My last day in Kyōto started with a frugal breakfast and a meeting with Satsuki-san again, as we were to spend our last day together. On that day we were going to visit the Imperial Palace, or Kyōto Gosho (京都御所). This had been the Japanese Emperor's official residence throughout the Edo period, when he was sidelined, but let to his own devices, by the Tokugawa warlords. The palace was home to the Emperor and his family until 1868, when Emperor Meiji moved his residence to Tōkyo.
The complex was to a great extent rebuilt in 1855, following a disastrous fire. In the past, it was only possible to visit it with scheduled guided tours that you had to book well in advance. More recently, however, visitors are welcome to explore the gardens of the palace and the buildings from the outside. Most indoor spaces are still out-of-bounds.
As we crossed the main gate we ventured into the delicately maintained Japanese gardens, which by now had the cherry trees in almost full bloom. It was so pleasant and relaxing to wander around so much greenery and bright hues. I was surprised it was quite empty despite being one of Kyōto's major attractions.
It seems that we had visited on a special day, because there were parts of the Imperial Palace that Satsuki-san had never seen himself, normally closed off to visitors, but on that day they were welcoming wanderers. He was more excited than I was about it! One of the things he had never seen was a richly ornamented oxcart which was on display. Doing some research online it seems it is used during Kyōto's matsuris (祭) or festivals, but it is otherwise kept safe in one of the many chambers of the palace.
There is a main courtyard at the centre of the palace that is of particular relevance in Japanese history:
It is in this square, after the red gate, where traditionally the enthronement of Japanese emperors took place.
As I explained during my visit to the current home of the Emperor in Tōkyo, the Chrysanthemum Throne is the world's oldest hereditary monarchy. The current ruler Naruhito, who was only enthroned last year, can trace his lineage back 96 generations with historical certainty, and up to 125 generations if he includes the primitive, semi-legendary first Emperors of Japan. This means, there has been an uninterrupted succession of Japanese Emperors of the same blood for at least 1,500 years.
Each emperor chooses a name for their rule, a name that is a wish for their nation and a declaration of intentions for their emperorship. For example, the emeritus Emperor Naruhito, who reigned from 1989 until his abdication in 2019, had chosen his era to be called Heisei (平成 ), which translates as 'peace everywhere'. His son Naruhito has chosen instead Reiwa ( 令和 ), meaning 'beautiful harmony'.
The symbolic power of the Emperor is so engrained in Japanese society that their traditional calendar system resets the year count to zero following the succession of each new Emperor. For example, in Japanese national ID cards, someone born in my year (1992) would have as their year of birth 平成 2年 (2nd year of the Heisei era). Meanwhile, someone born four years earlier in 1988 would have 昭和62年 (62nd year of the Showa era). Weird, ain't it? I have very fond memories of the face of terror of bouncers at club doors in Pennsylvania as they tried to decipher the puzzle of my Japanese friends' ID documents.
Allegedly descended from Amateratsu ( 天照 ) herself, Shinto goddess of the Sun and the universe, Japanese Emperors were so holy and mighty common folk were not worthy of ever laying eyes on them. Only a handful of very close high-rank officials and relatives ever got sight of the Emperor. This started to change, albeit only timidly, at the time of the current Emperor's great-grandfather's, Yoshihito, whose era Taishō (大正 ) was the first one to hold a public enthronement ceremony in 1915 (see the picture above).
As Japan's imperial might waned at the late stages of WW2, the Emperor was forced to intercede. Only days after the devastating American nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the then Emperor Hirohito addressed his nation by radio on 15 August 1945. In a brief speech named the 'Jewel Voice Broadcast', or Gyokuon-hōsō (玉音放送), for the first time in history Japanese people had the privilege of hearing the voice of an Emperor, who concisely announced Japan's unconditional surrender following the atrocities in the aforementioned cities.
