Huge and windswept, the Imperial Plaza forms a protective island in front of the modern Royal Palace. Follow the groups of local tourists straggling across the broad avenues to view one of the palace’s most photogenic corners, Nijūbashi, where two bridges span the moat and a jaunty little watchtower perches on its grey stone pedestal beyond. Though this double bridge is a late nineteenth-century embellishment, the tower dates back to the seventeenth century and is one of the castle’s few original structures.
Twice a year (on Dec 23, the emperor’s birthday, and on Jan 2) thousands of well-wishers file across Nijūbashi to greet the royal family. Apart from these two days, the general public is only admitted to the palace grounds on pre-arranged official tours, conducted in Japanese but with English-language brochures and audio-guides available. Apply online up to two months in advance via the Imperial Household Agency website or by calling.
Back in the 17th century the Imperial Palace was the location of Edo Castle. The finest of the fortress’s remaining watchtowers, three-tiered Fujimi-yagura, stands clear above the trees to the north of the Imperial Plaza. Built in 1659 to protect the main citadel’s southern flank, these days it ornaments what is known as Higashi Gyoen or the East Garden (東御苑). The garden is a good place for a stroll, though there’s little to evoke the former glory of the shogunate’s castle beyond several formidable gates and the towering granite walls.
The main gate to the garden – and formerly to Edo Castle itself – is Ōte-mon. A path winds gently up, beneath the walls of the main citadel, and then climbs more steeply towards Shiomizaka, the “Tide-Viewing Slope”, from where it was once possible to gaze out over Edo Bay. You emerge on a flat grassy area, empty apart from the stone foundations of Honmaru (the “inner citadel”), with fine views from the top, and a scattering of modern edifices, among them the pretty, mosaic-clad Imperial Music Hall.
The northern citadel of Edo Castle is now occupied by Kitanomaru-kōen (北の丸公園), another park with a couple of interesting museums. Immediately to the right as you emerge from the Higashi Gyoen through the Kitahanebashi-mon gate, is the National Museum of Modern Art or Kokuritsu Kindai Bijutsukan (国立近代美術館). Its excellent collection showcases Japanese art since 1900, including Kawai Gyokudo’s magnificent screen painting Parting Spring and works by Kishida Ryusei, Fujita Tsuguharu and postwar artists such as Yoshihara Jiro.
A short walk away on the west side of Kitanomaru-kōen, the Crafts Gallery or Kōgeikan exhibits a selection of top-quality traditional Japanese crafts, many by modern masters. Erected in 1910 as the headquarters of the Imperial Guards, this neo-Gothic red-brick pile is one of very few Tokyo buildings dating from before the Great Earthquake of 1923.
At the north end of the park is the Budōkan hall, built in 1964 to host Olympic judo events. The design, with its graceful, curving roof and gold topknot, pays homage to a famous octagonal hall in Nara’s Hōryū-ji temple, though the shape is also supposedly inspired by that of Mount Fuji. Today the huge arena is used for sports meetings, graduation ceremonies and rock concerts.
Across the road from Kitanomaru-kōen, a monumental torii, claimed to be Japan’s tallest, marks the entrance to Yasukuni-jinja (靖国神社). This shrine, whose name means “for the repose of the country”, was founded in 1869 to worship supporters of the emperor killed in the run-up to the Meiji Restoration. Since then it has expanded to include the legions sacrificed in subsequent wars, in total nearly 2.5 million souls, of whom some two million died in the Pacific War alone; the parting words of kamikaze pilots were “see you at Yasukuni”.
Not surprisingly, all sorts of controversy revolve around Yasukuni-jinja. Its foundation was part of a Shinto revival promoting the new emperor (see The Meiji era) and so it became a natural focus for the increasingly aggressive nationalism that ultimately took Japan to war in 1941. Then, in 1978, General Tōjō and a number of other Class A war criminals were enshrined here, to be honoured along with all the other military dead. Subsequent visits made to Yasukuni by politicians on the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II (August 15) continue to cause protests both at home and abroad.
For many ordinary Japanese, however, Yasukuni is simply a place to remember family and friends who died in the last, troubled century. Its surprisingly unassuming inner shrine stands at the end of a long avenue lined with cherry and ginkgo trees, and through a simple wooden gate. The architecture is classic Shinto styling, solid and unadorned except for two gold imperial chrysanthemums embossed on the main doors.
To the right of the inner shrine you’ll find the fascinating Yūshūkan, a military museum established in 1882. The displays are well presented, with plentiful information in English, but the controversy is as much what is left out as what is included. Events such as the Nanking Massacre (“Incident” in Japanese) and other atrocities by Japanese troops are glossed over, while the Pacific War is presented as a war of liberation, freeing the peoples of Southeast Asia from Western colonialism. The most moving displays are the ranks of faded photographs and the “bride dolls” donated by the families of young soldiers who died before they were married. You exit through a hall full of military hardware, including a replica of the gliders used by kamikaze pilots on their suicide missions, its nose elongated to carry a 1200kg bomb, while a spine-chilling, black kaiten (manned torpedo) lours to one side.
Emperor Akihito, the 125th incumbent of the Chrysanthemum Throne, traces his ancestry back to 660 BC and Emperor Jimmu, great-great-grandson of the mythological Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Most scholars, however, acknowledge that the first emperor for whom there is any historical evidence is the fifth-century Emperor Ojin.
Until the twentieth century, emperors were regarded as living deities whom ordinary folk were forbidden to set eyes on, or even hear. Japan’s defeat in World War II ended all that, and today the emperor is a symbolic figure, a head of state with no governmental power. While he was crown prince, Emperor Akihito had an American tutor and studied at Tokyo’s elite Gakushūin University, followed by a stint at Oxford University. In 1959 he broke further with tradition by marrying a commoner, Shōda Michiko.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Crown Prince Naruhito married a high-flying Harvard-educated diplomat Owada Masako in 1993. The intense press scrutiny that the couple came under when they failed to produce a male heir (current laws prohibit a female succession) has been sited as one of reasons for the princess’s miscarriage in 1999. Two years later the crown princess gave birth to a baby girl, Aiko, but the mother has barely been seen in public since, suffering from a variety of stress-related illnesses. One piece of good news for the royal succession is that Princess Kiko, wife of Naruhito’s younger brother, gave birth to Hisahito in 2006 – the young prince is third in line for the throne after his uncle and father.