Placing heavy value on harmony with nature, the serene philosophy of the Shinto religion resonates through the open spaces of the shrines which allow one to revel in nature while being inspired by the divine. Shrines in Tokyo are both simple and ornate, placid and stimulating.
One is struck by an overwhelming sense of peace, the distinct impression that you are entering a sacred space. Architectural marvels, I was struck by the immaculate attention to detail, the feeling of age and might.
Crossing through the main arch of a shrine, you have many paths to choose before reaching the main altar. You may find a water fountain containing holy water in which to cleanse your hands and face before approaching the featured altar. Often your nose will be seduced by the ethereal aroma of spicy incense, simultaneously grounding and uplifting. There may be nooks with statues and mini altars, or perhaps you will be rewarded with wide open forested paths.
Whichever the case may be, each shrine is unique. Each structure holds its own recipe for peace, for re-connecting with one’s self. Be still, allow each shrine reveal itself to you, to slowly disarm you with its gifts.
Not sure if you’ve encountered a shrine or a temple? Here’s an easy formula. All of the shrines that you will encounter in Japan are Shinto, just as all temples are Buddhist. If you are surrounded by statues of Buddha, chances are you’ve found a temple (my temple post is coming soon).
The following three shrines left a great impression on me.
- Togo Shrine- Located in Harajuku, this compact shrine is nestled in an unobtrusive nook between two buildings. A quick retreat from the hustle and bustle of the busy electric streets of Harajuku, the Togo Shrine, dedicated to Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō is unexpected and lovely.
- Meiji Shrine- One of Tokyo’s most famous and elaborate shrines, I couldn’t get enough of this woodsy retreat. Located in the middle of acres of green forest, it’s hard to believe once inside that you are still in Tokyo. Visiting the Meiji Shrine is like stepping into another world. The rambling footpaths are ideal for engaging in a walking meditation. The forest smells different, feels wonderfully vibrant. In the summer you’ll be lulled by a symphony of locusts, cicadas, birds, and frogs. As you ramble over the stony path towards the shrine, sunlight cascades downwards casting iridescent cocoons of light. The Meiji Shrine, built in 1920 in honor of Emperor and Empress Meiji is my favorite Tokyo shrine (I tried to not pick favorites, but I couldn’t help it!).
- Toshogu Shrine in Ueno Park- Built in 1616, in dedication to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Edo Shogunate, this woodsy open shrine feels very much like a playful tree house. Located in the center of busy Ueno park, the shrine is elevated slightly so that you are on level with the leaves of the trees around its periphery. This shrine radiates energy and offers great views of the park.
With dozens to choose from, the shrines of Tokyo, offer a unique glimpse into the culture and traditions of Japan. A visit to Tokyo isn't complete without a visit to at least one shrine.