I love to search for the green heart of a big city, and so we set off on a walk to Yoyogi Park. It’s reachable on foot from Shibuya within half an hour (maybe 40 minutes if you stop to check Googlemaps) and we left the fast pace of our temporary home behind us, passing more subdued areas with a few shops and cafes, before finally arriving at the gates to the park.
I have to say I caught my breath, there was just something about them. The clearly Japanese style is of course impressive and distinctive, but it was as if we really were about to enter a gateway to yet another different world within the excitement of this one. There they stood, those towering columns of the Southeast entrance, and beyond them a mass of still summery green and trees.
Yoyogi park is open for 24 hours and it’s a wonderful discovery for those who love to walk, especially in wide, open spaces, as well as those who know their plants and trees. Curving tree trunks, leafy crowns meeting overhead, ferns and acorns scattered along the paths like green forest gems.
We were walking through the park planning to stop at the Meiji Shrein on the way, when we saw a sign pointing towards some steps and saying Kiyosama’s Well. Intrigued, we paid the 500 admission fee, got a helpful map describing the individual spots we were about to encounter.
What we had discovered was actually a gem, a park within a park, the Meiji Jingu Inner Garden. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868 the garden was owned by the Imperial Family. An enchanting green respite full of yet more plants, trees and beautiful nooks and crannies, the garden also stands out due to repeated mentions of the love, or “consideration”, Emperor Meiji had for his Empress Shoken. These feelings led to the construction of the Kakuun-tei, a teahouse unfortunately burned down during WWII, but carefully rebuilt in 1958. Empress Shoken was said to have loved this teahouse and “rested” there when she visited the garden, spending time by the pond nearby or strolling along a winding path lined with azaleas. It’s a hilly area, but with a “gentle slope”, according to our booklet – another loving detail. It certainly is a wonderful picture to imagine and I couldn’t help feeling curious about this woman. There is a lot of interesting information to read about her, and among other things it turns out she was a talented and active poet. She was also a whopping three years older than her betrothed, gasp, so her birthyear was officially changed to allow the marriage.
The Meiji Shrine is a Shinto shrine and here too a strong connection to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken is apparent. Their graves are not located in the Shrine itself, but to quote, the “souls are enshrined” there. Before entering the territory you join other visitors next to a small fountain with multiple wooden gourds, and, following their lead (or covertly watching the Japanese if you did not read up on this beforehand), you fill a gourd with water, pour some in your hand, then some in the other hand, moisten your mouth and cheeks, then proceed. If you like, you can buy a fortune and make a contribution to the Shrine – 100 yen drops in to a wooden box and after a bit of rummaging you pull out a small bilingual scroll with a poem written (most likely) either by Emperor Meiji or Empress Shoken. A nice souvenir and a pleasant reminder of a visit to an interesting place filled with a sense of peace and at the same time some weighty history. Obviously the religious ritual isn’t obligatory, especially for tourists, but it’s a nice custom and the clear explanations tactfully placed throughout the Shrine make it easy to feel included. There are several Shinto prayer rituals described in the Shrine of varying degrees of openness and it’s touching to read the messages visitors leave behind.