Built in 1869 to commemorate Japanese war dead, Yasukuni Shrine is constructed in classic Shinto style, with a huge steel torii gate at its entrance. During times of war, soldiers were told that if they died fighting for their country, their spirits would find glory here; even today, it's believed that the spirits of some 2.4 million Japanese war dead are at home here, where they are worshipped as deities. During any day of the week, you're likely to encounter older Japanese paying their respects to friends and families who perished in World War II. But every August 15, the shrine is thrust into the national spotlight when World War II memorials are held. Visits by prime ministers have caused national uproars and outrage among Japan's Asian neighbors, who think it improper for a prime minister to visit -- and thereby condone -- a shrine so closely tied to Japan's nationalistic and militaristic past.
If you can, come on a Sunday, when a flea market for antiques and curios is held at the entrance to the shrine from about 6am to 3pm. On the shrine's grounds is a war memorial museum outlining Japan's military history, the Yushukan. It chronicles the rise and fall of the samurai, the colonization of Asia by Western powers by the late 1800s, the Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and World Wars I and II, though explanations in English are rather vague and Japan's military aggression in Asia is glossed over. Still, a fascinating 90 minutes can be spent here gazing on samurai armor, swords, uniforms, tanks, guns, a Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane, and artillery, as well as such thought-provoking displays as a human torpedo (a tiny submarine guided by one occupant and loaded with explosives) and a suicide attack plane. But the most chilling displays are the seemingly endless photographs of war dead, some of them very young teenagers. In stark contrast to the somberness of the museum, temporary exhibits of beautiful ikebana (Japanese flower arrangements) and bonsai are often held on the shrine grounds in rows of glass cases. Yasukuni Shrine is also famous for its cherry blossoms.