Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle, Temples, Geisha – Day2

Gallery

On the agenda for the day was Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle, Nishi Hongwanji, Higashi Honganji and some of Gion to try spot a Geisha or two.  I had planned to see Sento palace and Omiya palace, but was unable to, I’ll explain why later.  Yesterday had been my first full day of exploring in Kyoto (Day 1), it did not disappoint.  Day two would be spent within the centre of Kyoto.

I’ve tried wracking my brains about what I did the night before, including dinner, but I have no recollection what so ever.  The only thing I do remember, was that I didn’t venture far from the hotel and had yet to fully explore the local cuisine.  My agenda for the second day came about the previous evening, that I do know.  With so much to see within central Kyoto, you really don’t need to venture far.  In addition, I would have to be checking out of my hotel UNIZO Inn Kyoto Kawaramachi Shijo the following morning.  Staying close to base would make things easier to get back and find alternative accommodation (&/or speak to my hotel to extend my stay).  Yes, I have already decided to extend my time in Kyoto…that was the easiest decision ever made.

First things, where to find a good cup of coffee to kickstart the day.  Less than 50m from the hotel (as you exit the hotel turning right) I found the coffee shop recommended by the hotel.  If they hadn’t told me about it, I doubt I would have gone in.  I’ve tried finding the place’s name on Google, even running through Streetview with no luck.  Nothing wrong with the place, it just looked more like a small bar/restaurant.  Their coffee, great taste and bloody strong, just how I like it.  With the contraption they make it with, it looks more like a science experiment than coffee maker!

Kyoto

My morning coffee – Interesting contraption – Kyoto

Kyoto Imperial Palace

The palace is in a park about 1km North of the main shopping district in central Kyoto.  This park used to be part of the palace grounds measuring 1.3km long and 800m wide.  By far the largest park within central Kyoto, and within it there are two separate enclosures.  Firstly, is the enclosure of Sento and Omiya Palace (I’ll explain more later).  Secondly, is that of Kyoto Imperial Palace, which was my first stop for the day.

As expected, the park is well maintained, but what struct me was how wide the internal walkways are.  Some are at least 10 cars wide if not more, made of coarse gravel that kicks up into your shoes when you walk.  I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what to expect from an old Japanese Palace.  Having been to many European palaces, I guess I was expecting something similar, with a Japanese flavour of course.  Elegant, yes, but so far from the ostentatious of European counterparts that it may be from a different planet.  It is ornate, but like so many things in Japan it has an understated presence too

Imperial Palace

Kenreimon – one of the main entrances to Kyoto Imperial Palace

Background

Wood and fire have never been friends, which is aptly demonstrated throughout Kyoto’s historical monuments.  Many monuments, Shrines and temples have been burnt down and rebuilt, some many times over.  Kyoto Imperial Palace is a perfect example, having been rebuilt eight times, six of which was during the Edo period – during a time of peace.  This is one of the reasons that its current location isn’t the original which was South West for where it stands today.  It has been in its current location since the 12th century, having been in its original location since 794.

Kyoto Imperial Palace officially superseded Heian Palace (Heian Shrine) as the official residence of the Emperor after it burnt down in 1177 (may have been 1227).  For over 1000 years Kyoto Imperial Palace remained the primary home for the Emperor, only to be moved to Tokyo Imperial Palace during the Meiji Restoration in 1869.  Saying that, Kyoto Imperial Palace as it stands today is a reincarnation built in 1855 (with a few additions afterwards).  This rebuild included changes to included more architectural resemblance to the Heian Palace.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Palanquin porch (carriage porch). Used exclusively by envoys of the Shogun and high ranking courtiers when visiting the palace – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Known in Japan as Kyoto Gosho, Kyoto Imperial Palace is like visiting Buckingham Palace but with more access, but not everywhere (no photos inside either).  Other than being an Emperor/King/Queen’s residence that’s about the only similarity to Westerns Palaces.  Of course, this would have been the epitome of elegance, money whilst adhering to traditions and decorum, but not ostentatious.  I can’t go through every little detail of every room, so I’ll try mix it up with highlights, thoughts and pictures…in the hope of doing it justice.

