The true mystery of Meiji Jingu is the nature its surreality.
I passed under the torii gate, pillars of unpainted wood towering at 40ft, denoting my passage from the profane ward of Shibuya, bustling with shopping tourists and Harajuku girls, into the sacred grounds of Meiji Jingu. It was a misty day, and there weren’t many people on the grounds. I was searching for the shrine, tucked away somewhere in the little forest, with its looming bamboo and evergreen trees. As I shuffled over the gravel, I could hear a stream bubbling that was nowhere to be seen due to the greenery.
Finally I came to a bridge, under which the streambed had been dry for months. It is commonly believed in Japan that, to cross a bridge is to enter the spirit realm, and as if confirming this belief to me, just as I crossed, I noticed a moon-colored wave coasting along the gravel towards the trees. It was a priestly gray snake, and very smooth, as if rounded off by the very stones it slithered across. He hurried off to attend to various duties as I neared. Lanterns guided the path towards the chozubachi, a stone water basin filled with pure water, where guests must cleanse themselves before entering the shrine. I stepped up onto its stone platform. Beyond the path, moon-colored butterflies implanted themselves in the damp tree-bark, tree-bark from which sprouted moon-colored lichen, as if calcified butterfly wings.
But in spite of its ancient feel, one would be surprised to discover that Meiji Jingu, completed in 1926, is only eighty-six years old, and it was rebuilt in 1956 to repair the damage of WWII bomb raids. How could men with unquestionably modern sensibilities – the same men no doubt responsible for the futuristic behemoth that is Tokyo – erect such a shrine, shrouded in the feel of an elsewhere?
Then, the true mystery of Meiji Jingu is the nature its surreality.
Perhaps it is the contrast of the forest’s sighs against the zipping motorcycles just beyond the torii, but the spiritual presence in the air is so strong; many describe the place as an oasis. Seconds before entering that encased Eden, I had disembarked off of a high-speed train, and then there were little gray snakes and a great tree laden with prayers before me. This had to be the spirit of the city.
I can only explain the phenomenon in a characteristically Eastern way: a space procured from the earthly realm and consecrated for a specific purpose will be filled to that end. We allot lands for endangered animals and trees, deeming them game parks and national forests, and sure enough, those places are filled with elephants and sequoia trees. And now, with the onset of the 21st century, with the encroachment of our metropolises on what could very well be sacred land, we must allot space to honor the spirits. Thus, it is in the haven of such space that they are housed.
Meiji Jingu was purposed not to just deify Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, but also an era, and it is here that those countless innovating spirits of the Meiji Period rest and watch over the city they created, the token jewel of their modernizing efforts. Yet, as I cleanse my hands and mouth at the chozubachi, I cannot help by wonder why the modern shrine puts modern spirits to rest in the shape and feel of the distant past.