Project Description

FACING THE GREAT SANCTUARY

Well, let me resume where I am right now: I’ve just arrived at Harajuku station after a morning visit of Ueno park and I am about to have a look at Meiji-jingū, a Shinto shrine located in a “wooded case” in the heart of Tokyo. The way from Harajuku station to the shrine is well signposted, but if in doubt, do not hesitate to ask locals for help! Indeed, people whose English is good enough will be pleased to explain you the direction to follow.

However, and in most cases, Japanese will go much further than that. Knowing that English is not necessarily spoken by every single Japanese, even in Tokyo, they will help you in another way, often unexpected and confusing for most tourists: they will stop what they are doing to go with you directly where you want to go. Even if it is in the opposite direction or if it modifies their schedule! That’s Japanese culture and hospitality, always in relation to the merits accumulated over a lifetime. Think of it as a simple information or a benevolent help, but for them, it is perceived as some sand added to a karmic scale that will decide their afterlife or reincarnation. Realizing this, I can feel one thing: a huge respect and admiration for a lifestyle all inhabitants of our planet should be inspired by!

Well, after this philosophical interlude, back on track. Undoubtedly one of the most symbolic shrines of Tokyo and located next to Yoyogi Park, Meiji Shrine was completed in November 1920 in honor of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. This is a testament to the recognition of Japanese whose most obvious example is the huge wooded park that encircles the shrine. Some etiquette principles apply here as for instance a respected body purification or salute to the torii.

Speaking of torii, I stand before the big one, facing the main path: a gigantic cedar gate with a height of 12 meters. This is still the highest torii in Japan today and I can tell you that it is so impressive to stand at the base of one of its trunks! I observe locals respectfully bowing to it before continuing on their way. This rite is thus very similar to rituals of purification that can (should!) be done in the space provided next to the entrance of each temple. Here, men keep the arms on the side, along the body, before bowing ideally at 90°, but 45° is fine, as not  everyone is that flexible. Women also bow with hands clasped in front of the body. Do what locals do, there is no better example!

I then walk along the main avenue, surrounded by a park with more than 170,000 trees of 245 different species sent by people across the archipelago to honor the memory of the Emperor. A little further, I arrive between two imposing wooden monuments: one presenting sake barrels, surrounded by straw and covered with beautifully illustrations, and the other showing French Burgundy wine barrels. The barrels of sake are given annually by a producers association as an offering for the the Emperor and his wife’s souls. Wine barrels have been offered on the initiative of representatives of Burgundy wines friendship with Japan. A little further, I face another torii almost as big as the first one. Few minutes that I’ve been walking in what I would call “a true lung of the city of Tokyo”, a good breath of fresh air in the midst of an ultra-modern concrete jungle-like city.

Soon, I find myself facing the temple entrance with its purification fountain to where I go to “clean” myself before entering the premises. Have a look on my article about Sensō-ji to know more about these rituals. I then enter the complex through a third torii. The place and the almost total absence of tourists or locals accentuate this feeling of calm and serenity which seems to exist in almost every Japanese temple. I approach and cross the impressive gate opening onto a large courtyard, through which I finally see some people who have come for a morning pray. So here I am, getting my “spiritual ticket”, as I too am ready to pay my respects to the Emperor and his wife.

And again, I feel like a grain of sand in an hourglass, even knowing that I’m currently in a city with a population about nearly four times bigger than Switzerland! Before me stands a vast grayish, cobbled-stoned square, with a Shinto sanctuary on the background, all surrounded by a wall which architecture is a blend of ancient wood and magnificent blue-green tiles. Not to mention the huge trees surrounding and protecting the complex! I walk for a while on this square before sitting down a few minutes on one of the many wooden benches spead along the wall.

One’s mind can easily get lost in this kind of place and for a moment that seemed having lasted an eternity for me, I am almost certain to be miles away from any known civilization. I finally get back to reality and then head to the mausoleum where everyone can pay homage and make an offering to the deceased emperor and his wife. To do this, nothing simpler: first ring the bell, as always to draw attention of the spirits, then place a coin in the box in front of you. Bow down twice and clap your hands before bowing one last time. No pictures allowed here, as the place is primarily and obviously dedicated for the pray and not tourism.

In the middle of the sanctuary, you will certainly notice a tree surrounded by a board where are hung small wooden plaques adorned with various inscriptions. These are called “ema” and represent prayers offered at the temple for the fulfillment of a wish. Through a contribution, anyone can write his or her wish on one of those plaques before they are recovered by the priests who then address them to the divine.

If you feel like it, you can then visit the Naïen, the treasures museum that contains many objects used by Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. Finally, before leaving the premises by the same path taken when I arrived, I stop for a while in the hall of memories that offers an interesting set of articles for pilgrims and tourists, not to mention Tokyoites and also children.

Oh, I almost forgot! If you visit the sanctuary during the weekend, you are almost sure to see a Shinto wedding procession. First come the priest and his assistants followed by two nuns, then the married couple dressed in traditional kimonos and sheltered by a giant umbrella, followed by all the guests. This is something that I have had the opportunity to admire several times, notably in Nara in 2010 and in Miyajima later on during this trip, and I will make a parenthesis about it in a future article. If you see nothing of this kind, even during the weekend, it probably mean that you have chosen a bad day for the Shinto calendar! Here, one lives daily with his/her beliefs and religion is as part of the Japanese culture as are sushis!