Whilst Europe was at the beginning off its Gothic and Renaissance era, Japanese architecture seems to be on the opposite site of the scale.  Naturally each Japanese era had its own style, but there seems a distinct similarity.  More like a gradual change with only a few tweaks here and there.  To me their inspiration and motivate in their buildings is near the opposite of European buildings.  Whereas Europe seemed to be driven by being more grandiose, here being part of nature and the earth is the inspiration.  I’m struggling to find the words, without diminishing the artistry, ingenuity and craftsmanship these building exude.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Smaller jomeimon (inner gate) leading to the inner courtyard which leads to the Hall for State Ceremonies/Shishin-den – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Main jomeimon (inner gate) leading to the inner courtyard which leads to the Hall for State Ceremonies/Shishin-den – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Hall for State Ceremonies/Shishin-den, with massive Zen gravel garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

From a distant, many of the buildings look alike, quite long, as they get longer the squatter in appearance.  The devil is in the detail, which can only be fully appreciated and admired when you get close-up.  With the most complicated rafter system I have ever see, allowing the building to move, making them earthquake resistant.  Their roof tops either thatched or tiled, both fraying out like wide hips to the gutters.  I’ve tried to describe historical Japanese style and architecture, but I’m yet to find the words that match my thoughts.

The pitched roofs seem disproportionately high in relation to the living/worshipping spaces below.  From the front and back, the roof splays out elegantly like a starched apron curling up ever so slightly at the tips.  The sides of the roof almost always vertical and exposed, but understated ornately decorated.  These decorations in muted colours of different woods, copper, bronze and gold.  Granted gold isn’t a muted colour, yet somehow it is used with the right proportions.  A contrast against the dark wood, reflecting the sunlight so that these rooftops can be seen dotted throughout Kyoto.

Imperial Palace

Ingenious network of roof timbers – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Seiryoden (Hall for Rites and Rituals). Prior to 1590 it used to be the Emperors living quarters. The Emperor sites between the two lions – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Shishinden (Hall of State Ceremonies) from the side – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Having waffled on I haven’t said much about the palace.  I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, taking my time strolling the corridors, courtyards and of course the gardens – they are beautiful as I had become expectantly accustomed to.  Much of inside the palace is/was closed to the public, but that didn’t dilute the experience at all.  From the waiting chambers painted in accordance with ranking in society:

  1. Room of the Cherry Trees – everyday visitors
  2. Room of the Cranes – for intermediate visitors of good social standing
  3. Room of the Tigers – for the most senior in society, royalty, envoys, ambassadors
Kyoto Imperial Palace

Room of the Cherry Trees – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Room of the Cranes – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Room of the Tigers – Kyoto Imperial Palace

NB. An interesting fact I learnt. If you look are early Japanese depictions of tigers, they seem embellished and anatomically incorrect. This oddity seems to contradict the precision of Japanese art, calligraphy and everything else they did.  The reason for this inaccurate portrayal is simple.  Tigers are not indigenous to Japan, the first time they saw them was from tiger hides/skin brought to Japan for Asian.  It is from these skins that they tried to piece these creates together in their paintings/drawings – like a reverse taxidermist.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Oikeniwa garden with Keyakibashi bridge – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Gonaitei Garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Gonaitei Garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

I hope the pictures and the descriptions do the Kyoto Imperial Palace justice.  If I had to opportunity to visit Kyoto again, obviously I would like to see the hundreds of other things I missed first-time around.  Though, if I got the opportunity to visit the palace again, I wouldn’t hesitate in doing so. Concluding, I’ll stop blabbering on without saying much.  The weather had started to turn with a murky grey sky.  It wasn’t the coldest of days, though not shorts and t-shirt as the day before.  From palace to castle, my next stop of the day was Nijo Castle.

Imperial Palace

Gonaitei Garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Gonaitei Garden – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Imperial Palace

Beautifully decorated balustrade ends – Kyoto Imperial Palace

Ah yes, I almost forgot!  Next on my list was to be Omiya and Sento Imperial Palace, within the same park grounds as Kyoto Imperial Palace.  I tried to entre, however you need to book in advance and they only take a few visitors per day.  Plus, it is only open (with a booking) during specific times of the year.  Like I said, it was open though fully booked.  Although nothing except foundations remains of Sento Palace (finally burnt down in 1854), Omiya Palace was rebuilt in 1867.   Omiya Imperial Palace is the official residence for the current prince and princess when they visit Kyoto.

Nijo Castle

I’ve said so before, but I like castles, and Nijo Castle even looks interesting from the outside.   Of the many castles I’ve visited (primarily in Europe), I categories them into two criteria. Firstly, those situated on a vantage point, using the lay of the land as a natural defence.  Secondly, building fortifications as protection – normally on flat land.  Nijo Castle falls into the second category (in my thinking of categorisation ?).

Located between Kyoto Imperial Palace and downtown Kyoto (where the shopping area and Nikishi Market it), except it’s a few blocks West.  The lay of the land surrounding the castle is as flat as a pancake.   The first thing that struck me was the light grey stone walls of the inner circumference of the moat.  The long walls built at a gentle inward slope of smooth large stones that seems to grow out of the water.

