Honoring History: Exploring Majestic Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine sake barrels
Meiji Shrine's famous sake barrels.

Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji.   Ten million people go there every year, many to pay their respects.  For photographers, it has serious appeal.  Some of its attractions are obvious, while others are not.  Let’s explore it!

Meiji Shrine courtyard with large trees on sides
A morning visit with few people at Meiji Shrine.

The first time I went, I couldn’t believe it was in the middle of a forest!  Walking through its 100,000 trees (no exaggeration) was quite an experience.  And it will take about 10 minutes, past the famous sake barrels, from the front torii to get to the shrine. Even in Tokyo’s hot summers, it’ll be quite cool.

Meiji Shrine giant torii gate in forest
One of the shrine's huge torii gates.

And guess what is just outside the forest? One of the pop-culture capitals of the world, Harajuku! Two opposites right next to each other, in harmony. A friend on his first visit told me he thought the experience was quite surreal. So did I on my first visit. I hope first-timers will feel the same.

Meiji Jingu Japanese Iris field with workers
The iris field in early summer.

While you are walking the path into Meiji Shrine, you’ll be able to learn about its history. After you reach the second torii from the main entrance (i.e., Harajuku side), there are a series of billboards with pictures on the left. They come from various points during the complex’s history. Everything on them is in Japanese and English. I doubt a native English speaker wrote them, but they are an excellent source of information.

Shinto priests in red outfits leaving shrine area
Priest leaving the main courtyard after a ceremony.

A brief history of Meiji Shrine

The Japanese government passed a resolution when the Meiji Emperor died in 1912. It commemorated his role in Imperial rule restoration.  They decided to build a shrine for him and his wife (Empress Shoken).  They chose the area near Harajuku, with an iris garden the Imperial couple often visited.  By the way, this garden is still there and is very beautiful.  You should see it in summer when those flowers bloom.

Some facts about the construction of the shrine

  • Chuta Ito was the designer, and construction began in 1915.
  • The builders chose Japanese cypress and copper as their materials. They built it in the traditional nagare-zukuri style.
  • Youth groups and civic associations contributed to labor and funding.  
  • Meiji Shrine was dedicated in 1920 but not completed until 1921.  
  • The grounds were finished in 1926.
  • Until 1946, it was a Kanpei-Taisha (shrines that received huge government support).

The air raids of WW2 destroyed many of the shrine’s buildings. Luckily, the Homotsuden (Meiji Jingu Treasure Museum) escaped destruction. After the war, there was a public fundraising effort to reconstruct everything. That was completed in 1958.

Why do photographers like Meiji Shrine?

Here is my list:

1)  cherry blossoms (in spring)

2)  chrysanthemums (in autumn)

3)  Kiyomasa’s Well in the Inner Garden

4)  museums (two):  Homotsuden (or Meiji Jingu Treasure Museum), and; Meiji Jingu Museum)

5)  sake (and wine) barrels (found near the main entrance)

6)  Shiseikan (martial arts training center)

7)  Shrine architecture

8)  torii gates (maybe the biggest in Tokyo)

Cherry blossoms tree with Yoyogi DOCOMO building behind
Spring cherry blossoms in the park behind the shrine.

Wedding photography at Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine is famous for its weddings.  With couples in kimonos and hakamas. They are colorful and make for superb photos. Most weekends will have at least one.  It depends on the calendar, though.

Before and after the ceremonies, they cross the courtyard in front of the main hall.  The Bride and groom, parents, and guests walk in order of importance, following the priest and Miko.  They are colorful and make for superb photos.  Visitors crowd the route to take pictures of it.  You can read about them in this article.

yellow kengai chrysanthemum display
A chrysanthemum display during the Grand Autumn Festival.

Events at the shrine 

Meiji Shrine shrine has plenty of these.  The biggest one would be New Year’s prayers.  If you go there to pray, be ready for the biggest crowds in the world. It is a popular event in Tokyo!

  • January – New Year’s Day (Hatsumode)
  • February – Setsubun (Bean Throwing Festival)
  • June – Iris field in bloom
  • July – Tanabata (the Star Festival)
  • November – Autumn Grand Festival (including Yabusame)

Check the shrine’s website for the complete list and full details.

When is the best time to visit Meiji Shrine?  

This is a tricky question.  Every season has something special, so it is hard to give a definitive answer.  My choice is autumn with its Grand Festival and chrysanthemums.  And there are more wedding processions.

But late spring and early summer, with azaleas and irises, are excellent. They are in the Inner Garden, deep in the forest. Whenever I go, it feels like I’m entering a secret world with its must-visit serenity!

There is a caveat, though. Events can be subject to sudden change. Before you go, check the official website for any changes.

Japanese Shinto wedding procession
One of the Shinto wedding processions.

Meiji Shrine details

See the park’s location and opening hours on the official website.

Other photo spots near Meiji Shrine

External links for Meiji Shrine articles

Wrapping up

Meiji Shrine is a great place. It should be on every photographer’s list of places to visit in Tokyo. There is so much to see and do, especially those wedding processions!

People praying at Meiji Shrine honden
People praying at Meiji Shrine's honden.

The real bonus for this place is that Yoyogi Park, Harajuku, and Shibuya are close. If you went on a Sunday, you could fill an entire day with many great things to do. And most importantly, they would all be picture-worthy!

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