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The Imperial Palace

I had a Sunday morning and, well ahead of my school work, I needed to do something with it. I flipped through a Tokyo guidebook, but was unenthusiastic. I took to reading the news and heard mention of Japan’s Emperor. I realized that I hadn’t visited the Emperor yet, and I had been in his country for more than three months, how rude of me!

So, as I often do, I saddled up old Newton, my bicycle, and took to the road, destined more than an hour northeast of my apartment towards Ginza, a large Tokyo business district. My destination: Kokyo, the Imperial Palace.

It was cloudy but warmish and I flew through the crisp wind towards. The Imperial Palace is on the site of the old Edo-jo Castle, which was built in the 14th century, remastered in the 1590s, and by the 17th century, it was the largest castle in the world.

When the Meji Emperor made Tokyo his capital, he ordered the palace be reconstructed. It was destroyed during the Allied bombings of 1945, and the present structures were completed in 1968.

During the height of the Japanese economic boon in the 1980s, real estate assessors estimated that the 250 acres of the Imperial East Garden, in which the actual palace is located, was worth more than all of California (156,000 square miles).

The East Garden is well fortified, including deep-flowing moats and stone walls rising more than 20 feet. The East Garden’s walls are surrounded by the outer-palace garden which has several open pathways to access from the surrounded chaos of Tokyo. Even the outer-palace garden is surrounded by moats and large stone walls, which are relics from the original Edo-jo complex and structures from the 19th century.

The large paths and open space of the outer palace garden are favorites among joggers and walkers. Otherwise, it offers little more than gravel expanses and tracts of carefully tended lawns and perfectly manicured pines. That is except for the view from the Kokyo Gaien, a large, rocky plaza in front of the palace.

There lies another of Japan’s necessary photo-opportunities: the view of the palace itself resting on a green cliff behind the Nijubashi Bridge, which spans the imperial moat. In front of the Nijubashi is the old stone Meganebashi, or Eyeglass Bridge, adding to the photo’s beautiful levels.

The Meganebashi leads to the Otemon Gate, also originally from the Edo-jo complex, which guards the main entrance to the East Garden, home of the Imperial Palace itself. However, other than on January 2 and the Emperor’s birthday (December 23), the general public can’t get closer than a photo from outside of the East Garden’s walls.

Still, the Imperial family’s seclusion doesn’t keep the Japanese and tourists from coming. Understand, the emperor may not have any constitutional power, but to this very day, it is not appropriate to speak badly of the Imperial family. It simply isn’t done. When Emperor Akhito had a grandson a couple months ago, it was front page news and in everyone’s conversation.

According to the Japanese Constitution, the Emperor is just a figurehead, the symbol of national unity. Emperor Akhito, who has presided over the Imperial family since his father died in 1989, is the only reigning emperor in the world and presides ceremoniously over Japan’s constitutional monarchy. The Japanese people certainly see it that way.

There is a great deal of pride in the family. The Imperial house recognizes 125 legitimate monarchs in direct accession, making Japan’s the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy still in existence, traced back to the mid-600s BCE.

There are more than twenty members of the current imperial family, but the familial connections become too complicated for me to much care. While the Emperor and his family are often treated as the head of state, beyond ceremony and popular pressure, they hold no real legislative power. Beyond my photograph and my bicycle ride, I was all but indifferent towards the Imperial Palace.

But, then, I am not Japanese.

Jaa mata,

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