ood and Lodging


March 27 - May 10, 2010

Japanese flag

Cherry Blossom
Cherry Blossom

The Meiji Shrine

The most famous of Shinto shrines in Tokyo is of course the one dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, who came to power at the end of the 19th century. He was the prime mover behind the restoration of power to the hereditary emperors of Japan from the power-wielding Shogun administrators.

During his reign he coaxed Japan out of its feudal agricultural past into a modern, industrial age. He oversaw the removal of the ancient modes of dress introducing top hats and tails. He encouraged the introduction of all the trappings of the 19th century industrial revolution, building trains, ships, cars, and planes. He was no peacenik, however, and built a large army which he was not hesitant to use. It was during his reign that Korea became a Japanese colony and that Japan's first incursions into Manchuria took place.

Like all emperors in Japan he was revered and at his death the nation built a shrine for his spirit. It is known, of course as the Meiji Shrine. In Japan a shrine is a Shinto place of worship, a temple, a Buddhist one. Both exist side-by-side, often literally, although we found that on the island of Shikoku, a site of pilgrimage for Buddhists, the Shinto shrines are very run-down and little visited compared to their nearby Buddhist temples.

We made several visits to the Meiji shrine as it was a fairly easy bike ride from our Shibuy apartment. We came initially to look around like everyone else, admire the lovely wooded estate it is built in, gawk at the huge shrine buildings, and hope to see a Shinto priest in his white robes, black hat and huge shiny black clogs. On our first visit, we were quite delighted to see the weddings that took place while we were there. Two of the three that we witnessed were mixed Japanese-European weddings. One of them was a French man and a Japanese woman, the other we doon't know the nationality of the groom. The third was an all-Japanese affair, but seemed to be bereft of guests: we saw only the bride and groom. The wedding party parades from one building through the main courtyard to another. Presumably from the reception area to the actual shrine for the ceremony and then back again. For the foreign weddings there were photographs taken in the courtyard with chairs set up for the guests. All brides were in lovely kimonos, with the very striking wedding headdress; two were very colorful ones and a third all -white. The men were invariably in traditonal Japanese dress with foot socks and sandals, and male kimonos.

On one of our visits, we learned about a special festival that was coming up during which there would be performances of traditional Japanese music and even short exerpts of Noh dramas. Since our main reason for being here was to observe Japanese culture, we jumped at the chance to see such an event. The festival took place over three days and consisted mostly of stage performances in the late morning and early afternoon. The first day, by pure luck, we arrived just in time to claim almost the last two seats available close to the open-air stage that had been set up in the courtyard in front of the main shrine complex. We should add, that there are many buildings in a shrine, usually located one behind the other with courtyards in between. The public is usually not admitted to the inner courtyards and is only allowed to bow and make offerings on the steps and forecourt of the front building. On subsequent days, we understood the rules better and were sure to be there in advance, waiting to pounce on a good chair as soon as they were put out.

The performances were all interesting and seemed to our untutored eyes to be of a professional standard. They consisted mostly of musical performances but there was also a couple of Noh drama excerpts and some short pieces from the comedic interludes that are interspersed with full-length Noh dramas. We couldn't follow much of the comedy, but some kind soul had put together a short introduction to each event in English. We felt lucky to be there and have the time to see the whole three-day affair. It was not our last such event, as we witnessed a similar festival at the other big Shinto shrine in Tokyo, the Yasukuni Shrine.

The Yasukuni Shrine

We visited lots of small Shinto shrines in the course of our stay in Tokyo, but the other big shrine that we visited more than once, was Yasukuni Shrine. Famous, or rather infamous, because this shrine houses the spirits of Japan's war dead, including most notoriously the military leaders from WWII, some of whom were executed by the victorious allies for war crimes. There is always controversy when time comes for the annual service to remember the war dead and the prime minister of the day must decide whether or no to pay homage at the shrine. It is not an easy decision, because of course the PM would like to pay homage to the fallen, but there is always significant international pressure against glorifying the leaders of the second world war.

We visited the shrine several times, to attend a festival of amateur music and theater that was being held over a period of three or four days. The performances were clearly amateur, but interesting nonetheless to see who took part. The performers were by a great majority female and almost exclusively retirees, and quite elderly ones to boot. They obviously belonged to associations of dance and music and were spending their retirement years in those pursuits rather than travelling around the world. We were happy to see the fruits of their labors. The funniest performance was not supposed to be comedic. It was a magic show by a handful of very old Japanese gentlemen, who hadn't really practised enough, or perhaps no longer had the requisite dexterity, but almost every trick went wrong. The audience politely clapped anyway.

January 23, 2011