Pilgrimage is indeed one of the oldest motives for travel. For centuries, people have travelled to find places which inspire, astound, and simply take our breath away. The modern history of what we now know as Tokyo is centred around commerce, innovation, animation and out-there fashion. Tokyo may not have the wealth of historic religious sites boasted by cities like Kyoto or Nara, but it is still home to an interesting array of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and other sacred sites. Packed in, not around bustling centres, it is a unique contrast to take time out and experience these beautiful grounds leading to ancient shrines.
Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist house of worship, the Sensoji Temple, is the jewel in the crown of the city’s well-preserved Asakusa historic district. Constructed in 638 A.D., the temple houses a golden statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, which, according to legend, was pulled from the nearby Sumida River by two unsuspecting fishermen.
As I walked towards the temple I could see Kaminarimon or “Thunder Gate”, which totally dominated the entrance. This imposing Buddhist structure features a massive paper lantern dramatically painted in vivid red-and-black tones to suggest thunderclouds and lightning. But, my eyes were just focusing on the five-storied pagoda – one of the most famous in Japan – it is truly impressive to look at this18 story height building.
My first night was one to remember in Japan with a tremble felt at night. It was one of those things where we weren’t sure if it was real or not. Given the wars, earthquakes, fires and everything in between that occurs in history, it is amazing this pagoda hasn’t succumbed to being a relic, or model of a former structure. A Japanese man explained to me that they actually built pagodas to withstand earthquakes centuries ago, and still use the same principles to this day. Using a shinbashira (a central pole) in the centre of the pagoda, it supports the whole tower, withstanding earthquakes.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get closer to the pagoda and look at the shinbashira as the pagoda is only opened three times a year. This is strictly by invitation only for the person and their families who have applied for “Eitai Kuyo”- a service to have a grave attended to by the temple.
After sunset, the pagoda, Kaminarimon, and Hozomon gates, are all illuminated, highlighting the vermillion colour of the temple. Strolling along the streets with small vendors selling crafts, kimonos and food it is an amazing end a great backdrop to finish your visit.
It is hard to not read or hear about the impact Meiji had on Japan. The shrine is a continuing testimony right in the heart of modern Tokyo of just how important Meiji was to Japanese and others around the world.
This is a peaceful oasis and you could not get a more contrasting experience as you approach the grounds from Harajuku where teenagers where the most outrageous gothic and cartoon character inspired outfits.
This 700,000 square-meter forest of 120,000 evergreen trees, donated from all parts of Japan when the shrine was established, houses the outer and inner gardens.
You know you are entering somewhere special when you see the great O-torii (shrine gates), 12 metres high and made of cypress wood more than 1700 years old.
The Jingu Naien (Y500) is said to have been designed by Meiji for his wife and with over 100 types of Irises, his wife’s favourite flower, in full bloom during June, this place is heavenly for any garden, design or nature lover.
Walking to the north, you find the shrine’s structures, with the honden (main hall), with quintessential harmonious cypress wood and copper roof construction. Grouped around this hall are the inner and outer thrones, the Shinko (treasure house) and Shinsenjo (preparation of food offerings) with a courtyard in between to pause and take it all in. While the Meiji Memorial Picture gallery stands out for being a European style building, you can get a sense of who this man was by seeing the 40 different paintings depicting the life events of this amazing man.