By Yukiko Tanaka
For The North American Post
With the station at your back, you see in front a few broad, formal-looking streets extending all the way to the palace compound; this is another reason why Marunouchi Mouth is the “front” of the Tokyo Central Station. Taking one of the broad roads that extend straight from the station, you can walk to the entrance to the Palace compound in ten minutes. You can also take an underground passage from the station most of the way but when you reach the moat, you are in the urban oasis of water and much green; along the path surrounding the moat are willows and other trees. Although traffic is still heavy here, you see some swans gliding by the boat in deep water. Then, you soon find yourself in open space full of fresh air. You spot one of several palace gates.
You are in Chiyoda Ward, a considerable part of which is the palace compound (usually referred to simply “kookyo”), a vast area encircled by a high wall of huge rocks and moat with deep water. Beyond the trees seen from the street is, it seems, a wood; I heard that quite a few species of birds and small animals live there. The palace, or the castle, was once a residence of the Tokugawa shoguns, the first of whom had it built. The compound now consists at three parts: Kitanomaru, Higashi Garden and Nishinomaru, generally referred to as Fukiage-gyoen and off-limits to the public, it being the residence of emperors and his consort.
Gaien, or Outer Garden, is a big open space, where, in the shogun’s era, were the residences of some high-ranking officials; now with low-growing black pines in part is for the public to enjoy. Sometimes you see volunteers (from all over Japan, I heard) taking care of these pines, literally needle by needle. This plaza, whose expansiveness is rare in central Tokyo, is now a park, which people use in various ways including political gatherings (including a particular May Day demonstration, which ended with a few casualties), students rallies and gatherings for New Years Day celebration and on the occasions for mourning. Beyond Nijubashi, an elegant bridge, is off-limits to the public but twice a year it can be crossed into the inner part of the palace compound, and one can be greeted by the emperor and other royal families.
One reason that this public space of the plaza is so delightful and peaceful despite its being at the very center of Tokyo, is, as you quickly realize, because there are no high rises around at all; they are forbidden (although I don’t know of any laws to say so) or with a unanimous agreement. Someone described the palace compound a “black hole,” but being here, sitting or lying on the lawn of the Palace Plaza, you find as if time has ceased. You occasionally see a few joggers, some foreigners, going around the moat; this is an ideal spot to run or walk indeed. I used to bike here and felt happy, feeling a breeze on my face. I cannot think of a better place to be, not only in all of Tokyo but in any major city of the world that I know; that is the reason why I believe Tokyo is one of the greatest cities of the world.
Otemon Gate, which you reach at the end of the broad street you walked from the station, is the main one of several gates to the palace. The original one gate burned during the Tokyo firebombing, so what you see today is a reconstruction. Pay attention, however, that it is constructed with military combats in mind; there are two gates with a small open space between, and on one side is a high landing from which to attack lured enemies. You realize that the Palace, built originally as a castle, was also a military stronghold. Although there were no more wars since, the builder built it after having gone through the turbulent era of civil strife.
You go into the Palace Eastern Garden through this gate. A small building near the gate to your right is Shozokan, a museum where Imperial holdings, including gifts from royal families and governments of foreign countries, are on display; admission is free and displays occasionally changes. The garden, which is open to the public all year round, is also free; you enter having received a ticket at the entrance to return it at the other gate from which you exit.
This series will be published every week. The writer can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.