These long spans of walls broken by three gated entrances on the North (Great North Gate – Kita-Ote-mon), East (Great Eastern Gate – Higashi-Ote-mon) and West (West Gate – Nishi-mon); the latter what looks like a disused small drawbridge or service entrance.  The only other break in these sleek moat walls is a tower on the South-eastern corner called a yagura – one of the more regular photos taken of Nijo Castle.

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle, exterior moat with fortification (South East corner) – Kyoto

Layout of Nijo Castle

In order to make things a little easier to understand (for me that is), I’ll explain the general layout of Nijo Castle.  In fact, there isn’t a “castle building”, instead it houses two palaces.  Crossing the first outer moat gives you access to Ninomaru Palace.  Once inside the complex you cross an inner moat to access Honmaru Palace.  This second moat too is surrounded by high fortification walls.  Both moats have square corners adding to its austere uniformity, almost like concentric squares.

Honmaru Palace

Inner moat with fortification walls of Honmaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Background

Nijo Castle was the brainchild of Tokugawa Ieyasa (January 31, 1543 – June 1, 1616), with construction completed in 1603.  Tokugawa was a unifier of Japan, after a prolonged period of civil wars.  This unification brought about peace and prosperity for nearly 260 years.  Starting with bringing together all the feudal lords and building Nijo Castle.  The Tokugawa shogunate ruled Japan until 1867 when the Meiji Restoration brought back Imperial Rule.

1601 – Tokugawa instructs in feudal lords (diamyo) of Western Japan to build Nijo Caste

1603 – Completion of the castle

1614 – Tokugawa conquers the Toyotomi family (the previous rulers of Japan) during the Siege of Osaka.

1624 – large scale renovations done to the castle as preparation for an Imperial Visit by Emperor Go-Mizunoo

1750 – Lightning strikes the keep tower and it burns down

1867 – In October, Tokugawa Yoshinobu calls a meeting with all the heads of the clans at the Great Hall (Ohiroma) of Ninomaru Palace.  Yoshinobu announces at the meeting that he will be restoring Imperial Rule to Japan

1884 – Nijo Castle becomes Nijo Rikyu (Nijo Imperial Villa

1915 – Nijo Castle is used for the coronation of Emperor Taishō.  In a purpose build banquet hall, now the location of the Seiryu-un Garden – on the North side between the two moats.

1939 – Imperial Household Ministry gives Nijo Castle to the City of Kyoto

1994 – Nijo Castle becomes listed on UNESCO World Heritage

2011 – Full restoration of Nijo Castle

Ninomaru Palace / Ninomaru-Goten Palace

Access to Nimomaru and Honmaru Palace was mostly restricted to walking around its exterior, where you could go inside no photography was allowed ☹.  I’m not going to pretend I remember the details of the inside, it was understatedly impressive, a composed ambience.  Suffice to say I enjoyed my time there, spending a few hours – I hope that says enough.

Both a highlight and frustrating moment was walking through the “nightingale corridor”.  As you walk on the wooden floor the creaking creates the distinct sound of singing nightingales.  These floorboards were intentionally made to creak, and calculatedly the creaks made to sound like nightingales.  How on earth this was deliberately achieved I have no idea, remarkable and ingenious craftsmanship.  This sound was created as a security feature; in order to hear anyone walking in the corridor; so that no one could sneak up on anyone in the rooms.

 

At first, it’s as if there must be an aviary filled with nightingales behind one of the walls.  Singing nightingales fills the corridor as more people walk through.  My frustration came with people talking loudly as they walked through.  Instead of enjoying and just listening to this unique experience, some people just don’t think or consider other people – well that’s my theory.  I’ve attached a recording, unfortunately it is dominated by people speaking, but if you listen carefully you can hear the creak of nightingales (near the beginning and the end).

Nijo Castle

The karamon (main gate) to Ninomaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Ninomaru Palace

Entrance to Ninomaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Ninomaru Palace

Ninomaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Kyoto

The intricate and detailed roof tiles – Ninomaru Palace, Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Ninomaru Garden

It was altered as part of the 1626 Imperial Visit.  Of course, it’s in immaculate condition, that goes without saying.  A pond with three islands linked by low stone bridges is the focal point.  The beams of each bridge a singular piece of stone stretching from one side to the next, no handrails.  They look like monoliths, cast into place by nature, lying there for thousands of years.