Such an enduring dynasty couldn't do without a bunch of extravagant regalia. One of the treasures kept in Kyōto's Imperial Palace is the Takamikura (高御座), the so-called Chrysanthemum Throne.
It was built for the enthronement of Emperor Taishō in 1912, a wooden gazebo-like structure built upon a floating platform, richly emblazoned with golden leaf and brimming with Shinto deities. Note how the throne itself is a simple chair, which speaks to the overarching austerity of the Japanese lifestyle, but note as well the fact that the gazebo has silk curtains which are drawn to preserve the sacred sight of the Emperor from normal human beings. You can see the tip of a twin throne to the right, this is the Michodai ( 御帳台 ), which is for the Empress.
Unexpectedly, there is no crown for the Emperor of Japan. The only regalia in common with Western monarchies is a sword, the other two being a mirror and a jewel. They symbolise three primary virtues: value, wisdom and benevolence, respectively. Unlike the Crown Jewels of many Western nations, the Japanese Imperial Regalia are shrouded in mystery: allegedly they are gifts of the gods themselves, so they are kept in secret locations and they have never been seen publicly; they are only displayed to the Emperor at the moment of his enthronement.
Anyway, going back to my visit. After exploring the palace we were feeling peckish so we decided to stop for lunch at the palace's cafeteria. I had agreed with my friend Risa that she would join us then, so when I causally mentioned it to Satsuki-san all of a sudden he was quite unnerved! I reassured him that Risa was such a laid-back girl, but to him it seemed as if we were having a private audience with the Empress!
When she arrived we hugged warmly while Satsuki-san bowed profusely and nervously and used extremely polite words to make her acquaintance. The lunch was hilarious, seeing how Satsuki-san was excited like a young lad trying to get to make a good first impression on my rather unimpressionable friend Risa.
After lunch Satsuki-san and I parted, really thankful for his company in Kyōto. The afternoon and evening I spent it with Risa, exploring the neighbourhood of Gion ( 祇園 ), the 'red-light district' where still nowadays if you are lucky you can catch a sight of a geisha on their way to a private performance.
Risa and I had to bid each other farewell before dinner, as she had somewhere else to be. I was upset, because it had taken us 5 years to meet again, and I didn't know when we could ever repeat this. She knew it too, so we just melted into a long, unhurried hug and we promised each other to keep in touch. I sat by the water in the pleasant spring night as I watched her walk away, ready as usual to get on with her life.
I was to spend one last night in Kyōto, but it would no longer be in the capsule hotel. For this last one I managed to secure a Couchsurfing host - his name was Makoto. He lived on the western side of the city, so I made my way to the subway to get near his place. In his profile picture in CS he wore a helmet and stood next to a big sports motorbike, so I was expecting to meet a big bad-ass Japanese guy. Instead, the guy that picked me up from the the subway station exit was a small, super cute young boy in his early 20s, his face so soft and delicate he could have been a model or a J-Pop singer!
We went to his house to drop my backpack. It was a tiny student studio: the living room was also a dining room and kitchen, and he had a bunk bed where I would spend the night. He was a student and he himself had backpacked quite a lot for his age, so he engaged in CS to keep meeting foreign people and practising his English. I asked him to take me to a local restaurant for dinner and he chose a very local izakaya where there was so much smoke from cigarettes it was actually hard to get a nice, clear picture taken!
A memorable thing that I took with me from my brief encounter with Makoto is that he explained to me that his name (誠) meant 'sincerity' in Japanese. I remember thinking that perhaps sincerity is one of the most important virtues you can find in a person, so I understood his parents named him after something they wished plenty of in his life, which was just beginning. Just like an Emperor chose his future hope for his country as a name for his era.
With this night, I was saying goodbye to Kyōto, to old friendships reunited and to new ones just recently forged. I was to carry on my journey, making my backpack pleasingly heavier with the kindness of more and more people along the way. My next destination: the sacred mountain of Koya-san!