Deciding what to do on 2nd January was much easier. Every tourist visit to Tokyo must include a visit to the Imperial Palace – the central apex of the city, the epicentre, the palace within the garden within the moat within another garden within another moat within the Downtown district within the ever increasing circles of subway lines, malls and apartments that makes up most of Tokyo.

Of course you can’t go into the Palace grounds, you can only walk around the moats and explore the Eastern Palace Gardens. Usually. There are two days in the year where the gates are opened and the general population are allowed onto that sacred land. One is the Emperor’s Birthday (February 23rd, if you’re interested). The other is the date of his New Year Greeting to the Nation – January 2nd. Today.

Janna and I got up relatively early and were on our way to the station around 10.00 am. The emperor would make 5 public appearances between 11am and 3pm. It was expected (based on previous years) that over 100,000 people would be passing through the Palace grounds through those 5 precious hours. Obviously this needed to be a precision operation by the police to marshal and protect so many people and keep them moving in an orderly fashion.

Indeed, there were plenty of police on display, but not the huge numbers I would expect in a similar event in the UK or Russia. The Japanese people – and today it truly was the Japanese, not just those from Tokyo – are generally very placid, patient and well-behaved. There was a significant smattering of foreign visitors like ourselves in the queues but they took their lead from the locals and waited patiently.

There were lots of loudspeaker vans parked in the vicinity – whether commandeered by he authorities for public order, or simply waiting to take the opportunity to reach the kind of numbers of people usually unavailable to them in one spot, I don’t know. For now they were all parked up.

We almost erroneously joined the queue for the Apple store. I don’t know if there was a new product available or if it’s just a very popular store but the line for it was the first big line we saw after coming out of the station. However, the scale of such a mistake quickly became obvious. As we got closer to the palace, there were more and more people around us. A group of scouts handed out little paper Japan flags – we took one each. All the people were heading for the same place, we just went with the flow. The security checkpoint was surprisingly free-flowing – I didn’t have a bag, Janna’s was checked in an instant. I was stopped briefly by two men and a women in security uniforms who asked to let them pat me down – of the three it was surprisingly the woman who did the job (I’m not sure Janna noticed though!).

Then we saw the queues. There were 7 or 8 lanes marked out, about 70 metres each, and the first four were full of people. We were guided (politely) into lane 5. When we got near the front we saw 6 more lanes set up for people approaching from the south entrance, which all appeared full. And then there was the snake of people, stretching from one of the lanes (or sometimes two, one from each entrance filtering together), into yard in front of the Nijubashi gate (which I visited with Nick and Dee).

Behind us – far behind us – at the back of our queue, we could see a stream of people flowing out of the Palace grounds exit. Clearly the Emperor had already made his first appearance! We waited – watching other lines gradually empty, and getting excited when the lines adjacent to us also began emptying, but then getting impatient when it took so long for them to all make their way through.

We tried to work out the average speed of the snake. I spotted a pair of flourescent hats on the Nijubashi stone bridge – green and orange. We watched them bob their way along the bridge, then up to and through the gate, and then we waited to see how long before they reappeared on the iron bridge behind. Sure enough they both reappeared, close enough to each other to rule out coincidence or error, and less than 5 minutes after going through the gate. This line was moving pretty briskly.

And then suddenly almost without warning the line next to us was moving, and before long we were too! We snaked our way towards the bridges, like everyone else trying to pause just long enough to get a couple of pictures before the police told us off for dawdling. And then – very unlike my last visit – we were on the bridge, through the gate, and in the palace grounds!

Nijubashi is actually two gates, the stone bridge is the nearer one, but beyond the Nijubashi gate, the pathway pretty much just curves back on itself to the higher, further away iron bridge. The huge public area – a marshalling ground? – is in front of a relatively flat looking structure. It doesn’t look like a palace, or a castle at all from this angle, if anything it looks like a row of executive boxes at a sports stadium.

As we entered the huge yard – absolutely packed with people – the Emperor was already on the platform and speaking. I could only make him out by using the zoom of my camera, and that was only when I was able to stand still for a few seconds – the mass of people behind me was always pushing me forward – and avoid all the paper flags being waved by the people in front of me!

As the Emperor finished his remarks there was a huge rustle – something like 15,000 paper flags simultaneously being enthusiastically waved – and some cheers and shouts of “Banzai” (which, I have been told, means “1000 more years!”). It seems the one thing that can make Japanese people lose their calm, patient demeanour, it’s their Emperor. Well, him and sake.

The Japanese still believe their Emperors are descended from the gods. Their lineage can be reliably traced back to the 5th or 6th century beyond which there is no correlation in the historical record for the legendary figures with their divine origins. The Imperial family continued unbroken throughout the Samurai period even when they were token figureheads with no real power. After World War II, one of the conditions of armistice was that the Imperial family relinquish any claim to divinity to prevent the kind of god-like cult which led to suicidal soldiers laying down their lives for the glory of their ruler, one of the reasons the war in the East had been so difficult to win.

