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Tokyo – 5 Wards in 5 Days!

Tokyo is a multi-faceted gem. Avant-garde technology resides right next to minka – traditional wooden houses with tatami mat flooring and sliding doors, modern skyscrapers butt heads with world heritage shrines and temples, smart businesswomen wearing six-inch stilettos and Gucci handbags come face to face with highly trained professional geishas in colourful kimonos and wooden clogs, while international food-chains like McDonalds and Starbucks compete with historic dishes such as sukiyaki, ramen and miso soup.

How to imbibe all these contrasting, yet strangely harmonious cultural traits while getting the most out of one’s vacation? Having spent almost fifteen hours in the air on two interconnecting flights to arrive at my destination, I couldn’t wait to see and experience as much as possible. Five days dedicated to one city seemed like a lot while I was planning my trip, especially since there was so much else to see outside of Tokyo, however once I was there, I realised that cramming everything into five days was actually going to be quite a feat.

The metropolis of Tokyo, formerly known as ‘Edo’, has a nucleus which is made up of 23 ‘wards’ or municipalities. Each of these is worth exploring and offers a multitude of attractions, yet of course, there are wards which are more popular than others. If you have limited time at your disposal, a good way of delving into Tokyo would be to dedicate one day to each particular municipality. While I was researching and planning my visit to the capital of Japan, there were five particular ‘wards’ which piqued my interest most, and which I personally consider to be unmissable.

Shinjuku

Being a major commercial, entertainment and administrative hub, Shinjuku was the first spot I visited when I arrived in Tokyo, directly after depositing the luggage at my accommodation. Needing caffeine and being an anime and manga lover, I couldn’t help but visit a number of related shopping malls, not to mention popular themed spots and stores such as an Alice in Wonderland themed coffee shop and the Sailor Moon official store.

The Sailor Moon Official Store – Shinjuku

Having drunk some coffee and gained some energy after so many hours of travel, I then proceeded to the Metropolitan Plaza near Ikebukuro Station to pick up the Sim card I had booked online while still in Malta. Because yes, you definitely need google maps and google translate to make your way through Japan, a country where less than a quarter of the population knows a word of English. After a relaxing afternoon walking around the beautifully green Shinjuku Gyoen Park, I caught the tube to Omoide Yokocho, also known as ‘Memory Lane’ – a maze of narrow alleys peppered with red lanterns and tiny open restaurants and stalls offering traditional Japanese street-food at worthwhile prices. Previously home to a post-war black market, this is where today tired locals head after a long day at work to unwind with a glass of beer and some yakitori chicken. Golden Gai, a collection of more than 200 mismatched rundown bars lining the alleyways and corners of Shinjuku, is another such spot where one can eat and drink very cheaply surrounded by locals and the occasional celebrity. The nightlife in Shinjuku is loud and friendly. One can also meander to Kabukicho, the red light district a stone’s throw away.

Memory Lane – Shinjuku

Shibuya

The second day of my stay in Tokyo saw me in Shibuya gaping at the very famous Shibuya Crossing, rumored to be the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world, where approximately 2,500 pedestrians cross at one time coming from all directions at once. Momentarily lost in a sea of metropolitan bustle, I made my way to the well-known Takeshita street, landmark of quirky fashion and unique boutiques. Situated in the Harajuku District, it is here that Gothic Lolitas, dressed in their cute frills, lace, Victorian hats and webbed parasols, parade their particular fashion subculture, congregating on Harajuku bridge, eating crepes at one of the many candy shops or shopping for colorful wigs in appropriate costume stores, of which there are many.

Takeshita Street – Shibuya
A Lolita Store in Takeshita Street

Following all the excitement and rush of humanity prevalent in this area, I made my way to the quieter Meiji Jingu Shrine. A green oasis of majestic trees flanked by huge torii gates, this shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park offer a surprisingly large forested area within a densely populated city. The shrine, completed in 1920, is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken and is perfect for a relaxing stroll.

