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The Imperial Palace Tour

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Tokyo has been at the center of Japanese politics since the early 1600s, when Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu upset the balance of power by moving his court here, far away from the traditional capital of Kyoto. Ieyasu’s original castle is now gone, replaced by the more modern Imperial Palace. We joined a brief tour to get a peek behind the gates.

Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo

It seems almost unfair that, in the dead center of a city so swamped with skyscrapers and cement, the royal family enjoys life in a lush, spacious garden. The Imperial Palace occupies a verdant park with none of the congestion suffered by the city itself, and entrance is strictly regulated. The moats and gates which still protect the palace may not be entirely effective against modern militaries, but they do a fair job of impeding gawking visitors like us.

In order to visit the Imperial Palace, you have to register for a free tour. Do this well in advance, as spots fill up quickly. When our date came around, we joined about a hundred other tourists, most of them Japanese, in front of the Kikyo-Mon Gate. It was immediately apparent that we weren’t about to enjoy an intimate tour into the inner workings of the palace. There would be no private tea session with the Empress. No, this was about as cattle-herd as tours get. After picking up audio-guides, visitors are led without pause along a rigid path, past the palace and a few other historic buildings. Stragglers are chastened by attentive guards.

We were fine with the strict rules. This is the Imperial Palace, after all. We marched dutifully along, listening to descriptions of buildings like the Fujimi-yagura, a three-floor keep from which the Shogun could view Mount Fuji. This and a few others structures date from the days of Edo Castle, which burnt to the ground in 1873.

Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo

The current palace was built in 1888, and isn’t at all how I’d have expected the home of the Japanese Emperor to look. It’s not inelegant, but the building is long and flat, most resembling an extended hall. We were only able to see one side of it, from the Kyuden Totei Plaza, where our tour paused. This plaza is opened to the general public twice a year, on New Year’s and the Emperor’s birthday, when Akihito himself appears on the balcony alongside his family to greet well-wishers.

After viewing the palace, our tour crossed the Nijubashi Bridge, which we had admired while in the Outer Garden. From here, we had a view of the Fushimi-yagura keep, which was moved intact to Tokyo from its original location at Kyoto Castle, and is considered one of Japan’s architectural treasures.

Our visit was done in about an hour and although we’d had just a cursory glimpse of the palace and its grounds, it was still a worthwhile excursion. This is one of the most historic places in Japan, and it’s nice to have the opportunity to visit, however briefly.

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Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo
Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo
Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo
Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo
Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo
Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo
Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo
Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo
Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo
Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo
Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo
Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo
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April 24, 2014 at 9:05 am Comments (2)

The Edo-Tokyo Museum

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After noticing the white hulk of the Edo-Tokyo Museum from atop the SkyTree, we wondered how even the world’s biggest city could justify such a monstrous history museum. But when exhibits include full-scale reconstructions of theaters, houses and even a publishing house, the extra room comes in handy.

Edo Museum Tokyo

We had recently briefed ourselves on Tokyo’s history, and felt prepared for the museum, which is adjacent to the National Sumo Stadium in Ryogoku. The saga of how an insignificant fishing village evolved into the megacity of Tokyo is a fascinating one, and the museum doesn’t skip any of it. If you’re the kind of person who feels compelled to read every scrap of information you come across, prepare for a long day in the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

From the days of Edo and its samurai, shoguns and daimyos, through the rapid modernization of the Meiji Era, the city’s dizzying expansion, the catastrophes of fire, earthquake and war, and up into the modern day, the museum is absolutely comprehensive. For newbies like us, it was exceptionally instructive, but even those most knowledgeable about the city would surely learn something new.

You enter the museum by crossing a wooden replica of the original Nihombashi Bridge, which marked the Zero-Mile of Tokyo and was once the center of the city life. Beyond that are dioramas which replicate life in Edo. Like everything else in this museum, they’re big. Let’s just say binoculars are included so that you can take in all the detail. Further on, you can peer inside life-size replicas of eighteenth-century homes, and even a full-scale reconstruction of the Choya Newspaper Publishing Company’s headquarters.

The museum continues through the days of the Meiji Empire, the industrial revolution, and into the modern era. It was all fascinating, but I became fatigued somewhere around 1930. However, I wasn’t too tired to overlook one strange omission. Throughout the museum, there had been excellent English translations of every exhibit. Up until a particular story from World War II…

After bombing Pearl Harbor, Japan floated 9000 weaponized balloons over the Pacific Ocean, into the USA and Canada. One of the balloons succeeded in its deadly mission, killing five children and a pregnant woman in Oregon. This early form of terrorism is a captivating piece of history, which I hadn’t yet known about, but it was almost the only exhibit in the museum which lacked an explanatory panel in English.

Despite that “oversight,” we enjoyed our time in the museum, and came away with a much deeper understanding of Tokyo. It’s big and time-consuming, but for those looking to learn about the city’s history, the Edo-Tokyo Museum is the place to go.

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Edo-Tokyo Museum – Website

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March 24, 2014 at 7:42 am Comments (0)
The Imperial Palace Tour Tokyo has been at the center of Japanese politics since the early 1600s, when Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu upset the balance of power by moving his court here, far away from the traditional capital of Kyoto. Ieyasu's original castle is now gone, replaced by the more modern Imperial Palace. We joined a brief tour to get a peek behind the gates.
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