Nothing in these gardens are down without purpose.  The largest island is a Horai-jima Island which represents “paradise”, then there is a crane island and turtle island, both metaphors for longevity. All the trees look like they’ve been pruned like large bonsai’s, accentuating their colours and forms.

Nijo Castle

Ninomaru Garden – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Ninomaru

Ninomaru Garden – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Ninomaru

Ninomaru Garden – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Honmaru Palace / Honmaru-Goten Palace

Crossing over the moat on the Honmaru East Bridge you entre through the Honmaru Yagura-mon Gate.  The fortification walls ever so slightly smaller that the exterior walls, making you feel like you’ve walked into a safe inside a safe.  None of Honmaru Palace was open to the public, with the best views from the elevated base of the burnt down keep tower (1750).

This vantage point gives a great lay of the surrounding land with Honmaru Palace and Honmaru Gardens below.  Now that I had become a Japanese garden snob, I didn’t spend much time Honmaru Gardens.  Had it been anywhere else in the world, I would have likely admired it deservingly, but from what I had already seen in Kyoto this garden was below par.  Added to my low grading of the garden (I’m just being facetious), Honmaru Palace was closed, so I exited on Honmaru West Gate crossing the moat.

Nijo Castle

Honmaru Bridge and Honmaru Yagura-mon Gate. Crossing the second moat to Honmaru Palace – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Honmaru Palace

Taken from the base of the keep (South West corner) with Honmaru Palace and Honmaru Garden ahead and below – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Almost the entire Western half of the whole complex is made up of various gardens – between the inner moat and the outer exterior fortifications.  From cherry trees in their last bloom, small grassland meadows with wild flowers, to manicured shrubs with rich red and pink flowers.  These gardens are distinctly more natural to the others, like walking through fields or parks.  From meadows to the Seiryu-en Garden (moving clockwise around the garden), a more traditional garden with the symbolic islanded (I hope that’s a word) ponds.

Honmaru Palace

Honmaru Palace carriage porch – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Honmaru

Taken from the base of the keep, the moat surrounding Honmaru Castle and gardens beyond – Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle Gardens – Kyoto

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle Gardens – Kyoto

Nijo Castle Gardens

Nijo Castle Gardens – Kyoto

A small pottery exhibition and a separate one on kimonos was taking place.  The palace grounds are big, I found both exhibitions quite by chance whilst on my way to the exit.  Small exhibitions, then again big isn’t always better.  I’m always on the lookout for pottery as you may have gathered by now, because my mother is a potter.  As for the kimonos it reminded me the Yohji Yamamoto exhibition I saw at the V&A Museum in London in 2011.  Styles, shapes and colours so different to what I’ve grown up with.  Not much else to say about either topic, it was just cherry on top of a lovely visit to Nijo Castle.

Kyoto

Kimono exhibition at Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Kyoto

Kimono exhibition at Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Kyoto

Pottery exhibition at Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Kyoto

Pottery exhibition at Nijo Castle – Kyoto

Nishi Hongan-ji

I may have already mentioned but the weather wasn’t great.  As the day passed the already grey clouds where thickening and turning deep grey.  Not that it deterred me, I lived in London for 20yrs.  It was late in the day, but to early to call it quits.  Nishi Hongan-ji and Higashi Hongan-ji were only a short distance away.

Nishi Hongan-ji

The Goeido (Founder’s Hall) at Nishi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

 Both Nishi Hongan-ji and Hongan-ji are Jōdo Shinshū temples, a school of Pure Land Buddhism, with Nishi Hongan-ji the “head office” temple for Jodo Shinshu.  Making the complex a combination of temple and much newer administrative buildings.  The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site, dating back to 1321, but only at its current location since 1591.  When I got there, as with so many other places, I had no idea of its significance.  With time against me before they closed for the day, I only skirted about the complex without giving it much attention.   Most of my time and attention was given to the 400yr+ old gingko tree outside the Goeido (Founders Hall).

Nishi Hongan-ji

400yr+ old gingko tree at Nishi Hongan-ji

Nishi Hongan-ji

The Goeido (Founder’s Hall) at Nishi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

Going inside the Goeido lost its relevance without understanding the significance nor context of the temple.  Like seeing the Giza pyramids without knowing they are circa. 4500 years old.  Even so, I enjoyed taking a look around, but at the back of my mind I knew I had to leave to get to Higashi Hongan-ji before it closed too.

