Many consider Chiyoda the heart of Tokyo, and no wonder. The ward pumps lifeblood in and out with circadian regularity.
During working hours, Chiyoda’s population swells to an estimated 850,000 people who pulse through the business arteries of Yurakucho, Marunouchi, and Akihabara. By midnight, the place empties and a mere 40,000 or so are left catching their Zs here. No other ward approaches this degree of flux.
“Chiyoda would like to increase its number of residents, to boost income from real estate and individual taxes,” says Shoko Matsumura, 23-year resident of the ward and chief manager of Matsumura Kaikei Jimusho, a tax accounting office in Kudankita. “The problem is Chiyoda’s very expensive, and even with the nice parks, there are so many tall buildings that sometimes I feel I can only see a tiny piece of the sky.”
For centuries, present-day Chiyoda was practically nothing but sky, an elevated plateau of land in the little fishing village of Edo (literally “coastline opening,” or estuary).
In 1457, Gen. Ota Dokan, following the edicts of his Uesugi clan superiors, designed and built a fort that would put Edo in a new category of real estate. Ota deemed the surrounding marshes good protection from attack, and his unobstructed view of Mount Fuji from the fort worth protecting.
By 1590, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had become the de facto ruler of Japan. Hoping to keep his dangerously powerful ally Tokugawa Ieyasu occupied and distracted far from the capital of Kyoto, Hideyoshi presented Ieyasu with land in the fertile Kanto plain and suggested that he build his castle in Edo.
Ieyasu promptly built a castle with impressive moats and walls so massive that some are still standing, having proven impervious to earthquakes, fires and bombings through the centuries.
Perhaps Ieyasu knew that if he built it, the capital would come. By 1603, it did, and the Tokugawas ruled until the Meiji Restoration designated the grounds Imperial in 1868.
These days in Chiyoda Ward, to get around, you have to go around. Around the Imperial grounds, that is, which currently occupy the central 12 percent of Chiyoda’s land. One way to walk the ward is to join athletic Tokyoites and tourists who jog the 5-km course circumnavigating the palace, called ko-kyo in Japanese. While the imperial residence is a natural focal point for shutterbugs, many of Chiyoda’s other highlights are visible from the inner moat route.
Sakuradamon, the main ceremonial gate of the palace and the starting point for numerous marathons, including the Tokyo Marathon 2007 coming up Feb. 18, is right next to the nation’s governmental nucleus in Kasumigaseki.
The faithfully restored 1895 red-brick Ministry of Justice building, designed by German architects Wilhelm Bockmann and Hermann Ende, and the National Diet building in neighboring Nagatacho, epitomize the grander options in governmental architecture.
The 1930s-built National Diet building, with its little striped “hat,” was built entirely of indigenous materials and is dramatically illuminated at night. The House of Representatives occupies the left wing, and the House of Councilors the right wing, where tour guides point out the chrysanthemum-adorned Imperial throne from which the Emperor delivers his annual speech outlining the year’s political agenda.
Heading north past Hanzomon brings into focus the elegant British Embassy and nearby Chidorigafuchi Moat, both prime spots for viewing sakura (cherry blossoms). Nearby is the gunboat-grey, massive steel torii of Yasukuni Shrine, where 2.5 million war dead — including indicted war criminals — are enshrined.
Horses, dogs and homing pigeons that perished in war efforts are also memorialized, and a pricey new museum called Yushukan that displays war relics, including a World War II Zero fighter, Ohka “kamikaze” glider and Kaiten “suicide” torpedo. Walls covered with black and white portraits of some who perished in this war, as well as achingly personal final letters written before death, put the great losses of war in contrast to the machinery that keeps it in motion.
Around the bend, Kitanomaru Koen is home to both the Nippon Budokan Hall and the Science and Technology Museum. Built as a stadium for martial arts, the Budokan hosted a Beatles concert in 1966 and major rock and pop acts still appear there.
Likewise, the science museum sometimes serves double duty; they held a bargain clothing sale the day I visited. And the third floor exhibit “Gas Quest,” features an interactive figurine aptly known as “Methane Boy.” Push the correct knob (hint: it’s CH4) for a petite payoff.
East of Kitanomaru lies Kanda district, divided into distinctive subdivisions such as Kanda-Jinbocho, packed with rare books dealers, literary agencies and publishers, and Kanda-Surugadai, near Ochanomizu Station, the place to shop for musical instruments.
Kanda was once on land higher than Edo Castle, so Tokugawa flattened the area, using the earth to fill in marshy areas of the city. Ensuing Tokugawa shoguns also dug the water-supply canal now called Kanda River, effectively dividing Kanda into Uchi (inside the canal) and Soto (outside). Soto-Kanda today is dominated by “Electric Town” Akihabara, currently experiencing a drastic face lift to suit its IT image. Though the station department store has closed, “Akiba” still harbors fascinating warrens of shops flogging electronic goods, games, a-nime-related stuff, and fetishistic maid bars.
Though its first home was Otemachi, Kanda Myojin (built in 730), a concrete replica of the original flamboyant shrine, fits right in the neighborhood. Sporting nearly as many colors as the number of figures it honors — among them Daikokusama, Ebisusama, 10th century rebel Taira no Masakado, and even the fictitious police hero of a TV series, Zenigata Heiji — the shrine also sells IT and anime omamori (protective talisman). The hugely popular Kanda Matsuri festival, held mid-May on odd-numbered years only, begins here.
Strolling toward Otemachi, past the Mainichi, Nippon Keizai, and Yomiuri newspaper offices, as well as the Communications Museum, the redbrick Marunouchi side of Tokyo Station, modeled after Amsterdam’s Central Station and now in midrestoration, appears.
Newly appointed ambassadors to Japan may choose to ride from Tokyo Station to the palace grounds in a horse-drawn carriage for the Ceremony of the Presentation of Credentials to the Emperor. On the day I toured the palace grounds — an honor for which one must apply for at least a week in advance — the new Swedish ambassador swept by in a glistening black barouche, footman’s feathers flying.
No less dramatic is twilight in the outer grounds near Hibiya Park, with sun gilding the huge pines (Chiyoda’s appointed tree), and the descendents of Germany’s 1953 gift of swans (Chiyoda’s bird) plying the quiet waters of the moat.