Tokyo’s historical center of power: Edo Castle and its northern precincts

Join me on a historical walk through part of the grounds of old Edo Castle and up to the castle’s outer moat. This walk will take 3 to 4 hours, and I know a great place for a late lunch at the end, so grab a good breakfast and start in mid-morning.

We’ll start at the Sakuradamon gate of the Imperial Palace grounds (exit 3 at Sakuradamon station on the Yurakucho subway line).  This stately and dramatic gateway between the Imperial Palace and the seats of the various government ministries was only recently reopened after renovations.  Pass through the gate, with its zigzag design to stop an enemy charge, and bear left, walking alongside the moat.  To your right is the “National Garden Plaza”, a lawn-covered area with broad gravel walkways where crowds often gather on occasions when it is appropriate to pay respects to any member of the Imperial family.

CIMG4417You’ll soon come to a bridge spanning the moat as the entrance to the inner sanctum of the Imperial Palace grounds. There are actually two bridges, a double span stone bridge built in 1887 (arguably one of the most photographed bridges in Tokyo) and a steel bridge behind it. It is often said that the name Nijubashi, which means “double bridge”, refers to this pair of bridges. But according to the Imperial Household Agency, that is not the case. The Nijubashi is the second bridge, so-named due to the construction of an earlier iteration that was a wooden bridge built atop a steel frame. The current Nijubashi dates only to 1964.

To reach the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace, both bridges must be crossed. However, they are only used for visits to the palace by special state visitors and on the two days of the year that ordinary citizens are permitted to visit (the Emperor’s Birthday–currently December 23–and January 2).

After soaking up the atmosphere here, make your way north along the gravel walkway, zigzagging right, then left, as you skirt along the inner-most of the castle’s moats and pass by Kikyo-mon, another of the castle’s gates. The most notable feature in this garden area is the black pines dotted across the lawns. These trees are indigenous to this area, but specifically cultivated here.

When you reach the street, turn left and continue to follow the moat to the wooden bridge leading to the Ote-mon gate of the East Garden of the Imperial Palace.

The East Garden became a public park in 1968. It opens at 9:00 am and closes between 3:30 pm and 4:30 pm, depending on the season. It is closed on Mondays (except national holidays) and Fridays and between December 28 and January 3.

As with Sakuradamon gate, and the entrances to most Japanese castles, the gate consists of two gates at a 90 degree angle, creating a chicane to slow any would-be attackers.

To the left after you past through both gates is a small ticket window where you receive a plastic tag which you must surrender when you leave the garden (entry to the garden is free). Just beyond this, on the right, is the Museum of the Imperial Collections, a small gallery of classic Japanese art donated to the public by the Imperial family in 1989 when the current emperor ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne. The collection held by the gallery contains over 9,000 items, only a small portion of which can be displayed at any one time. Accordingly, the gallery changes the exhibition four times a year.

After a brief stop in the gallery, continue into the garden through the remnants of a small gate. On the right is a small guard house maintained in Edo period style. The path makes another 90 degree turn and passes through another gateway created by two large stone walls about 6 meters high. On the left is the Hyakunin Bancho, or hundred man guardhouse. This was the barracks for a rapid response team of 100.

Across from the guardhouse is a display about the castle’s stone walls and some recent restoration work. Among the photos in the display is one taken over a hundred years ago just outside Nakanomon (just to the left of the display). Both the garments of the men in the photo and the structures built atop the walls are quite interesting—sights no longer to be seen.

CIMG4368Proceed through the Nakanomon and make your way up the zig-zag walkway to the top of the hill. This area is the honmaru, or keep, of old Edo castle. The central area, originally a complex of residential and administrative buildings for the Tokugawas, and later the site of the Emperor’s palace (damaged by World War II bombing), is now an expansive lawn. Turn left and proceed clockwise. The first major sight will be down a lane on your left, the Fujimi Yagura. One of the 11 original turrets of the castle, it takes its name, Fujimi, from the fact that supposedly Mt. Fuji was visible from the top (alas, visitors are not allowed to enter the structure).

Continuing to move clockwise along the tree-lined walkway, about 150 meters from the Fujimi Yagura is a stone marker and signboard at the location of Matsu-no-Oroka (The Great Corridor of the Pines), the part of Edo Castle where, in 1701, Lord Asano was provoked to draw his sword on Lord Kira. The signboard contains a woodblock print picture of the incident, which resulted in Lord Asano’s ritual suicide and led, nearly 2 years later, to the revenge murder of Lord Kira by the 47 Ronin, a notorious historical incident memorialized in numerous plays and movies.

As you emerge from the trees onto the lawn, ahead of you is the stone foundation of the main castle tower, or donjon. Construction of the tower was completed in 1607 and it was then the highest castle donjon in all of Japan. However, the tower was destroyed by fire in 1657 and never rebuilt. The views from the top of the foundation are commanding. Halfway up to the top is a signboard showing the lay-out of the Edo period complex of buildings.

