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Meiji Jingu Shrine – A green Oasis in the Heart of Tokyo

One travels to Tokyo expecting urban wonders. The technological growth, the fashionable coffee shops, hot couture stores, skyscrapers reflecting the sunlight, not to mention the exciting yet claustrophobic rhythm of life in one of the largest cities in the world.

The capital of manga is of course, all of this and more. Sprawled over almost 2,200 square kilometres, Tokyo is the most populated metropolitan area in the world, being much larger than New York City and having a population of over 38 million individuals. No wonder I was overwhelmed when I got there, especially taking into account that I have lived my whole live in Malta, a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea whose area barely scrapes 320 kilometres squared and which is the smallest country in the European Union.

Awed and excited, looking around me and craning my neck upwards trying to take in all the bustle of life in such a gargantuan metropolis, I admit that I almost felt like some country bumpkin visiting the city for the first time. After some days, I became more accustomed to the flow of the thousands of people moving purposely around me, the huge and efficient underground system, the myriad of stores, shops, cafes, restaurants, skyscrapers, shrines and markets. And yet, I admit I also felt somewhat crushed by it all. It was too much. I needed to breathe. I needed to go somewhere where the crowd did not swallow me. Where I did not feel vanquished and trodden down by the multitude of hoards crashing around me like waves. Somewhere where I could actually hear myself think.

My oasis of green serenity was Meiji Jingu Shrine.

The Torii Gate at the Entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine

Found in Shibuya ward, the grounds of Meiji Jingu Shrine can be accessed through two main entrances, both marked by a huge welcoming Torii Gate.  The North entrance is very close to Yoyogi Station, while the South entrance is directly next to JR Harajuku Station. As I walked beneath the Torii gate, the sounds and smells of the busy city were quickly muffled and replaced by the scent of grass and the shuffling of leaves crowding the huge green forest leading up to the shrine. Torii gates represent the passage from the mundane to the spiritual, so when passing underneath one, remember to bow in respect both when entering and leaving the shrine.

Dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken, Meiji Jingu Shrine, perhaps because of its central location, is one of Japan’s most popular Shinto shrines. More than 3 million individuals visit yearly, crowding the place particularly during hatsumode – the first few days of the New Year, when it is traditional for Japanese families to visit shrines in order to pray for good luck, longevity and new beginnings.

The trees line the path leading to the main shrine

While walking along the main trail leading from the entrance Torii gate to the main shrine, we saw a number of Shimenawa tied around some of the beautiful massive cypress trees lining the path. A shimenawa is a straw rope with white zigzag paper strips marking the boundary to something sacred. They are often found hanging on torii gates or tied around sacred trees and stones.

Meiji Jingu is an Imperial shrine, meaning that it was directly funded and is administered by the government. Imperial shrines are often called ‘jingu’, which literally translates as ‘Shinto shrine’. Shinto is the original religion of Japan. This shrine’s construction was completed in 1920. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during the Tokyo raids of World War II, however it was quickly rebuilt. The present shrine was funded through a public fundraising effort and completed in 1958.

The Purification Trough

The first thing one encounters while walking towards the main area is a large and beautifully ornate purification trough. Such a trough is always found near the entrance to any Shinto shrine, in order for visitors to purify their bodies and spirits before entering. One is supposed to use the water to clean first one hand, then the other, as well as rinsing one’s mouth, before approaching the main shrine. Be sure not to drink the water. It should be used only for rinsing. Spit out any excess liquid in the appropriate grooves beneath the trough.

Entering the Shrine

The shrine buildings are primarily made out of Japanese cypress and copper plates for the roofs. The main hall or honden, and the offering hall or haiden, are two separate buildings adjacent to each other. When we visited there was a private ceremony taking place at the honden, so it was cordoned off, however we could still make our offerings and pray for good fortune at the haiden. To make an offering at a Shinto shrine or temple – put some coins into the offering box, bow twice from the waist, clap your hands twice, put your hands together and pray. Make a wish for yourself and/or others. Bow once again. Out of respect, photos are usually not permitted close to the main shrine buildings. Remember to be respectful since this is an active place of worship.

The homotsuden or Treasure House of Meiji Shrine can be found at its northern end. Here one can admire a number of seasonal and permanent historic displays. Unfortunately, it was closed during our visit (end of June 2019) due to restructuring taking place in preparation of the Olympic Games 2020. A museum annex building to the east of the main shrine also displays a number of other exhibits. This one, fortunately, was accessible during my visit. The outer precinct of the shrine grounds also contain a memorial picture gallery, a national stadium, a martial arts hall, and a number of other sports facilities.

