A few white robed monks were silently raking the gravel, and there was no sound but birdsong. We were in the Outer Precinct of the Meiji Shrine, a massive forest with trees of every species. The morning was bitterly cold, and there was hardly anyone about. A far cry from the crowded streets of Tokyo just beyond the gate.
Meiji Shrine: an Emperor’s Resting Place
This is a Shinto shrine, built for the deified spirits of the Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shöken after the Emperor’s death in 1912. The shrine itself, the burial place of the emperor, is in the heart of the forest.
We watched as a man approached the purification trough, filled a large ladle with water, and rinsed both of his hands. We did the same and followed him towards the main hall, where he entered to make his prayers and offerings. We did not go in: this is a place of worship, and we were the only tourists there.
Hundreds of emas were hanging on a stand outside the shrine: these are the wooden plaques on which worshippers write their wishes once they have completed their devotions.
Inner Garden (Meiji Jingu)
The shrine complex was built around the Meiji Jingu, a garden dating from the Edo Period (1603-1867). This was a place where the Emperor and Empress sought quiet and solitude during their lifetimes. The lake, full of large golden carp, was a favourite fishing spot for the Emperor, and he had a teahouse built among the irises and azaleas for Empress Shöken (the teahouse burnt down during the war but has since been rebuilt).
We stood by the lake where some boys were putting food on their hands and waiting for small birds to swoop down and claim it. Then we walked down to the Kiyo-masa Well, built by a 17th century warlord. According to the guidebooks, the well is a magnet for visitors who believe they can draw positive energy from it, but we had it to ourselves. It was peaceful, if not energising.
The Outer Precinct
Back in the Outer Precinct we stopped to look at a collection of murals depicting the lives and works of the Emperor and Empress.
Further along was a display of barrels, wrapped in straw and brightly painted. These were empty sake barrels, representing the donations of sake that are made to the shrine for ritual purposes. And next to this, barrels of red wine, gifts from the wineries of Bourgogne in France.
But by now the rain had started to fall and it was time to make our way back to the city streets. We left the shrine just as the first coachload of unbrella-yielding tourists poured through the gate.