Japan 2009: Day 2 Report, Part 2 (25 March)

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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 read Part 1 of this report. Click here to access a customised Google Maps chart on which the walking routes described in the report have been marked.

Our next stop: the East Garden of the Imperial Palace and the ruins of Japan’s largest castle.

The rain was coming down hard by the time I reached the Someikan. (It’s difficult to tell from these pictures because the camera automatically brightens scenes and filters out precipitation – leaving just a few telltale streaks here and there – but trust me, I was under constant threat of a good soaking.) At that point, my plan was to leave via the Kikyō-mon, walk along Uchibori-dōri up to the end of the Kikyō Moat and enter the East Garden by way of the Ōte-mon (the main public entrance). An easily manageable walk, but in the prevailing weather it wasn’t something I was looking forward to.

As it turned out, there was a more direct route. I was all set to join the people filing out through the Kikyō-mon when one of the palace staff started barking out instructions. I only understood some of it, but the words Higashi-gyoen (East Imperial Garden) made everything clear: those who wanted to see the East Garden were being asked to form a queue. After a quick head count, the staff member darted into the Someikan and reemerged with a wooden box from which he issued a numbered plastic tag to each person in the queue. As I later confirmed, even though the East Garden is open to the public and no admission is charged, the number of people inside at any given time is limited to the number of tags in circulation. Anyone entering the garden through one of several gates is handed a tag, which must be returned to the staff when exiting. It’s a simple system that keeps the grounds from becoming overcrowded (especially at peak times) – though I wonder what happens to those who lose their tags. Fine? Imprisonment? Summary execution? Best to hang on to one’s tag and never find out.

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From the Someikan, we were brought to a gate that led straight into the East Garden. Across the road from the gate was the Sannomaru-Shōzōkan (above), a museum that holds rotating exhibits of art pieces from the Imperial Family’s collection, which was donated to the Japanese government in 1989. Unfortunately, the museum was closed when I was there because preparations were underway for the next round of exhibits.

I made a beeline for a nearby rest house where I warmed myself up on a can of hot cocoa – from a vending machine, naturally – picked up a guide map, bought some postcards of the Imperial Palace and waited for the rain to ease up. It didn’t, so I resignedly opened my umbrella and started my long walk around the East Garden.

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The first old structure I encountered – not including the walls, of course – is the Dōshin-bansho (above), one of the palace’s three surviving Edo-period guardhouses. The samurai posted here were assigned to keep an eye on people entering the central part of Edo Castle by way of the Ōte-mon.

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After passing between the massive foundations of what was once the Ōte-san-no-mon, I found myself in front of the Hyakunin-bansho (above), a large guardhouse where one hundred samurai drawn from among the members and retainers of the Tokugawa clan’s four main branches were based. During the Edo Period, visitors to the castle who had entered through the Ōte-mon were inspected here.

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This massive stone structure facing the Hyakunin-bansho (above) is all that remains of the Naka-no-mon, the monumental gate that served as the entrance to the innermost part of Edo Castle (known as the Honmaru). And just inside the gate . . .

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. . . stands the Ō-bansho (“great guardhouse”, above). As the final checkpoint on the road leading into the heart of Edo Castle, this guardhouse was staffed with samurai of a higher rank than those manning the outer guardhouses.

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Another view of the Ō-bansho (above), taken from the sloping ramp that leads into the Honmaru from the Naka-no-mon.

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The final barrier between the shōgun’s main stronghold and the outside world is the Chūjaku-mon (above). By the time he gets here, even a casual visitor would probably have taken notice of the cunning layout of Edo Castle’s perimeter defences. To reach this point from the outermost surviving moat, one would have had to pass through no less than three heavily fortified gateways and three guardhouses on a road with several sharp turns and choke-points, all the time within sight of anyone keeping watch from the castle’s towers and ramparts. In the days before heavy artillery and other modern weapons, storming the Honmaru would have cost a besieging army untold numbers of men and resources.

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A close-up showing the massive stone foundations of the Chūjaku-mon (above).

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Within the Chūjaku-mon lies the Honmaru (above), the very heart of Edo Castle. Now a stately garden, this area was once the site of the sprawling Honmaru Palace, the shōgun’s main residence.

Most of the Honmaru’s surviving Edo-period buildings stand near its outer edges, and from my experience the best way to take most of them in is by forsaking the main path in favour of the narrow trail that winds its way along the ramparts. The trail can be reached by taking a sharp left from the Chūjaku-mon.

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The first sight on the trail is an old friend from the Imperial Palace tour: the beautiful Fujimi-yagura (above), here seen from behind. According to a small plaque standing nearby, from this vantage point the shōgun “enjoyed the views of fireworks at Ryōgoku and of Tokyo bay”.