Meiji Jingu Shrine – Shibuya
Meiji Jingu Shrine

Deciding to spend a kawaii morning, our first stop in Shinjuku after picking up our tickets was the amazing Alice on Wednesday – an Alice in Wonderland themed shop tucked into a side-street but which is quiet large, spreading its magical wares on three floors of girly jewellery in the shape of roses, teacups and top-hats, rabbit mugs, ‘eat me’ and ‘drink me’ cookies, sweets and playing cards, and even handbags in the shape of clocks (I couldn’t help but buying one of these). My boyfriend looked like an elephant in a tea-house, but I appreciate the fact that he waited while I browsed every item minutely, surrounded by other shrieking girls, teens, older women and even toddlers. If you are an Alice in Wonderland aficionado, you can read more about it here.

Asakusa

Craving the vibe of an older, historic Tokyo? Asakusa is the perfect place to imbibe and literally soak in traditional crafts shops, street food stalls, not to mention the classical bath houses or onsen, the famous Japanese hot springs where the natural water contains therapeutic properties and mineral salts said to alleviate a number of health issues. My day began with a trip to a kimono-parlor, where I was outfitted with a yukata – a light cotton summer kimono, the traditional Japanese garment. Having booked this service in advance, I was also served by a hairdresser, who teased my hair into an appropriate style, complete with colorful Japanese hairpins and flowers.

Kimono Store – Asakusa

Declining the extra services of a professional photographer (such parlors always offer this at an augmented price, as well as the use of traditional rickshaws pulled by locals), I made my way on wooden clogs towards Senso-ji Temple nearby. Tourists and even locals were very happy to take photos of me posing in front of this Buddhist temple built in the 7th century. In fact, many of them asked to take photos with me using their own phones as a keepsake, as though I was a tourist attraction myself! The yukata is a surprisingly cool garment considering its floor-length and with full long sleeves, however walking around the enormous temple soon made me hungry and propelled me towards one of the many small ramen-shops lining the street. Ramen soup, made of chicken or pork stock and combined with a variety of ingredients such as whole eggs, seaweed, kombu (kelp), shiitake mushrooms, onions and meat amongst others, is the perfect filling Japanese meal. Tasty and healthy!

Traditional Ramen Soup

Akihabara

Also called the ‘Electric Town’ and situated in Chiyoda ward, is another treasure-trove for all anime, manga, comics and video game lovers, better known as otaku. Home to Mandarake, the largest second-hand comics retailer in the world, this district offers not only shopping centres and computer goods, but also a huge number of what are known as ‘Maid Cafes’, a type of cosplay restaurant where the waitresses are dressed up as kawaii frilly servants redolent of Victorian French maids, as seen through the lens of the prevalent anime aesthetic. A number of rituals and additional food services are available at different maid cafes, which are in no way related to the sex trade, but are merely an innocent way for the itinerant tourist or fan to feel part of a cosplay experience. A number of other anime themed cafes in Akihabara include Gundam Café and the Final Fantasy Erzora café. Gaming arcades and centres are another attraction found in Akihabara. Here one can meet with other gamers, enter contests and even sample the latest gaming technology. Most notable of these arcades are the Sega building and Taito Hey, which specializes in vintage and retro game arcade machines.

Mandarake Store – Akihabara

Ginza

In love with international brands and limited-edition accessories? Then Ginza, full of upmarket boutiques, ritzy cocktail bars and sushi venues, redolent with luxury goods and high-end retailers, is surely the place for you. It is here that French companies such as Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton, Italian companies like Gucci, and American bastions of fashion such as Carolina Herrera, have their flagship stores. A number of art-galleries and theatres also predominate, most notably kabuki theatres offering a selection of classical Japanese dance-dramas. Kabuki theatre is known for its historical roots, elaborate masks and make-up and cultural folk tradition dating back to the Edo period (1603 – 1868).

