Our next stop for the day was the Imperial Palace at Tokyo. I imagined that like many of the palaces round the world there would be some amount of public access permitted. I scoured the tourist brochures and conducted tours but found that they offered only a walk through the gardens outside the palace.
On checking out the web site of the palace( https://sankan.kunaicho.go.jp/english ) I did indeed discover that the palace offered conducted tours twice a day on most days with many a blackout day. Entry is free and the tours are offered in many languages including Japanese , English and Spanish.
We were lucky to have a tour date which coincided with our visit to Tokyo. A simple on-line application resulted in the generation of a tour pass. And so after a visit to the Sensoji Temple in the morning we set off to the Imperial Palace. The palace is accessible either from Tokyo or Otemachi metro station. Otemachi station is in the middle of a very well laid out business district and provides a visual contrast to the palace and the gardens around it. Exit from the Palace gate of the station and walk for about 5 mins along the Gyoko Dori and you are at the Kikyomon gate which is the entry gate for most visitors.
After a friendly security check we were ushered into a large hall followed by a short briefing. We set out for the walk divided into small language based groups. Was a bit of a disappointment that we were not taken into the palace buildings but were given a walk around inside the palace grounds supported with some large photographs of interiors. Notwithstanding we did get a good glimpse of the buildings of the palace and a great insight into Japanese history.
The present Imperial Palace is developed upon the Edo castle built around the early 1600s by the Tokogawa Shogunate. The Shogun and his descendants lived in the castle for over 250 years till the palace was peacefully handed over to the Japanese emperor Meiji in 1868 when he moved his capital from Kyoto. Through its period of existence the Edo castle and the Imperial Palace have been rebuilt several times as they were subjected to extensive damage by fires and earthquakes until completely destroyed by allied forces bombing raids in 1945. The present Imperial Palace was rebuilt and completed in 1968. Today all that one can see are remnants of the Edo castle and its successors.
In the great fire of 1657 most of the viewing towers of the castle were destroyed. The main tower was said to be almost 100 m tall was never rebuilt. The Fujimi -yagura was one of the few towers to be rebuilt and was the first stop on our walking tour. This tower was located at the Southern end of the Edo castle and is built over a solid foundation to reach a height of 31 meters. In its time, as its name suggests, the Fujimi – yagura afforded a view of the Fujiyama a hundred kms away and overlooked the entire Tokyo Bay as far as one could see.
Further down the path we saw a green roofed building which houses the Imperial Household Agency. This building houses the offices of important palace functionaries and also serves as one of the grand ceremonial halls for the palace. After the original palace or Meiji Kyuden was burnt down by bombing raids in 1945 the top floor of this building also served as the residence of the Emperor and his family till the present palace was completed in 1968.
As we moved further on we approached a large courtyard called Chowaden, the main reception area where commoners would offer greetings and good wishes to the emperor and his family on a few occasions each year. On the side of the building is a lighting tower shaped like a young pine tree or Matsunoto topped with a bracelet. Matsu or young pine trees are considered lucky in Japan. Don’t miss the ring bracelet atop the tower. One of the features of the 20000 square meter courtyard, as our guide proudly explained, was that the paving stone was so soft that a fall would not be too hard on the unlucky ones. I tried my level best to figure this one as a fall on a stone is a fall on a stone! The emperor’s quarters are behind the Chowaden and not accessible to public.
We strolled through the courtyard and came across the bridges which lead from the main gate reserved for dignitaries and the public paying respects to their emperor. The Nijubashi or double level bridge originally a wooden bridge was first built at a lower level and then constructed at the present level. It offers a panoramic view of the gardens and the stone bridge over the moat. An interesting feature of the stone bridge is the eye shaped view ( due to the shape and reflection of the arch) which provides a good photo-op. .
Right behind us was the Fushimi yagura which is considered one of the most beautiful towers of the Edo period. Looking inwards from the palace outer gardens one can see the stone bridge in the foreground, the steel bridge in the middle ground and the Fushimi yagura in the background. A very common photograph on many a travel brochure which has come to symbolise tourism in Japan.
As we continued along the walk we saw a few more buildings such as the emperor’s reception area for dignitaries and some well designed gardens laid along majestic tree lined avenues. By now we had lost interest in the walk as all we saw were the outsides of the building with only a commentary by the guide and some large photographs. However the walk along the tree lined avenue was pleasant and refreshing aided by the wonderful weather of November in Japan. It was not yet cherry blossom time but there was lone tree in early blossom whose beauty brought us some cheer. Along the walk we came across an interesting fact about silk worm rearing by successive emperor’s wives. As the story goes Emperor Meiji’s wife introduced silkworm rearing into the palace and the tradition has been continued by successive emperor’s wives. The silk we were told is of a very fine quality and is completely consumed within the palace mostly for restoration work. But alas we were also not taken to the silk worms.
After about ninety minutes or so the circular tour ended where we started at the Kikyomon gate. We were then offered an additional optional walk through the East Gardens. A close look at the map showed that it was more of the same and no access to buildings. We were rather disappointed that we didn’t get to see the in sides of any of the majestic buildings or get anywhere near the emperor’s quarters but it was a far better option than hanging around the gardens outside the palace. As I mentioned earlier conducted tours do not take you inside the place.
Once outside the palace we retraced our steps along the beautiful tree lined Gyoko dori past the Wadakura fountain garden – a well laid out garden with a most expensive restaurant overlooking water features and fountains. Onward through the remnants of the Wadakuramon gate we got back to Otemachi station for our return to the hotel and the end of the first part of our stay in Tokyo. We would be back in a week’s time after covering Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima.