Not many tourists to Japan know this little snippet but with some prior planning, anyone could apply to attend a free tour of the Tokyo Imperial Palace (皇居). This is also the only way to tour the interior of the palace grounds apart from 2 Jan (New Year’s Greetings) and 23 Dec (Emperor’s Birthday), when the palace grounds would be open and the public could catch glimpses of the Imperial Family. Click here to get to the website for more information. There is an English version of the website so everything is pretty much self-explanatory. Just remember to bring your approval letter and passports with you on the day of the tour, and be early taking into consideration that you might need some time to locate the correct gate (Kikyomon Gate) to enter the imperial palace. We were almost late and it wasn’t fun getting rushed around. The guards at the gate are very strict about punctuality; you will not be allowed inside the palace premise if you are late.
We were gathered at a large waiting room (Someikan) prior to commencement of the tour. At one glance, it seemed like we were the only foreigners in the whole group of like… 50-80 of us? The tour was going to be conducted in Japanese so we selected English for the multi-lingual audio guide we were assigned. Then the lights dimmed and we sat through a rather long presentation (or film, I can’t remember) on the history of the Tokyo Imperial Palace. It couldn’t capture our attention at all. I cannot remember very clearly now but it could be that we couldn’t understand the whole thing, and no subtitles was provided.
[Fujimi-yagura (Mt. Fuji-view Keep) was one of the buildings we came across at the start of the tour.
Also known as the ‘Eight-Sided Keep’, it supposedly appears to be of the same shape no matter which angle it is viewed from.]
So you could imagine how glad we were when we finally moved off some 20 minutes later. We were made to walk in doubles, told to keep in line and not to stray from the group. The rules are rather regimented but I guess it is necessary since the Imperial Family are possibly still staying in the palace? It did take away some of the fun though, having a poker-faced guide who kept barking at us to keep up with the rest of the group (some of us photographers at the back were lagging behind).
[Chowadan Reception Hall is one of the seven wings of the Imperial Palace complex.
On 2 Jan and 23 Dec, the Imperial family stands on a temporary balcony erected outside the corridor of this hall
while the visitors to the palace are gathered in the large plaza in front of the Chowadan Hall.]
[Fushimi-yagura Keep that once stood on the grounds of the Fushimi Castle in Kyoto but was
dismantled and reassembled here during the period under the reign of the 3rd Shogun Iemitsu.]
Honestly, the tour bored us to tears. We were expecting to see more, have more freedom and more time for photo stops. Perhaps this is the reason why the free tour is not widely known to foreigners. If it were interesting and informative, many should be flocking to be part of the tour. Instead we just saw many domestic tourists. Although I’d heard that the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace is beautiful and most definitely worth visiting, we were too bored and listless after the tour to continue with this second part of the tour. We decided to opt out instead. Not most of the domestic tourists from our group though. After the toilet break, they enthusiastically went on for the tour of the East Gardens. Wished we shared half their enthusiasm.
Took a final look at the Imperial Palace (Kikyomon Gate is the building structure at the far end in the picture) before we proceeded to the nearest train station to get to Ginza (銀座). It was way past noon time and we were hungry. We were on a mission to locate a famous Yakitori restaurant but even after walking round and round the few streets we could not locate it. Hungry and miserable, we gave up the search and walked into the first restaurant serving reasonably priced food. No pictures, and I can’t even remember what we had. It was probably a place we wanted to get out of quickly because it was too crowded. Afterall it was lunch hour.
As we walked along the main shopping street in Ginza, we saw a long queue and our curiosity were piqued. So, we got nearer and found out the Japanese (mostly ladies) were queueing for Baumkuchen, a traditional layer cake in many European countries, notably Germany. I was quite sure the Baumkuchen trend was new in Tokyo back in 2008 therefore the massive interest resulting in a crazy queue. Subsequently when we revisited in 2009, 2010, and 2011… the queue remained that long. So I’m not quite sure about that anymore.
One of our last stops in Ginza was Mitsukoshi’s (三越) supermarket. We saw another long queue, and got curious again. This Mon Chou Chou, I am certain, was new to Tokyo then. And because the roll looked so delicious, I fell to temptation and started queueing, much to the mister’s dismay. If you thought the queue at the Baumkuchen place was long, you haven’t seen anything yet. This queue was probably thrice as long. And I really love the Japanese customer service; they are always concerned with freshness of their products. I was asked how long it would take for me to get home, and they added ice packs to the thermal bag accordingly.
E had to clock in extra hours at the office that evening so we were very much left to our own devices. We strolled slowly to Tokyo Tower after arriving at Kamiyacho Station. By the time we arrived it was close to 9 pm so we chose not to scale to the top of the tower. I cannot remember why the decision but if I could hazard a guess, it was probably too late. Another trip was in order but we did settle a quick dinner at the cafeteria located on the ground level of the tower. My Ramen with its piping hot soup cost merely 800¥ while the mister chose to have his favourite fast food for dinner.
The thing with Ramen in Japan is, every single stall I ever come across sells equally delectable Ramen no matter how nondescript or rundown the stall or shop is. Alas, the same can’t be said of Ramen available in Singapore.
Now, back to why the mister was miserable when I queued for the roll. You see, the roll came in a roll, not in small pieces. He was fully aware that his missus would not be able to finish the roll by herself. Spot on! That night, the mister and E were coerced (by me) to have some of the roll. I swear it’s a men’s thing, because both were not fans of the roll. I, on the other hand, was positively basking in cake heaven. 😆