Harajuku is widely regarded as one of the centers of Tokyo’s fashionable youth culture with Takeshita-dori at its heart. As one strolls Takeshita-dori there is one intersection with a laneway where two crepe shops stand across the lane from each other and behind them a heavily wooded hillside beckons. Mount the steps toward the trees and the hustle and bustle of Takeshita-dori fades away. This is the side entrance to Togo Shrine, honoring Admiral Heihachiro Togo (1848-1934), hero of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).
The presence of this quiet, dignified shrine seems, at first glance, incongruous with its trendy surroundings. Yet it has managed to stay relevant and even gain popularity among the young demographic who frequent Harajuku. It seems a bit of a mystery, until one learns more about the activities of the shrine and about Admiral Togo himself.
Let’s start with the great man and return to the shrine shortly.
Togo, like many of the significant personalities of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), was born in Satsuma Domain (modern day Kagoshima Prefecture). He joined Japan’s newly formed Navy in 1866 and later went to the UK to study, graduating second in his class at the Royal Naval College.
After his return to Japan in 1878, Togo steadily rose through the ranks, receiving command of his first ship in 1883 and becoming commandant of the Naval War College in Tokyo in 1896. In 1899 he became Admiral of the Japanese fleet and in 1903 was appointed Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy, by this time consisting of over 100 vessels. All in all, a stellar career. Depictions of several scenes from Togo’s career are displayed around the cloisters of Togo Shrine.
Yet it is Togo’s achievements in the Russo-Japanese War for which he is best remembered. These, too, are depicted at Togo Shrine, but to really appreciate them, make a visit to Togo’s wartime flagship, the Mikasa, in Yokosuka, about an hour south of Tokyo on the western shores of Tokyo Bay.
Now known as “Memorial Ship MIKASA” and included in the designation of Yokosuka’s naval port as a Japan Heritage site, the Mikasa was built at the Vickers Shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness in the UK. Her keel was laid in 1899 and she was commissioned in 1902, making her the newest battleship in the Japanese fleet at the time of the Russo-Japanese War. Today she is the last known example of a British-built battleship.
Although the Russian fleet at the time had slightly superior force, Togo’s command of the Japanese Imperial Navy enabled it to defeat the Russians in each of three engagements: the Battle of the Yellow Sea (Aug 10, 1904), the Battle of Ulsan (Aug 14, 1904) and the Battle of the Japan Sea (aka the Battle of Tsushima; May 27-28, 1905). In this last engagement, the Russian fleet was effectively destroyed, as a result of which peace talks commenced.
After the war, the Mikasa had a further career before being decommissioned under the conditions of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. Under the treaty, Japan was permitted to keep the Mikasa as a memorial ship, provided that her hull was encased in concrete. Thus she was given a home in Yokosuka and opened as a museum in 1926. Admiral Togo and Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989), grandson of the emperor Togo served so well, were both present for the Mikasa’s opening.
Unfortunately, due to the shortage of war materiel during World War II, the Mikasa was stripped to her gunwales and recycled. During the post-war occupation, weaponry was banned in Japan with the result that the occupation forces removed most of what remained of the Mikasa. Restoration finally began in the late 1950s, largely by former sailors of the Japanese Imperial Navy volunteering their time, and she was re-opened as a museum in 1961.
Visitors can wander the Mikasa’s decks to admire her guns and even the bridge. A helpful brochure lays out a short (30-minute) and long (60-minute) self-guided course. There are bilingual signboards at various locations that provide explanations.
Below decks, the aft section of the ship has been converted to museum displays about the functioning of the Mikasa and especially her role in the Battle of the Japan Sea, when Admiral Togo ordered a “cross the T” maneuver that allowed his ships to fire all their guns at once on the enemy’s fleet. The success of the strategy earned Togo the monicker “the Nelson of the East”. Indeed, the admiral once wrote in his diary that he believed himself to be the reincarnation of Horatio Nelson, the British admiral who defeated Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
Virtual reality terminals allow visitors to put themselves in the middle of the battle and experience the heavy fire and damage the two enemies inflicted on each other, as well as other aspects of shipboard life.
In the forward section, Togo’s cabins as well as officer’s quarters, mess hall, and even a galley, have been restored to their appearance a century ago. While his bunk may have been a bit cramped, the admiral otherwise had fairly comfortable accommodation.
Togo finished his public service career in Tokyo, including overseeing the education of then-Crown Prince Hirohito from 1914 to 1921. He made his home in Sanbancho, not far from Ichigaya Station. This site was originally considered for the location of Togo Shrine, but then a larger piece of land in Harajuku became available and its size and proximity to Meiji Shrine made it seem more suitable. The Sanbancho site is now a public park known as Admiral Togo Memorial Park, largely a children’s playground with a new community hall currently under construction.
This brings us back to Harajuku’s Togo Shrine. The shrine was established in 1940 and the current buildings date to 1964. Togo himself apparently had no desire to be enshrined, but some say the shrine was established due to a perceived need for a shrine to a Navy hero, to counterbalance Akasaka's Nogi Shrine, where an Army hero was enshrined. Could it be because of its proximity to Takeshita-dori?
At the shrine, Togo is regarded as a god of sincerity, victory, fortune and relationships. Perhaps because all of these things could be said to add up to marriage, Togo Shrine is a popular wedding venue, too, with traditional weddings held in the main shrine while receptions take place in a modern facility next door, overlooking a pretty little pond and garden.
The shrine is also home to a separate small shrine to the “god of the sea” as well as a small museum of Togo memorabilia, such as his dress uniform and samples of his calligraphy
Stopping by to honor Togo when in the Harajuku neighborhood now makes a bit more sense, doesn’t it? Better yet, make the trip to Yokosuka to see the splendidly restored battleship that Togo commanded to victory for Japan.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today