PS. I only got to see at most 30% of the complex, realistically missing the best bits…to my regret

Nishi Hongan-ji

Inside the Goeido (Founder’s Hall) at Nishi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

Nishi Hongan-ji

The pitched rooves are always interestingly decorated. The Goeido (Founder’s Hall) at Nishi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

Higashi Hongan-ji

Just like Nishi Hongan-ji my stop over at Higashi Hongan-ji was fleeting, even more so.  Higashi Hongan-ji dates to 1602, like so many other buildings in Kyoto it burnt down only to be rebuilt in 1895.  Here I was rushing around aimlessly because of closing time.  In all honesty the visit was a waste of time because I gained nothing other than ticking it off my list – not the way I like to do things at all.

Higashi Hongan-ji

The Founder’s Hall Gate at Higashi Hongan-ji

Higashi Hongan-ji

The Founder’s Hall of Higashi Hongan-ji – Kyoto

Gion

My day had been great, I really enjoyed everything I had done and seen.  Still feeling I could squeeze more into the day I thought I’d walk to Gion to try spot a Geisha.  Now before I get into this, I’m going to leave Gion and Geishas to a later blog post.  My next hotel was in Gion, and I explored the area and tried to catch a glimpse of Geishas many times.

Whilst heading to Gion, the heavens opened, and I was caught for the first time without my raincoat in my day pack.  Why exactly I had taken my raincoat out of my back I don’t know, its never happened since!  Anyway, I got to Gion soak to the bone.  The sun was almost set, and the street lights cast a hazy glow shimmering against the wet surface of the road.

Yes, I got to see a Geisha, more to do with luck than anything else.  I’ll leave things here, so much more to say about Gion and Geisha spotting and this post is already much longer than I had wanted.  Picking up from what I have just said, I would move hotels the next morning.  This ended up being a great decision, moving into the heart of Gion.

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My first excursion of many into Gion – Kyoto

Kyoto

Typical side street in Gion (lots more about Gion to come) – Kyoto

Kyoto

Little side street in Gion – Kyoto

Kyoto

Traditional entrance to an old residence in Gion – Kyoto

Tokyo, Cherry Blossom, Edo Castle – got off to a slow start – Part 1

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My journey to Tokyo

My time in Tokyo was limited, because I only had 10.5 days in Japan; self-imposed as a result of how I booked my round the world ticket with Star Alliance – later on my travels regrettably, finding out just how easily it can be changed (I’ll get into that during my time in New Zealand). As per my usual modus operandi, I hadn’t put much thought into what I wanted to do and see in Japan, except hopefully to be in time to see the cherry blossoms.  As with a few of my destinations, Japan and Tokyo started off rather slowly, then there were a few interesting challenges, however afterwards it went from strength to strength…Japan turned out to be fantastic!

Booking my accommodation in haste whilst on Gili Air, the night before flying out to Japan; my rationale was to get a place close to Tokyo centre for two nights, in the hope that this would be enough time to suss out the location, if good stay, if not then move.  One thing I didn’t fully appreciate was just how expensive Tokyo and Japan accommodation is, wow!  It seemed even more so because of what I had been paying the previous few months in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.  Yes, it is expensive, but compared to places like London, New York etc. it is about the same, but with very few lower end types of accommodation.  It seems that for a reasonable place prices start at around £70 per night – there are cheaper, but honestly, they seemed very low-end and not places I would like to stay.  Another option is to stay in a “pod”, these are a-plenty!  I know you can get them in other cities, but here, oh my, there are loads of pod-hotels and seem more the norm that normal hotels.  Reminiscing about my time in Japan I really should have tried a pod-hotel, even if it was just for one night – some of them are very fancy, and expensive too, more so than some of the places I stayed in.  Reason for not doing so was quite simple, my criteria for choosing accommodation is a simple formula, 1. Private bathroom, 2. Wifi, 3. Location (preferably a central location so it saves me time and cost on transport when site seeing.  I still mildly regret not at least trying a pod hotel for one night.

My first hotel was APA Hotel and Resort Tokyo Bay Makukari.  Arriving at Tokyo Narita (4th April) airport just after 8:00 am, immigration was stereotypical of what I thought it would be like in Japan, swift and efficient, from there a bus to the hotel within 45 minutes after landing.  Airport information was great too, I had no idea how to get to the hotel and would have taken a taxi (airport taxi’s throughout the world in my opinion are a bloody rip-off); with the help of airport information I was on the bus which would stop about 1km from the hotel, at a fraction of the cost of a taxi – I must have got to the hotel just before 10:30, bloody tired!

