Twice a year it is possible for the public to enter the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. This happens on the Emperor`s birthday on the 23rd of December, and on the 2nd of January when the Emperor gives his New Year`s greeting. Coming from a country that doesn`t have a monarch (despite being so close to the UK), I found this type of spectacle fascinating, and I think my coworkers found it amusing that I was so excited about it. Well it`s not everyday one gets to see an Emperor! The day after New Year then, Karen, her aunt and I joined the herds at the Imperial Palace to hear one of the Emperor`s speeches. He makes six speeches during the day, fifty minutes apart. We were aiming for the one at 11 o`clock but we feared that because of the crowds we wouldn`t make it in time. However, we were in perfect time, arriving ten minutes beforehand, which meant we didn`t have to wait around for long.
People handing out paper Japanese flags at the entrance to the Palace. I can`t remember having ever waved a national flag before (I`m not really a flag waver), but the flag rustled when waved, and I felt like a child with a rattle so of course I waved it like mad. The majority of visitors were Japanese, probably tourists having come to Tokyo for the holidays. We had to pass through security where our bags and pockets were checked and water bottles were confiscated, and we passed decked-out Imperial guards marking out the way. We arrived at a courtyard from which we could see a balcony where the Emperor would address the crowd. Everyone in the crowd had the flags, and when the Emperor and Empress, flanked by the rest of the Imperial family took their place on the balcony, the air was filled with red dots.
What I found strange was the vocal silence with which the crowd greeted the Emperor, I expected yells and cheers, but you can hear on the video that the only sound was the furious rustle of the flags. It was the same at the Noto Marathon, when although the Japanese supporters would occasionally clap and shout words of encouragement, my friends and I were the only once wooping and yelling and generally making a lot of noise in an attempt to cheer on the runners. They probably found it very distracting, actually.
The Emperor, a cute little old man, gave a short speech that I didn`t understand but which my friend loosely interpreted as conveying solidarity for the victims of the disasters last year and hope for the coming year. When the Imperial family went back inside we were quickly shunted toward the exit of the Palace, presumably to allow the next lot of people to come and take our place in the courtyard. It was strange coming out of the old-world tradition of the Palace and to be faced with a skyline of high-rise offices. It`s another one of those incongruities that makes Japan so interesting to foreigners.
We went back to Ueno where we were enticed into a Viennese-style café by the plastic cake models they had outside. I should make the remark that this is a very common way for restaurants to advertise their dishes. They are very convincing, to the degree that I find it very disconcerting when the dishes are displayed balancing on their thin edge, with their contents firmly glued to the centre of the plate. The café was gloriously kitch, as not having visited Vienna, this is exactly how I would imagine a café there to look like. There were electric candles everywhere and waiters dressed in tartan waistcoats. We sat upstairs by the window so we had a good view onto the street down below that had been so busy on New Years Eve. It had calmed down now so it was pleasant to people-watch from our vantage point.
We moved on to Ueno Park which has many museums on its grounds, but we just wandered around, discovering a Salvation Army performance and an antique market. Karen treated herself by taking the train home, but my other friend Liz and I were cutting costs by taking the nightbus which is about a third of the price. Our bus wasn`t leaving until about eleven o`clock that night so we walked around Akihibara, or Electric Town, which is known for its electronics shops and as a centre of manga and anime culture.