Contemplative at the Meiji Jingu Shrine

The Meiji Jingu shrine is named after the last Meiji emperor of Japan and his wife, Empress Shoken. The shrine was built after the emperor’s death in 1912, near the imperial couple’s favorite iris garden.

The Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo

The Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo

The front of the shrine

The front of the shrine

 

The government decided to build a Shinto shrine to the deified spirits of the emperor and empress, and they surrounded the building with over 100,000 trees donated by citizens from around the country. I found that a lovely idea, to build a living, natural shrine as well as a painted, manmade one.

Turtles laying out

Turtles laying out

The peaceful gardens surrounding the shrine

The peaceful gardens surrounding the shrine

Trees donated by people from all over Japan

Trees donated by people from all over Japan

The park is large, as you can imagine since it contains over 100,000 trees, and I had a nice walk through the forest, over a pond lined with turtles sunning themselves. I entered the main grounds and took in the large trees hung with paper lightning bolts of power, and saw a wedding party walking across the large gravel courtyard.

A wedding procession

A wedding procession

Everyone quieted down in respect for the passing wedding party

Everyone quieted down in respect for the passing wedding party

Wedding procession from behind

Wedding procession from behind

Priests in ceremonial dress led a procession through the courtyard to a side yard and around a corner out of sight. The groom wore a dark suit and the bride wore a white kimono with a mushroom-shaped hood. A female attendant carried a parasol over the bride. Friends and family, some dressed in kimonos but most in contemporary clothes, walked behind.

One of the massive doors to the shrine

One of the massive doors to the shrine

Tree hung with lightning

Tree hung with lightning

Fortunes and prayers to hang on the trees

Fortunes and prayers to hang on the trees

The empress was a big supporter of the Red Cross, so there were collection boxes for the charity around the temple. The emperor was considered quite the poet, and for 107 yen, I purchased a small roll of paper with a  short poem inscribed on it.

The edge of the torii

The edge of the torii

The torii, the main gate to the shrine, is the oldest of its style in Japan. According to the sign posted under it, the torii was rebuilt in 1975, modeled exactly after the original built in 1920. It seems unlikely all other torii of this style in the country were built after 1975, so this seems to be another instance of something being displayed as an original in Japan, without actually being made of the same materials as the original. I’m so used to the old buildings and sites of Europe and the States, which are venerated for being the very same stones touched by previous generations.

A priest near the lightning bolts

A priest near the lightning bolts

The original is such a prized thing in Western civilization, from paintings to cathedrals, and the materials used are an integral part of that originality. I have not made a study of this, so please do correct me in the comments if I’m wrong, but originality in Japanese culture is less important, or it’s interpreted in a different way; the materials aren’t as important as the precise style and location, perhaps. The London Bridge was moved to the Arizona desert, and people still flock to see it because it’s made of stones centuries old. In Japan, temples may have been rebuilt only a few decades ago, but they imitate the form and decoration of their predecessors so precisely, and inhabit the same space so perfectly, that they are admired as the temple, not a copy.

On the approach

On the approach

This is ending up very freshman philosophical, all “what is the you-ness that makes you, you,” but it’s something I pondered several times at the different tourist sites I visited throughout Japan. I admit to a thrill when I see or touch something truly old, but seeing a perfectly symmetrical temple identical to one people admired centuries ago is a thrill of its own. The common thread, for me, is the historical connection to others. Whether it’s the actual building that people stood in, or a replica, the exciting thing is the idea that I might be experiencing the sights and sounds of a place just as earlier generations did.

Part of the Family in Tokyo

As I mentioned before, I had a wonderful family experience with the Shirotas, and my luck with hosts in Japan didn’t end there. I stayed with a gregarious couple in Hirosaki and a gracious teacher in Yokosuka. But I spent the most time with a lovely family in Tokyo. Andrew, whose parents I stayed with in Shinrin-koen, put me in touch with his friends Eiko and Junko, Japanese sisters who both studied in Washington state, traveled around, and settled back down in Tokyo a few years apart. Eiko took me out to a delicious okonomiyaki dinner in Kawagoe with her family and gave me travel tips for the rest of my time in Japan. Junko put me up in her newly built house in the hip Umegaoka neighborhood in Tokyo. Both of them welcomed me with open arms into their family lives for the short time I was there.

So much fun with these lovely women--thanks for sharing your holiday with me!

So much fun with these lovely women–thanks for sharing your holiday with me!