Visitors of Meiji Jingu Shrine can purchase omomori (lucky charms/amulets) and ema at the stalls directly opposite the main hall. Ema are small wooden plaques depicting either the crest of the shrine or the specific year’s eto (zodiac). These are usually inscribed with well wishes or prayers and tied to a sacred tree near the main shrine. You can also keep them and take them home as a souvenir. Some of them are quite beautiful!

A small tip – do not try to take photos of the priest or priestess manning the stalls – they will not be pleased.

The traditional wooden tea-house

Together with the adjacent Yoyogi Park, the evergreen forest making up Meiji Jingu’s grounds covers around 172 acres of Tokyo. Although the shrine itself was interesting and enriching to visit, I must admit that my favorite part of the grounds were definitely the Inner gardens. The landscaped trees, lakes and winding woodland paths were simply breath-taking. An idyllic retreat from the outside world. After paying the small fee of 500 yen, we found ourselves walking towards a quaint wooden tea-house built in the traditional Japanese style. We admired a display of giant bonsai trees, then continued down the narrow path surrounded by greenery. One of the highlights of the Inner garden is surely the Iris garden, which was in full bloom at the end of June. Glorious purple and white irises claimed the landscape, together with a number of small bridges arching over the South Pond, as we paused to sit and admire the nature around us from one of the wooden benches interspersing the garden.

The Iris Garden

The South Pond, a large clear body of water filled with turtles and large colorful koi fish, provided the perfect backdrop. Surrounded by magnificent Japanese maples amongst other trees and plants, we also strolled through the Azalea garden, as well as Nan-Chi Pond – a dream of loveliness filled with large floating white water-lilies.

Nan-chi Pond

Slowly, we made our way towards the famous Liyamasa’s Well, which is situated at the mouth of the stream that runs to the South Pond. This well is said to be a power spot and to give positive and lucky energies to whoever visits it.

It was a real pleasure to linger in Meiji Jingu Shrine’s gardens, however we had other plans for the rest of the day, so we knew we could not spend it all there. This is why we had gone as soon as the shrine had opened, that is, at 9am, which is actually the best time to visit since there are less tourists and it is more quite and serene.

The Heavenly Meteora Monasteries

Beautiful sunny Greece is mostly known for its picturesque islands and classical Hellene ruins, however there is at least one other wonder which no traveler should miss. I am referring to the group of six monasteries known as ‘Meteora’, which literally means ‘suspended in the air’, and which are situated at the edge of the plain of Thessaly, in central Greece.

One of the Meteora Monasteries

Defined by UNESCO as a unique phenomenon of cultural heritage, these Eastern Orthodox havens of ancient cultural and religious artifacts and icons, perch majestically on enormous columns of rock rising precipitously from the ground. This rare geological peculiarity is truly one of a kind. As we navigated the winding roads on our rented car, I couldn’t help but wonder at the original monks who, fleeing from the encroaching Ottoman raiders at the end of the 14th century, found refuge in the isolated caves, and then later further up the rocky slopes of Meteora. Originally there were 24 monasteries atop these impossibly imposing natural formations, however unfortunately only six remain active today, as the others all fell into ruin, most notably after the depredations of the second world war, when many were bombed and their art treasures stolen. The six remaining monasteries – testaments to the piety and art of the Orthodox culture, are all situated near each other, so though I recommend renting a car or purchasing a coach ticket to arrive to Meteora itself, one can still continue walking on foot from one monastery to the other. Of course, if you plan on visiting, I would also suggest dedicating at least one full day to visit all six monasteries. There is so much to see!

We rounded a corner and suddenly there it was – a sight I will never forget. I could hardly assimilate how far up we were, not to mention take in the amazing panorama of abrupt vertical rock pinnacles topped with exquisite red-roofed buildings, without wondering how on earth anyone could have built them up there. Especially knowing that the oldest and largest monastery, that of Great Meteoron, had been erected in the 14th century, when construction materials and aides were very limited. We stopped the car to take some photos and realized that we were not the only ones there. Yes, Meteora is underrated, yet there are still many people visiting all year round – not just pilgrims and history buffs, but also rock climbers, trekkers, and simple tourists. Beware though – Meteora is not a site for those who don’t like walking, in fact one must brave a myriad of stone steps cut in the rocks themselves, sheer bridges and wooden platforms, to access the fairytale buildings. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.

