinto gods, they send back a barrel of sake to the shrine once they have completed their season. The collection of sake at the Meiji shrine has sake from all regions of Japan, and each has their logo on the side. It was an impressive collection and was the first introduction we had into how important sake was and is to Japanese culture and history.
Opposite the collection of sake barrels was a collection of wine casks from France because Emperor Meiji was the person who introduced western culture to Japan. Since the Emperor was a diabetic, his doctor suggested that instead of drinking sake that he switch to wine. Thus, the Emperor’s love for French wine began. As a symbol of thanks and good spirits (get it) between Japan and France, French winemakers donate a cask of wine after every season to show their respect.
After this, we arrived at the main gate. Since this is a shrine dedicated to a former emperor, the Tori gate features gold chrysanthemums: the flower of the imperial family. As with any Tori gate, the center of the walkway is for the gods and goddesses; humans are to enter closer to each leg of the gate as to not disrupt or offend them. Once you step through the gate, you’re though to be purified.
Once we got to the shrine, Kazumi-san explained the way to properly pray at a Shinto shrine. First, you approach the shrine and throw in a coin (usually a 10 cent or 50 cent piece) and bow twice, to show your respect. Then, you clap twice. Since Shinto gods and goddess don’t live at the shrines, you need to get their attention so that they can hear your wish. After you’ve clapped, you make your wish/say your prayer, and bow a final time.
After we made our wishes, we turned around and saw…A TRADITIONAL JAPANESE WEDDING PARTY! As explained before, most Japanese people are not extremely religious, but, many young people still want to have a traditional Japanese wedding. This means, that couples will have their wedding ceremony at a Shinto shrine; to have it at the Meiji shrine is a really big deal, as it is one of the most famous (if not the most) shrines in all of Japan. The bride and groom are wearing traditional Japanese garb, including the hat that the bride was wearing. Holding the umbrella over them is a priest, and the two women walking in front of them are priestesses (think: Vestil virgins). Following them is their wedding party. It was really delightful to see a real-life Japanese wedding ceremony happen, especially at the most famous Shinto shrine!
Before we left, we also took a look at all of the prayers that hung near the shrine. For the shrine to make money and for the people to have a more permanent reminder to the gods of their prayer, people can buy a small wooden tablet and write down their wish to hang on this communal wish wall. There were many really great wishes, and also some very serious ones, as you could imagine. We didn’t have much time (and it felt kind of creepy), so we only looked at a few before we headed back to the front of the shrine to meet up with the rest of the group.
Since this blog already has gotten quite long, I’m going to break up day 2 into two blog posts, one on the Meiji Jingu Shrine and one on the Senso-ji Temple. Stay tuned for more on the Senso-ji Temple, one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Japan!