A visit to Japan during Cherry Blossom season, or Sakura Festival as the locals call it, is absolutely mind blowing. The vibrant colors, contagious energy and fascinating Japanese culture facilitated what will forever be one of the best trips of my life. To help fellow travel lovers plan ahead for future experiences in Japan, I will be sharing several guides, hotel reviews and general tips from this enriching travel experience. A perfect way to kick off any trip to Tokyo is a morning visit to both Meiji Shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park.
After a direct flight from NYC to Tokyo (14 hours), I landed late in the evening. It was important for me to “force myself” to get some rest and sleep after the long journey, particularly because I was eager to adjust to the time zone as quickly as possible for an action packed trip. After a few hours of sleep, I awoke well-rested and ready to go. Started the day strong with a big breakfast at casual noodle shop (I had shrimp tempura over rice and then discovered green tea flavored pound cake, so I had to try that too). I then made my way through the crowded, yet impeccably clean, subway station where I ventured out to Harajuku to spend the first part of my day exploring.
Read on below for a full recap of this half-day outing or as always, you can scroll on down to the bottom of this post for the quick and easy to follow Ladyhattan Guide.
I started with a visit to the famous Meiji Shrine, and then made my way over to the nearby Yoyogi Park which is located right around the corner from the shrine. Because of the close proximity of these two attractions, I was able to explore both before lunchtime. An added bonus, is that this outing will take you over to the neighborhood of Harajuku which is the perfect place to grab lunch and continue exploring the best of Tokyo. This is also the neighborhood where you can spot crowds of trendy teenagers, discover the Cat Cafe and see some pretty weird stuff that Tokyo is famed for.
Meiji Shrine is a shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. The shrine was completed and dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and the Empress Shoken in 1920, eight years after the passing of the emperor and six years after the passing of the empress. The shrine was destroyed during the Second World War but was rebuilt shortly thereafter. One of the reasons why this shrine is the most famous in Japan, is because Emperor Meiji is best known for connecting Japan to the west, and thus modernizing the country significantly.
The two torri gates at the entrance to the shrine are 40 feet high. When you pass through (under), you are symbolically entering a sacred place and leaving behind the everyday. Out of respect, guests are encouraged to bow before entering under the gates. The long path to the shrine buildings is lined by large cedar trees. The park that surrounds Meiji Jingu Shrine is a forest of some 120,000 trees of 365 different species. The trees were brought from all over Japan and now the forest is a haven for many species of birds. Winter sees a large number of Mandarin ducks gather at the North Pond in front of the Treasure Museum. You quickly forget you are in the world’s largest city.
There is an area of the shrine where you can write wishes down on a block of wood or piece of paper. To make sure that your wish comes true after writing it down, throw coins into the wooden offering box. Then, bow twice, clap your hands twice, pray and/or make a wish silently in your mind, and then bow once more. I left a wish and hope that it comes true.
Barrels of sake (nihonshu) donated to the Meiji Shrine from all over the country of Japan are displayed beautifully to create a colorful wall.
At the shrine’s temizuya (a stone wash basin), start by rinsing your left hand, followed by your right hand. Second, pour water into your left hand and use it to rinse your mouth. Third, rinse your left hand again, and then rinse the water dipper. The water dipper should never touch your lips.
Just a short 5 minute walk from the Shrine, I made my way over to Yoyogi Park. Yoyogi Park is one of Tokyo’s largest city parks featuring wide lawns, ponds and forested areas. Before becoming a city park in 1967, the area where Yoyogi Park is located served as the site of the Olympic Village for the 1964 Olympics. For me, the most thrilling part of visiting this quaint city park was spotting the beloved blossoms for the very first time. Call it luck, but I landed in Tokyo right at the premiere time for spotting the cherry blossoms – which was a few days after full bloom.
The significance of the cherry blossom tree in Japanese culture goes back hundreds of years. In their country, the cherry blossom represents the fragility and the beauty of life. It’s a reminder that life is almost overwhelmingly beautiful but that it is also tragically short. There is something incredibly moving about this message, as shown to us through something so simple – a small petaled flower. To celebrate the”YOLO” messaging from the lifespan of blossoms, people of all ages gather with friends and family under the blooming trees to celebrate what they call Sakura Festival. I saw hundreds of locals gathered together on enjoying parties and picnics beneath the mind-blowing natural attraction. Seeing the spirit of celebration was something that can’t be captured through a lens, but must be experienced in-person. If you ever plan to visit Japan, I highly reccomend aligning your travel plans with the cherry blossom season. Although it’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the trees will bloom, you can follow trusted cherry blossom forecasts when booking flights.
LADYHATTAN’S GUIDE TO TOKYO (HALF-DAY)
- Grab a $10 or less breakfast at a local noodle shop
- Take the JR Yamanote Line to Harajuku Station
- Entrance to both the Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park is free of charge
- Shrine and park hours are typically sunrise to sunset
- Visit the Meiji Shrine and explore (2 hours)
- Be sure to bow your head as you enter and exit the shrine as a sign of respect
- Leave a prayer filled with your wishes on a hand-written letter or wood ornament at the shrine
- Find the sake barrels on display inside the shrine
- Once you’ve explored Meiji Shrine, take a five minute walk over to Yoyogi Park
- Spend time wandering the park and spotting the gorgeous gardens full of flowers and exotic trees (1 hour)
- Bring a snack to the park to enjoy under the cherry blossoms
- Make your way over to the nearby Harajuku neighborhood for shopping and lunch