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Nagatacho, Ark Hills and the Hie Shrine

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Nagatacho is the administrative center of the Japanese government. Ark Hills is a massive complex combining condominiums, shopping and entertainment. And the Hie Shrine is a peaceful place of worship on a wooded hill. We visited these three adjacent, but completely different, spots during one long day in south-central Tokyo.

Nagatacho, Ark Hills and the Hie Shrine

We had been excited about Nagatacho, but picked the wrong day to visit. It was April 29th, Showa Day, a holiday on which the Japanese are encouraged to reflect on their government. And since Nagatacho is the location of most of Japan’s national legislative bodies, we assumed that it would be lively. But except for a couple joggers and security personnel, it was a ghost town. Showa Day is not among the celebrations for which the Japanese go wild, at least not in Nagatacho.

We wandered about the empty streets for a while, looking at our map. “So this is the Ministry of Finance. There’s the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” It was dull. The National Diet Building (Parliament) is nice to look at, but it’s nothing you’re going to remember for the rest of your days. You can walk past the entrance gate to the Prime Minister’s residence, but you can’t really see it. If you’re Japanese, these places might have some meaning to you, but as a foreigner, and especially on Showa Day, Nagatacho was underwhelming.

Nagatacho, Ark Hills and the Hie Shrine

So when we first got to Ark Hills, it felt like a breath of fresh air. There were people and cafes and things to do! But the novelty soon wore off. This modern complex was built for Tokyo’s richest residents and it’s exactly the kind of place we tend to dislike. There’s a concert hall, an upscale mall, Italian restaurants, loads of Western faces, and even a helipad, so the good people of Ark Hills can get directly to the airport without ever having to step foot outside their comfort zone.

Nagatacho, Ark Hills and the Hie Shrine

By the afternoon, we were miserable. The day had been a complete bust, and a busted day in Tokyo is frustrating, since there are so many awesome things which we could have done instead. Unwilling to give up, we decided to search out the Hie Shrine, and it’s a good thing we did. At the top of a tall hill, accessed by a staircase covered in a hundred torii gates, this shrine isn’t the biggest or most impressive we’ve ever seen, but it was lively (unlike Nagatacho) and genuine (unlike Ark Hills). Its museum displaying swords that belonged to the Tokugawa Shoguns was closed (grrr… Showa Day!), but we still enjoyed the short time we spent here.

Locations on our Map: National Diet Building | Ark Hills | Hie Shrine

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Nagatacho, Ark Hills and the Hie Shrine
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June 16, 2014 at 7:28 am Comments (5)

The Meiji Shrine

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Directly across from one of Tokyo’s craziest areas (Harajuku) is one of its most serene. Built to guard the spirits of Emperor Meiji and the Empress Consort Shōken, the Meiji Shrine is tucked away in a large evergreen forest, which neither the city’s noise nor stress can reach.

The Meiji Shrine

Emperor Meiji was largely responsible for bringing Japan into the modern age. After wresting power from the Tokugawa Shogunate and re-establishing the empire in 1868, he instituted a series of political, economic and cultural reforms meant to make Japan competitive with the West. Meiji died in 1912, followed shortly thereafter by the Dowager Empress Shōken, and plans were immediately drawn to honor them with a Shinto shrine.

The forest north of Yoyogi Park was a favorite escape for the couple, who would rest from their imperial duties by taking long walks through fields of irises. Back then, the forest was quite far from the city. But Tokyo has grown a lot, and today, Meiji Park is right in the middle, within easy walking distance of Shibuya.

Entrance to the park is gained by passing under an enormous torii, the traditional gate which is typical of Shinto shrines. The torii seems to signal passage into another world. Having just left the city and the cosplay-attired girls of Harajuku behind, it was surreal to see the broad trail leading slightly downhill into a woods thickly populated with towering old-growth forest.

The Meiji Shrine

The path to the shrine is long and full of distractions. For example, we encountered an enormous wall of barrels filled with French wine and sake, left as a tribute to the Emperor. There was also a pictorial commemoration of the Empress Consort Shōken, who dedicated her privileged life to helping those less fortunate. We were also delayed by the presence of a large Japanese garden hidden within the forest. Toward the north of the park, we spent time watching students practicing judo inside a classic dojo, and then paid entrance to a small museum which holds some of the Emperor’s treasures.

So by the time we actually made it to the center of the park, the shrine felt almost like an afterthought. “Oh yeah, that’s why we’re here!” Dependably surrounded by bowing worshipers, photo-snapping tourists, solemn monks, and wedding parties, this shrine was completed in 1920 but had to be totally reconstructed after WWII. It was crowded during our visit, but the atmosphere was festive and enjoyable, and I couldn’t help but think that the spirits of Meiji and Shōken would be pleased by its popularity.

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April 22, 2014 at 6:53 am Comments (3)
Nagatacho, Ark Hills and the Hie Shrine Nagatacho is the administrative center of the Japanese government. Ark Hills is a massive complex combining condominiums, shopping and entertainment. And the Hie Shrine is a peaceful place of worship on a wooded hill. We visited these three adjacent, but completely different, spots during one long day in south-central Tokyo.
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