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Within Japan – at the most inconspicuous of its corners, on its streets, and in the heart of its people – there is a wealth of surprises often obscured by their opposites.
Take its urban crowd, for instance. Its cities are flooded with industrious, nigh-mechanical pedestrians. They seem to move always brimming with purpose, seemingly transfixed on wherever it is they are heading to. It appears that they cannot be bothered. But if you bump against one of them, if you ask for their help, or if you, by some way, call their humanity into action, these pedestrians would most likely surprise you with how friendly they are.
You can also try sampling some of Japan’s little-known dishes. There are those served in such small portions yet so flavorful that a few bites would be enough to satisfy your appetite.
Meanwhile there is Tokyo. Gaze upon it on a regular day and the city comes across as fast, unrelenting and busy. It is, like most cities, its music a chaotic cacophony of commerce and mechanics. But oftentimes, when you least expect it, it can surprise you with a sudden quietness, a sudden peace that makes you forget that you’re in the heart of one of the world’s busiest economies.
And then there are the enduring ways of the old. There is no doubt that Japan is one of the most advanced countries in the world. At the forefront of lifestyle trends and technologies, the country usually has its eyes set on the future. But Japan does not cross vast distances while leaving behind its storied past. Traditions remain venerated. Ancestral structures remain preserved. And here in Tokyo, at its heart, at its core, is a heritage well embraced: the Meiji Shrine.
Built in honor of the deified duo of the Meiji era – Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken – the Meiji Shrine (also known as the Meiji Jingū) was constructed back in 1920. It was built eight years after the emperor passed away and six years after the empress followed suit. Like a number of areas in the region, the place has suffered massive damages during the Second World War. But like numerous areas in Japan – a country no stranger to calamities, warfare and grief – it managed to recover.
Welcoming guests with a towering torii gate flanked by lush forest grounds, the shrine as a whole is a proud display of ancient Japanese culture. Inside, one may observe and even participate in numerous Shinto practices, like making offerings at the main hall, purchasing charms and amulets or writing down wishes on an ema – a small wooden plaque where Shinto practitioners jot down their aspirations.
Meanwhile, not far from the shrine proper is the Meiji Jingu Treasure House built one year after the shrine was opened. Since its construction, it has served as a prime curator of personal belongings once owned by the emperor and the empress. Among its treasures is a special carriage used by the emperor during the formal declaration of the Meiji Constitution back in 1889.
A place of tranquility and nature, the area also has a large garden space which has become popular among visitors touring Tokyo. Mid-year, this place comes decorated with irises in bloom. Nearby, there is also Kiyomasa’s Well, a popular spot for the emperor and the empress back when they were alive. The well was named after a military commander who dug it years ago.
It should be noted that lush greenery goes beyond the garden. The whole property is embraced by nature – trees allowed to grow unbridled and proud. Its pathways, meanwhile, are vast and clean. Everywhere in the shrine there is an air of serenity that can make one forget about the busyness of Tokyo.
The Meiji Shrine is a popular tourist destination in the first days of the New Year. According to Japan-Guide.com, that period sees the area welcoming about three million visitors for the hatsumode (the year’s first prayers.) But it is a destination open all year long.
Located near the Harajuku Station and the Yoyogi Station, the vast urban oasis is an accessible haven – a reminder that in Japan, you don’t have to leave the city to effectively escape it.