HARAJUKU: BETWEEN THE SACRED AND THE MUNDANE

Updated: Oct 3, 2019


Inspiring Japan travel Story
The main torii gate at Meiji Jingu

I approached the station checkpoint gate at Harajuku station. I could hear the crossing light play Toryanse melody, traditional Japanese children tune. Probably it is equivalent of 'twinkle twinkle little star' in the West. The sun was up high. The mild spring air was gentle and warm. Among the crowds, mostly they were teenage girls and foreign tourists, I was looking for the sign to Meiji Jingu shrine. 'On your right and straight ahead. No need to cross!' A teenage girl exclaimed when I asked her how to get to Meiji Jingu Shrine. I thanked and waved at her as she walked away and disappeared in the crowds. As I turned right, there was a magnificent torii gate in front of me. I strolled towards the entrance, admiring the size of the gate. Torii gate gives way to another 'parallel universe', the sacred world, from our world, the 'mundane' universe. I stood a few metres right in front of the gate, looking up at the two beams that supported by the two long posts made of a whole tree. The top shaft is gently curved like a resting samurai. Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine dedicated to deified spirits of Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken. So it says. I bowed showing respect for the gods residing within and walked on the left side instead of the centre line. Walking through Torii is like leaving the modern world behind. Traffic sound from Harajuku shopping streets slowed down.

Aged cedar and cypress trees were standing tall. Shafts of sunlight pierced through tree branches and leaves. The light was low and calm. Pedestrians' footsteps on gravelled road cracked as the leaves danced with a gentle wind. I bowed, walking through the second Torii. As I walked closer to the shrine's main gate, just like what locals do, I walked towards Temizuya, a ceremonial purification pavilion. I washed my left hand, then right. I watered my mouth with my left hand. Similar ritual as Moslems before entering the mosque for prayer. Water is perceived as a purifying source for both Eastern religions and Abrahamic religions, though the two are not linked. Balinese Hindus are not allowed to enter the temple during the mourning periods as it is for Shinto because it is believed to cause impurity. Before resting the water ladle on the edge of the basin, I washed it by holding it upside down to allow water flowing down the spoon. This is also a courtesy as respect for other users. Low breezes lingered as I walked up on the steps towards the main shrine.

I was standing quietly in front of the haiden. I softly tossed the coin and then made two deep bows. I prayed silently--slipping a little hope from a turmoil relationship I recently went through--then clapped twice and made my final bow before leaving. I spent a long time reading Ema, tied onto a panel around the tree, the wish tablets written by visitors from around the world. There were wishes from a husband for a happy family, a granddaughter, her grandmother well, for a dying sister to be healed from cancer., for anyone who reads the message to be loved. The list of words, written in different languages, went on and on. Though everyone comes with different stories, they all come with one thing, hope. Meiji Jingu is indeed a temple of faith.

Stepping out of the sacred universe of Meiji Jingu, Harajuku is an entirely different world. It vibrates multiple colours of Japan. It is not only shopping streets and fancy eating places, but also the birthplace for many subculture fashions emerging from various elements throughout Japan. The Japanese elements can sometimes blend with American pop culture, European gothic, the Victorian era and many others. They are parts of Harajuku landscape. Maybe Lolita is the only one I am familiar with. Doll-like girls are dressed in Victorian-inspired lace dresses with pastel parasols and giant ribbon wrapped on their head. Hello Sia, Katy Perry! They can be seen sitting on the bench in the corner of an alley or walking along Omotesando steep footpath, utterly undisturbed by shoppers and diners, and on the other hand, perhaps subconsciously become an attraction. If you asked them politely for a selfie, you might be lucky to get one or two. Smokes from streetfood stalls lingered. I couldn't resist Luke's lobster rolls in Omotesando, Jingumae. I even queued for takoyaki with fancy flavours because why not? I walked along with hundreds of pedestrians in cat streets, and quietly laughed at quirky t-shirts and souvenirs. I was even fascinated by glossy displays showing off famous designers' products; Gucci, Channel, LV, and so on. Kawaii merchants are everywhere, as far as you can see. I found myself sitting at an upper-level veranda by the street, sipping Sapporo Yebisu beer from a tall glass, watching the crowds as the night unfold. Street lights from the shops, buildings, and even trees revealed another vibrant dimension of Harajuku. From a sacred universe of Meiji Jingu shrine to the 'mundane' world of Harajuku. I was intrigued by thinking about what adventures ahead.


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Ema wish tablets at Meiji Jingu shrine




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