Meiji Jingu Shrine | A Walk Through a Tokyo Shrine

6 min readMay 17, 2023

The Shrine of the Meiji Emperor

Tokyo is a surprisingly grey city full of concrete office buildings, bustling crowds, and glass-lined highrises, and yet one of the most popular attractions at the heart of the city is actually nestled into a quiet urban forest. The Meiji Jingu Shrine takes up a surprisingly large chunk of the commercial center of Shibuya, ever since its construction in the early 1900s, built to honor and enshrine the deified spirits of the deceased Emperor Meiji (1852–1912) and his wife Empress Shoken (1849–1914). Back in those days, Shibuya wasn’t quite the bustling entertainment district it is today, but it was no shady countryside woodland either. It actually took 110,000 young volunteers, who donated their time and energy to plant 120,000 trees collected from all over Japan (and around the world). In the past century, that effort has grown into the serene parkland we see surrounding the shrine halls today.

The sweeping gravel path that leads towards toward the shrine is dwarfed by the leafy greenery reaching out from the forest on either side, and the towering wooden gate is stained with moss and lichens. This Japanese shrine gate, or “torii” (鳥居) in Japanese, not only marks the entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine — it also creates a boundary between the mundane world of humankind and the realm of the gods. Japanese people will sometimes bow in front of the gate as they enter or leave the shrine, as a sign of respect for the sacred space within. It’s a far cry from the fashion-focused world of Harajuku, despite being just across the street.

It’s said that the souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken reside within each and every one of the thousands of trees planted at the turn of the century, so for some the tall trees and their thick canopy overheard almost feel like a protective embrace from Japan’s former rulers. In a very real, practical sense, this urban parkland is known to provide a much-needed habitat for a number of endangered Japanese plants and animals!

Along the Meiji Jingu path, the wall of sake barrels is a symbol of the ancient connection between Japan’s rice wine and Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. In ancient times, sake was referred to using the term “miki” (神酒), essentially the “alcohol of the gods,” and the sacred ties still hold. The sake found in Japanese shrines is donated by Japanese breweries in return for prayers of prosperity, and when sake is used as an offering in Shinto celebrations and rituals performed in the modern day, it’s still referred to as “miki.” The barrels on display at Meiji Jingu aren’t actually full of sake, however. These are “kazaridaru” (飾り樽), literally “decorative barrels,” which take the place of real donations when shrines start to receive more sake than they can use.

While sake is a commonplace decoration at shrines, however, the wine barrels found at the Meiji Jingu Shrine are a rare addition. But Emperor Meiji was known for bringing great changes to Japan, sweeping away the stubborn samurais who ruled before him, and embracing foreign influence. In light of all the Meiji Emperor symbolized, rows of donated French wine casks stand alongside the sake, marked with a quote from the emperor himself:

“By gaining the good and rejecting what is wrong, it is our desire that we’ll compare favorably with other lands abroad.”

The Meiji Jingu Shrine Halls

Despite only dating back about 100 years, Meiji Jingu Shrine shares one surprising quality with some of Japan’s much older Shinto shrines (like the 2,600-year-old Katori Shrine): shrine buildings constructed much more recently than the shrine’s establishment. Japan’s historic buildings are often reconstructed time and time again during their long histories, usually after the structures burn down in a fire or crumble in an earthquake. In this case, despite the traditional architectural styles still seen today, the halls of Meiji Jingu had to be largely rebuilt in the mid-20th century after World War II air raids destroyed much of Tokyo.

There’s one last vital stop before approaching the main hall of Meiji Jingu Shrine — or any Shinto shrine — and that’s the chozuya or temizuya (手水舎). These hand-washing fountains might be highly decorated, or simple constructions like the one found here, but they’re all built so that shrine visitors can rinse their hands before praying to the gods — cleansing themselves spiritually and physically. Contrary to expectations, many chozuya were off-limits at the height of the covid pandemic, since the traditional way to use the fountain is not all that great for killing germs.

The traditional process for using a chozuya is simple: fill a ladle, pour a little water over your left hand, pour a little water over your right hand, pour more water in your cupped left hand and then use it to gently “rinse your mouth” before you carefully spit the excess onto the ground, before you finally put back the ladle. (The spitting part wasn’t ideal during the pandemic.) If you find yourself forgetting what to do, just keep an eye out and watch the old ladies, who usually know exactly what they’re doing.

Finally, the enshrined spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken are found at the end of the path in the main shrine hall. Interestingly, this shrine is now where the former rulers are actually buried (that honor belongs to a mausoleum in Kyoto), but visitors still line up at Meiji Jingu Shrine to toss their offerings in the coin box (5 yen is standard) and give the imperial deities a prayer. This is a Shinto shrine, so bow twice, clap your hands twice, ask for good luck or give your thanks to the gods, and then bow once more before taking your leave.

For shrines, traditional etiquette advises visitors with “impure” conditions like open wounds, infections, or even those in mourning to stay away. But as long as you feel up for a walk through this urban forest, there’s really no excuse not to visit Meiji Jingu! Time your visit to coincide with the shrine’s many yearly events and ceremonies, or check out the Meiji Jingu Museum and the iris garden while you’re there —you might just catch a traditional Shinto wedding while you’re there, too!

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