Tokyo is an amazing city. As a photographer I feel like this unending concrete jungle is constantly calling to me to get out and explore and document. There are so many new spots around every corner…it can actually be a little overwhelming at times.
It is at these times, these moments when the insane grandiose nature of Tokyo gets to the small town boy inside me, that I find myself fleeing into the urban forest of Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu.
Sandwiched between Harajuku Station and Yoyogi Park, Meiji Jingu is a relatively new shrine dating back to 1920. And although many parts of the original shrine were destroyed in WWII, the surrounding forest remains intact.
In fact, this forest was completely man-made, consisting of over 100,000 trees collected from all around Japan. It is precisely this forest that surrounds the shrine to this day that gives Meiji Jingu its charm, and helps you escape from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
Slow Speed Through the Gateway
When arriving from Harajuku Station you are greeted with a wonderfully large wooden arch, or Torii. As you may have read in previous articles of mine, I love these arches, both for their aesthetics, and for acting like a gateway to another realm.
This feeling is especially strong for me at this entrance to Meiji Jingu. As you pass through the gate you are plunged into the aforementioned forest, and lose all stimulus of the city.
As you wander down the main path you will slowly come upon a large wall of sake and wine barrels. These many barrels of alcohol are offerings to the shrine from countless breweries from around Japan, and are also a popular backdrop for photographers like myself.
On a busy day this part of the shrine can see a constant stream of visitors, so getting a fully unobstructed photo of the barrels could take some time.
One technique I suggest, though, is setting your shutter speed as slow as you are comfortable using, and taking pictures when people walk in-front of your camera. I tried this, and although it took a little while to get the desired results, it was quite fun to experiment with different shutter speeds to see what would come out.
Lighting a Woodland Torii
From here you are greeted with another giant wooden torii that is again surrounded by the forest.
I was lucky when I visited a little later in the afternoon as the sun was in a great position to allow for some beautiful light shining on the torii here. Lighting, both natural and artificial, can really affect the feeling of your images.
For those who are really interested in getting the best images, shooting in this “golden hour” (the first or last few hours of light in the day) is a recommendation for sure.
Take Time for a Long Shot
Once passing through this second torii, the long path takes you to the main building of Meiji Jingu. It really is a simple stone path, but don’t rush through here to get to the main buildings faster.
On this trip I used my time walking down this path to reflect on certain challenges in my life. Even when out shooting it’s nice to be able to take advantage of these quiet moments to think without all the distractions of the city.
Also, once you reach a turn in the path, there is a great spot to photograph the various people visiting the shrine. I got two of my favorite photos here. One of a lady in a kimono walking towards me with the large wooded Torii in the background, and one of a mother checking the knee of her son who had probably fallen while running around.
Thanks to the length of this path you can be far enough away from other people that they don’t tend to notice you taking pictures. And you won’t disturb their visit to the shrine.
At the end of this path you are greeted with the entrance to the main square of Meiji Jingu. This is a large spacious plaza, with two large trees on either side.
The square is a great place to spend some time with your camera for several reasons. Depending on the time of year you may encounter everything from visitors in traditional kimono, to shrine staff in traditional garments, or even a traditional Japanese wedding procession.
Of course it goes without saying that if you do decide to photograph people here, discretion is required. But I personally can’t help taking a few pictures of the shrine staff in their traditional robes when I have the chance.
On this trip I think I spent a good hour just enjoying the atmosphere, watching people, and chasing the light.
When you walk in from the Harajuku side this square is basically the last main spot of the shrine, so do take your time and enjoy it while you can. Once you leave, you will again be greeted by a long path through the woods that will eventually return you to modern day Tokyo.
Timing Your Visit
Again, I really enjoyed this 5 minute walk out of the shrine, and the time it gave me to think in a quiet and natural environment before rejoining the modern concrete jungle of Tokyo.
So next time you are visiting Tokyo, or even getting a little overwhelmed while living here (like myself), please do check out the tranquility of Meiji Jingu.
Weekdays should generally be quieter than weekends as it is a popular shrine for locals and visitors alike. Remember, though, to be respectful. It’s best to err on the side of discretion while shooting or filming in Meiji Jingu and other shrines around Japan.
Jason Halayko is a professional photographer specializing in action sports and portrait photography. Read his column [A Photographer’s Notes] here on JAPAN Forward. Follow him on Twitter (@jason_halayko), and on Instagram (@jason_halayko).