My silly boyfriend trying to give me a heart-attack by prancing on the edge

Unfortunately we did not have time to visit all six monasteries, seeing only four of them. The first we went to, the Monastery of Great Meteoron, is surely my favorite one of the lot. It is situated on top of the highest of the inhabited rock pinnacles, reaching more than 613 metres above sea level, and was founded by a monk who later became a Saint of the Greek Orthodox Church. Facing the rough vertiginous steps hewn into the rocks, which one must climb to reach the monastery, I admit, my fear of heights started to make itself known. Then, I was told that I was lucky to be using steps at all, since before the 1920s, the monks used to access the buildings using large baskets, pulleys and ropes! It must surely have taken years to carry construction material up the high rock formations using nothing but nets, cordage and folding ladders. Not to mention great fortitude and strength of will.

The Monastery of Great Meteoron!
I just fell in love with this beautiful courtyard

As I paid the meager €3 entrance fee, I was given a long colorful skirt to wear over my shorts. Skanty attire is in fact not permitted in the monasteries. However, I soon forgot my momentary discomfort over the ugly garment as soon as I started exploring. The medieval kitchen, the gold Byzantine paintings in the main church, the frescoes in the smaller chapels, and the ancient illuminated manuscripts in the museum, were all wonders to behold. Not to mention the ossuary in the sacristy – literally a room full of skulls belonging to the monks who had lived there! After a delightful hour clambering throughout the building, we found ourselves in a large courtyard. The pink-leaved trees framed a really magnificent landscape, as not just the other monasteries on their pinnacles, but also the tiny-looking town of Kalampaka below, the Pindus Mountains, and the Pineios River, were all spread before us. A litter of kittens frolicked amidst the serene splendor striking a cute note amidst the grandiose spectacle.

The Ossuary

A small suggestion – don’t buy any souvenirs from the pricey vending stalls outside. Each monastery has its own small shop where one can purchase the monks’ own products! I bought a small hand-painted censer and some sweet incense from Great Meteoron, and I really prize it knowing the dedication and effort it took to make it, especially since each monastery contains not more than 15 monks at one time. Much more original than any mass marketed fridge magnet, keychain or snowglobe for sure.

Next up was the Monastery of Varlaam. This is the second biggest monastery of the Meteora complex and is located directly opposite Great Meteoron. The most curious and interesting thing I saw here was in the old tower, where they still keep the original net and windlass used by the first monks for their ascent and descent from the rock pinnacle. There are also a number of graceful and colourful ancient icons which one can admire in the museum, as well as over 300 religious manuscripts on display in the sacristy.

One of the medieval religious illustrated manuscripts

The third monastery I visited was the Holy Monastery of Roussanou, which it is rumored, is built upon the foundations of a tiny chapel even older than itself. Roussanou monastery is inhabited by nuns and it was founded in the middle of the 16th century. Currently only 13 nuns live there. It is more accessible than the other monasteries, as the spire of rock it is built upon has a lower elevation. All you have to do to reach this monastery is cross a small bridge from another peak. If you suffer from vertigo however, don’t look down while you are on the bridge!

The scent of incense was amazing!

The last monastery I visited was that of Agia Triada, or the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, which is the hardest one to reach. One must in fact climb 140 uneven steps cut into the rock to reach it, however once you reach the top, the captivating view of the surroundings is totally worth it. Part of this monastery was also used as the setting for the final scenes of the James Bond movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to visit the Monastery of Saint Stephen and the Monastery of Nikolaos Anapafsas, as we had a long drive ahead of us, and all the Monasteries close at around 5pm.

Visiting these monasteries was truly mystical, magical, extraordinary and impressive. The immensity of nature’s beauty, coupled with the history, and architecture of Meteora, embodies man’s everlasting desire for spiritual elevation. One of the most awe-inspiring places I’ve ever been to.

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta

Magic and Prophecy – The Oracle of Delphi

Nestled amidst pine forested hills and rocky crags, Delphi, which is a UNESCO World Heritage, is an archaeological site situated 200 meters up Mount Parnassus, and is a picturesque reminder of the flowering of Greek culture at its peak. It is the second most popular cultural touristic destination on the Greek mainland, after the Acropolis. The ancient sanctuary, perched on one of the largest mountainous regions of Greece, was famous for hundreds of years as the location of the supreme oracle of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Mount Parnassus

The oracle or seer was considered to be a prophet of the gods, and the oracle at Delphi in particular was famed for being the mouthpiece through which the god Apollo made his will known. Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of the sun, was also the god of healing, music and prophecy, and he is tied to Delphi through a well-known legend which maintains that he once slew a giant serpent there. The serpent was called Python, and this is why all subsequent oracles at Delphi were called the Pythia.