Not to labour on about it (but I will ?), I was tired.  I caught the first public ferry (only 25 minutes at most) from Gili Air to Lombok Bangsal at 7:15, leaving my hotel at 6:30. From the ferry I had a 2.5 hour taxi ride to Lombok Mataram airport to catch my flight at 12:15 arriving at Kuala Lumpur at 15:20.  My next flight would be to Bangkok but only at 20:55 so, I had lots of time to kill (at an airport that’s extremely boring), I would arrive at Bangkok at 22:05.  From there catch my flight to Tokyo at 23:50 landing at Narita airport at 8:10am.  It felt like I was constantly busy though not very productive, and I didn’t sleep on any of the flights!  All this rambling just to say I hadn’t slept properly for over 24 hours, so arriving in Tokyo I was out on my feet.  In addition to that, arriving at a hotel so early it is seldom they let you check – there was no way I could muster up enough energy to leave my bags and go see any sites!  Thanks to the hotel I was in my room by 11:30. I got to my tiny room (more about that later), put my head down and crashed!  That about sums up my first day in Tokyo!

Tokyo

Ueno Park, this is a fraction of what the parks and Tokyo would look like durig peak cherry blossom season

Tokyo

There were still a few trees blossoming in the city – Tokyo

Tokyo

Tokyo’s oldest temple Kiyomizu Kannon-dō inside Ueno Park

I was out of kilter with time having slept for an entire day, things weren’t helped by the fact I had turned-off my phone’s auto time adjust, meaning I was two hours behind – I did think it was odd going for dinner at 8:30 finding almost everything deserted (it was actually 10:30); I only realised the time difference the next morning when I missed breakfast, getting there at “9:00” when in fact it was 11:00. Having missed my first day sleeping I had now shortened my second day by mistake/error, grrrrrr.  With what felt like lead strapped around my ankles I headed into the city.

Japan

Interesting first dinner in Tokyo, don’t ask me what it’s called….I call it delicious

Now, I totally miscalculated the location of my hotel in relation to the city/tourist centre, an hour on a semi-fast train to get remotely into the city centre.  The area of the hotel was an odd one, lots of formal style commercial buildings everywhere, no sky scrapers, at most 6 storied buildings, but all very big (width and breadth), the hotel was the highest building, in itself a huge hotel.  What struck me was how quiet the area was, even though it seemed surrounded by companies, a university and tucked away small wholesale shops/malls.  The roads were near dead quiet, there was almost no people; it almost felt as it the place was deserted but it couldn’t be.  Deserted of people yet still full of buildings and everywhere was very well maintained, signage on buildings (of well known companies) – the whole of Japan seems to be.  The only thing I can compare it to, is Canary Wharf (London) on the weekends; the difference here was it was even quieter, no high-rises and isn’t the finance/banking centre of Tokyo…..hmmmm….still puzzles me today.  Most things are not new, but they could be as everything from buildings, streets, pavements etc. is extremely well maintained and clean, therefore everything seems to be in good condition.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen such clean pavements, there are signs on the walkways for bicycles, pedestrians and no smoking signs too.  I’ve thought back on the area of the hotel many times since and can’t put my finger on “what” the area is, absolutely safe, as it felt everywhere I went to in Japan.  It’s not an industrial area, it was more like a massive commercial area….except I saw hardly anyone…very strange.

Cherry Blossoms & Ueno Park

I headed to Ueno Park, famous for cherry blossoms.  I’ll keep you out of suspense, I missed peak cherry blossom season by about 1 week to 10 days, such a shame.  Even so, there were still plenty of blossoms to give me a faint idea of what the place must look like during peak season.  It must me other worldly, fantasmal (I know that’s not a real word, but you get the idea), that’s no exaggeration!  Swathes of the city and parks taken over by delicate flowers ranging from white, faint translucent pink, right through to deep blood pink and all the variations in between.  Tree trunks looking like barren stems void of foliage leading up to an impenetrable blanket of dainty flowers.  This parasol of colour, a ceiling of flowers casting shade for everyone wandering below all who are looking skyward to take in this floral spectacle.  I’ve never seen a city with such colour; these elegant and delicate flowers juxtaposed within a concrete jungle.  One of the most densely populated cities in the world, yet you feel as if you are walking through the pages of a Disney story.  It doesn’t take much imagination to think what this place must be like in full blossom, I would love to see it with my own eyes though.

Tokyo

Ueno Park, what was full of blossoms now filled with fresh light green foliage

Tokyo

Taken from the porch of Kiyomizu Kannon-dō Temple – Ueno Park

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Ueno Park, something about parks that calms the soul, the floor a blanked of dead blossoms

Yes, I was disappointed to have missed the peak season, but my main downer was my state of mind; a combination of being tired, oversleeping, my hotel location gave me the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, the weather wasn’t bad i.e. cold, yet a low hanging blanked of grey reminded me of winters in London.  All in all, I just felt a little down.  When this feeling comes about I find the best way to change the paradigm is to change what I have control over and accept what I can’t change.  I wondered around Ueno Park station for a bit for the sake of “site seeing” then thought to hell with this, I’m in one of the greatest cities in the world, there should be no reason to feel like this.  First things first, head back to my hotel (it was late afternoon and it cost me less to when using wifi), eat, do a little searching and find a new hotel is a better location…….and have a normal night’s sleep.

