This is the first part of my Japan 2014 Pentalogy.
After dreaming of Japan for a decade, we finally landed on its shores. Though I’ve been on Japanese airports on a few occasions before, on connecting flights to and from the U.S., I never had the chance to be on “official” Japanese territory up until this trip.
Our entry point to Japan was the city of Osaka, Japan’s third largest city, and the focal point of Japan’s second largest metropolitan area in the central region of Kansai. A city of over 2.6 million people, Osaka is a bustling, vibrant commercial center with all the air of a modern mega-city, yet like what we usually read about Japan, it is also a blend of the ultra-modern, and a deep tradition. Here a reconstructed castle from the medieval times stands alongside the skyscrapers of a modern business distict, and its old shrines and narrow streets stand in contrast with its neon lights and extensive roads and railways.
Our first stop was Osaka Castle, which was just a few blocks from where we were staying. The original castle was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of medieval Japan’s “daimyo” or lords, more than four centuries ago. However, time took a heavy toll on the original structure as the castle was conquered, destroyed and rebuilt several times. Though the current castle that stands is just a replica of the original, made of modern concrete instead of the original materials, the castle still exudes a stately presence, and the expansive moats and large protective walls still give a very good impression of the castle’s strength and the role of warfare and the military during the time of the shoguns. The interior of the current replica is actually now a museum, complete with elevators that take visitors to the top level where one can get a bird’s eye view of the city.
Osaka Castle Park
Around the castle is a sprawling park. Accessible to the general public, the park attracts a lot of locals who go there to do physical exercises like jogging. We even came across children bathing in the park’s fountains, taking relief from the hot June sun. Visitors to the castle have to pass through the park, on their way from the nearest subway or train stations.
Around 40 minutes away by train from Osaka, still within the Kansai region, is the city of Kyoto. Kyoto was Japan’s imperial capital for several centuries, before the Emperor moved to Edo (current day Tokyo) in the late 1800’s. As such, Kyoto is still considered by some as the cultural centre of Japan.
Nijo Castle, within Kyoto, was a castle of the Tokugawa Shoguns (military rulers), who ruled Japan from around the 1500’s up to the late 1800’s when political power was handed back to the Emperor through the Meiji Restoration (before that, Japanese Emperors were considered spiritual leaders, but had little to no political functions, much like many modern day monarchs including that of current day Japan). Interestingly though, the Tokugawa Shoguns ruled from Edo and spent much of their time there, so for long periods, Nijo Castle was just a symbol of the Shogun’s presence.
The structure itself is made of wood, in the traditional Japanese style, and featured several large, empty rooms where the Shogun’s guests were received. Around it is a landscaped garden, one that looks like it’s taken from a Japanese painting. The castle complex is protected by thick stone walls on all four sides, and a moat.
The Imperial Palace in Kyoto
Though the official Japanese capital is now Tokyo, and the Emperor now officially resides there as well, the old Imperial Palace in Kyoto has continued to be maintained, and is still considered an active and functioning Imperial residence. Though visitors are allowed to enter and see some unrestricted parts of it, the whole area is extensively guarded by police, and appointments need to be arranged beforehand. As such, a packaged, guided tour is highly recommended for anyone who wants to see the palace grounds. Police officers escort visitors as they go around.
The Imperial Palace is a huge complex, and visitors are only allowed to see a small portion of it, though one of the most important areas, the throne room, is visible to visitors, but only from a distance. The arrangement is typical of oriental palaces, though in typical Japanese fashion, it is much more minimalistic than the likes of Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung, or Beijing’s Forbidden City.
*All photos taken June 2014, using an Olympus EPM2 with M.Zuiko 14-42mm IIR.