Visits to Temples and Shrines in Tokyo Metro a Good Way to Enjoy Nature
Three days in Japan and I have to admit I’m full of Shinto – and the better man for it.
For me, Tokyo has always been a bit of a pass-through. I would stop for a day or two on the way to somewhere else in Asia, so when I finally got the opportunity to spend a week in and about the city, I jumped at the chance.
My hotel was in the Shinjuku part of the city, an intense locale of high-rise office buildings, west of the Ginza. The Shinjuku rail station I’m told is the busiest in Japan, with 3.5 million people per day passing through its portals. Now, I’ve lived in Manhattan, so I know a little something about crowds, but to see a train pull into Shinjuku Station and the masses emerge is really quite fascinating – you just don’t want to get in the way as thousands of well-clad commuters rush for the exits.
Shinjuku, the high-rise buildings, elaborate roadways, great shopping, crowded mass transits are what I expect when I visit Tokyo – and I actually look forward to seeing it all. However, with a week at leisure, I got to explore not only Tokyo, but the suburbs and regions just beyond the population corridors. This was my true surprise.
When you are in middle of this great cosmopolitan city you forget that Japan is not all flat plains ready for the next high-rise, but a rugged land of mountains and forests and in just a short train ride, you will suddenly find yourself beyond the throngs and in the midst of forests, mountains, crags and wild rivers.
The ancient Japanese realized the beauty of the land and in these rugged places built temples and shrines. Most of those in and near Tokyo are dedicated to Buddhism, Shintoism or both, because in Japan the two are closely aligned.
Buddhism, like Catholicism or Islam, is based on the teachings of the religion’s founder, in this case the person known as Buddha, who was born around 624 B.C. Shinto is harder to define, because there is no great founder. It’s less of religion that a way of life tied to the principals of the ancient Japanese. Or, as one Shinto priest, told me, it’s like a nature worship, which is understandable considering that many of the great Shinto shrines I visited were in the heart of pleasant parklands,
Mount Takao is probably the most spectacular, located about an hour’s train ride outside of Tokyo Central. The real surprise is, after leaving bustling Shinjuku, a forest of high-rises, that by the time I got off the train, I was in a true, deep mountain forest, as Mt. Takao is the heart of the very large Meiji no Mori Takao Quasi National Park.
Temples and shrines galore can be found at the top of the mountain and a lot of locals will walk the hiking trails to the summit, just under 2,000 feet, but tourists and families generally take the funicular, which is the steepest, historic cable car in Japan.
Once at the top, it’s a mostly moderate -- but occasionally strenuous -- walk along a ridge line. Some things to note along the journey are the monkey park for kids and the famed Octopus Cedar Tree. At one point the trail divides into the women’s path and men’s path, about the only difference is the latter loops gracefully up-slope while the men’s side consists 108 steps.
There’s a lot to see on the way to the main temple, Stukas and statues, occasional stores selling unusual edibles of one sort or another. And yes, the shrine and temple was great, but the high-point for me was standing on the observation deck and seeing Mt. Fuji in the hazy distance.
The thing to remember about Mt. Takao is, on holidays and weekends with beautiful weather the solitude of the mountaintop will be severely limited by the throngs of city folk also wanting to do the same thing. The day before I arrived, early in November, was some kind school holiday and a record 28,000 people had stormed the summit
Even with all that folk stamping about, the busiest temple/shrine complex is still the Meiji Shrine, which for all practical purposes sits in the heart of Tokyo. High-heeled steps away from the main gate sits a small plaza and walking bridge, both of which roll into the Harajuku neighborhood, a trendy area where young Japanese women shop for the latest or most garish fashions, which they parade on that plaza and bridge across from the Meiji Shrine area as if at an Easter Ball for the weird and kinky.
Sorry, I digress, being tempted to the world of sin, when I should have been paying attention to my religious studies.
Although we are in the center of Tokyo, the Meiji Shrine sits in the heart of large, forested parklands. I arrived at dusk, shortly before the park was to close, and fortunately for me more people were leaving the grounds than arriving. The gravel paths are wide, and, indeed, like Mt. Tahoe the approach is naturalistic as the way is lined with heavy forestation. You are in Tokyo but no longer in the city.
The Meiji Shrine is very large and built in a traditional manner, with an outer gate and large, enclosed plaza and finally, the shrine, a long building steeped with traditional Japanese green tiles, sloping roofs with the uplift at the ends, like a bird ready to take flight.
It was at this shrine that I learned how to eat, pray, love. Sorry, wrong religious studies. I learned how to approach, pay, pray. Here’s the way to do it: You throw some coins into a box, bow twice, clap twice (to wake up the gods), make your prayer and then bow one more time.
The Meiji Shrine is a beautiful escape from the tremendous bustle of the crowds surrounding it. Literally, everything beyond the grounds of the park is moving at top speed, with 22 million people trying to work, go home, shop or play. But, the shrine is all serenity.
Young families that follow the tenets of Shinto bring their children (ages three and seven for girls and five for boys) to make a special ceremony at the Shinto shrine. It’s very lovely, because no matter how modern the family is, the young girls are dressed beautifully in their tiny kimonos. They are the real eye-stopping beauties and not the teenagers they will eventually become who cavort in pornographic. anime costumes on the pedestrian bridge to Harajuku.
Another good naturalist visit is the Hoto-san Shrine in Chichibu (take the Seibu Line Express Train #9), home to the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. This is a good day trip and after walking about the mountain shrine, stroll into the small village outside the park for lunch. I ate in a restaurant with the unlikely transliteration name of Yurin-Club. Ignore the obvious joke and enjoy a traditional Japanese meal served in hand-made bamboo containers made by local craftsmen.
Finally, one of the great spiritual mountains, and home to Japan’s largest Great Buddha statue, is Mount Nakogiri-Yama in southeastern Chiba, off the Tokyo Bay coastal Road. This is an only-in-Japan type location that is both a great hike through mountain forest and a place to experience the spiritual side of the country, because not only is there the Great Buddha, but in an old quarry another visage of Buddha has been carved and along one route you will pass 1,500 Rakans (small statues), many of which were beheaded when the Japanese state split Buddhism from Shintoism.
The walk is fairly easy and much of it has paved paths or steps, but you will need to take a breath once you get to the summit, from which you can see both Tokyo Bay and the Pacific.
If You Go:
Traveling to Japan is relatively easy as there are direct flights from both the east and west coasts of United States. I took a United Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Narita, returning from Narita through San Francisco. An express train runs from Narita to Tokyo Station, which I took on previous visits. This time I used shuttle buses. www.united.com
Where to Stay (Tokyo):
Due to the nature of my visit, I moved around a lot during my eight days in Japan. In Tokyo, I stayed at the Keio Plaza Hotel in the intense office building area of the city called Shinjuku (www.keioplaza.com); at the Sukeroku No Yado Sadachiyo, a traditional Japanese inn (www.sadchiyo.co.jp); and the Park Hyatt Tokyo, the upscale, high-rise hotel made famous by the Bill Murray/Scarlet Johansson movie, Lost In Translation (www.parkhyatttokyo.com).
Where to Stay (Prefectures): In Saitama, I stayed at the Kawagoe Prince Hotel (www.princehotels.com/en/kawagoe/). In Chiba, I spent a comfortable night at the Hotel New Otani Makuhari, a new mid-rise, business hotel.