Ueno Park

A small fraction from the latter end of the cherry blossom season – Ueno Park

Tokyo

Don’t know why but I just like this photo, taken from Ueno Park – Tokyo

Tokyo

Part of the market area by Ueno Park Station – Tokyo

Moving to a better location in Tokyo

Coincidentally, my next hotel was the same chain of hotels, APA Hotel Kodemmacho Ekimae, still an odd location (I’ll explain a little later), but much better; at least I felt like I was surrounded by people and occupied buildings; an area mixed with residential and office buildings (maybe akin to Dalston in London, however more developed and a millions times more orderly and clean).  Another good thing about the new location was the transport, easy access to three Tokyo metro stations (I’ll get into the metro later too).  I can’t say my head was totally in a right state, without doubt I was feeling more positive – I had booked for 1 night; at this stage I wasn’t liking Tokyo (not liking cities seemed to be becoming a trend)  Both APA hotels had tiny rooms, the smallest hotel rooms I have ever stayed in, even so they are designed exceptionally well, like a compact Japanese car.  The rooms have everything you would expect and more, considering the size – Massive TV, ¾ bed, bath & shower in one (1/2 the size of a normal bath), nice toiletries (better quality and lots of it compared to a normal mid-range hotel), an all singing and dancing toilet (built-in bidet – with temperature setting for the water and toilet seat, various spray setting etc. etc.), bathrobe with slippers, a separate gown/pyjamas with slippers (I saw a few people walking around the hotel wearing the latter), a torch on the side of the bed (I guess this is for is/when the electricity goes off caused by earthquakes or storms – I guess), desk, heated bathroom mirror so it doesn’t steam up etc. etc. basically the rooms are bloody small yet packed with everything you could want or need – I’ve stayed in a lot more expensive hotels that have far less!  Aggravatingly I don’t have the pictures, again, I’m sure I took pictures of the room but I cannot find them….I must have deleted them by mistake ARGH!!!!!

Early check-in at the hotel went smoothly again and I was heading out back into the city centre to see Edo Castle.  Tokyo Metro map is one of the more complicated metro maps I’ve seen, likely the most complicated, made more so by the writing!  It looks like such a mess, with so many stations is can get confusing, thankfully all the metro employees I spoke to were fantastic, with a good standard of English making it even easier.  Like all metros/underground systems you only need to use it once of twice to get the hang-of-it – all the major stations I went to also have signs in Japanese and English.

Edo Castle / Chiyoda Castle

I wondered around town for a bit before heading to the castle, now this was more like Tokyo compared to the day before!  I was feeling better already.  Tokyo Station is up the road from Edo Castle, a wide paved walkway runs perpendicular between the too.  Just like everywhere else the place is spotless, as if the pavements were installed recently, parks are pristine and manicured, very impressive – later during my time in Japan I’d see parks and public spaces making the gardens in and around Edo Castle look less than average!

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Tokyo Station, Spotless clean walkway between the station and Edo Castle behind

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Some of the park area near Edo Castle and the Imperial Palace – Tokyo

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I like the juxtaposition between the city and nature – Tokyo

The first major structure was built by the warrior Edo Shigetsugu some time in the early 14th century.  The Edo clan ended in the 15th Century due to the uprising in the Kantō region, after which Ōta Dōkan who worked for the Uesugi clan built the castle in 1457.  Edo Castle, is also referred to as Chiyoda Castle, as it is now in the Chiyoda suburb of Tokyo, the former area used to be known as Edo.  Ōta Dōkan himself is also known as Ōta Sukenaga; taking the former surname after becoming a Buddhist priest, he was a samurai warrior, military strategist and poet amongst other things.

Edo Castle

Edo Castle dōshin-bansho (guardhouse) is where samurai guardsmen would have been stationed (there were a few guardhouses) as protection for the castle – Tokyo

Edo Castle

Some of the impressive stone walls leading from the guardhouse into the castle grounds – Edo Castle, Tokyo

As with many of these types of structures/areas within history its ownership changed hands a few times.  The Later Hōjō clan took over in 1524 after the Siege of Edo, then the castle was abandoned in 1590 because of the Siege of Odawara. After that Tokugawa Ieyasu made Edo Castle stronghold base after he was offered eight eastern provinces by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  He later defeated Toyotomi Hideyori, son of Hideyoshi, at the Siege of Osaka in 1615, and emerged as the political leader of Japan. Tokugawa Ieyasu received the title of Sei-i Taishōgun in 1603, and Edo became the center of Tokugawa’s administration (a lot of this paragraph came straight from Wikipedia – it was easier for accuracy purposes).

