Egrets! and Meiji Shrine

A few weeks ago, I ran an errand in central Tokyo that took me within a short walk of Meiji Jingu (Meiji Shrine). Since I doubted the shrine would be busy on a weekday morning, I headed over for a visit.

Meiji Jingu sits on 70 hectares of forested land in central Tokyo; the shrine was established in 1920, after the death of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. Although the Emperor and Emperess are buried in Kyoto, they were posthumously enshrined at Meiji Jingu as protective Shintō deities. Emperor Meiji played a major role in the modernization (and Westernization) of Japan; his wife, Empress Shoken, was a strong supporter of women’s education, as well as the International Red Cross.

Main entrance torii, Meiji Jingu

Today, Meiji Shrine is one of the most popular sites in Tokyo for foreign tourists, and is also a functioning Shintō holy site; millions of people visit the shrine to pray, and for other religious observances (like weddings and the childhood rite of passage called Shichi-Go-San). Many residents of Japan also visit the shrine to appreciate its natural beauty–when walking through many parts of the shrine, you can’t see any buildings, and it’s easy to forget you’re deep in the heart of one of the world’s largest cities.

The fishing spot

One of my favorite parts of Meiji Shrine is the Imperial garden, once used by the Meiji Emperor and Empress Shoken as a private retreat. (Although the shrine is free to enter and visit, these gardens have a 500-yen entrance fee, and in my opinion they’re well worth the price.) The hut above sits at the edge of a lake that was formerly stocked with fish–and is still inhabited by koi, turtles, and frogs.

Surprise! Egret!

On this visit, I headed for the gardens, hoping to see the koi and perhaps some turtles. To my surprise, I rounded a corner near the small wooden dock and saw an egret sitting in a tree!

Egret. Pine tree. Koi pond. Japanese garden element hat trick.

The egret didn’t seem at all bothered by my presence–and I wasn’t alone. At least three other people joined me on the dock, and all of us had cameras, but the egret didn’t care. If anything, he seemed almost as curious about us as we were about him.

The empress’ teahouse (a reconstruction)

Just up the hill from the pond sits the Empress’s teahouse–or, at least, a reconstruction of the one the Meiji Emperor gave to the Empress. The original teahouse was destroyed during World War II, but the reconstruction uses the original plans and the same materials. It’s not open to the public, but you can walk up and look inside.

The iris garden (your irises may vary…)

After leaving the pond, I walked through to the Iris Garden–so named for the literal river of irises that runs through it in late spring. In November, the river is brown and muddy, and although the foliage was past its peak, some red still shone in the trees.

I thought I’d already seen the highlight of the day. I’d never been as close to an egret as I’d gotten to the one in the tree near the fishing pond, and I was still excited about the experience . . . when I noticed an even larger egret at the side of the path, just ahead, in the iris garden.

Who says it’s better to live with no (r)egrets?

I slowed down as I approached, and wondered how close the enormous bird would let me get before it flew away.

He sees me coming. He doesn’t care.

The answer is “he didn’t fly away at all.” I walked up slowly and stood so close to him that he was less than a full arm’s reach away. I’d say “I could have touched him,” but I’m pretty sure he didn’t trust me that much. However, I didn’t try to touch him, and he seemed content to let me take as many pictures as I wanted.

He seemed to know I presented no threat.

He definitely paid attention to me, but didn’t seem nervous. He alternated between looking at me and looking around for bugs. He stood almost a meter tall, with his neck extended, and his feathers were completely white, without a spot of color anywhere–which made him harder to photograph than I would have liked!

Best moment of my day. Probably my month as well.

There’s something very special about a wild animal trusting you enough to allow you to approach. The minutes I spent with him (and I was in no rush to move away) made me deeply happy, and transformed what was an ordinary day into something I will remember always.

Have you ever had an ordinary day turn extraordinary in unexpected ways? I’d love to hear your story in the comments!