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Further along the path, one encounters a small rough-hewn stone marker (above). This nondescript monument is probably one of the greatest attractions in the East Garden – for Japanese history buffs, at least – since it marks the site of the famed Matsu no Ōrōka, a long corridor lined with paintings of pine trees (=”matsu”, hence the name) that linked two large rooms in the Honmaru Palace complex. It was on or near this spot that Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori attacked and wounded Kira Kōzuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka one fateful day in 1701, an incident that led to the events chronicled in the story of the Forty-seven Rōnin.

Now for the obligatory sakura break.

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All right, break time’s over. Let’s move on.

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At one point, the path rises steeply as it climbs to the top of Edo Castle’s ancient ramparts, leading to the Fujimi-tamon defence house (above). Overlooking the Hasuike-bori, this structure served as an arsenal and also became a vantage point for sentries during times of war.

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This squat stone structure (above) is called the Ishimuro. Its exact purpose is unknown, although the information plaque nearby states that it may have been used as a storehouse for the inner palace. Given its solid construction – even the ceiling is made of thick stone slabs – I imagine it could have once held weapons and gunpowder, or even part of the state treasury.

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The path ends in a wide paved area, to one side of which stands the enormous stone base of Edo Castle’s main donjon, the Tenshu-dai (above). The structure that once stood on top of these mighty foundations – the tallest castle tower in all of Japan – burned down in the disastrous Meireki Fire of 1657 and was never rebuilt.

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Another view of the Tenshu-dai, taken from the southeast corner (above). The ramp leads up to a level platform . . .

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. . . from which one can look out over the Imperial Palace gardens to the skyscrapers of Marunouchi beyond.

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In front of the Tenshu-dai is a large, well-tended garden (above) – the site of the Honmaru Palace. The shōgun’s private apartments once stood very close to the spot where I snapped this image.

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Near the Tenshu-dai – and looking more than a little out of place in this historic area – is the Tōkagakudō (above). Completed in 1966, the concrete-built music hall features colourful tile mosaics on each of its eight faces.

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A ruined gateway near the Tōkagakudō leads to the Shiomi-zaka, a sloping road that connects the Honmaru to the Ninomaru section of Edo Castle (above).

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A view of the moat separating the Honmaru from the Ninomaru (above).

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This tree-lined road (above) runs alongside the Ninomaru Grove and leads back to the Hyakunin-bansho . . .

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. . . from where I finally directed my weary legs towards the Ōte-mon exit.

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The Ōte-mon, with Marunouchi’s modern skyline in the background (above). The small building on the right is where visitors’ tags are issued and returned.

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Try ramming your way through this door.

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The Ōte-mon, viewed from just outside the gatehouse (above) . . .

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. . . and from beyond the Kikyō Moat (above). My tour of the East Garden ended here, but I wasn’t done with the Imperial Palace just yet. There was one very important landmark I still needed to see.

And I don’t mean that thing in the distance.

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Incidentally, I could’ve sworn that the thing had been destroyed by fire / earthquake / tsunami / megastorms / terrorists / Godzilla long before I came to Tokyo. I could be wrong, of course – anime isn’t exactly a reliable news source.

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The rains having ceased, I gratefully folded my umbrella and walked back towards Kikyō-mon, taking the route I would have trodden had I not entered the East Garden directly from the Imperial Palace compound. Another chance to snap a picture of the Tatsumi-yagura (above).

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The Sakashita-mon (above), which I saw from the inside during the palace tour.

Crossing the vast open space between the Imperial Palace and the Marunouchi district, I eventually came to that great landmark of Tokyo: the Nijūbashi.

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I saw the bridge from within the walls during the palace tour, but this magnificent view from the outer garden is what most people are familiar with.

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The main gate of the Imperial Palace (above) anchors one end of the Nijūbashi.

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A view of the outer garden in front of the Imperial Palace compound (above). As always, Marunouchi looms large in the background.

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Just around the corner from the Nijūbashi area stands the Sakurada-mon (above), which guards the southern end of Edo Castle’s Nishinomaru section. Outside this gate, within sight of Nagatachō, the modern-day government’s seat of power . . .

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. . . my time in the historic centre of Tokyo came to an end.

The day wasn’t over yet, though. Before returning to my hotel for a spot of desperately needed rest, I swung by a certain place familiar to all of us here.

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But I’ll save that (brief) tale for a postscript.

Continued in this post.

3 Responses

  1. […] Japan 2009: Day 2 Report, Part 2 (25 March) […]

  2. […] ends the second day. Click on the links to read Part 1 and Part 2 of the report for this […]

  3. Unfortunately, I postponed reading all blogs due to a hectic schedule, but now, as I take refuge by a window to the world away from the walls of boxes and packing, I’ll digest your travel reports with pleasure🙂

    Oh, I bet it is execution if you lose a tag😛

    Oh my, so many guardhouses! They took the security very seriously!

    Ishimuro is an interesting structure🙂

    You have captured some very nice views!🙂 Thank you for this educational post🙂

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