Edo Castle

What remains of the foundation of the main castle tower – Edo Castle, Tokyo

Edo Castle

The gardens inside the castle grounds – Edo Castle, Tokyo

Edo Castle is surrounded by a moto and part of a much bigger complex including a few huge gardens and Tokyo Imperial Palace (the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan) – visits to the palace are allowed by specific prearranged guided tours….I didn’t go because of the waiting list.  Very little remains of the original Edo Castle and the vast complex of the grounds.  The area used to have waterways, many motes and canals with a circumference of nearly 16km.  Construction started in 1593 and completed in 1636 by Ieyasu’s grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu; the Tokugawa shognute (clan) rules from 1600 till 1868 when the Meiji Restoration happened; restoration of imperial rule

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Some blossoms in the gardens of Edo Castle – Tokyo

Chiyoda Castle

Edo Castle gardens (yes, similar the one of the other pictures, but I also like this one 🙂 – Tokyo

The area was totally transformed, from pushing out the coastline in some parts to bringing the sea closer to enable boats to dock close by.  With ramparts as high as 20m, 12m high inner walls and 34 massive entrance gates, this was like a town created from almost nothing, however it was a castle/palace complex.  Considering the population of the near vicinity was only 150 000, a small population for such a massive undertaking.  To resolve this people who fell under the ruler either supplied money, resources &/or people to undertake the construction – at its height there were 300 000 construction workers. 

Edo Castle

Gardens of Edo Castle – Tokyo

Edo Castle

The Fujimi Yagura (A Turret of The Edo Castle), 1659 – Tokyo

An interesting story that happened in the castle, made famous to the Western world by Hollywood (embellished to the extent of making it fictional fantasy), is the true story of the forty-seven ronin.  At the beginning of the 18th century within the Great Pine Corridor of the Edo Castle, Asano Takumi-no-kami drew his short sword and attempted to kill Kira Kōzuke-no-suke for insulting him; it is said Kira wasn’t the nicest of people and had been spreading rumour and lies about Asano.  This action resulted in him being sentenced to commit  seppuku, furthermore his samurai warriors were banished.  These ronin plotted revenge for the honour their lord Asano, two year later their plot was put into action and succeeded.  These ronin’s actions were against the law, as with their lord Asano they were sentenced to commit seppuku.

Edo Castle

Edo Castle – Tokyo

Edo Castle

Edo Castle from the outside, massive walls and mote – Tokyo

If I’m honest to myself, and anyone that reads this, Edo Castle is ok, I can imagine the Imperial Palace must be a total different kettle of fish.  As most of the castle is not longer there, what remains is some of the layout, ramparts, foundations, some motes and walls – what remains is impressive though a tad underwhelming.  What remains of the stone construction is impressive, with huge stones at perfect angles and flattened sides.  Of the motes still functioning, they are some of the longest I’ve seen anywhere.  Their retaining walls could have been built yesterday, that’s how well they were made and have been preserved.  Considering their size and length, they are an impressive feat of engineering.  At it’s prime, this place would have been amazing, today, the gardens are more the main attraction, as beautiful as they are, like I said, I was a little underwhelmed.

After walking through Edo Castle grounds, I made my way to the main entrance of the Imperial Palace.  The Stone Bridge (Seimon Ishibashi) leads to the main entrance gate of the palace called Nishinomaru-mon with the Iron Bridge (Seimon Tetsubashi) in the background.  Both bridges used to be wooden arch bridges replaced during the Meiji period with what we see today. 

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Main gate to the Imperial Palace with the Stone Bridge (Seimon Ishibashi) in front – Tokyo

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The Iron Bridge (Seimon Tetsubashi), Edo Castle, Imperial Palace – Tokyo

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Kusunoki Masashige, a 14th-century samurai who fought for Emperor Go-Daigo in the Genkō War – Tokyo

Tokyo had got off to a slow start, that is obvious.  From my state of mind to what I had seen wasn’t spectacular, the up side was my mind was moving into the right space, so I was optimistic for the days to comes.  The next morning started off started with a bang….not a good one – I’ll get into that in my next blog post. 

 

Tokyo

Near Ueno Park Station, a small prelude to what I’d see later on during my time in Tokyo