"My mom is in town this week...what should I take her to see?"
"Having a hard time figuring out what to do with young kids around here...any suggestions?"
What is a great answer to each of those questions? Shrines!
Shrines (or temples) are my favorite/one size fits all/must-see places, whether by myself, with Little Tofu Fox, or with visitors. For visitors, they fill the "must see something unusual and Japanese!" category. Massive shrine gates, fortune boxes, wafting incense, and exquisite temple gardens delight even the most jaded of travelers. For my kid, shrines usually offer a great chance to get out of the stroller and stretch her legs. It's great, especially if we've ridden the trains for awhile.
And for those us who have been stationed in Japan for awhile and done a lot of MWR tours? It doesn't matter how long I've been here, or how much sightseeing I've done- a visit to one of my favorite shrines is guaranteed to teach me something new!
Pictured above is my favorite shrine in Tokyo, Meiji-jingu. In English, Meiji Shrine. Enshrined within the complex are the revered spirits of Emperor Meiji (grandfather of Emperor Showa, or Hirohito) and his consort, Empress Shoken. I love this shrine, because it is located smack in the middle of Tokyo and at one end of the uber-trendy Harajuku district. When the consumer madness becomes too insane, I like to step inside the cool, leafy shrine complex for awhile. On sunny days, the people-watching here is the best: chic Japanese ladies, families wearing their best kimono for photo ops, and excited tourists snapping too many photos (yep, including me). On rainy days, I like to listen to my feet crunch down the gravel paths and listen to the rain plop onto my umbrella. On those days, I am usually one of the only people there...a rare experience when living just outside Tokyo.
In Japan, shrines often seem to function like the European "town square." It's where the community's events happen! Festival performances, plays, and flea markets are always popping within a shrine's environs. You never know what you might see, which is why I took my mom, brother, and some other good friends there on Monday. "It would be great if we got to see a wedding," I off-handedly remarked to my friend.
Well, we stumbled upon a new experience, alright! Monday, outside Meiji Shrine, happened to be the date and location of the biggest anti-nuclear power demonstration in Tokyo since the first reactors that were idled, post-earthquake, restarted in June. I later read news reports that estimated 170,000 protestors! We had to weave through them to get to Meiji Shrine, and later squeezed through sidewalks next to the chanting crowds on our way back to the train station. With strollers, no less!
|Protestors crowd the bridge outside Meiji Shrine.|
Shoving through those crowds required a lot of work, so we stopped at the shrine's cafe and ate some lunch. Then, of course, the little ones required some leg-stretching, so we slowly moseyed through the shimmering heat and along the shrine's wide, graveled path to the massive, gated entrance.
Which is when we hit the Tourist Jackpot. A wedding.
I've seen a wedding at Meiji Shrine in the past, but it was raining and so the bridal procession skirted around the edges of the grand building, underneath the eaves. I barely caught a glimpse of the bride. On this perfect, cloudless day, we watched in awe as the procession made its stately progress across the courtyard.
|The red umbrella dates from the Heian Era (like 1200 years ago) and is used to signify |
a happy occasion. It also shows up in parades and outdoor tea ceremony.
Most of the family members were wearing somber black or other dark colors. What a switch from our American weddings! My friend explained to me that this is because to dress too cheerfully would be unseemly...other guests might resent a family that seemed too happy about their daughter's (or groom's) luck. The exception in this wedding party was the girl in the vividly colored kimono on the right. She is either a friend of the bride, or a family member under the age of twenty. These two groups are allowed to wear brightly colored kimono to the wedding.
|A bride doesn't need to be wearing a Western wedding dress to need help adjusting the back!|
And then we hit Tourist Jackpot #2. Another wedding was being photographed in one of the shrine's side courtyards!
We watched from a distance as the bride went through two kimono changes. The red and white kimono are Japan's traditional colors for happy occasions.
I stood snapping photos from a respectful distance (I am the owner of what I joking refer to as a "creeper lense"), but my mom crept in for a close-up. A distinguished older gentleman (perhaps the father of the bride?) beckoned for us to come and get a closer shot. Perhaps he figured that if he gave us obnoxious foreigners what we wanted, we'd leave them in peace.* I quickly snapped this shot and then bowed my way out, murmuring my most polite and grateful Japanese (which, let's be honest, is probably atrocious). Thank-you, again, kind gentleman!
We passed this cute little family as we left the shrine. I didn't see any extended family around, but the photographer and elaborate, folded kimono makes me think it was an omiyamairi, or Baby's First Shrine Visit.
|Ornate baby kimono.|
Everyone left this shrine visit happy. Happy kids who got to run around, and happy mommies and friends who got great photos! If you're asking any of the questions at the top of this post, get a shrine visit on your calendar, ASAP!
*I have no idea how many Japanese taboos we broke in taking those photos. I'm embarrassed to even think about it. If you're Japanese and reading this, please don't even tell me.
Meiji-jingu is located next to Yoyogi Park, behind Harajuku Station on the JR Yamanote Line. When exiting the station, TURN RIGHT. On our first shrine visit, we turned left and wandered around the perimeter for about an hour. Idiots. Additionally, you can take the train to Omotesando Station, and enjoy some shopping as you walk down the street. Omotesando-dori (street) dead-ends into Meiji-jingu.
Meiji-jingu is a very popular shrine for New Year's, so consider a visit then (beware of crowds). It is also one of the most popular wedding sites in Japan! Each time I've seen a wedding, it's been on a less-crowded weekday. Of course, there are probably weekend weddings, there, too.
Disclaimer: I do my best to make sure all my information is accurate. However, details may change or I may just be flat-out wrong. Please let me know if something needs a correction. Thank-you!