Through the Core of the Rising Sun - Tokyo's Imperial Palace


Destination Reports

The once former Edo Castle is now the Emperor's Palace

What’s the Japanese Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo got to do with the Imperial East Gardens and Nijubashi Bridge? It's time to find out.

The iconic Nijubashi Bridge straddles the Tokyo Imperial Palace, the Imperial East Gardens, and the rest of Tokyo

The iconic Nijubashi Bridge straddles the Tokyo Imperial Palace, the Imperial East Gardens, and the rest of Tokyo

After a long day of visiting shrine after shrine, I made it a point to pay a visit to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Unlike other Japanese palaces and castles found in the country, this one is actually inhabited by the living breathing Monarch - it is, after all, the Emperor's Palace. 

Sadly, I was at the palace a day too early as the Emperor was to open the inner palace grounds the next day on Jan 2. Furthermore, this New Year opening is only one of two days in the year where visitors are allowed into the inner palace, the other being on the Emperor's birthday. That being said, the Imperial East Gardens is open on most days between 0900 - 1630 though it may close earlier or later depending on the season.

Upon reaching the area, I didn't expect such a large police presence, but I found out that the police were deployed to prepare the logistics needed to screen people coming to visit the palace the following day. Nevertheless, walking around the palace instils in visitors a sense of peace and tranquillity, which augments the already uncanny sense of grandeur the entire Imperial Palace complex embodies.

Built on the grounds of the old Edo Castle and located in the centre of the city’s downtown core, one would immediately notice the immense political and commercial importance of this part of Tokyo, and perhaps it was decided that the CBD would mature here because of its proximity to the Emperor. 

Tranquility rules the grounds of the Imperial Palace Gardens in Tokyo

Tranquility rules the grounds of the Imperial Palace Gardens in Tokyo

A Central Park of Sorts 

The outer Imperial Palace grounds (and probably the interior as well) are, unsurprisingly, well maintained. 

The gardens are subdivided into three main sections: the Kokyo Gaien, the Imperial East Gardens and the Kitnomaru Koen. These mini gardens are separate entities confined within gates that once functioned as defensive installations accompanied by armed guards. Considering that Japanese Gardens are really popular amongst tourists and have popped up in many other cities outside of Japan, a visit to the 'original' ones in the Imperial Palace Gardens shouldn't be missed.

The main public entrance to the palace involves crossing the Nijubashi Bridge which are a set of two bridges that occupies a privileged position in the minds of most Japanese. Apart from the actual main edifice of the Emperor's Palace, the Nijubashi has also come to represent the idea of the Emperor himself. 

The first stone bridge (in the foreground of the picture) is known as the Meganebashi or Eyeglass bridge for its appearance when it is reflected onto the moat it covers - this makes it (the bridge and the reflection) look a pair of eyeglasses. The partially shrouded and less iconic iron bridge in the background is located within the inner palace grounds and is mainly used by staff attending to the Imperial family's needs.

The 'public area' of the palace grounds is dominated by a grand lawn that sits just in front of the Nijubashi, and turns a really beautiful carpet of brown in Winter (I really need to find out what species of grass this is). Though this sounds like it would paint a stark contrast to the lush green trees that have been planted throughout the area, the winning combination is actually very comforting for the eyes. 

Due to these wide open spaces, the area around the Imperial Palace Gardens is extremely popular with runners even during the blistering cold of winter. Kudos to them - how someone can bear to run in such temperatures really confounds me. 

The Emperor's Palace in Tokyo is an iconic embodiment of the Japanese Emperor and Monarchy - something worth protecting

The Emperor's Palace in Tokyo is an iconic embodiment of the Japanese Emperor and Monarchy - something worth protecting

A Complex Storied History

The current Imperial Palace of Japan is an evolution of the former Edo Castle which was first constructed by the Edo Clan in 1457. Through multiple civil wars and conflicts, people saw the castle change hands multiple times before finally being inaugurated as the main base of the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate which made the namesake Edo its de facto capital. 

After the tumultuous events of the 19th century and with the end of the shogunate system, the relocation of the Emperor to Tokyo furthered cemented the importance of the city and its Imperial Palace as the centre of Japanese royal and administrative power. 

However, despite its almost sacrosanct status in Japanese society, the royal palace wasn’t spared from the allied bombing of Tokyo with the most destructive bombing raid in human history severely damaging most of the structures located within the palace grounds. This operation involved 334 allied bombers that took off from the recently captured  Pacific islands of Tinian and Saipan, along with some planes from Mainland China. 

Once they reached the skies over Tokyo, they released their incendiary Napalm payloads, igniting and setting ablaze various neighbourhoods in Tokyo, especially ones dominated by wooden buildings and structures. Since then, there has been a continuous effort to rehabilitate and renovate the palace grounds as a point of preserving cultural heritage, though little of the original castle remains as a result of centuries of war, earthquakes and fires.

Though some may cry foul at the human and cultural destruction of the indiscriminate bombings of the allied forces, it is prudent to note that the city's destruction was in part worsened by Tokyo's very loose zoning regulations. This meant that it was effectively impossible to only bomb industrial and military targets as industrial, cultural and residential areas often coexisted near each other.

Since those fateful months in 1945, the Imperial Japanese Palace underwent continuous refurbishment and expansion, and now occupies a plot of land far exceeding the original footprint of Edo Castle. Much effort was also made to reconfigure the layout of the original castle to expand the capacity of the Emperor's office. This was done through the creation of an interconnected complex large enough to house multiple function rooms. Though these are rarely seen by the public for the greater part of their lives, citizens occasionally get a glimpse of the grandeur of the Inner Imperial Palace whenever ambassadors, ministers and other public officials call on the Emperor to receive his blessings. These administrative buildings (though perfunctory in the eyes of some) are also complemented by the many recreation facilities built for the Imperial family which includes music halls, art collections, and quiet garden areas.

The Japanese Imperial Palace in Tokyo only opens fully to the public a few days in the year - don't miss out!

The Japanese Imperial Palace in Tokyo only opens fully to the public a few days in the year - don't miss out!

The Tokyo Imperial Palace is within walking distance of many subway stations with the closest option being Nijubashi-mae. However, I'd suggest taking the long way round from Tokyo Station to enjoy the polish of the city's dense CBD as it gradually gives way to the open space of the palace grounds. 

This is a particularly relaxing and revitalising stroll to take especially on the weekends when the CBD is largely empty. There's also no harm in trying to spot the various political, economic and cultural institutions that have shaped the modern Japanese state headquartered in the grandiose edifices lining Tokyo's most expensive district.

Due to its short distance from Downtown Tokyo, visiting the Imperial Palace of Tokyo and its Imperial Gardens is quite a worthwhile endeavour especially if you find yourself with some time to kill in between meals. 

Love what you're reading? Follow us on Facebook to keep up with all of our articles on travel.