UNDER THE CHERRY BLOSSOM TREES, PART TWO

Before starting my visit of the streets of Harajuku, I head to Yoyogi Park which entrance is about one hundred meter from the main entrance of Meiji Shrine. Like others, the park is very famous during spring time thanks to its cherry trees and therefore joins the inevitable “must-see list” of who travel to Japan in spring. It is advisable to visit the park during the weekend, when  locals settle there for a picnic, to relax, spend time with familly or friends, cool off at the edge of ponds in summer time or just walk or bike (which can be rented on site) along the shady alleys.

Oh, one thing about the weekend: every Sunday, some talented locals gather at the entrance of the park. Japanese Elvis’ and cornet players revisit the standards of the 1950s as hip-hop dancers and rockabillies gangs engage in furious dances to the delight of anyone passing by. There is also such a meeting just outside the park on the bridge facing Harajuku station, where many cosplayers, Gothic and Sweet Lolita and Visual Kei fans (a Japanese musical movement characterized by the wear of different levels of elaborate makeup and clothes) come to “perform”. In short, if you visit the park during the week in the morning like I’m currently doing, do not expect to see any of this!

Not much else to add on Yoyogi Park, only that I’ve enjoyed my time there, under the cherry blossom trees. The pictures I’ve taken “speak” for themselves and I can only end this text with a “modest” haiku, a Japanese poem.

Serenity, here
Under the cherry trees bloom,
Never equaled.

HARAJUKU, MECCA OF FASHION… AND CREPES!

To complete my half-day in the area, I return to Harajuku station and begin a walk on Omotesando Avenue, considered as the Japanese “Champs Elysées”. For those who know me, you are aware that I’m not fan of shopping and I hate wasting my time in clothes stores unless I have the vital need to buy something. So I will not spend too much time talking about my tour of the area, but it can be summarized like this: an endless alignment of showcases which literally make exult with joy any member of the fairer sex who would dare to approach any of them.

Well, it is not noon yet, but my stomach growl! The time to connect on TripAdvisor via my mobile phone and I spot a restaurant close of the nearby intersection. Kyushujangara Harajukuten is the name of the place, famous for its noodles. Perfect, as it is something quite heavy and it should (normally) prevent me from eating every single snack I see. So I enter and the staff give me directly an English menu. Having made my choice and paid, I get a ticket and a seat. This goes very quickly when traveling alone! The time to count to 30 after the having handed my ticket to the cook and voilà, here are my fresh noodles! The smell also seems to make my western neighbor quite jalous, as he’s just eating gyoza… Time for me to taste my dish loudly (yes, it is customary!) in a somewhat chaotic , but so genuine atmosphere.

After the meal, time for a walk in the most fashionable temple of Tokyo youth: Takeshita Dori. I assure you, it will be from outside only! This is here, on a 400 meters street, that are situated ready-to-wear boutiques where new trends of Japanese fashion are born. If you are looking for outfits that will look delusional and unwearable in most European countries, you are at the right place! Lunchtime approaches, so the pedestrian street is filled to capacity and walking on foot here becomes quite difficult, as the picture below shows it. My camera will therefore stay inside my bag as I find little interest to take picture of showcases exhibiting insane amounts of exuberant clothes and accessories.

If you ask locals which dish comes to their mind when you say “Harajuku”, they will definitely say crepes (or pancakes)! Indeed, stalls selling the mentionned delicious snack are everywhere, it is impossible to walk 10 meters without seeing at least two! So I stop by one of them, Santa Monica Crepes.

Harajuku crepes, fine pale-yellow batter made of egg, are made right in front of you, quickly cooked, cleverly garnished with your choice of topping, and finally folded and delivered into your greedy hands. The most popular version is “whipped cream and red fruits” but endless varieties exist, including savory crepes. Some crepes are even stuffed with a whole slice of cake; say hello to the caloric “bomb”!

In short and to sum up, Harajuku is a district frequented by many young people who, in addition to spending many hours doing window-shopping or more directly shopping, take advantage of weekends during which they do not have the obligation to wear uniforms to distinguish themselves by a completely different clothing style. Famous groups of Visual Kei, such as X Japan, Dir en Grey, AnCafe, etc., supply their wardrobes in Harajuku and these fashions are then copied by adolescents who are then seen in the surroundings, to the delight of photographers.

As much as I am absolutely not “fashion” oriented, I would nevertheless go back there during the weekend to take some pictures of cosplayers and other Gothic or Sweet Lolitas. Do not hesitate to get close to them, then point a finger at your camera, meaning that you want to take some pictures of them. In most cases, you will be told “Ok-desu” (pronounced “ok dess”) which simply means “ok.” Then count on them to provide the best possible pose.

There is no discomfort, these young people are just there to show off and be photographed! Today they are not students or young employee, but embody the characters they chose to represent. Here, nobody will say anything bad to them and at no time they will be shamed. It is quite the contrary in fact: they will be complimented and people will take pictures with them, kind a form of recognition that some of them particularly appreciate. All right, let’s go! What, you did not think that the day was already over, right? Just the time to catch the train of the Yamanote Line and I’m on the way to my next destination!