My day on the 8th of March 2019 began with yet another early start and yet another visit to my by then favourite cafeteria in Tokorozawa, Bell Teco! I had a scheduled visit on the afternoon that I couldn't miss, so I preferred to sight-see on my my own for this one.
I headed to the Imperial Palace area, the neural centre of Tokyo, right behind Tokyo Station. Unlike the previous day, the sun had risen undisturbed, not a single cloud covered the sky. It was a very pleasant morning which made it feel like spring was coming, and it wouldn't be long until everything bloomed.
The current Tokyo Imperial Palace (皇居, Kōkyo) dates from the aftermath of World War II, as it was totally destroyed by American bombing raids. However, it is erected exactly on the site of the former Edo Castle, built by the first shōgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康) who decided, in 1603, to establish Tokyo as the capital of the newly unified Japan. 15 generations of Tokugawas would tightly rule Japan during 284 years in what is known as the Edo Period, a regime of centralised military government with complete autarky, strict reverence for the Japanese customs and religion and isolationism from the Western world, with the exception of the Dutch, Japan's only allowed Western trading partner. Severe and intolerant as it was, it was the first time Japan had a long period of political stability.
The Imperial Palace is the official residence of the current Emperor Akihito and his family. The figure of the Emperor has been maintained throughout Japanese history, his role being more or less factually powerful, so Akihito is, with proven evidence, heir of an unbroken dynasty that started in 509 AD. The legend of his dynasty goes back much further to the 3rd century BC, and he is said to be the 125th Emperor so far. In any case, 1,500 years of a ruling dynasty is surely one of the longest in the world!
Central Tokyo has been subject to extreme urban development throughout the decades and it currently hosts most headquarters of Japanese companies. This is why there is a beautiful contrast between the ultramodern skyscrapers of Central Tokyo and the traditional Japanese architecture of the Kōkyo.
I wanted to enter the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, a public and free park accessible to visitors all day long. However, it is closed on Fridays, so instead I just walked around the wide moat that surrounds the palace grounds, taking in its beauty, its cleanliness and the warmth of the sunshine.
As I walked around the main moat I went trough Kitanomaru Park (北の丸公園), north of the Imperial Palace, a calm and delightful stroll amongst the caws of huge Japanese crows and the new-born flowers of spring.
I then exited Kitanomaru Park and made my way into one of the most important and arguably most controversial of Tokyo's temples: Yasunuki Jinja (靖國神社). This shintō shrine was founded in 1869 by Emperor Meiji, the absolute monarch that ascended to power after the abdication of the last Tokugawa shōgun, a ruler who led Japan into a rapid modernisation process after centuries of feudalism and isolationism.
The shrine was built to commemorate those who died in service for Japan in each of its many wars. And I say it is controversial because the shrine lists the names, origins, birth dates and places of death of 2,466,532 men, women and children, among those 1,068 convicted war criminals, some of them Japanese army leaders directly responsible for dreadful atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre of late 1937.
Still, the precinct is impressive and soberly beautiful, with chrysanthemums aplenty, as could be expected from an Imperial Shrine.
While I was exploring Yasunuki Shrine I overheard a mystic and thrilling melody. Guided by its sound, I arrived at a pavilion located at an edge of the main court where two girls and a boy were rehearsing a Noh (能) performance, one of the oldest styles of theatre in Japan still alive, dating from the 14th century. Although there was a grumpy-looking guard patrolling, I managed to record one of the songs they performed. I was stunned by the ability of the boy to move ever so slowly!
I was starving by now, so I decided to take the subway and head to nearby, cosmopolitan Ginza (銀座) to try a restaurant recommended in my travel guide.
And it didn't disappoint me! Torigin Honten (鳥ぎん本店) is a yakitori (焼き鳥) place tucked away in an unnamed side alleyway off one of many Ginza's avenues, its presence announced only by a red lantern and its entrance hidden in a basement. Therefore, you wouldn't come across it unless you were told about it, or you knew of its existence beforehand. Yet the place was so busy there was a queue to dine in! Fortunately, as I was on my own, I didn't have to wait long and I was promptly seated at the counter, where I could see a sweaty chef roasting what seemed like a hundred of different kinds of skewers over firewood, at only 170円 (£1.15) a piece.
I looked around and I was the only Westerner in the restaurant. I had a look at the menu and I understood why:
Nevertheless, I caught the attention of the waitress and tried out the sentence I had been rehearsing for a while:
(Sumimasen, Eigo no menyu arimasu ka?)
Excuse me, do you have a menu in English?
Turns out they had one! Only one laminated copy for the whole restaurant of course haha. I ordered one of their set lunch deals with grilled chicken, delicious and inexpensive, as well as a shiitake skewer, with complimentary all-you-can-drink green tea, for only 930円 (£6.30)!
Very satisfied with my meal, I then headed to my only arranged plan for the day: a visit to the Ghibli Museum in nearby Mitaka, west of Tokyo. My allocated time slot was 4pm and I knew it was quite a famous sightseeing spot, so I couldn't be late!
The museum itself is as beautiful and mesmerising as any of the movies from the magical animation studio.
The whole building is conceived as yet one more setting for one of their movies, and it is focused on the making-off process of their films. It's also got a small theatre where they project one of their short movies, in my case Mizugumo Monmon (水グモもんもん), a very sweet and dialogue-free love story between a diving bell spider and a water strider. Finally they also have a cafeteria and a very overpriced souvenir shop.
I did enjoy the experience, but I found it very crowded even with the time-slot system, which detracts a bit of its magic. Most importantly, I was quite dissatisfied about the exhibits being in Japanese only, in spite of the fact that the majority of visitors were from overseas! Still, for an admission fee of only 1,000円 (£7), it was hard to complain.
They didn't allow pictures inside the museum, but I managed to catch a nice sunset from its rooftop garden, with one of the guardian robots from the hilariously-named - if you are a Spanish speaker - Ghibli film Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
I finally headed to back to Shinjuku, as I wanted to complete my nerdy day with a visit to Artnia, the official store of Square Enix, creators of the Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts and Dragon Quest videogames series.
After exiting Shinjuku Station I came across a couple of street performers who played and sang music much more modern than the Noh I saw earlier that day, but they were amazingly good! I wouldn't be surprised if they made it to Japan X Factor, if there is such a thing. One of their songs here!
Artnia is is a very modern low-rise building with a busy cafeteria serving videogame-themed food and drinks and a wide selection of souvenirs, as overpriced as the ones in the Ghibli Museum, if not more! Still, I couldn't help getting a Blu-ray of the London Symphonic Orchestra playing the most symphonic soundtracks of FF.
A yummy burger nearby after visiting the Square Enix shop and I was ready to go back and meet up with Yuta after an interesting day spent on my own!