Japan, Part 1: Visiting Tokyo’s Imperial Palace

Opening photo: The expansive moat at Tokyo’s Imperial Palace provides a stoic reflection of an East Garden gate house, located on the same property that once housed Edo Castle.

This is the first installment in a four-part series on Japan.

It all started with a National Geographic article, if I really think hard on it.

One might be tempted to chalk it up to my fascination with sushi and all its rituals, considering the devoted consumption my husband, John, and I maintained during our pre-parenthood days. Or to the formal Japanese tea ceremony I attended while studying at UCLA, or the Kurosawa and Miyazaki films I watched after that.

Or to my fondness for Mitsuwa marketplace in Costa Mesa, California, where John and I once spent an entire Valentine’s Day afternoon, grazing on udon and soba, browsing in novelty shops, and taking silly pictures in the purikura photo booths.

But it was that National Geographic article which crystalized all these ethereal fascinations into a singular, focused dream: I must to go to Japan before I die.

A uniformed guard rides his bicycle on the immaculate grounds of the East Gardens of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace.

The sweeping January 2001 article by Robert M. Poole, “Japan’s Imperial Palace: Beyond the Moat,” described the secluded fortress that is Tokyo’s Imperial Palace and the prolonged difficulties Poole and photographer Sam Abell encountered (I mean, c’mon – it’s National Geographic!) while attempting for nearly a year to gain access to its shrouded interiors.

While the story was riveting, what truly held me captive were Abell’s lush photographs, depicting an immaculately tended vista filled with lakes, foot bridges, rolling hills and picturesque gardens, carp-filled ponds and stoic royal archers, wild ducks and dripping cherry blossoms, and the functioning home to the world’s oldest monarchy – all located within the geographic nucleus of dense, frenetic and notoriously overpopulated Tokyo. An oasis of the old world in the core of the new: I was hooked.

A decade later, John and I found ourselves parents to two children, dining much less frequently in sushi bars, and, as new Honolulu residents, about 2,300 miles closer to Japan. And so, to celebrate our 10-year wedding anniversary and my 40th birthday – and with childcare generously provided by my family ­– we booked the seven-and-half-hour flight to Narita Airport on Japan Airlines.

In the shade of the Imperial Palace’s East Gardens.

Naturally, one of our first visits on Japan soil was to the Imperial Palace, which we accessed easily by subway. The description National Geographic painted remained accurate; we found a vast but tranquil expanse of perfectly manicured greenery, distantly surrounded by skyscrapers, innumerable joggers and buzzing traffic. What we didn’t see, however, what the National Geographic guys finally were finally granted access to witness, remained protected behind massive, ancient stone walls – historical interiors and legendary landscapes secured by nearly four miles of guarded moats. I would have to rely on my memory of the article to fill in the blanks.

The Imperial Palace was once the residential palace of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a feudal regime consisting of a series of shoguns empowered during the Edo Period (1603 -1868; Tokyo used to be called Edo). During that time, Japan’s imperial capital was far away, in Kyoto, as it had been for a thousand years (stay tuned for Part 3, for more on this!). Although it wasn’t always the country’s capital, Edo Castle was always an important piece of land for Japan and it remains especially so in modern times; as far as today’s real estate goes, it has been rumored to be the most expensive square kilometer on the planet.

A Saturday morning jog around Tokyo’s Imperial Palace includes a view of yesteryear’s ancient moats and stone walls, with today’s skyscrapers in the background.

We spent hours meandering through the East Garden grounds, passing uniformed guards on foot and on bicycles, visitors picnicking on blankets, and families strolling on the footpaths. It was hard not to notice how every plum tree, pine tree, azalea bush, and waterlilly received meticulous care as we climbed to the top of Tenshudai donjon, the remains of a fortified tower from the Edo Castle days, to take in the elevated views of the city.

Top half: The National Geographic’s January 2001 story that started this whole adventure. Bottom half: Standing in roughly the same spot, in front of Nijubashi (double bridges), nearly 10 years later.

With the exception of the sprawling East Garden, the Imperial Palace grounds are closed to the public but for two days each year: December 23, Emperor Akihito’s birthday, and January 2, New Year’s Greeting Day. So, on that bright, crisp October 2010 morning, what we and the hundreds of people gathered around us on the pebbled gravel of Kokyo Gaien, the large plaza fronting the palace, could see was distant but undeniably iconic: the famous Nijubashi bridge, and behind that a peekaboo view of the white walls of the Kokyo, the Imperial residence (or Japanese White House), where the Japanese royal family currently lives and the Emperor conducts his business.

It’s often said this – the image National Geographic selected to begin its inspiring article – is the most photographed view in all of Japan. Halfway around the world and nearly 10 years in the making, we had finally made it there to take our own picture of it. It was a truly great beginning to a trip that was born from the magic of a magazine.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in this continuing series on Japan: Trendy, modern Toyko in Shibuya & Harajuku!

Traveler’s Notebook

To access the Imperial Palace by subway: Depending on the subway stop, the Imperial Palace is a five- to 15-minute walk from most stops. We used Chiyoda’s Sakuradamon Station, on the Yurakucho line, but there are numerous stops surrounding the grounds.

Karin Gallagher is a business, lifestyle and travel writer who lives in Honolulu, Hawaii. If she flew a personal flag, it would have an image of a camera and chopsticks on it.




Photos: Karin Gallagher photography



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