A note to the readership: I’ve started publishing all of my new travel-related posts in a separate blog, Within Striking Distance. You’re more than welcome to drop by over there and see where I’ve been jetting off to lately. (^_^)
Note: Click here to access a customised Google Maps chart on which the walking routes described in this report have been marked.
There’s a lot to show (and tell) about my first full day of sightseeing, so we’ll take it in two parts.
At the top of our itinerary is the ancient heart of Tokyo: the Imperial Palace and its extensive grounds.
(Note: Some pictures can be clicked on to access larger versions. As a rule, I uploaded full versions of images that featured interesting architectural sights; the rest were scaled down for ease of uploading and to cut down on space requirements.)
On the morning of the 25th, I emerged from my hotel to find the blue spring skies over Tokyo concealed behind an impenetrable shroud of silver-grey. The city was clearly in for a spot of rain, so I made sure I had an umbrella in my backpack before carrying on.
From Inarichō Station, I travelled on the Ginza Line to Ueno and thence to Tokyo Station via the Yamanote Line. Completed in 1914, Tokyo Station’s historic main building would have been an excellent tour stop in itself . . .
. . . were it not for the extensive redevelopment project that was underway at the time. With its venerable interior gutted and large parts of its exterior hidden behind fences and construction cranes, Tokyo Station managed to hold my interest for no more than a few minutes before my feet began taking me down the wide avenue that led from the station directly to the palace grounds.
The fairly short walk between Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace brought me into the heart of Marunouchi, one of the city’s main business districts. Nothing of note here, at least architecturally: the towering office buildings on either side of the street (above) were all depressingly modern (and very much like the ones back home).
After a few minutes of walking in a more-or-less straight line from Tokyo Station, I arrived at the encouragingly ancient-looking Kikyō Gate (above), the starting point for all public tours of the Imperial Palace. Of course, one doesn’t just show up at the gate unannounced: anyone wishing to join a tour must apply for permission in advance, either by telephone or by filling out a form on the website of the Imperial Household Agency. The tours are free but slots are limited, so I went through the process of obtaining a permit about a month before flying to Tokyo.
I reached the assembly point with over an hour to spare, and I decided to kill time by gaping at the palace’s centuries-old fortifications – remnants of what was once the largest castle on earth. These formidable defences included massive walled portals like the Kikyō Gate . . .
. . . defensive towers, such as the Tatsumi-yagura on the ramparts overlooking the Kikyō Moat . . .
. . . and stone walls and moats, standard features of any castle but here constructed on a truly impressive scale.
I also spotted a convoy of black sedans under police escort . . .
. . . emerging from the nearby Sakashita Gate. Since none of the cars sported the Imperial Family’s chrysanthemum crest, I suspect it was just a ministerial delegation or a new ambassador on his way out of the palace after presenting his credentials to the Emperor.
Shortly before 10AM, the palace guards started organising the small crowd of tourists that had gathered outside the gate, separating individual visitors (myself included) from groups. After checking our permits against a master list, we were allowed across the bridge and through the massive inner gate . . .
. . . before being herded into the Someikan (visitors’ centre) . . .
. . . to wait for the start of the tour. The visitors’ centre was a well-appointed facility complete with souvenir shop (some tacky stuff, but also stocked with many good-quality, reasonably priced items) and coin lockers (100 yen, refundable after use). There were also large video screens at the front and along the sides, which were used to show an introductory video about the palace just before the walking tour began.
Tours are conducted only in Japanese, but electronic audio guides and pamphlets (above) are available for the use of foreign visitors, free of charge. The audio guide will be returned at the end of the tour, but the pamphlet – with its map, photographs and helpful descriptions of various sights and features – is yours to keep. At each stop, the guide would call out a number in English and all one needs to do is enter the number into the audio guide to receive an English commentary corresponding to the information being shared live (and in Japanese) by the guide.
After the short introductory video, we were led outside the visitors’ centre, lined up four abreast and taken on the start of the tour.
Perched on top of a high stone-clad rampart is the strikingly beautiful Fujimi-yagura (above). Destroyed in 1657 (presumably during the Meireki Fire) and reconstructed two years later, this is one of only a handful of Edo Castle‘s original keeps to have survived to the present day.
A little further down the road from the Fujimi-yagura is the Hasuikebori, the so-called Lotus Moat (above). I’m sure it’s a sight to behold in the summer when the lotus flowers start blooming, but there wasn’t much to gawk at when I was there because the plants were too busy looking dead.
