Monday, 31 March 2014

Adventures in Tokyo, Day Five

Conscious that this was our last day in Tokyo, we left the hotel early and headed to the Imperial Palace. The Palace itself is only open to the public two days a year but the east gardens are always open and an attraction we were determined to see.

Coming off the train at a station simply called ‘Tokyo’, we found ourselves in the heart of the urban jungle. Enormous skyscrapers reflected sunlight at us from every direction as we followed a wide pedestrian avenue toward an enormous park. If the area weren’t so light and the distance between each block of skyscrapers so large, I would compare this walk to walking to central park in New York. The differences in atmosphere, light and noise are so great however that a comparison can’t truly be made.

The first garden, a Zen water garden, lay across a traditional bridge over a moat. Had you told me before that I would find a garden that is primarily made out of concrete beautiful then I would have called you a liar. It really was beautiful though; indents in the concrete, painted light blue, carried smooth rivers of water in graceful curves around the square. These rivulets are crossed using little stepping stones that are raised from their beds. At one end of the square was a statue/waterfall, connected by the rivulets to a fountain at the other end of the square. Neatly placed flowers and trimmed trees dotted the garden, adding splashes of colour to the garden where there had previously been none.The combined noises of the water and the birds along with the sunshine made the place incredibly calm.

After spending a little time quietly sitting in the Zen garden, we headed towards the Palace proper. The Palace buildings are surrounded by a moat, on top of a high wall and mostly obscured by trees. Even still though, you can see glimpses of them. We decided that before looking for the entrance to the gardens we would walk around the perimeter of the Palace grounds to admire the views of the buildings and the moat in the sunshine.

It turned out that a marathon was running around centre area. We organised ourselves into single file and watched the crazily dressed people run by. A couple dressed as bears waved to us as they passed us. We also passed signs pointing out which buildings in the area were important; it turns out that most of the government buildings are just across the road from the palace and in an uber-modern skyscraper-district, the main government building is in fact a little old red brick building.

On the opposite side of the Palace complex from where we’d been admiring the buildings was a gate. Earth was piled up to create a thin bridge across the moat to reach it and sentry gates guarded it. There was a little play/park area on our side of the moat complete with benches where we sat down to admire the view.

We found the gates to the garden just before we finished our three-hundred-and-sixty-degree circuit of the complex and immediately started exploring. The garden is made from layers; the walls of the complex divide it so that invaders would have a harder time trying to take the palace. We started on the uppermost level and made our way downward. At the entrance/exit of each new level was a guardhouse meant for samurai bodyguards of the imperial family.

On the lowest level was another Zen garden. Different from the first, it compromised of a small lake, fed by a waterfall, surrounded by trees and plants, that was spanned by a beautiful bridge. From the bridge you have a view of the waterfall and the water lilies whereas from the waterfall you have a view of the bridge and the early-blooming sakura trees. We took the opportunity once again to just sit and enjoy the peace of our surroundings.

Leaving the garden; a sad moment, you are once again struck by the place’s central-park-ness. You step out and you are back in the urban jungle, skyscrapers filling your sight, where only moments before you had been transported back to traditional Japan.

Sadly leaving the Imperial Palace behind us, we headed back to the Meiji Shrine at Harajuku. Like the area around the palace, Harajuku is very, very modern and so stepping through the gates and into the forest is like being transported into another world. The sound changes, becoming muted. The light changes from harsly bright into soft, dappled sunshine.  Hustle-and-bustle becomes peace and quiet. The tunnel-like feeling that the trees enforce is exactly like something out of ‘My Neighbour Totoro’. Lanterns along the path add to that feeling.

At the temple we were lucky enough to see a wedding procession; the groom was in black, the bride was in a white kimono and an attendant held a vividly red parasol above them. Guests followed behind in their kimonos as the procession lead through the central courtyard, into the temple and out of our sight. It is a beautiful place to get married, I think; you can honestly forget that you are in an enormous city – the whole place felt very spiritual and traditional.

Walking through the forest for a time, we came upon the ‘Treasure Museum’ and a martial arts centre. Sitting on the grass opposite them, we quite happily watched men in traditional dress walk by, holding traditional bows and arrows. Once again, we quite contentedly stayed there for a while and watched the world go by.
We met up with the others from the animation course at the hotel later, with the intention of spending our last evening in Tokyo together at Tokyo Tower. It was one of the few journeys during which we didn’t need to course-correct nor did we get lost; having an enormous lit-up tower as your destination certainly has its perks! Tokyo Tower is modelled after the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It is however taller and has been painted red and it does not have crazy queues of tourists to get to it.

Once again we were struck by Tokyo’s incredible vastness as the pinpoints of light from far-away windows stretched into the distance. Almost all of the taller buildings had pulsing red lights atop them to warn planes of their height, creating a red ripple effect across the city. Roads ran like great arteries in sweeping arcs creating an effect akin to a paintbrush-stroke across a canvas. It was a perfect and memorable final night in the city.

Well everyone, I hope you've enjoyed this series of posts about my adventures in Tokyo! If you want to hear about my visit to the Ghibli Museum, the article that I wrote is now up on Skwigly! Go check it out!