09/21/2012 07:31 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2012

Past Is Prelude In Japan

In Tokyo, you can barely walk down the street in one of the outlying neighborhoods without seeing a temple or a shrine or some other evidence of the country's long and rich history.

This is also true of the new buildings going up. The Palace Hotel Tokyo was built on the spot where two other hotels were constructed and then torn down. It's also right across the street from the Imperial Gardens. From almost any room, you can see the roof of the Imperial Palace. The park is one of the largest green spaces in the city.

The hotel, which opened last spring, lies within what was once the outer moat of the Imperial Palace. The wide moats and high walls were used to discourage attacks from outsiders. Today, a portion of the moat still exists just outside the hotel, with two white swans swimming lazily around. In the old Edo era, the breeding and tending of swans was a very important part of court life, much as the breeding of birds was in imperial China.

In the old days, from 1972 to 1991, the previous hotel on the site was the scene of much pageantry. Newly-arrived ambassadors to Japan would gather in the driveway and then continue across the street to meet the emperor and present their credentials. It was very ceremonial, and crowds gathered to watch the horse-drawn carriages and cavalry go by.

On a recent trip to Tokyo I ventured out into one of the outlying neighborhoods not far from the busy business district. The Palace Hotel Tokyo is situated in the Marunouchi district, which is only a short walk from Ginza. The area is noted for its sleek new high rises. During the rush hour, the subways carry millions of commuters underground to their offices in the district.

The neighborhood I visited was called "Yanesen," the collective name for Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi. It was just a few subway stops away and it was dramatically different than downtown. The streets were narrower, there were shrines and temples interspersed with boutique stores and workaday apartment buildings. The area was spared the devastation of the bombing by the Allies in World War Two, so you can get a flavor of what the city might have been like before the war.

On my last day in the city, I watched a businessman approach a shrine, waft incense smoke from a pot into his nostrils and then continue on to work, his leather briefcase in hand. That, to me, summarizes a lot of what modern Japan is about.

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