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Journey in Japan Part 60: Palace Under Fire

Today is His Imperial Majesty the Emperor’s 84th Birthday. To celebrate this momentous occasion, the people of Japan will be enjoying the public holiday, and a day off work (except when it falls on a weekend like in 2017). The only person not celebrating, it seems, is His Imperial Majesty the Emperor himself. Today, he will address the nation from the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace; a place that is only open to the public two days a year. Not one to pass up on an opportunity to go inside the Imperial Palace walls, I head straight to Kanda Station, directly after breakfast.

I enjoy a leisurely thirty-minute walk. The sky is clear, the sun is bright; it feels far too hot on this December day to resemble the apparent winter. His Imperial Majesty the Emperor himself couldn’t have ordered better weather for this special day, even if he tried. I walk to the Imperial Palace, stopping to admire some trees along the way. It seems that I go through phases of fascination, and as you might be able to surmise, this month juncture is trees.

The trees here were once used by the Meteorological Agency to help further their studies into phonological phenomena. These Yoshino Cherry and Japanese Maple trees were used as specimens. The long-term observations from studying these trees helped to solve problems regarding the changes in weather conditions almost sixty years ago. With this data, the Meteorological Agency can accurately predict the days that the cherry blossoms will flower. An important and worthwhile discovery.

When I finally arrive at the Imperial Palace, I find out that I have missed His Imperial Majesty the Emperor’s speech by a mere two hours; I will still be allowed inside though, if I can find the correct entrance. I wander around the outer Imperial Palace walls. There is a large statue of Wake no Kiyomaro, a preacher of Buddhism and once trusted advisor to the Emperor during the Nara period.

Wake no Kiyomaro had his share of good and bad fortune. He was once exiled for years and forced to have the sinews of his legs cut out, rendering him immobile. Luckily, some stone boar statues magically came to life and healed his legs, and he was freed from exile. Eventually, he was reinstated as a trusted advisor to the Emperor. Nowadays, he is remembered by the grand title of ‘God of healing foot disease’, and at this location outside the Imperial Palace, he has become a regular target for defecating birds.

I eventually find the entrance to the Imperial Palace grounds. Here, I get told off by a policeman for walking against the flow of people. One-way system, no signs. I head across the coned off concrete and to a security checkpoint. After being thoroughly searched, I am clear to enter the inner grounds; free of charge. At the gate, I stand and watch a lifeless guard. He doesn’t blink for well over five minutes. I speculate that this man is actually an android, but his lack of animatronic function appears to counter my observation. I want to stay and watch, to see how long he can go without blinking, but a policeman kindly asks me to move along.

Inside the Imperial Palace grounds, there are more security guards than visitors. I wander past some overgrown trees and toward the Imperial Household Building. Outside, a small marquee has been erected. At the marquee, I am given the opportunity to write my name, nationality, and a nice message for His Imperial Majesty the Emperor. I write ‘Happy Birthday, His Imperial Majesty the Emperor’. I take care to write it down neatly and deliberately. A sign hanging above tells me that my message of ‘Happy Birthday, His Imperial Majesty the Emperor’, will be duly forwarded to its highest destination as the expression of my warm congratulations.

After signing, I continue along the one-way system. Still no signs. The grass here is completely overgrown and is in desperate need of a gardener. The Japanese tax payer covers the cost of outer garden maintenance, which boasts neatly trimmed grass cut on a daily basis. It feels like a waste of money to me. Inside it is a very different story. Perhaps the tax money doesn’t quite make it into the ‘inner sanctum’, or maybe His Imperial Majesty the Emperor is required to cut the grass here by himself. I am not sure, but regardless, the grass inside the Imperial Palace grounds is an overgrown shambles.

I pass an Obansho Great Guardhouse. One of three remaining, and the final checkpoint on the way to the Imperial Palace. This place would have had the highest ranking Samurai guardsmen stationed here. Ironically, it is at this point that the security guard and police presence seems to completely diminish. Further along the path, someone appears to have forgotten their ladder.

I walk idly along, somewhat unimpressed. I head up a slope before passing through the remains of Chujakumon Gate, and into the public gardens. These gardens are somewhat more remarkable than the rest of the Imperial Palace grounds; the grass here is cut really short. Before me stands an orchard. His Imperial Majesty the Emperor personally planted three of these cultivars in 2008. The Sanbokan Grapefruit, a sour orange; the Tangor, a cross between a tangerine and an orange; and the Cherry Orange, a variety of Mandarin orange. The orchard was created on the site of the Castle of Edo based on His Imperial Majesty the Emperor’s idea that visitors would be able to enjoy the popular fruits of the Edo era.

Forgetting about fruit and foliage for a moment, I decide to check out the mysterious Ishimuro Stone Cellar. Some people say this was an emergency storehouse to supply the inner section of the Imperial Palace. Some people say that this stone cellar housed an underground passage that once lead directly into the Imperial Palace. Some people say that this cellar was a secret passage that lead to hoards of treasure. I personally hope it was used as a secret passage, but perhaps I will never know. Despite the angle of the photograph, it is not possible to explore deeper inside the Ishimuro Stone Cellar, thanks to a fence blocking the entrance.

My final stop is the Tenshuku Donjon Base. The highest ever Donjon built in Japan, and a symbol of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s authority. Just nineteen years after it was built, in 1657, there was a conflagration known as the Great Fire of Meireki. The fire lasted three days, claimed over 100,000 lives, and destroyed this Donjon. It was never constructed again.

The view from the ruined Donjon is the old Edo Castle Honmaru Goten Palace. Now just a large lawn full of people sleeping and enjoying the sunshine. Formally, this area was lined with buildings. Presumably, these too were burnt down during the Great Fire of Meireki; a fire that is considered to be one of the worst disasters in Japanese history. A fire that left the old Edo city, now known as Tokyo, in complete ruin.

The fire was said to be caused by a priest. According to legend, there was a cursed kimono that killed teenage girls, and the priest decided to burn it on that day in March 1657. It didn’t help that the buildings of that time were made from flammable materials such as wood, were built closely together, and had thin paper walls. The fire spread to all parts of Tokyo, leaving destruction and devastation in its wake.

From the ruined Donjon, there is barely a trace left of the fire. All that remains is the site of an old castle now replaced by a neatly cut lawn, an orchard of lemon trees, and the overly developed city skyline looming in the distance.

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