Born on 3 November 1852, Emperor Meiji (or Mutsuhito) had a vague and largely unknown childhood history. Some history records describe him as a tough bully with exceptional strength and unparalleled talent at the Japanese sumo wrestling sport; some accounts describe him as a weakling that fainted at the mere sound of gun shot. Despite the contradicting accounts of history, what we do know is that when Emperor Meiji was born, Japan was in an isolated era dominated by Shogun and daimyo, and at the time when Emperor Meiji passed away, Japan was an industrialized country and one of the greatest powers on world stage.
Emperor Meiji ascended to the throne when he was 15. He is by far the most well-known emperor in Japan, a figurehead associated with various significant chain of events in Japan. When we talk about Meiji Restoration, we are referring to the dramatic series of events that brought an end to the Japan’s Edo era and the restoration of power to the emperor, a rapid transformation of Japan from a feudal state to capitalist and imperial world power. When we talk about Meiji Period, we are referring to the era when Japan experienced westernization and modernization for the very first time in history which enormously transformed Japan into one of the world’s major powers.
And when we talk about Emperor Meiji, we are reminded of a radical-thinking man who was willing to be the pioneer in embracing the Western culture in personal life, from shearing his topknot in favour of Western-styled haircut, donning in western attire, to even taking western food and enjoying wine with it.
Emperor Meiji passed away in 1912. The Japanese Diet (Parliament) passed a resolution commemorating Emperor Meiji’s role in the Meiji restoration. An area of Tokyo spanning over 700,000 square metres (about 175 acres) was identified as the location for the building of the magnificent Shinto shrine Meiji Jingu. The building of the shrine began in 1915 and was completed in year 1920.
Few steps away from Harajuku Station is the massive toriii gate which marked the entrance of the shrine grounds and the beginning of a 15 minutes walking journey amidst the tranquil evergreen forest of 120,000 trees and 365 species, including many endangered plants and animals. Meiji Jingu is the largest Shinto shrine in Tokyo, and boasts the nation’s largest torii (shrine gates) which were said to be created from cypress trees of 1500 years, some believed to be transported all the way from Taiwan.
Along the way to the main shrine complex, you can view various spectacular sights which form a marked contrast to the fast-moving, hectic modern Tokyo. First of all was the colourful and artistically display of hundreds of straw-covered sake barrels lined at the side of the walkway. The sake barrels were offered annually to the deities of Meiji Shrine by the Meiji Jingu Nationwide Sake Brewers Association as a prayer for the prosperity of the brewing industry in Japan.
Before the entrance to the main shrine is the Temizusha where ritual of purification is observed by rinsing of hands and washing of mouth with ladles.
Right next are the various stalls selling amulets and charms. Wooden prayer blocks called Ema are neatly hung on the hooks under a tree with prayers written on top. Meiji Shrine is also a well-known spot for sombre Shinto wedding processions, usually carried out on a Sunday. I was lucky to get a glimpse of one, though no photo was taken as photographing was prohibited at the inner part of the shrine.
It is an interesting experience to see the faithful adherents (with foreign visitors observing and emulating at the side) paying respect to the deities by following a few simple steps; first, bow twice to the deities, then clap the hands twice loudly, make a silent wish and lastly, give a final bow.
Access to Meiji Shrine:
A few steps from Harajuku Station on the JR Yamanote Line or Meiji-Jingu-mae Station on the Chiyoda and Fukutoshin subway lines.
Holds personal belongings of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, opens daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., 500 yen per entry.