Although I mentioned these five districts in particular, all of Tokyo’s wards offer their own particular flavor. One could go to Ueno prefecture, known for its ornate shrines. Spend the afternoon roaming Tsukiji fish market in Chuo city, eating street-food and perusing stalls at their heart’s content. Another sightseeing gem is Tokyo Imperial Palace, found at the heart of Chiyoda ward. How many days does one need in Tokyo? I don’t think I can really answer this question. Five days were definitely not enough to explore it all. I will be back!

Me and him at Senso-ji Temple – Asakusa

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 Ueno Tosho-Gu Shrine – An Underrated Treasure

The Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine, located in Ueno Park within Teito Ward in Tokyo, can be said to be a perfect example of Shinto architecture pertaining to the Edo period (1603 – 1868). The shrine was originally built in 1627 and renovated in 1651, remaining mostly intact from that time. Remarkably, it survived through the Battle of Ueno (1868), the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) and the Tokyo firebombing (1945).

Entering Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine

All Shinto shrines enshrining Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the last Shogunal government (1600 – 1868), are generally called ‘Tosho-gu’, literally translating to ‘the God of the Eastern Sun’. These are found throughout Japan. The Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine in particular also enshrines two other Tokugawa shoguns as well.

The Path of the Stone-Lanterns

As one approaches this Shrine, the path is lined on both sides with impressive stone lanterns. Each lantern is 2-meters high. These were all built between 1628 and 1651. As one walks on, after encountering the stone lanterns at the gate, one also finds intricate copper lanterns nearer to the shrine building itself. There are 50 copper lanterns in all. These are not used for illumination, but are used solely for purification and sacred fires required during religious ceremonies. The copper lanterns were all offerings made by the various Daimyos – feudal lords who were the vassals of the shogun and who had an obligation to honor the memory of the first Tokugawa shogun. Each lantern is engraved at its base with the family name of the Daimyo who donated it.

Shrine emas hung near the Dedication area

Next to the main shrine building, one comes across the usual shrine/temple emas. These votive picture wooden tablets are vessels on which people write their wishes and are found in every Shinto shrine and temple. Dedicating an ema is easy:

  1. Purchase the ema from the shrine souvenir store (at a small fee)
  2. Write your wish, name and address on the back (pens are usually provided)
  3. Hang your ema near the dedication area

If your wish is strong enough, the kami (the god) will surely hear it.

The five-storied Pagoda

As one walks to the Shrine, one also can freely admire the towering 36-meter high five-storied pagoda, which is situated on what are today the grounds of Ueno Zoo. Tosho-gu Shrine itself was originally part of a larger Buddhist temple complex. In 1868, many of the Buddhist Temple buildings were destroyed in a fire. Since historically, Shinto and Buddhist religious beliefs were often mixed, it was not unusual for a Shinto Shrine to be situated within a Buddhist Temple complex and vice-versa. Once the Buddhist Temple complex was mostly destroyed however, the Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine was more clearly divided from the rest of Ueno Park.

In front of the karaman

Undoubtedly, the karaman is the most statuesque building in the shrine. With its golden curved gable and huge gate, it is designated as an Important Cultural Property and dominates the foreground. The pillars of the gate sport two carved dragons. Legend states that each night, the dragons leave the shrine and go to the nearby Shinabazu Pond to drink. The carvings on the gate and wall of the karaman are said to depict over 200 species of plants and animals, and are all hand-carved.

The main building of the shrine is the honden, that is the Main Hall. This contains the haiden, that is, the Worship Hall, as well as the heiden, or Offertory Hall. This building too is an Important Cultural Property.

The main hall, or honden

There is a 500 yen admission fee to go beyond the karamon and get closer to the honden, as well as an extra 700 yen admission fee to enter the famous peony gardens. These are open from January to mid-February and from mid-April to mid-May. Unfortunately, we visited in June, so access was not possible.

Although not as popular as the Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine, Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine is definitely a gem not to be missed.

Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine is located on the west side of Ueno Park. It is an 8-minute walk from th Park exit of JR Ueno Station, a 7-minute walk from Keisei Ueno Station, 9 minutes from Ueno Subway Station on the Tokyo Metro Hibiya and Ginza lines, and 12 minutes from Nezu Station on the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda line.