My first day in the city, Junko said, “It’s Golden Week and today is Cinco de Mayo! Come celebrate with us.” It wasn’t actually May 5th, but since that day was national Children’s Day, the Latin American community of Tokyo threw their Cinco de Mayo party a few days early. The festival took place right next to Harajuku, a central location perfect for a concert stage and food stalls. I joined Junko, her daughter, and their friends at the festival, where we ate chicken and tamales and listened to a Mexican pop star belt out power ballads and dance numbers.

At the Tokyo Cinco de Mayo 2013 Fiesta

At the Tokyo Cinco de Mayo 2013 Fiesta

Food ranging from tasty to intensely spicy

Food ranging from tasty to intensely spicy

The kids, all between three and seven years old, were gorgeous and funny, playing on a skateboard, kicking around a soccer ball, and entreating two strangers to swing them around by their arms. It was such fun, and it was also the perfect place to see how cosmopolitan Tokyo is. I saw the first black people I’d seen the whole time I’d been in the country, and I heard English, Japanese, German, French, and several other languages I didn’t recognize.

It's not a great photo, but this girl was so happy dancing up there on the stage

It’s not a great photo, but this girl was so happy dancing up there on the stage

The Cinco de Mayo fest is used as a pan-Latin American celebration here, rather than solely a Mexican event. There are apparently a lot of Japanese people with connections to Latin America and Spain. Junko and her friends are some of these. Junko went to college in Washington and spent a semester in Mexico. She loved it so much that she moved there after graduation, and stayed seven years. She moved back to Tokyo to raise her daughter, Carmen, and she works for the American Embassy. One of her friends, Susanna, was born and raised in Venezuela by Japanese parents; she and her Venezuelan husband are raising their two adorable kids in Tokyo. Another friend, Japanese, married a Spanish man, and their son wanted to show me how he’s going to be a soccer star. Everyone there, including the kids, spoke at least Japanese and Spanish, and most of them spoke English as well. I was so impressed by their language skills and the community they’d built together.

Junko and Eiko were both amazing women, smart and loud and funny. They shared with me how it was sometimes difficult to live as loud, strong-willed women in Japan. But they both insist on living their lives as they please, not dimming their personalities to meet any societal expectations, and they seem to have a lot of fun in the meantime. I admire them immensely. Also, their kids were really cute.

With Eiko and family in Kawagoe

With Eiko and family in Kawagoe

After the Cinco de Mayo fest, we all went back to Junko’s house, where Eiko and her kids were waiting for us. Eiko took over the kitchen and turned out several delicious dishes, all the kids played together, and the women graciously spoke English often so that I could be included in their conversation. They were a fun group of women. It was a great first night in Tokyo.

Carmen's grabbing for the camera and her thumb's in the way

Carmen’s grabbing for the camera and her thumb’s in the way

A couple days later, Junko took Carmen and me to meet up with yet another international friend (Japanese, moving to Angola to teach Spanish for a year). We went to the park behind the Meiji Jingu shrine, a sprawling grassy area spilling down to a little pond. Junko was proud to show us the park, which her friend had never heard of, despite living in Tokyo for years. It was a secret hidden in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city, Junko said. We had a picnic of sushi and frittata, and Carmen ran a kite around the park in adorable, energetic fashion.

Carmen decorated the kite herself

Carmen decorated the kite herself

Doesn't this just make you love kids, and kites, and life?

Doesn’t this just make you love kids, and kites, and life?

It took Carmen a day or two to warm up to me, but by my last day in town, she was hugging me and pulling on my arm to show me something she’d built or written. In the manner of seven-year-olds everywhere, she took great pride in showing me how to do the simple routines of her household, and we had a lot of laughs over putting stickers in funny places.

Carmen's only seven, but she already knows to flash peace signs in every photo

Carmen’s only seven, but she already knows to flash peace signs in every photo

Junko also fed me every day for the five days I was there, drove me to the kabuki theater and the boat that took me to Kaminarimon Gate, told me about the Lost in Translation karaoke room, and directed me to an amazing night view of Tokyo. She gave me a driving tour of the city one day, and talked with me about my dreams for the future. She gave me my own room to sleep in, a key to her home, and an invitation to come back any time. All this, and she’d had two days’ warning from Eiko before I showed up on her doorstep. I experienced Tokyo as a temporary member of Junko and Carmen’s family during busy Golden Week, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way. I can only strive to be as generous when I host in the future. Arigato!

Junko and me

Junko and me