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Tokyo’s man-made forest: Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine is known in Japan as the most popular shrine for people to do their hatsumoude (first shrine visit of the New Year). Every year about three million people pass through the shrine gates over a three day period starting on New Year’s Eve.

It is also a very popular destination for foreign visitors coming to Tokyo, many marveling at the towering trees flanking the gravel pathway leading to the shrine itself. Walking under the wide canopies of the oak, camphor, locust, and pine trees, it is hard to imagine that all of this forest was entirely man-made, each tree planted here by hand less than 100 years ago.

Like so many of modern Tokyo’s public facilities and green spaces, what is now known as Meiji Shrine was originally the estate of a daimyo (feudal warlord). In the early Edo period (1603-1868), this land was given to Kato Kiyomasa of Higo Kumamoto as his fief. There is still a spring that bears his name – “Kiyomasa’s Well” – on shrine grounds, and pure, clean water wells up from it 60 liters a minute at a consistent 15 degrees Celsius.

明治神宮・昭和12年The estate was later made into one of the Hikone fief Ii clan’s three estates, with an area of approximately 601,000 square meters – the second largest in all of Edo. Because no plans or sources remain from the era, no one knows exactly what the buildings and facilities in the estate looked like, but thanks to maps from the early Meiji period it is certain that the pond in the Imperial Garden and north pond of the Meiji Memorial Hall have existed since the period that this land was an Ii clan estate.

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the land was confiscated by the new government and turned into an Imperial estate, which was known as the Minami Toshima Imperial Estate. The Emperor had an iris garden planted and a teahouse built for Empress Shoken, who was of frail health and would come to visit the Imperial Garden in the Estate often to convalesce. She was also said to be fond of fishing, and so a fishing platform was built for her according to the Emperor’s wishes on the edge of the pond in the Imperial Garden. All of the remaining areas of the Estate were given over to tea and mulberry fields.

Emperor Meiji passed away on July 30th, 1912 and his state funeral was held in what is now Jingu Gaien on September 13th. The following day, he was interred at Fushimi Momoyama Mausoleum in Kyoto. Just two years later, on November 1st, 1914, he was joined by his wife, who was buried next to him.

Soon after the Emperor’s passing, campaigns to have a shrine dedicated to the Emperor built were born all around the country, including Tokyo. In 1913 a committee was created to start choosing a location for the shrine. Four possible locations, all with deep ties to the Emperor – and all in Tokyo – were chosen from the 40 candidates. In the end, it was decided that the new shrine would be built on the grounds of the Minami Toshima Imperial Estate.

Construction started in 1915, and almost all of the work preparing the grounds of the new shrine was done by 110,000 members of the seinendan, a volunteer youth organization of men and women aged 15~25 dedicated to educational development and self-sufficiency. As a result of their labor, the former tea and mulberry fields were transformed into a forest, using more than 100,000 trees of 365 varieties. These trees were donated not only by prefectures from all Japan, but also Manchuria, Taiwan, Korea, and Sakhalin. The shrine and other buildings were built by volunteer labor of more than 13,000 people from across Japan.

Meiji Shrine was officially dedicated and the Emperor and Empress enshrined here in a ceremony on November 1st, 1920. There was a fireworks display and newspapers reported that more than 500,000 people visited the new shrine on this day alone.

The forest has grown to 170,000 trees over the past 92 years. However, due to changes in Tokyo’s climate and other causes, the number of species has declined to 245.

Although the Shrine was not affected by the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, it did suffer grieviously during World War II: an air raid on April 14, 1945 destroyed the shrine buildings. The current hall and outbuildings were completed in November of 1958. Despite being one of the few structures to survive the 1945 bombing, the original O-Torii was damaged by a lightning strike in 1966 and replaced in the 1970s. The current O-Torii is made of cypress wood estimated to be more than 1,500 years old and said to have been brought down from a mountain more than 3,000 meters high. It was donated by the government of Taiwan. The original O-Torii was repaired and has been relocated to Hikawa Shrine in Omiya, SaitamaPrefecture.

In addition to the tranquil beauty of the towering trees, Meiji Shrine offers another attraction for visitors – the chance to see a wedding procession, with bride and groom in traditional Japanese clothing and flanked by an escort of Shinto priests. As Japanese weddings go, getting married at Meiji Shrine is considered to be very reasonably priced (averaging about US$20,000) and every year, more than 1,000 ceremonies are held here.

For another way to appreciate Meiji Shrine, rather than pass under the main torii at the south entrance, walk along the path that you will see off to the left of it. This is actually a small road sometimes used by taxis to cut through the shrine and will really give you a sense of the scale and true extent of this man-made forest.