I have always loved Greek mythology, and was thinking about this story, told to us at the Delphi Museum far below the ruins themselves, when I suddenly started spying the remains of statuary and broken columns at the sides of the track. These are all that are left of the hundreds of sculptures and votive statues which many pilgrims and nobles dedicated to the god Apollo. A number of ‘treasuries’, that is, small buildings which held different offerings given by various cities around Greece, were also scattered along the so-termed ‘Sacred Way’, which is the main route through the sanctuary of Apollo. The most well-known of these, and the best preserved, is the Athenian Treasury, a marble monument built between 510 and 480BC to commemorate the victory of an important battle.

The Athenian Treasury

Pink and yellow flowers adorned all that remained of the original Temple of Apollo further on up the Sacred Way. Although the temple was re-built three times, always on the same location, only the foundation and some columns are still to be seen today. These are supported by a platform made up of a 6th BC polygonal wall carved with ancient inscriptions. When I am visiting such sites I am always saddened by the thought that at the time when such marvels were constructed, the people obviously believed they would last forever. And yet, such a great temple, which originally boasted around 90 marble columns, not to mention various altars and adornments, couldn’t withstand the test of time.  

Although the temple itself was pulled down in 390AD, when the Romans destroyed all pagan temples by decree following the onset of the Christian religion, the worship of Apollo itself too had previously eradicated and toppled another religious cult which had dominated Delphi before it. This was the worship of Gaia, the mother goddess of fertility, since previous to classical Greece, Delphi had already been a place of worship and in fact traces of human settlement and religious ritual as old as the Neolithic period (4000BC) were found on Mount Parnassus.

The remains of the Temple of Apollo

It was in the inner sanctum of the Temple of Apollo, that the mythological Omphalos was kept. The Omphalos was an enormous ancient stone which, according to legend, the god Zeus had placed in Delphi to mark the centre of the world, which is why the Greeks considered Delphi to be so important. The marble Omphalos was called ‘the navel of the earth’, and together with the Oracle and her prophetic visions, contributed to the rise of Delphi as an important centre for religious worship, commerce and trade. This was because many important rulers, nobles, politicians and wealthy people came as pilgrims to visit the oracle, in order to consult her before making any important decisions. The process was a lengthy one. After purifying herself at a sacred spring, the prophetess would burn and drink laurel leaves, after which an animal was sacrificed to Apollo, before she would sit and meditate for hours, while inhaling the fumes coming from a fissure in the earth. It is believed that this chasm, supposedly caused when the giant snake Python was slain by the god Apollo, could have really existed, and that the noxious fumes, together with the intoxication caused by ingesting laurel leaves, could have caused hallucinatory effects.

The Ancient Amphitheater of Delhi

Moving on up the steep path, I finally arrived at the Ancient Amphitheater of Delphi. Originally constructed in the 4th century BC, the theater could accommodate around 5,000 spectators on 35 rows of stone benches, as well as an orchestra. Although abandoned with the rest of the site in late antiquity, the theater was later restored due to the threat of landslides, and can today host live theatrical performances. The acoustics are still amazing, and one can admire not only the entire sanctuary from it, but also the lush valley below. Truly an awe-inspiring panorama.

The Hippodrome

If one continues to climb Mount Parnassus, one also finds the Hippodrome or stadium, where political leaders and athletes competed with their chariots during the Pythian Games. These games, which occurred every four years and were actually the pre-cursors of our modern Olympics, drew competitors and spectators from around the Mediterranean, and were another source of income and fame for the sanctuary of Delphi. The stadium itself was originally built in the 5th century BC, could seat 6,500 spectators, and has a 177 metre long track.

I must admit that at this point of my ascent up the Mountain I was not just famished, but also totally parched. I had not thought about bringing any food or water with me, and though it was still April, the heat was truly unbearable. At least I had worn flat comfortable shoes though, so that was a blessing. The only source of water I had seen during the whole climb had been a small modern drinking fountain close to the street near the museum, and the dubious liquid it provided hadn’t attracted me much. So, be warned, take some provisions with you, and wear light clothes and good shoes before you start the track.

Delphi is situated only two hours and a half by car from Athens, and there are many day-tours available from the capital itself. The modern settlement of Delphi is to be found west of the archaeological site, and is replete with taverns, hotels and accommodation for those who wish to stay overnight. Those who love hiking, not to mention bicycle enthusiasts, will surely appreciate the beautiful experience of leisurely walking or bicycling from modern Delphi to the ancient sanctuary, which is to be found only half a mile away.