I didn’t want to try telling this audience that the guy on the platform wasn’t a god.

Gradually the far end of the yard began to thin out and we managed to maneuver ourselves right in the centre. By our estimate there was another 40 minutes before the Emperor was due to come out again, and I thought it would be a shame if our only glimpse of him was from so far out. I found myself standing behind a European looking man with a neck brace – taller than me which is generally unusual. Behind us were a couple of shorter Japanese women – I felt quite guilty at being so tall for a moment. Also in our vicinity was a policeman – they were spaced out among the crowd at regular intervals.

The reason for this became clear while we were waiting. Ahead of us I could see another policeman holding up his arms, and before long a couple of other officers were pushing through the crowd towards him. Some shouts went up and like the Red Sea, the crowds parted to form a pathway. After a moment of confusion as everyone bobbed up and down to see what was going on, one of the police officers came back up the pathway pushing a woman in a wheelchair. Behind her a couple of other less mobile older people were taking advantage of the express route.

It was quite a mild, sunny January day. There were clouds in the sky but every so often they would part enough that we were bathed in warm sunlight. There was certainly no mood of impatience in the crowd, just anticipation. Next to me was a man with several photographic devices trying to line them up to get the best shot with each. That was nothing compared to the huge bank of press photographers lined up on platforms at the back of the crowd.

There was a big screen off to the right which was showing a view of the crowd. A handful of people were waving flags around. I tentatively raised my flag to see if I could spot our position. To be absolutely certain, I raised both flags, then moved them in a rhythmic kind of semaphore dance. It seemed everyone around me was looking at me, or looking at the screen, and worked out what I was doing, and were quite delighted (because I had also spotted their positions). One guy even gave me a playful punch on the shoulder with a huge grin! Of course it helped that I was taller than almost everyone in the crowd, so my flags were easier to spot.

Suddenly the screen changed to tell us that the Emperor’s arrival was imminent. The crowd began getting excited by every glimpse of a subordinate scurrying along the glass-fronted corridor. The Imperial Family themselves would emerge from a doorway behind a screen in the centre – right in front of us.

And then out they came! Emperor Naruhito and his consort, Empress Masaka. The old Emperor and his wife. A handful of princes and princesses. Perhaps this was a special moment because the new Emperor had only been crowned last year so this was his first New Year Greeting. And it was unusual – unprecedented even – to see two Emperors sharing this platform, though it is something the crowds may get used to going forward.

Once more, the entire mass of people were waving their paper flags furiously, and cheering, and some more excitable men screaming “Banzai!” as loud as their vocal chords would allow. But they calmed down to listen to him speaking. I’ve no idea what he said, it was probably a similar kind of tone to the Queen’s Speech in the UK. Taking a picture was difficult, between the flags and the phalanx of arm-high mobile phones (not to mention the tall guy with the neck-brace), but I got one or two. I tried to duck down a little to give the small women behind me half a chance to get their picture too.

And then, with a final bunch of waves, the family trooped off back behind their screen. What they were doing for the 45-minutes or so between each appearance I have no idea. My personal theory is that they had a room full of Playstations set up, but I cannot verify this. We had no reason to hang about but clearly we weren’t going anywhere fast either, so we slowly and steadily traipsed along with the crowd, down the hill to the exit gate. Among the crowd were people holding placards, some of them in English, which basically said “slowly and carefully” as the downhill slope while not exactly steep, was neither the ideal gradient for huge crowds.

The crowd was splitting between the east exit (which would take us back to where we started) and the west exit, which would give us a little more opportunity to see the usually hidden palace grounds. So we went that-a-way. Truthfully there wasn’t much to see – more walls, moats, lawns and trees. We left the palace and segued into Kitanomaru Park. It had a pond. It had some parts of what used to be Edo Castle – the castle that helped found Tokyo as a major city, and the predecessor of the Imperial Palace. Next to it was a Budokan. I thought this might be where the Sumo wrestlers plied their trade, but no, it is for more mundane martial arts like Judo and Taekwondo. It was being renovated – probably for the Olympics.

We exited into a neighbourhood called Kudanshita – known to me only as a subway station on the Tozai line that I change at to head towards Shinjuku. But it seems quite nice – it has some sort of exhibition centre in the old Emperor’s name, it has an art museum, and we found a nice coffee shop to plan the rest of our day.

That plan turned out to be going to Shibuya and the “Scramble Crossing.” This time I remembered to look for the statue of the dog, Hachika. We walked through a few more shops – we found an exhibition of smart robot puppies which were cute, and we were invited to immerse ourselves in a giant mobile-phone-operated virtual backdrop screen set in the Antarctic where, for no obvious reason, it was raining penguins. We looked in many more clothes shops. We had a tasty dinner in a curry house in the basement of a department store. And then we went home.

Photos on Facebook

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