Covering parts of both Aoyama and Harajuku, the areas immediately south of Shinjuku, is Meiji-jingū (明治神宮), Tokyo’s premier Shinto shrine. A memorial to Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912, and his empress Shōken, who died in 1914, the shrine is split into two sections, the main one being the Inner Garden, beside Harajuku Station. Of less importance is the Outer Garden, between Sendagaya and Shinanomachi stations, which contains the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery and several sporting arenas, including the National Stadium and Jingū Baseball Stadium.
Meiji-jingū is the focus of several festivals during the year, the most important of which is Hatsu-mōde (meaning “first visit of the year to a shrine”), held on January 1 when some three million descend on the shrine. Apart from the festivals, Meiji-jingū is best visited midweek, when its calm serenity can be appreciated minus the crowds.
The Inner Garden
The most impressive way to approach the Inner Garden is through the southern gate next to Jingū-bashi, the bridge across from Harajuku’s mock-Tudor station building. From the gateway, a wide gravel path runs through densely forested grounds to the 12m-high Ō-torii, the largest Myōjin-style gate in Japan, made from 1500-year-old cypress pine trees from Taiwan.
To the left of the Ō-torii is the entrance to the Jingū Naien (神宮内苑), a traditional garden – said to have been designed by the emperor Meiji for his wife – which is at its most beautiful (and most crowded) in June, when over one hundred varieties of irises, the empress’s favourite flowers, pepper the lush greenery with their purple and white blooms.
Returning to the garden’s entrance, the gravel path turns right and passes through a second wooden torii, Kita-mon (north gate), leading to the impressive honden (central hall). With their Japanese cypress wood and green copper roofs, the buildings are a fine example of how Shinto architecture can blend seamlessly with nature. There are exits from the courtyard on its eastern and western flanks; follow either of the paths northwards through the woods to arrive at the pleasant grassy slopes and pond before the main Treasure House. Don’t bother going in – the contents of the museum are no more thrilling than the lumpen grey concrete building that houses them.