The Tholos of Athena Pronaia

Before leaving the Mountain, make sure to walk down the slope from the museum and parking site, to the Tholos of Athena Pronaia, which is to be found at the base of the sanctuary around a mile to the south-east of the main complex. The Tholos is a small circular structure constructed around 380BC. Only a few columns are left of the 30 original ones, however, again, it is well worth the effort.

If you decide to visit the sanctuary at Delphi, close your eyes and listen closely. You might hear the reverberations of bygone civilizations, the sussurration of the trees, or even the channeled voice of ancient gods… perhaps someone or something may try to talk to you.

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

Antwerp – the Cult of the Phallus

Hidden behind its Catholic exterior, each medieval city hides another face. The face of its pagan origins. Before the Gothic Cathedrals, the religious paintings and the traditionally approved cobbled towns we see today, there existed other beliefs, other modes of life, other realities.

This was most apparent when, after visiting the current historic center of Antwerp, with its magnificently decorated Town Hall and its awe-inspiring Cathedral of Our Lady, we made our way to the Het Steen, or Steen Castle, which is the oldest building in Antwerp, and which used to be the previous center of the city.

The Het Steen also known as the Fortress of Antwerp

The Het Steen, also known as the Fortress of Antwerp, was built in the Early Middle Ages, after the Viking incursions. It stands on the banks of the river, and serves as the current Museum of Archaeology. 

As one walks towards this Medieval Castle, with its witch-hat capped towers and rounded windows, the first thing one is faced with is, funnily enough, an enormous statue of a man with a GIANT phallus. Other, smaller people gasping and pointing at the phallus are also part of the statue’s tableau. Honestly, when I saw it first I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It really jarred with the rest of the medieval atmosphere. It had nothing to do with the Catholic medieval town.

The statue of Semini

Later, I was told that the statue represented the Scandinavian god Semini. He was a god of fertility and youth, to whom women traditionally appealed if they wanted children. To be honest, I found this quite strange as usually fertility deities tend to be female (for obvious reasons). However I was so speechless while being confronted with that statue with its… er… protruding parts, that I couldn’t really do anything except laugh. Anyways; it seems that Semini was the original god of the town of Antwerp, whose inhabitants were referred to as ‘the Children of Semini’. When the Catholic church established its hold on the town, they reviled Semini, and his cult. Of course, I imagine that the people continued to pray to their god in secret, and later on, when society permitted it, erected this statue in his ‘honor’.

After visiting the Het Steen, we spied the beautiful Standspark, a serene green park with a celestial lake and a number of tame waterfowl, and decided to take a walk and relax while surrounded by nature.

It was quite a romantic oasis of peace in the bustling city.

Remembering Utrecht

Following the Dutch shooting which took place on a tram in Utrecht three days ago (read all about it here), I can’t help but remember the beautiful day I spent in Utrecht when I visited in December 2017.

It was a clear crisp winter day. The sun was shining, white snow lay everywhere from the previous night, the air was refreshing, and the cobbled streets of the medieval city center bustled with joyous students on bikes, excited tourists and busy locals. The scent of freshly baked bread was in the air, and colorful flowers adorned many shop-fronts.

The canals were so pretty in the early morning light! It is such a romantic city.

My first stop was gothic Saint Martin’s Cathedral. Although the current cathedral was built in the 13th century, it rests on a much older church which had been damaged in a fire. The church itself had been built on the ruins of a Roman fortress.

The cathedral’s vaulted interiors, stained glass and beautiful sculptures are really a sight to behold, and I was truly enchanted by the atmosphere of mystery and historical meaning attached to it.

Apart from the Cathedral, another amazing stop in Utrecht is the Dom Tower, which is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. The tower was built in the 14th century to showcase the power of the city, and with its 14 enormous bells and incredible height, it surely does that!

Unfortunately I was suffering from severe back problems caused by a slipped disc at the time, so I wasn’t able to climb up the 465 steps to the top of the Dom Tower (there is no lift). Instead, I walked around the city, enjoying its flavor.

Needless be said, I somehow gravitated towards the local bookstore (for those who haven’t taken a peek at the ‘About Me‘ section yet, I’m a total bookworm and book-hoarder) and I took the opportunity to purchase Isabel Allende’s ‘Eva Luna’, which I had been hankering after for some time.

After walking around some more, I stopped at a pretty little bar for my lunch, and even tried out one of the local beers.

There are many other attractions to be found in the city, such as the Central Museum, the Railway Museum, the underground archaeological ruins, Utrecht Botanic Garden and the Grand Canal, among others.

Later on in the day, after having enjoyed roaming around the city to my heart’s content, I visited the Castle De Haar, which is to be found around half an hour away (by car) from the city itself. This fairytale location however deserves a blogpost of its own,… more later 🙂