Today’s plan is to travel to Harajuku and visit Meiji Jingu, Yoyogi Park and the famous shopping district around Takeshita Dori. Harajuku station is only a short train ride from Shinjuku and the entrance to Meiji Jingu is so close to the station exit that we initially had trouble finding it! We arrived quite early on in the day but still the park was very busy. It was a Sunday and there were several events going on near/in the park which also swelled the crowds.
Entering under the first tori gate of our trip, we followed the crowds towards the Meiji shrine. Not far from the entrance, there is a display of barrels of sake wrapped in straw and decorated which have been offered by a sake brewers association to the enshrined souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. They are beautifully decorated both simply and in intricate detail, brilliantly coloured and starkly black and white. Over the course of our trip we would find similar barrels at other shrines but never in such numbers or as vibrantly decorated as those here. Opposite the display of sake is a similar offering of wines from France but these are in very boring barrels. Both tributes are made each year by their respective associations. No mention is made of what happens to the alcohol from the previous year.
Entrance to the general park and the shrine is free but there are also gardens which cost 500 yen to enter. The gardens seemed much more peaceful than the crowds heading to the shrine so we decided to look around those first. Immediately on passing through the gate, the bustle and sounds of the city and the main park fade away and you are surrounded by calm. Tall trees and undergrowth provide shade from the sun as well as protection from the clouds of dust kicked up by the crowds just a few metres away. The fact that not many other people seemed to fancy the charge to enter when there are so many free things to do nearby definitely helped add to the sense of isolation.
Much of the planting in the gardens was not in flowering season when we visited but the winding paths leading through the trees to a tea house and a lake with covered picnic areas were quite picturesque. The lake is an artificial fishing lake constructed for the empress who liked to fish. The main attraction of this garden seems to be a well or spring of sacred water which we think is also the source of the water for the shrine. The well has its own attendant on hand to tell you the history and also to make sure that you do not drink the water from the well. You can drink the water where it flows out over the edge of the well though so this must be a spiritual thing rather than a health and safety issue.
Leaving the gardens behind but bringing something of their air of calm tranquillity with us, we emerged back into the dust and crowds heading to Meiji Jingu.
There is a procedure to be followed when entering a shrine. At a trough filled with water (possibly from the spring we visited earlier) you use a long handled cup to dip water and wash your hands, first the left and then the right. Then you pour water from the cup into your hand and rinse your mouth, there is usually a drain where water pours out of the trough to spit the water, you are not supposed to drink it! I think that this is only for if you intend to pray at the shrine and there is nothing to enforce it anyway. Being a large and important shrine, the set up for this ritual at Meiji Jingu is large and impressive. It was also very crowded and we had to wait for a while for a space to open up, it seems the traditional Japanese politeness and love of structured queuing does not extend to this area of life. On the way out of the shrine some time later we took a side gate and found an almost identical set up completely unused!
Inside the shrine it was very busy with lots of tourists and locals looking around and praying at the altar. There was a wedding going on and several naming ceremonies so we could see lots of people in traditional dress. I’m not sure that I would want to have my wedding ceremony in a place so public, later on we saw the couples posed for official photographers with a throng of gawping tourists snapping pictures over their shoulders.
After finishing in Meiji, we headed over to Yoyogi Park. This looks simple on the map as the two are in the same green area on the map and no divisions are shown. However, we had to leave Meiji and walk along the road to get to the entrance to Yoyogi. The park was nice but really just a park full of dogs and people having picnics and people who looked suspiciously like they were going to play quidditch.
We didn’t stay long in the park and headed off to Harajuku to find some lunch. We located a restaurant mentioned in the guide book which therefore had a reasonably long queue but was seating people quite quickly. Gyōza-rō is a small gyoza restaurant on the backstreets of Harajuku. Customers can sit at a bar which wraps around 3 sides of the kitchen and watch their food being prepared. The choices are pretty simple, boiled or fried gyoza, rice, soup. I think there are a couple of variations but essentially that’s it. After waiting outside for about 15 minutes, we were seated and settled down to watch the staff at work while we waited for our food. While there is nothing particularly exciting or dramatic about the cooking of gyoza and rice, the speed and efficiency of the preparation was somewhat mesmerising. When it arrived, the food was simple but tasty and definitely well worth the wait. I did feel though that the extras just distract from the excellence of the gyoza, if I go back I’ll just order more of them and skip the rice and soup!
After lunch we went shopping in the huge “Kiddy Land” toyshop which disappointingly was eerily similar in places to a Disney store back home. We did find a lot of more Japanese toys on higher floors but nothing that was tempting to buy as a souvenir or gift. For more Japanese toys, I recommend visiting Akihabara (see later posts). After the toy shopping we walked down the famous Takeshita Dori hoping for a glimpse of some of the famous counter culture fashion. However, the street was so crowded that we were essentially swept along by the flow of people and after the first few metres didn’t even think about visiting any of the shops.
Escaping from the crush finally, we went for a coffee to get our strength back and by the time we got out again it was pouring with rain. We didn’t have waterproofs or umbrellas with us so took shelter in Gap to decide what to do next along with a hundred other people! The station appeared to have been closed for some reason, there was an announcement in Japanese but no English translation. The locals didn’t seem to be leaving the queue but after being crushed for 10 minutes and going nowhere we decided that we’d walk back towards the hotel and look for another station in spite of the rain.
It was quite easy to find the next station on the line which was open and not at all crowded. We never did find out the cause for the queues.