While in Tokyo a few weeks ago, I finally visited & explored the former site of Edo Castle, the seat of power of the Tokugawa shogunate, today occupied by the Imperial Palace, and in particular the Eastern Imperial Gardens. Somehow I had had it in my mind that the Imperial Household had taken over portions of the castle, keeping them still-standing, or had at least built the Palace right over the former site of the shogun’s castle. I guess I should have realized the first wasn’t true, since I just read in Takashi Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy about how Edo Castle burned down in 1873, and the Imperial family relocated to the Akasaka Temporary Palace (today the Meiji Kinenkan, it would seem) until 1888, when the new Imperial Palace was completed. So, yeah, the palace that stands today is entirely a Meiji (or later) creation, not simply occupying the old shogunal castle. Not only that, but the Palace is not even built over the former site of the castle’s central areas, but is instead off to one side, with the former site of the castle’s honmaru (chief bailey) now converted into the Imperial Palace East Gardens, and easily accessible to the public. Though there is nearly nothing at all left to see today of the castle buildings, mostly just empty space, in a way, it’s arguably preferable that the Palace was not built atop the same castle site, since at least this way it’s publicly accessible (the in-use Palace buildings, of course, are not).
I found the tenshu dai – the surviving foundations of where the castle’s tower keep stood until 1657 – to be surprisingly small. Sure, it may look fairly sizable in this photo, but notice that it tapers – once you get to the top, and look at how far you can walk in any direction before you fall off, you realize the actual building that once stood here must have been pretty small. I realize that this was a multi-storeyed tower, and essentially chiefly just a visually impressive symbol and guardhouse – though the tenshu is the most iconic aspect of Japanese castles, in fact it did not house any residential or administrative functions; it was not, really at all, the chief structure of the castle’s operations. But, even so, it is surprising to me to see just how small it is, smaller than the front yard at my childhood home.
The honmaru, too, was surprisingly small. Okay, perhaps it can be easy to let our romanticized idea of the greatness of the shogunate (or of any regime, any state) blow our expectations out of proportion. But, even so, it seems quite small – what today is no more than an empty space of green is not so much larger than my backyard back home. And this relatively small area is supposed to have contained not only the entire Ôoku, but three audience chambers, a kitchen, and numerous connecting corridors. To look at the map given on the plaque displayed on-site, you’d think it was so much larger… It’s difficult, really, to properly imagine these buildings, with them being so absent. And yet, at the same time, at a site like Shuri Castle, which I visited a couple weeks later, and which comes to mind, as one walks through all these reconstructed rooms and buildings, it’s difficult, by contrast, to get a sense of the total amount of space, as you do by looking at this empty green space.
As the next chapter I’m working on takes place right here – it concerns the reception of Ryukyuan ambassadors in shogunal audience – and believing that Edo Castle still in a sense stands, because it’s become the Imperial Palace, it comes as something of a weird, interesting realization, to realize that it really doesn’t. Edo castle is gone, burned down in the 1870s and never rebuilt, and the Imperial Palace, though I know very little about what it actually looks like (there are apparently tours you can book; but surprisingly little scholarship on its architecture or decor), is an entirely separate set of structures, not even on the same site, but located in a different part of the grounds, and surely constructed with a much more Meiji than Edo aesthetic.
I am also surprised at the extent to which this feels like so many other castle sites I’ve been to. This is supposed to be the East Imperial Gardens. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad that they haven’t changed it over too much, that there are still identifiable spaces, empty though they may be, that can be pointed out as being the former site of this and that building, but it’s just that I thought they would have reformatted the grounds somehow, making them more thoroughly into “gardens,” rather than what we have, a lot of empty lawn, surrounded by bits of relatively natural-looking forest.
Two brief CG recreations of what Edo castle might have looked like, by YouTube user secondcoafujie.
It is a weird feeling to be standing here on this empty patch of grass – as empty as if it were Central Park’s Great Lawn – imagining that it was right on this spot that the Ôoku, the audience halls, and certain administrative buildings once stood, and where *so much* went on. The list of prominent figures who had walked this space, right here, right on this spot, at one time or another only 150-300 years ago, includes all sorts of super big-name functionaries, from Arai Hakuseki and Matsudaira Sadanobu to Tanuma Okitsugu and Ii Naosuke, not to mention every shogun, and indeed just about every top-ranking daimyô. Korean, Dutch, and Ryukyuan emissaries were received in these audience halls, and every major Ôoku figure – wives and concubines of the shoguns – from Kasuga no Tsubone to Atsuhime/Tenshôin would have spent a good proportion of their lives within these walls. Yet, still, impactful as that idea is, it’s still very difficult to even feel “imagine who walked these halls,” because the halls, the walls, the very floors, are no longer there at all.
I hope next time I’m in Tokyo to remember to book an Imperial Palace tour. I haven’t even done that in Kyoto, either. I did, however, visit the Sannomaru Shôzôkan, the Imperial Collections Museum. It’s a very small gallery, displaying only one temporary special exhibit at a time, but the Imperial collections are, as might be expected, pretty incredible. This summer, up through Sept 28, they were showing a number of scroll paintings by Tanaka Yûbi, depicting events and accomplishments in the lives of Iwakura Tomomi and Sanjô Shigetomi, two very prominent Meiji figures. Because the works are relatively new (only about 100-120 years old), and because they’ve been in the Imperial Collections, being well-cared for all that time, these scrolls were in stunningly good condition, with just gorgeous, beautiful bold colors. I wish I could have taken photos. There is a catalog, however, and much more easily obtainable than those at the Reimeikan or Shôkoshûseikan – a rest area in the gardens / park, just outside the museum, had quite a few catalogs for sale, and in fact, on sale, at reduced prices, so I picked up quite a few of them, along with historical maps of the castle grounds.
The Higashi Gyôen (East Imperial Gardens) are closed on Mondays and Fridays, but are otherwise open to the public during the days, for free, no reservation or Imperial/Kunaichô registration required. Simply enter via any of several of the castle/palace gates.