This depressingly bland-looking pile (above) serves as the headquarters of the Imperial Household Agency. Built in 1935, the structure survived the Second World War even as the Meiji Emperor’s grand 19th-century palace next door was reduced to cinders. While a replacement for the ruined imperial complex was being constructed, part of this building was pressed into service as a temporary palace.
Not far from the Imperial Household Agency building stands the Sakashita Gate (above), with the skyscrapers of the Marunouchi district looming in the distance. This delightful contrast between old and new Tokyo is something that one encounters quite often while strolling within the walls of the palace compound: an ancient gate, rampart or tower in the foreground; a skyline dominated by glass and steel in the background.
After cresting a low slope, we were rewarded with our first full view of the Imperial Palace itself (above), on this occasion guarded by crack troops from the Imperial Yard-Sweeping Corps.
(NB: In case anyone out there is using this post as a school-project reference or something, it is my noble and valiant duty to point out that there is no such thing as an Imperial Yard-Sweeping Corps.)
The green-roofed structure on the left (above) is the Chōwaden Reception Hall, part of the sprawling ferroconcrete Kyūden (the main Imperial Palace complex) that was built in the 1960s to replace the elaborate wooden buildings destroyed in 1945. The Emperor and Empress don’t actually live anywhere in this vast collection of ceremonial structures, which are used mainly for official functions (such as state dinners); their actual residence is somewhere in the adjoining Fukiage Gardens (which, as one might expect, are closed to the public). Every year, on New Year’s Day and on the Emperor’s birthday, Their Majesties and other members of the Imperial Family emerge onto a balcony attached to this hall and greet members of the public gathered in the plaza below.
The art installation on the right (the one that looks like some kind of electrical transformer) is, well, the name escapes me – Matsu-something-or-other – but I’ve read that it’s a light tower in the highly abstracted form of a pine tree.
The Chōwaden Reception Hall – which, as the picture above makes clear, is very loooong – typifies the architecture used for the Kyūden as a whole: modern, but drawing on elements of traditional Japanese architecture. The overall effect is quite elegant and somewhat pleasing to the eye, but it’s disappointingly featureless and lacking in grandeur – not the sort of words that should ideally be used to describe the official residence of a head of state. Visitors are not allowed inside any of the main palace buildings, but I’ve seen photographs of the interiors and they’re just as bland as the exteriors. Having looked at drawings and photographs depicting the pre-war Imperial Palace – which burned to the ground in 1945 – I find myself wishing that they had simply resurrected what was there before, or perhaps gone back even earlier, fashioning a reconstruction of the shōgun’s grand Honmaru Palace from the days when this was still Edo Castle.
From the Kyūden, we were taken through one of the palace compound’s main portals, the so-called Inner Gate (above) and onto an elevated bridge . . .
. . . which gave us an excellent view of one of Tokyo’s iconic landmarks, the Nijūbashi (“double bridge”, above). Well, one part of the Nijūbashi – we were of course standing on the other.
Looking closely at the tiny ripples spreading out across the water in that photograph, you’ll realise that this is when disaster struck: the heavy dew-laden clouds finally opened up and unleashed their burden of rain. The camera automatically filtered out most of the falling droplets so the view still seems quite clear, but it was really starting to pour and the people in the tour were quickly breaking out their umbrellas. I did the same, which made taking decent pictures fiendishly difficult from this point on since only one of my hands was free (thank goodness I had a simple point-and-shooter).
As we made a U-turn and started marching back across the bridge, we were treated to the sight of yet another prominent palace landmark: the Fushimi-yagura (above). Said to have originally been part of Fushimi Castle in distant Kyoto, it is claimed that the two-storey keep was dismantled – possibly in the 1620s, when Fushimi Castle itself was taken down – and reassembled at its present location on the orders of the third shōgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu.
As the tour entered its last stages, we were taken back across the plaza fronting the Chōwaden Reception Hall and down a road from which more of the Kyūden could be seen, including the Hōmeiden (a hall used for state banquets).
On our way out of the inner palace compound, we walked down a gently sloping street known as Yamashita-dōri (above). The carefully tended shrubbery and rows of trees (including a few sakura) would have made this a very pleasant stroll in better weather. At the time though, we were too busy shuffling back to the shelter of the visitors’ centre to notice much of the fine scenery.
Yet in spite of the uncooperative weather, I was eagerly looking forward to the next stop on my itinerary: the sprawling East Garden and its wealth of historic structures.
Click here to read Part 2 of this report.