Across the paved walkway from the donjon is the Tokagakudo, a tile-covered building built in 1966 that is a performance hall for traditional Japanese music. The building was constructed to commemorate the 60th birthday of the consort of the Showa emperor. While it’s an interesting structure to look at, it seems somewhat out of place here.

Bear left from the Tokagakudo and take the first right, which will lead you down the Bairin-zaka slope, lined with plum trees. Keep bearing right until you get to a long straight walkway at the bottom. Take the first left off this walkway into the Ninomaru Garden, a traditional Japanese strolling garden.

Proceed clockwise, strolling around the pond, past the iris garden and back out to the long straight walkway again. Turn right and then take the first left, which takes you up Shiomi-zaka and back to honmaru area. Pass back by the donjon foundation again and this time, turn left to exit the garden (surrendering the plastic tag you received on entering) via another splendid old gate and causeway high above the moat.  If you’re lucky, you might spot workmen on the castle walls, removing weeds or checking on the stones.

Cross the street via the walkover bridge to reach Kitanomaru Koen, an area historically part of the Edo Castle grounds, used as a medicinal garden and subsequently as a residential district for government officials. It is now a public park that is simply pleasant to stroll through, but also noteworthy as the site of several museums, including the National Archives, the National Museum of Modern Art and the Science Museum.

As you follow the wide avenue through the park, you’ll also come upon Nippon Budokan, the martial arts stadium of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The octagonal structure is still the site of many martial arts competitions, predominately in judo.  Budokan will also be used as a venue for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Probably better known to most of us is the more contemporary role of Budokan as a concert venue, beginning with concerts by the Beatles in mid-1966 that produced their “Live at Budokan” album. While mega-bands that require mega-audiences now tend to perform in larger venues, such as the Tokyo Dome, the Budokan is still a popular venue for both Japanese and international artists (and arguably has better acoustics than the larger venues).

Budokan also hosts a ceremony to honor those who lost their lives in World War II, held annually on August 15, the day on which the emperor announced Japan’s surrender.

After you’ve passed Budokan, follow the road to the right through yet another castle gate, across yet another moat and over yet another walkover bridge to find yourself at the entrance to Yasukuni Shrine.

Yasukuni Shrine is the center of international controversy that belies the literal translation of its name: peaceful country. Enshrined here are the souls of nearly 2.5 million people who have died in the service of the emperor and the nation, including those men who were hung as war criminals following the verdicts of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal after World War II.

The shrine was originally established at the order of the Emperor Meiji in the early 1870s to commemorate those who lost their lives in the Boshin War, a civil war at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration. It subsequently became the primary national shrine to honor all war dead. In fact, it is the closest thing to a war memorial that Japan has, notwithstanding the constitutional separation of church and state.


However, many people from countries that suffered at Japanese hands in the first half of the 20th century are deeply offended at this deification of the war criminals and other war dead, especially in light of Japan’s general reluctance to apologize or formally acknowledge its culpability in the war. This is exacerbated whenever a Japanese elected official chooses to visit the shrine, an event which usually gets more press coverage in places like China than it does in Japan.

Controversy aside, the shrine, with its long lantern-lined promenade and simple, unpainted buildings, is a pleasant place to visit. Its immaculate condition implies that it is very well funded.

Also on the grounds of the shrine is Yushukan, a museum of Japan’s military history. In the courtyard in front of Yushukan, look particularly for statues commemorating war widows, kamikaze pilots, horses, dogs and carrier pigeons (all militarily important animals, of course), and a monument to Justice Radha Binod Pal (1886-1967), the Indian member of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal who voted to acquit all the defendants. His reasons were largely based on what he felt was the kangaroo court nature of the tribunal’s proceedings.

CIMG4451A visit to the Yushukan (admission: JPY800) can be very enlightening, even for those who are not particularly fond of military history. The modern entry way attached to the 1882 building houses a locomotive from the Thai-Burma Railway built with POW labor and a Zero fighter, both lovingly restored by returned soldiers. The museum chronicles Japan’s ancient military history through an exhibit of swords and armor, the modern history of dealing with the Western powers and attempting to emulate them through colonial expansion in the early 20th century and then presents a very particular view of the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and the events of World War II. The government of Japan has formally stated that it does not hold with the view presented here.

When you leave the Yushukan building, do a U-turn to the left and head out to the street through what looks like a back gate. Turn left and follow this narrower street (it doglegs to the left after about a 100 meters) for about 400 meters to a T intersection. From here turn right and walk down to Waseda-dori. There is a very nice walkway along the embankment above the train tracks and the outer moat.

CIMG4453When you reach Waseda-dori, turn left (Iidabashi Station will be across the street on your right) and walk across the bridge. At the corner, turn left again and you will see signs for the Canal Café. The Canal Café has formal and informal dining options as well as open deck seating overlooking the moat. It’s a delightful spot for lunch or just to sit and relax with a drink and reflect on the various sights you’ve just taken in.

NOTE:  An earlier version of this article appeared in Japan Today Insight in January 2012 but is no longer available on-line.

One thought on “Tokyo’s historical center of power: Edo Castle and its northern precincts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s