The Sacred & the Profane: Meiji Shrine & Harajuku and Golden Gai

On Saturday, I got to experience two very different sides of Tokyo – the sacred and the profane. First, I went of a private tour of the famous Meiji Shine, and was able to watch a Shinto religious ceremony. Then, literally just steps away from the Shrine, I went to the famous shopping district of Harajuku, and then to the Golden Gai nightlife area in Shinjuku, and enjoyed the complete opposite side of Tokyo.

The Shinto Meiji Shrine was built in 1920 in dedication to the spirit of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shokan. It is located in a 70-hectare (170 acre) forest, right in the center of Tokyo. It is a man-made forest, made from 120,000 trees of 365 different species, which were donated by people all over Japan when the shrine was established. Our group met at the south entrance of the Shrine, at a huge Torii gate, which marks the boundary between the profane and the sacred. You bow as you pass through the gate, and once you’re a few meters in, it is like entering a completely different world. The sounds and buzz of the city fade out, and soon all you hear is the buzzing of the cicadas. On all sides, enormous trees surround you, and you see nothing but a simple path and the light dancing between the trees. Once you’re in there, it’s truly hard to believe that this forest is right in the middle of the mega-city of Tokyo. It was serene and calm, in stark contrast from the busy subway station I just came from.

The main Shrine area is in the heart of the forest. Here, you can take part in typical Shinto activities – making offerings at the main hall, buying charms and amulets, or writing out a wish on an ema.

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Ema tablets

We witnessed two different wedding ceremonies, both in typical Shinto tradition. During the summertime, several weddings a day take place at the Shrine. After touring the main area, our group went to a classroom, where we watched a movie on the history of Shinto and the Shrine. Learning more about the Shinto religion helped me understand certain aspects of Japanese culture, particularly the attention to detail and obsession with cleanliness. Shinto is the largest religion in Japan, and though only a small percentage of Japanese identify themselves as “Shintoists” in surveys, the religion still carries a heavy influence in modern Japanese culture.

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The main Shrine
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Wedding Procession

Following the movie, we entered the main hall and were able to watch a traditional Shinto ceremony. It really was something special to see. We took off our shoes and entered a huge tatami room. In the front, there was a raised platform, with offerings of rice, sake, and vegetables. We sat in front of the platform and the ceremony began with a priest hitting a large taiko drum. Two male priests said a number of verses, and then more men came in. They sat on mats and played the flute and chanted, and then female “shrine maidens” came in and danced a slow, elegant dance. I don’t have any pictures of the ceremony, but it was truly beautiful.

I left the Shrine feeling relaxed and refreshed. I walked just a few steps to Harajuku. Starting off at the famous Takeshita Street, I entered a completely different world.

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Takeshita Street

Harajuku is a crazy, over-the top, shopping wonderland. We walked down the busy street, looking into the shops selling colorful, crazy and cute outfits. Typical “Harajuku Girls” stood outside shops, holding signs and yelling for us to come in. The shops have all kinds of fun, zany stuff for sale – rainbow platform converse, Hello Kitty contact lenses, a purse shaped like a popcorn machine, ruffley lingerie, a kimono with cats printed on it, bright tutus – you name it, you can probably find it in Harajuku.

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We wandered around for a couple hours, which was really fun, but also really dangerous. I could easily spend my whole month’s salary in a couple hours in Harajuku. So much cute stuff! So many things I didn’t even know that I wanted! I ended up I ended up buying rain boots, which I actually really needed, and a sequined top which I definitely didn’t.20160827_194636 (1)

Japanese fashion is so interesting – some of it I love, some of it is like, “who would even think of that?” It seems like it’s either super pink and girly-girly, or it’s super edgy. I tried to show restraint on this trip to Harajuku, but I would love to come back and shop my heart out (once I get the financial situation stabilized a little).

Once I’d had my fill of Harajuku, I headed over to the “Golden Gai” area in Shinjuku to meet a couple friends. Golden Gai is a super cool area. It’s a little network of narrow streets and even narrower passageways, packed with literally hundreds of different bars. We picked a totally random bar, and it turned out to be awesome. It was teeny-tiny, like all the bars in this area. It sat about 6 people, total. We drank sake and the bartender played Prince and other American classics. A super drunk Japanese guy loved the fact that we were American and knew the music, so he bought us all a drink. It was a great night.

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Apparently you’re not allowed to take pictures of the streets in Golden Gai – I didn’t know so I did!

My morning couldn’t have been more different from my afternoon and evening. In the morning, I experienced traditional Japan – nature and the Shinto religion. And in the afternoon, I experienced modern and commercialized Japan. I am amazed by the start contrast, and by the fact these two very different realties exist so closely to each other, within the same city. I was deep in a forest, learning about Shintoism one moment, and in a busy shopping district, buying shoes the next.

Tokyo, you continue to surprise me.

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