Big in Japan: Meiji Temple

Follow the adventure: The Tokyo Toddler

When getting ready for our trip, we put a big call-out to pretty much everyone we knew: any tips or contacts in Japan that you could share with us? Our friend Pam came through big when she introduced us to her friend Kiyomi, who lived just outside Tokyo. They had met and become friends when Pam had come to Japan on an exchange program. Now, as Kiyomi prepared to move to another place in Japan to start a new job, she nonetheless made room in her busy schedule to meet up with us on our first full day in Japan.

After a morning of getting our bearings and overall starting to feel human again, we met Kiyomi at Noborito Station that afternoon.

“What do you want to do?” she asked.

This is a tougher question to answer than you might think. Obviously, we wanted to see and do everything. Yet as we talked, we realized that what we really needed was a little something else. Our bodies were feeling better… but we needed something that was good for the soul.

“I know just where to go,” Kiyomi said.

A few train rides later—including back through the infamous Shinjuku Station—and we got off the train at Harajuku Station. Just across the street, in the midst of hectic, bustling, crowded Tokyo, stood a quiet, forested paradise: Meiji Jingu Shrine. Standing outside the torii, or shrine gate, we all breathed in deeply. Trees covered a broad path. The city’s cacophony faded.

“Is this okay?” Kiyomi asked.

“It’s perfect,” Jodie and I said. “This is exactly what we needed.”

Meiji is a major shrine for Tokyo. It is dedicated to “the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken,” who passed away in 1912 and 1914 respectively. I won’t pretend to know much about Shinto—though I will say I very much want to learn more—but I do dig that Japan’s ancient religion has no founder, no holy book, no need to tell anyone what to believe. It seems to focus on the animate, vital energy in all things living and non-living.

The story goes that the Japanese people wanted to commemorate the virtues and memory of the Emperor and his consort. They donated 100,000 trees, some from Japan, some from all over the world, and created this urban forest themselves. The shrine opened on Nov. 1, 1920 (with dedications including barrels of French wine and Japanese sake).

Now, there was no shortage of people in this park. The collective footsteps of hundreds of people crunched all around us. At first it’s surprising. You’re heading into this reflective place, where people go to pray or just ponder some bit of life. How do you do that with a bunch of damn gravel crunching like a giant eating boulders?

But then you get to the flagstones near the main temple. The noise stops. A silence is restored. And it’s like this sudden absence of sound makes you all the gladder, all the more relieved, to be where you are. Maybe the gravel is there to make you appreciative of the spiritual experience ahead. Maybe gravel is just a cheap way to maintain a big path. Either way, or both ways, it works.

Before going into the main shrine area, there is a wee spot off to the left where you clean off your dirty hands—or rather, purify your spirit so as to be in the presence of the kami, or spirits, of the shrine. Out of respect for the customs of the shrine, we stepped up to the water dippers. Kiyomi was kind enough to help Connor go through the paces of pouring water on his left hand, then his right hand, then drinking some water from his left hand.

At the shrine itself, we all paid respects to the spirits. I added a wee prayer for our trip to go well, and for us to travel together in healthy and harmony as individuals and as a family.

In the meantime, however, Connor began building his Japanese fan club.

As I write this we’re a few more days into the trip. As Connor’s dad, and as a regular caretaking parent, I thought I’d gotten accustomed to the attention this bright-eyed, bubbly kiddo gets.

I was not at all prepared for how big my son is going to be in Japan.

Mr. Smiley Blue Eyes didn’t have the occasional photo taken. There wasn’t the occasional “kawaī,” pronounced “koh-ay-ee,” which means “cute.” Oh no.

My child had a bloody entourage.

People followed him around the shrine, making him laugh, taking pictures, waving, and talking with him. Like many kids, Connor brings people out of their shells, and he busts the Japanese out of their shells faster than a few beers. The Japanese may be famous around the world for their reserved stature, but that reserve falls like cherry blossoms in a high wind once he starts laughing and smiling.

Most of the rest of our visit to Meiji was spent following and watching this spectacle of people wandering after my child and taking his photo. And no, this didn’t seem weird to me, and it didn’t seem like something to be worried about. A goodness shone through in the people who were around Connor, a joy at seeing this happy wee toddler bopping around their part of the world. He smiled at everyone who passed by, and that brought out many smiles in return. We all shared many laughs, and had a few conversations in halting Japanese and English.

And you know what? It was indeed exactly what was needed. A shrine, after all, isn’t just about quiet reverence. It’s about respecting the fire of life, the spark and spirit that burns in you, me and everything, and that keeps existence rolling along. It’s about enjoying joy when you have it, and learning from sorrow when it comes. Seeing Connor laugh, smile and run freely is something that I know I already draw on when I need to lift my spirits. And if other people drew in that same sense of joy, then I was grateful to share it with them.

As our afternoon at the temple wound down, Jodie and I looked at other and Kiyomi in agreement. We couldn’t have picked a better first day in Tokyo. Listening to the trees rustle in the breeze, looking at the branches, taking in the sunlight as it filtered through the still-bare boughs, Jodie and I realized we felt renewed, recharged. We had a busy three weeks ahead of us—and now we felt all the more ready to face them with joy and gusto.

His entourage now tending to other matters, Connor came back to earth. He finished his Meiji trip in the same place where, eventually, pretty much all toddlers end up: the changing table.

Hey, he may have an entourage, but we still gotta keep the kid down to earth, you know?

As we wondered out of Meiji and back to the rush hour hustle of Tokyo, the city seemed not only new, but welcoming. We thanked Kiyomi and wished her well on her new job. She kindly accompanied us all the way back to our station to make sure we got back okay. Eventually we parted, and left with gratitude at having made a new friend our first day in a new country.

Now it was time to relax and grab some dinner. Meiji had restored us, and just in time. Tomorrow an expat friend of Jodie’s was taking us out for a big day of checking off our Tokyo travel checklist.

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