Walking freely through Roppongi that morning was amazing but I was tired and very hot from the humidity and intense sun. I was glad of the short respite from the sun by taking the subway to Harajuku. Harajuku is north of Shibuya and is wedged between Shibuya and Shinkuju. Dominating much of the area is the amazing Yoyogi-koen. One of Tokyo’s largest parks. It is quite an amazing space when you consider the density of people and buildings that dominate areas like Shibuya and Shinjuku and most of Tokyo. Such a vast expanse that has thankfully been preserved for use by the city’s citizens. And in the middle of this open area was a gem of an experience that I had read much about and was on my must-do list for this trip to Tokyo.
Meiji-Jingu or Meiji Shrine is a Shinto shrine originally constructed in 1920 and dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. Unfortunately it was partially destroyed by bombing runs during World War II and then rebuilt in 1958 – again holding true to its original design and incredible timber and stone architecture and structures. The shrine is an immense complex with its massive wooden torri (gates), vast boulevards, forest, gardens and traditional buildings and grounds.
When I arrived at the edge of the shrine grounds, which covers a 70 hectare area and contains a staggering 120,000 trees donated to the shrine from all over Japan, I was presented with an immense timber gate structure or torri. This gate stands 12 metres tall and is made from a 1500 year old Taiwanese Cyprus tree. Awe inspiring to stand back from it, under it, wherever and marvel at the size and simplistic beauty of this structure. The timber supports and cross beam and huge. The small but essential decorations. It speaks volumes of the simplicity of Japanese design.
From that gate, for as far as the eye can see, a wide gravel boulevard stretched into the distance in a straight line. On each side the lush and dense forest of trees pushes towards the path and giants stretch their limbs inwards, high above the path, to form a canopy. This gave relief from the hot sun and allowed the sunlight to break through occasionally across the path and forest. Looking upwards was like staring into a river of intense bright light trickling through the canopy overhead. There was only a slight breeze and amazingly the pathway ahead of me was relatively quiet and free of the expected clutter of visitors. Every hundred metres or so there stood a timber lantern at the edge of the path. Beautiful little structures that punctuated the entire length of the boulevard and were the only interruptions to the consistency of the path.
Whilst walking along this pathway I did manage to take some shots, however my attention was almost completely absorbed by the sheer beauty and tranquility of the place in which I found myself at that moment. Deep in the middle of the worlds biggest and most populated city, far from home, I was entranced by the shafts of sunlight, the gently sway of the trees and presence of the beautiful forest on either side of me. The sounds of crows calling from high above. The smell of the forest. I remember talking to my family later that night and telling them it was like a spiritual experience for me. And it was. I am not in any way religious but this was such an incredible experience. I had achieved a sense of tranquility, peace and harmony that I had not experienced in such a long time – if at all. A quietness of my mind. A silencing of worries and stress. Almost an absence of body. The opening of my senses to suck in as much of this as I could. It was so pure and amazing that I don’t think I will ever forget it.
The boulevard stretched on and on. Here and there, a gardener was busy raking up leaves of clearing debris from the path. Again that relentless sense of pride and respect. This path stretched from one end of the park to the other. Coming from the other end was a stronger flow of people now, especially as I neared the centre of the grounds. Ahead there was an intersection in the path and on the other side of that was an enormous wooden structure built within a clearing of the forest. Sheltered within it were dozens of barrels of sake or rice wine. They are known as Sakedaru and are timber barrels wrapped in straw and rope. Each is adorned in a bright and highly decorative white label identifying the brewer. These are quite common at Shinto shrines as the brewers donate the barrels to the shrines for traditional events and for good prosperity. Fascinating designs. Once I reached the intersection we all merged and left the main boulevard to travel towards a cluster of buildings and paved squares.
This was the main area of the shrine itself. It was a buys place. Not so much the amount of other tourists, but there were a lot of traditional weddings taking place. Brides and grooms at the head of long processions of attendants and family and friends. A young man nervously awaiting his bride as she had photos taken amongst the amazing traditional buildings of the shrine. Men in full traditional costume holding giant red umbrellas above the heads of the bride and groom. Nervous glances. Sweet smiles. And even the odd family argument took place. What’s a wedding without the in-laws getting their noses out of joint? So much sincerity and certainty on the importance of this ritual. Not taken lightly. Almost heavy.
This all took place in snaking lines as multiple weddings were taking place throughout the shrine complex. Such an amazing opportunity to be a bystander at such a time. So many emotions visible for everyone in attendance. And obviously such a great photographic opportunity. So much detail in costumes and energy in the stories on display. What photographer would pass that up? I was fortunate to be there at the right time in the afternoon. As the priests came out of a beautiful timber temple to cross a courtyard, where visitors were not permitted to enter, and solemnly strike a giant drum or taiko. This was an incredibly ornate instrument that was about the size of an elephant. Quite impressive. I want one at home to wake the teenagers in the mornings.
Once I had spent some time viewing and shooting weddings, and checked out the buildings and squares, I made my way back to the main boulevard and continued along the path. It was nearing late afternoon by this point. The sun was still high and very hot and the foot traffic on the path was growing rapidly. I headed to Harajuku station and the starting point of what could only be described as shopping insanity. Jingūmae.
This is a district to the east of Meiji-Jingu that predominantly stretches along the main street all the way to the far edge of Minamiaoyama. A broad multi lane road with a gardened barrier separating the two halves of the road. Broad footpaths on each side and here and there were overhead pedestraian walkways to get to the other side of the road. Multitudes of shops, stores and centres selling everything from the latest Shibuya style street wear to a toy shop that sold amazing toys and a popcorn store that literally just sold popcorn. Yes, my credit card took a beating at the toy store as I stocked up on gifts for the kids. They had amazing Star Wars toys and unique Lego sets and other mind-blowing stuff. Lots of Pokemon, Disney and being mid September there were lots of Halloween themed toys. Halloween in Tokyo is huge! Another chance to go overboard with the dressing up. So yes I bought quite a bit. What choice did I have? As a result of that little splurge (and a few more over the days to come) I had to buy a second suitcase to get everything home. And even then it was a squeeze.
To say it was busy would be understating the situation. After a block or two it became jam-packed with people and both sides of the road were congested with traffic. It was now suffocating hot and the volume of people was not helping. Also I was carrying a significant number of shopping bags on top of my camera gear. Being slightly taller than most among me, I was able to see into the distance and the endless line of shoppers swarming the footpaths, disappearing into the far, far distance. It was amazing to be swept along with that tide. Diverting into stores to check out some bizarre or obscure Tokyo fashion or futuristic gadget. Stay tuned for more on geek shopping in Tokyo in future blogs! I soon grew tired to my core and began to make my way to a subway entrance. Remember that this was my first full day in Tokyo. I had already covered quite a lot of ground.
I needed a deep bath and the cool sanctuary of my hotel room. Just for a short little break. But along the way home I got distracted by a little anti-war / anti-nukes protest. What an amazing thing to see and take photographs of. It was a very peaceful protest with people carrying banners, waving flags and signs, a small truck with a rock band playing some tune on the back tray, chanting. The works. It was loud though. The police were present but they were more escorting the protestors than trying to subdue them.
This havoc was such a stark contrast to the harmony I had obtained and experienced back on the pathway to the shrine. Only a few hundred metres away. But that is Tokyo. It is a city of extremes with hyper-modern lifestyles underpinned with traditional Japanese values. I think that is why I fell in love with Tokyo that day. It has a bit of harmony and havoc in everything it does. I think I am a little like that too.