TOKYO IMPERIAL PALACE 皇居 (a different kind of palace)

I confess I had quite a difficult time coming out with the right words to describe the Tokyo’s Imperial Palace.  You see, unlike the China Forbidden City, the Tokyo’s Imperial Palace lacks the extravagance and sophistication of the Chinese architectural design that can leave you completely awestruck. And unlike the London Buckingham Palace, there is no distinctive uniformed guard in red tunic and iconic bearskin hat participating in colourful guard-changing ceremony.

The Tokyo’s Imperial Palace has no vivid dragons or phoenixes dancing around the roofs, or any classically designed balcony that can make you feel like giving an immediate standing ovation. The Imperial Palace consists of a few unassuming structures in green, white and gray. The Imperial Palace closely resembles many ordinary small-scale temples that can be found all around in Japan. It is unpretentious, non- showy, utterly simple. It lacks the essential elements of grandeur and splendour that one will normally expect from a palace.


(Kikyo-Mon (Bellflower Gate)- the entry for visitors and officials to the palace)


Despite that, there is without doubt a certain enigmatic charm about the place. The palace ground is alluring and intriguing in its own sweet, modest and serene way.

When Tokugawa Ieyasu planned his castle in Edo in 1590, the aesthetic value of the structures was for sure not his paramount consideration. Instead, the invincibility and impregnability of the castle were given its utmost attention. Moats and canals were built as watery barriers; Stone walls and fortified towers were carefully constructed as layers of defence; All to ensure that no military attacks could ever penetrated the stronghold of the powerful Shoguns.

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(Fujimi-yagura (Mt Fuji-view keep))

(Fujimi-yagura (Mt Fuji-view keep))

So who is Tokugawa Ieyasu?

Ironically, this first dweller of the Imperial Palace was no Emperor himself. Tokugawa Ieyasu was a power seizer, the most fearsome warlord of eastern Japan in the era of 1600s. To safeguard and solidify his position as the unrivalled dominant ruler of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu (and his successors) took the following measures to weaken their potential contenders of power:

(1)          The rule of sankin kotai(参勤交代)(alternative attendance) was enforced. The daimyo, rulers of clans and territorial lords, were required to make a compulsory biennial journey to the Edo residence from their domains. The progress was to be held in an ostentatious and lavish manner. The purpose of this was to ensure sufficient financial strains were placed on the daimyo, so that these potential rivals of power would not have the ability to wage war. At the end of the period of attendance, the journey of returning to the territorial homes of the leaders was to be carried out in similar elaborate and pompous style.

(2)          The wives and children of these clans’ leaders were to be left behind as hostages in Edo. Barriers were erected and security was enhanced at points along the main highways into Edo. The rule of “no women out, no guns in” was strictly observed to preclude any potential military threat from the daimyo.

In addition to the above precautions, Tokugawa Ieyasu forced the daimyo to contribute to the creation of the castle by supplying labour, materials and funds. The works of construction were officially completed in year 1640, making it the world’s largest castle at that time. From 1603 and for the next 265 years, Ieyasu and his successor as shoguns occupied and rule Japan from this new reclaimed land in Tokyo.

After the dissipation of power and capitulation of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868, the inhabitants of the Edo Castle were forced to vacate their premises to give way to the then 16-year-old Emperor Meiji from Kyoto. Emperor Meiji reigned from this former residential palace of Tokugawa Shoguns, and since then, the Imperial Palace is the primary residence of the Japan’s Imperial family.

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(Kunaicho Chosha (The Imperial Household Agency Building)- the head office of the Imperial Household constructed in 1935)

(Kunaicho Chosha (The Imperial Household Agency Building)- the head office of the Imperial Household constructed in 1935)

(Hasuikebori (lotus moat))

(Hasuikebori (lotus moat))

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The above pictures were taken during a free guided tour organized by the Imperial Household Agency. The tour was conducted in Japanese, with an English pamphlet and audio guide provided. Advanced reservation must be made in order to join the guided tour. Reservations may be made over the internet at the Imperial Household Agency’s official website.


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