Imperial Palace East Garden

These are some photos from M’s camera that we took way back in April but completely forgot about in all the excitement. A part of the Imperial Palace was open for the first time in 70-odd years so we went along to have a look, saw the queues, and went to the East Garden instead, which was probably just as nice anyway.

There were some gorgeous cherry blossoms out in full bloom:

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As well as many other kinds of wildflowers. It’s a great place for a lunch.

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There was also this guy:

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Imperial Palace

From Shinjuku, I walked all the way across Tokyo to the Imperial Palace near Tokyo Station. It’s quite a nice walk, basically a straight line and not nearly as far as you might think. Central Tokyo is actually more long and narrow and you can get from one side to the other in about an hour’s walk. The Imperial Palace is the site of the former Edo Castle, once the biggest in the world, of which the moat, some of the stone walls and guard houses still remain. It is now the official residence of the Imperial family and comprises a huge park and gardens in the very centre of Tokyo, although only the outer gardens are accessible to the public. At one stage during the bubble years of the 1980s, the real estate value of the Palace grounds was put at more than all of California.

The moat around the Imperial Palace:

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Sakuradamon Gate:

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Palace gardens:

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Nijubashi Bridge:

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Mt Takao Hike

We went for a short hike on the weekend up Mt Takao. It’s easy to see why this got 3 stars in the Michellin Guide – there’s not many other major world cities where less than two hours on the train, and still technically within the city, you can find yourself walking up mountain trails. We went on Trail #6 which runs along a small stream, so it was wonderful to escape the summer heat if only for a short time (though not the humidity!).

Getting into the spirit of it (recently trail running has become popular):

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The Seven Gods of Luck stand watch:

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The start of the trail proper:

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The mountain was a popular pilgrimmage site – devotees would stand under the waterfall and pray:

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Ladies enjoying a day out:

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The mountain is covered with old growth forest – amazing that it’s actually inside the City of Tokyo:

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There are stepping stones up the middle of the stream:

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 Camouflage:

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Summer flowers along the trail:

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View from the top of the mountain:

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And then back to the concrete city…

Kanda Festival

The Kanda matsuri was held in Tokyo on Sunday for the first time in four years. The main festival is held every odd numbered year but was not held in 2011 due to the earthquake that year so this year it made a welcome return. It is one of three the largest festivals in Japan and on the Sunday locals carry mikoshi, portable shrines, through the streets around the Kanda Myoujin Shrine.

Keeping a stern eye on things:

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Getting things ready:

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It’s all a bit much for some:

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Some of the mikoshi are quite lavish:

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Some are pulled on carts:

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But most are hoisted onto shoulders:

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Happi coat:

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For young and old:

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All the mikoshi go through the main shrine:

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And are paraded in front of the main hall:

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To receive a blessing:

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Enjoying the show:

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The mikoshi are then taken out to their local areas:

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Yushima Tenjin

We went to Yushima Tenjin shrine near Ueno in Tokyo on the weekend for their annual plum-blossom festival. It’s been so unusually cold in Japan this year that even though the festival is supposed to finish at the end of this week the blossoms are only about 40% open. The shrine was originally established in 458AD and is now dedicated to a 神 (kami – god/spirit) of learning so often school children come before entrance examinations.

As usual, there are lots of food stalls in front of the shrine:

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The main hall:

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Before the exams, children (or often the parents!) come to give an offering for success. People write their wishes on small wooden boards, called ema, which are later burnt:

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There’s also a tradition that if you make 1000 paper cranes then your wishes will come true. Here you can see long colourful strings of cranes:

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There was also a stage set up with performances of traditional music:

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The taiko drumming requires a lot of concentration:

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There was also traditional dance:

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We weren’t the only ones enjoying the festivities:

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The highlight was display of plum blossoms, even if it was still a bit early:

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There is a small garden in the shrine which is quite pleasant (if of course crowded!) to stroll around with a cup of hot amazake:

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Happy New Year from Meiji Jingu shrine!

A traditional start to the new year is hatsumode (初詣), or first shrine visit. Around 12 million people visit the top five shrines around the country visit to pray for good luck throughout the coming year. It’s also not only for good luck. Many shrines specialise and people come to pray for everything from help in passing exams to having a baby. To keep the good luck with them throughout the year, omamori (お守り), or good luck charms, can be bought from the shrines. You’ll often see school children with them hanging from their bags. What is also little known is that after the exams, or whatever it was bought for, the omamori is supposed to be brought back to the same shrine and thanks given:

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The most popular shrine in Japan for the new year visit is Meiji Jingu in Harajuku, Tokyo. In fact, 3 million people visit Meiji Jingu shrine alone in the first three days of the year. Sake barrels, donated by corporate sponsers, line the route to the main shrine:

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This is the main torii entrance to the shrine:

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This year’s Chinese zodiac symbol is the snake (much to M’s horror as she hates snakes!) and you’ll see images of them everywhere this year:

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Lantern on the front gate to the shrine:

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This is the main hall of the shrine:

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People lining up to pay their respects:

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After praying at the shrine, many people buy a fortune paper to see what’s in store for the year:

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Or buy a hamaya (破魔矢), literally ‘demon destroying arrow’, to keep you safe in 2013:

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Kyu-Furukawa Teien

At the Northern end of the Yamanote Line in Tokyo, near Komagome station, is Kyu-Furukawa Teien house and gardens. The house was built in 1917 by Josiah Conder, a British architect who worked in Japan and a big influence on Japanese architecture, and has an English style rose garden. Below that, is a Japanese garden laid out by a famous designer from Kyoto. After all that was razed during the war and the subsequent building frenzy of the 1960s and 70s, it’s nice to see that some old buildings remain.

This is the approach down to the Japanese garden:

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Admiring the Autumn colours:

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There is a small lake (pond?) at the centre of the garden:

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Autumn berries:

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The house:

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And rose garden:

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Mt Takao

On the western edge of Tokyo city there is an oasis of greenery amoung the grey: Mt Takao. A sacred mountain for over 1000 years, it’s amazing that an area with a network of hiking trails through wooded slopes lies within metropolitan Tokyo. It was awarded 3-stars in the Japan Michelin guide and apparently holds the Guinness record for the most climbed mountain in the world.

Unfortunately, when we went last weekend, it seemed they all decided to come at once. As the cable-car more resembled Shinjuku station, we joined the crowds shuffling up the hill:

Luckily, there were some jizo statues to keep watch over everyone:

Now that the haze of summer has started to clear, there are some great views back over Tokyo along the way:

On the way to the top of the mountain is the temple Yakuoin.  The sacred deities associated with the temple are tengus which have either long noses or beaks:

I’m not sure who this little guy is:

The main hall of Yakuoin:

The temple is richly decorated and colourful:

Temple priest. They blow horns made of giant conch shells that echo around the mountain:

Around a smaller out-building of the temple are a series of small jizo statues. If you can manage to place a 5-yen coin on the heads of all of them you will have good luck:

Although it can get a bit tricky:

Of course, the real reason for the hordes of walkers is the autumn leaves (and the fact it was on TV that week). They really are quite spectacular:

And another view from the top across Tokyo: