By Yukiko Tanaka
For The North American Post
Before you reach Yasukuni Shrine, you will see a winding path, one side of which faces the moat. On the other seen, through trees and shrubs is the busy street of Uchibori-dori. This narrow winding path is Chidorigafuchi Park; after walking for 20 minutes or so, gazing at the deep water down below and at the palace’s dense wood beyond through cherry trees is a special treat. The cherry trees, whose long branches hang down touching the moat water, are very old and some show signs of nearing their demise. These flowers, called Someiyoshino, are the most popular type among cherry trees and are good only for about one hundred years. Chiyoda Ward, which is in charge of maintaining this park, makes an effort to keep the blossoms around. Since Chidorigafuchi is one of the most popular flower-viewing spots in Tokyo, you should avoid the area during the season, usually in early April. I enjoy walking here particularly on a late autumn day, preferably after a rain. Empty of people, it is very quiet and so atmospheric that I forget I am in the middle of Tokyo.
Walking the path along the moat, you will soon see the entry to a small park-like space with a nondescript building at the center, the memorial ground of those who had lost their lives abroad during the Pacific War. It is rarely visited but when American presidents or vice-presidents want to pay respect, it is here they go, avoiding the highly contentious Yasukuni Shrine.
Beyond the trees and on the other side of Uchibori-dori, which runs parallel to the path, is a large structure enclosed by handsome iron fences: the British Embassy. Sitting on a vast lot of such a choice piece of land, one is made to wonder why, as I do, but then I am reminded of Japan’s special relationship with Britain in the early years of the modern era (Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1902, for instance). The splendid mansion with a large garden (both off-limits to the public, I gather) is in good contrast to a utilitarian box-like American Embassy building west of there. Soon, you will see a bridge over the moat and the Hanzomon Gate, in front of which a guard stands looking bored. Rarely open and off-limits to the public, it is through this gate that the emperor and loyal families go in and out of the palace.
You will have left Chidorigafuchi Park when you come to the Hanzomon Gate and happen on Uchibori-dori. Look ahead and you will see the large, ancient-looking wooden structure of the National Theater (for the performance of classical plays). Modeled after the 7th century building of Shoso-in (in Nara), which is one of the oldest wooden structures in the world, it is done in azekura-zukuri (the way the wood exterior is constructed on a raised floor). It is worthwhile to go near and examine the building closely, but you might also see if a ticket for Kabuki or a Bunraku puppet play is available (around $10 if you are a student). Performances are usually twice a day, so you can come back in the evening.
The circular path around the Palace is popular for joggers and it takes about an hour to make the circle. Some people run here, I heard, before going to work in nearby offices. For them there is a small public bathhouse to use to shower and change (a few minutes toward Hanzomon subway station). One suggestion to cover this area in a shorter time is to rent a bicycle; you can find them at the entry of Chidorigafuchi Park. It is not free but you can return it to other locations.
Off to the west is Nagatacho, where you see quite a few large buildings: the Diet building, National Library, Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament Headquarters, etc. There is nothing to see other than these buildings, so unless you want to put yourself in a spot where political and governmental activities take place, you might skip this altogether; it is a large area and it takes time to walk around. If you want to rest around here, there is the small but attractive National Diet Park. Situated in front of the Diet building, not many people know of its existence.
Back to the palace moat and Uchibori-dori, you see Sakuradamon Gate and you have walked about half of the circular road by now. The incident that took place in 1860 right outside this gate in which Ii Naosuke, the head of the shogun’s government, was assassinated pushed Japan into a political turmoil for more than a few decades. Then, under the pressure of the Western Power, Japan opened the country to the outside world, but this also meant the end of the Tokugawa regime and restoration of imperial rule.
South of Sakuradamon Gate is Kasumigaseki, where large buildings that house several governmental offices stand. Hibiya Park, best of urban parks in my mind, is across Uchibori-dori. Opened in 1903, it is Japan’s first western style park that has an outdoor concert hall, a library, a large building of public hall, a coffee shop and restaurant. Sometimes you come upon the loud music of a rock band competing with people gathered to attend a political rally before heading to the Diet building, prime minister’s office, etc.
In Hibiya Park, one can sense the flavor of the time when Tokyo was opening wholeheartedly up to western culture and way of life. Having seen a few ancient stones placed at a corner of the park, you can recognize the passage of time going back to the pre-modern era: you are standing inside the Edo Castle built hundreds years ago when the inside was the outer boundary of Edo Castle.
In the northeast corner of the park is Hibiya subway station, and from there you can get to JR’s Yurakucho station. Asakusabashi is four stations away with a transfer at Akihabara (from the Yamanote to the Sobu Line).
This series will be published every week. The writer can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.