Tokyo is an amazing city. As a photographer, I feel like this endless concrete jungle is constantly calling me to get out, explore and document. There are so many new spots around every corner… it can be a bit overwhelming at times.
It’s at those times, those times when the insanely grandiose nature of Tokyo reaches the little city boy in 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 during World War II, the surrounding forest remains intact.
In fact, this forest is entirely man-made, consisting of more than 100,000 trees collected from all over Japan. It is precisely this forest that still surrounds the shrine today that makes Meiji Jingu so charming and helps you get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
Slow speed through the catwalk
Arriving from Harajuku Station, you are greeted by a wonderfully large wooden archway, or Torii. As you may have read in my previous articles, I love these arches, both for their aesthetics and for their action as a gateway to another realm.
This feeling is particularly strong for me at this entry of Meiji Jingu. Upon entering the gate, you are immersed in said forest and lose all stimulus from the city.
As you walk down the main path, you will slowly come across a large wall of sake and wine barrels. These many barrels of liquor are sanctuary offerings from countless breweries across Japan, and are also a popular backdrop for photographers like me.
On a busy day, this part of the shrine can see a constant stream of visitors, so getting a fully clear shot of the barrels can take some time.
One technique I suggest, however, is to set your shutter speed as slow as you’re comfortable with and shoot when people are walking past your camera. I tried this, and while it took a little while to get the desired results, it was quite fun to experiment with different shutter speeds to see what came out of it.
Lighting a torii of the woods
From here you are greeted by another giant wooden torii which is again surrounded by forest.
I was lucky when I visited a little later in the afternoon as the sun was in a perfect position to allow a beautiful light to shine on the torii here. Lighting, both natural and artificial, can really affect the feel of your images.
For those who are really interested in getting the best images, shooting during this “golden hour” (the first or last hours of daylight) is a definite recommendation.
Take time for a long shot
Once past this second torii, the long path brings you to the main building of Meiji Jingu. It’s really a simple stone path, but don’t rush here to get to the main buildings faster.
During this journey, I have used my time traveling this path to reflect on some of the challenges in my life. Even on set 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 bend in the path, there is a great spot to photograph the various people visiting the shrine. I have 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 the other of a mother checking her son’s knee which had probably fallen while running.
Thanks to the length of this path, you can be far enough away from other people that they won’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 by the entrance to the main square of Meiji Jingu. It is a large spacious place, with two large trees on each side.
The square is a great place to hang out 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 dress, or even a traditional Japanese wedding procession.
Of course, it goes without saying that if you decide to photograph people here, discretion is key. But personally, I can’t resist taking a few pictures of the shrine staff in their traditional robes when I get the chance.
On this trip I think I spent a good hour enjoying the atmosphere, people watching and chasing the light.
As you enter from the Harajuku side, this square is basically the last main point of the shrine, so take your time and enjoy it while you can. Once you leave, you will once again be greeted by a long path through the woods that will eventually bring you back to modern Tokyo.
Schedule of your visit
Again, I really enjoyed this 5 minute walk out of the shrine, and the time it gave me to reflect in a calm, natural environment before heading into the modern concrete jungle of Tokyo.
So the next time you visit Tokyo, or even find yourself a little overwhelmed living here (like me), please check out the tranquility of Meiji Jingu.
Weekdays should generally be quieter than weekends as it is a popular sanctuary for locals and visitors alike. Remember, however, to be respectful. It is best to err on the side of discretion when filming or filming at Meiji Jingu and other shrines in Japan.
Listen: #21 Real Issues, Real Voices, Real Japan Podcast – Action Photography and X Games in Japan with Jason Halayko
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).