Frozen moments from the infinity that is time


Meiji Jingu Shrine

A short walk from Harajuku Station, one passes through a magnificent Torii gate (pics 1 and 2) marking the entrance to the Meiji Jingu Shrine – Tokyo’s most significant Shinto shrine. Flanked by impressive Cypress Pines, one then enjoys a pleasant walk crossing a small stream via an arched pedestrian bridge (pic 3) and passing through two more large torii on the way to the main shrine complex (pic 4) cocooned within a forested area of 175 acres.

By this time the concrete, steel and glass environs of the Tokyo metropolis is out of mind and mostly out of sight. One’s attention is drawn to the classic form and the elemental materials used in the construction of the main shrine building (pic 5), arguably enhanced by the appearance through the misty rain of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office building in nearby Shinjuku. This is a leviathan of a building, yet the old and new form symmetry so often found in Japan.

Meiji Jingu was established in 1920 to deify the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. During the Meiji era of 1868 to 1912, the modern Japan was born, with a focus on building international relationships and improving the prosperity and peace of the nation. Whilst it is somewhat natural to think of this period in terms of modernization and westernization, it is worth remembering that Empress Shoken is recognised as the model of the modern Japanese woman.

Sadly the original shrine building was destroyed by allied bombings in 1945, with rebuilding completed in 1958, largely through public donations, with such support demonstrating the importance of Meiji Jingu to the Japanese people.

For non-Japanese it can be difficult to gain an appreciation of shrines, especially compared to Japanese temples where the buildings and grounds are often more inviting, though it must be said that shrines are often found within temple complexes. In my experience, shrines are best appreciated during ceremonies or periods such as in early January when people flock to Meiji Jingu to worship and buy good-luck charms for the year ahead. As in all cultures, ceremony and the associated emotions speak their own language.

The accompanying photographs were taken around the main shrine building at different times on dry and rainy days. Those who have visited Japan will be familiar with the Ema Plaques (pic 10); small wooden tablets that can be purchased at most shrines and left hanging with one’s prayers or wishes. I have also taken the opportunity to share a few more shots of a Shinto Wedding party (pics 12 to 14) taken on an unfortunately wet day. However, the weather did not detract from their spirits and as can be seen from pics 15 and 16, all one needs is a good umbrella.

In conclusion, there is a question I cannot resist posing. Meiji Jingu is one of several large forested parks one finds around Tokyo that provide welcome respite and serve as green lungs within the metropolis. One wonders if today’s city planners around the world would be generous enough and brave enough to deny developers’ pressures to create similar green lungs.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)


Shinto Weddings

The best pleasures are those of the unexpected variety, such as I experienced on a visit to Kamakura’s Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. One is always drawn to a crowd and in this instance, a crowd had gathered around the Maiden (an open sided stage or pavilion) in front of the stairway leading to the main hall. Drawing closer it became apparent that, purely by luck, I was about to witness my first Shinto wedding ceremony.

As with western-style ceremonies the centre of attraction is the bride, as one will surely appreciate from the accompanying photographs. The ceremony itself is symbolic and does not legally confer marriage. This takes place previously via a civil ceremony in accordance with Japanese law.

Happening across the Kamakura wedding conducted in public was most fortunate, as most Shinto wedding ceremonies are conducted within the private areas of shrines, thus the public can only view the participants before and after. Nevertheless, it is a sight I would never tire of and I could quite happily spend my weekends photographing Shinto weddings. (Bookings will be gratefully accepted haha.)

As with many things Japanese, the ceremony and the costumes communicate a link to past traditions – a link further emphasised by the historic significance of the shrines within which the weddings take place. The locations for these photographs, the Hachimangu Shrine at Kamakura and Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu, are each steeped in history and are highly significant sites in their own right.

The brides wear exclusively white garments – a colour associated with purity in Japan, with the only exception appearing to be adornments worn in their hair. In ages past, I understand that brides would paint their faces and arms white, as do geisha, though this practice is no longer followed. The bridal kimono is intricately embroidered in patterns of the bride’s choosing, though the patterns do seem to draw heavily on symbols from nature. Perhaps the most striking part of the costume is the wataboshi, the large oval shaped hood intended to conceal the bride’s face to everyone except the groom. Whilst I don’t think it succeeds in this respect, the wataboshi is undoubtedly elegant and adds an air of mystery. For viewers who may be wondering, of the five brides shown in the photographs, four were wearing wigs.

I will now allow the pictures to tell the story. Pics 1 to 5 are shots from the Kamakura wedding and pics 6 to 17 were taken on a rather wet and cold afternoon at Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu, where a number of weddings were taking place.

Of the four brides photographed at Meiji Jingu, it was interesting to observe their different personalities. The first bride (pic 6) was ebullient and radiated happiness and joy. The second bride (pics 7 to 9) was simply a picture of elegance, whom one could happily photograph all day long. (For the photographically minded, I acknowledge that pic 9 is greatly over-exposed, but I like it anyway. It was unintentional and my best guess is that my shutter fired at exactly the same time as the official photographer’s flash.) The third bride (pics 10 to 12) looked so nervous at the conclusion of the ceremony. However, some calming words from her attendant and fine-tuning of her kimono soon transformed her into a radiant bride. Finally, the fourth bride (pics 13 to 17) epitomised grace at all times.

I hope this post gives at least a little glimpse into another of Japan’s links with tradition.

(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)