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A shady forest and shrine in busy Tokyo

Associated Press Associated Press 24/06/2016 Linda Lombardi
Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo. © Linda Lombardi via AP Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo.

Just steps from one of the busiest, most modern parts of Tokyo, it's a soothing surprise to feel like you're in the heart of a primeval forest.

It's maybe a bigger surprise to learn the trees are not at all as ancient as they feel.

Slip out of the crowds in Tokyo's Harajuku neighbourhood and head into the grounds of Meiji Jingu shrine and you'll immediately find yourself walking through a woodland of enormous trees. At first the raucous bird cries and the sound of the wind in the branches competes with noise from the nearby Yamanote Line train station.

Gradually, though, the sounds of the modern world fade as you walk along the wide path. With lots of broadleaf evergreens, there's green here even in cold seasons. If this forest doesn't convert you to the ancient Japanese belief that spirits dwell in features of nature like large trees, at least you'll understand why they felt that way.

Meiji Jingu shrine is no secret as a tourist attraction, but the history of the grounds is less well known. It's hard to imagine it when looking at the huge mature trees, but a hundred or so years ago, this was all essentially bare ground. It was planted carefully by experts to give a natural succession of tree species and is now a functioning ecosystem, home to many birds and other animals and native plants.

The shrine itself, dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken who died in 1912 and 1914, is not so much serene as solemn. It's also generally quite full of people. If the mood doesn't suit, move along, because what we're here for is really the grounds.

The route from Harajuku is always well populated, although the broad, long path can swallow up quite a number of people without feeling too crowded. But other paths leading out from the shrine tend to be relatively empty even a short walk from the shrine precincts.

The site is not a place where you sit and contemplate so much as a place where you walk and meditate. There are some benches in the shrine precincts but generally not along the paths. There are also places to sit and rest in the small inner garden, a more typically manicured Japanese garden with a pond, for an admission fee of Y500 ($A6.50). The pond has water lilies and the garden is famous for irises that bloom in early summer.

The Inner Garden of the Meiji-Jingu Shrine. © Yiming Chen/Moment/Getty Images The Inner Garden of the Meiji-Jingu Shrine.

If all of that walking leaves you calm but too hungry to make it all the way back to Harajuku, sustenance is available on your way out at a full service restaurant and a small food court offering ramen, curry and other casual Japanese favourites.

Note that shrine visits are traditional on certain Japanese holidays and these days are probably not a good time to visit unless your idea of serenity includes crowds like those you'd find in Times Square on New Year's Eve. In fact New Year's in Japan is one of those holidays.

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